Every major stakeholder in Afghanistan is now open to talking to the Taliban. But who exactly is 'the Taliban'?

Afghanistan no longer occupies the headlines like Syria and Yemen does – but it is becoming, and by some accounts has become, the longest war in the history of United States, catching up to the Vietnam War.

After initially invading the country following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 – the American led NATO alliance is stuck in a quagmire of epic proportions. Even Syria and Iraq are now seeing clear end-games — albeit tricky negotiations. But in Afghanistan there is no end in sight.

Week after week there are Taliban attacks against NATO forces and the Afghan government. It has become a tedious theme in Western editorials talking about another ‘Afghan strategy’ followed up by other op-eds on the inevitability of American defeat in Afghanistan.

Last month, for the first time, the Trump administration held direct talks in Qatar with the Taliban – it is a remarkable turnaround after Bush first threatened to obliterate the Taliban into history 17 years ago.

Afghanistan has paid a heavy price for 17 years of American disaster which goes unabated with no grand strategy in sight.

What is more now there seems a rush to talk to the Taliban, but which Taliban and who are they? Violence is at an all-time high since the US-led invasion in 2001 and the Taliban’s recent assault on Ghazni last week is a reminder that they remain the big boys in town.

The old Taliban no more 

When one thinks of the old-school Taliban, the image that comes up is of a medieval deeply puritanical militant group that shunned televisions and camera, blew up statues of Buddha, banned girls’ educations and killed any religious group and ethnicity that did not conform to their views. Indeed they infamously blew up the Bamyan Buddha, closed girls schools, and refused to hand over the world’s most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden.

Yet there is another Taliban not often shown – the one that traveled to Texas despite all of the above and talked oil deals with the Americans and Argentinians. Many Taliban diplomats spoke fluent English, and also came on TV to speak to the likes of Charlie Rose.

The international community also acknowledged that the Taliban banned the cultivation of poppy. Regionally, the Taliban killed Iranian diplomats and were dead-set against the Shia. It was also a widely accepted fact that the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was the main supporter of the Taliban along with the Saudis and Emiratis.

However as the fighting season peaks in the summer of 2018 – much of what was true of the 'old Taliban' isn't the same anymore and they no longer have a mysterious and charismatic leader like Mullah Omar, and Pakistan is far from the only supporter of the Taliban – in fact multiple regional countries are rushing to their aid and even the United States is talking to them.

Taliban redux

Last week’s assault on Ghazni province at the doorsteps of Kabul sent shockwaves as to how vulnerable Kabul is. There has been a growing Taliban presence over the last two years and despite President Trump's 'mother of all bombs' – the US has no victory in sight. In fact the Taliban are in the ascendancy against the Afghan government.

The headlines are of a clear victory for the Taliban. The Taliban are much savvier now. Whilst they assault major Afghan cities and provinces at will – they also send public diplomatic missions to neighbouring Uzbekistan.

According to the world’s top Taliban expert, Ahmed Rashid, India is no longer an enemy of the Taliban and there have been backroom negotiations. This is a remarkable turnaround that shows the new Taliban is not at the orders of Pakistan. Iran which had always opposed the Taliban and vice versa now actually hosts a Taliban faction and provides arms and training to the group.

The Taliban are no longer openly rabidly anti-Shia and have been seen in Tehran regularly. Russia—who for more than a decade was the Northern Alliance’s strongest supporters and the Taliban’s staunchest enemy—are now supporting the Taliban.

After Mullah Omar’s death the Taliban has splintered. Gone are the so-called Quetta Shura and Miranshah Shura – and in have come the savvy diplomatic Taliban that talk to the Uzbeks, speak at Iranian conferences and are comfortable with the Russians and the Indians. Even the Afghan government is supporting various elements of the Taliban.

The former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai calls them the lost brothers whilst the current one, Ashraf Ghani says he is open to full dialogue and peace with the Taliban – indeed last Eid there was a historic ceasefire.

Before the current round of talks with the Taliban by the Americans – the Taliban have had an office in Doha set up under the full glare of the Americans. 

Yet while the Americans talk to the Taliban they give mixed signals to them when Trump says he wants to fight them and tells the Afghan government to stop talking to them. And whilst Ghani reaches out to Pakistan and praises their efforts for peace, just last week again he accused Pakistan of supporting the Ghazni offensive.

What now?

There is no strategy on how to deal with the Taliban – as there is no single Taliban any more. There is one Taliban that still has support from Pakistan. But there are other groups that get support from Iran, Russia, the United States themselves and even China. And if the situation was not confusing enough, this month, the Taliban also called on the Americans to support them in the fight against Daesh in Afghanistan.

The Taliban were busy taking selfies for Eid yet are not sure what their message is regarding the use of modern technology and the age of the internet. It will be impossible for any of the regional players or international powers like the Americans and Russians to talk to the Taliban as long as the Taliban themselves are giving out mixed signals.

One thing is for sure – the Taliban is winning, but no one knows which Taliban or whose Taliban.

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