Whether or not a peace deal is reached, the Taliban believe they have already won.
“The enemy has been defeated.” The international community is frantically attempting to bring stability to Afghanistan, but the Taliban believe they have the upper hand — and are publicly declaring it.
The Taliban’s bravado is undeniable. From their deputy leader’s latest bellicose speech bragging of “conquests,” to snide references to the “alien rulers” of the “illegitimate” Kabul government, to the Taliban’s own website tally of “puppets” killed — Afghan soldiers — they are spreading a defiant message: We have already won the fight.
And it is this conviction, which is based on military and political fact, that is influencing Afghanistan’s tumultuous present. It’s the elephant in the room, the half-acknowledged reality that the Taliban have the upper hand and are therefore showing little overt interest in compromise or going along with the prevailing American idea, power-sharing, on the eve of talks in Turkey next month over the country’s future.
Although the Taliban’s new rhetoric is also propaganda, the bleak sense of Taliban dominance is dictating the Afghan government’s response and affecting the country’s worried foreign allies. According to a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, it leads to the abandonment of thousands of checkpoints and declining morale among Afghan security forces, who are already being hammered by a “not sustainable” casualty rate of perhaps 3,000 per month.
The group is proud of having forced the United States, its main foe for the past 20 years, to negotiate with the Taliban and, last year, to sign an agreement to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. The Taliban decided to avoid fighting foreign forces and break ties with international militant organizations including Al Qaeda in return.
The Biden administration has yet to say if it can reach the deadline, which is just a few weeks away.
In a recent address, the Taliban’s deputy chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani, said, “No mujahid ever thought that one day we would face such an improved state, or that we would smash the arrogance of the rebellious emperors, and compel them to concede their defeat at our hands.” “We and you, fortunately, are in better situations today.”
The Taliban’s website publishes news of alleged defections to its side almost every day, though the specifics are possibly exaggerated, just as both the Taliban and the Afghan government exaggerate the number of casualties. One recent headline read, “59 enemy personnel turn sides to Islamic Emirate.”
Since surviving the all-powerful Americans, the Taliban considers the rest to be child’s play. Essentially, the game is over.
“They believe that since they defeated the Americans, they can now defeat the rest of the Afghan forces and take control of the country,” said Jawed Kohistani, an Afghan analyst and former Kabul security official.
Mr. Kohistani claims that the Taliban, who ruled much of the country from 1996 to 2001, are not involved in real power sharing. “They want to restore their Islamic emirate,” he said, adding that “all those involved in corruption and land grabbing will be punished.”
A leading Taliban specialist, Antonio Giustozzi, denied the notion that the Taliban are forced to reimpose a similarly hard-line Islamic regime. “As long as they can get to power through a political negotiation, there are options,” he said, referring to the emirate and democracy. “The goal will be to become the most powerful force on the planet.”
The Taliban understand that Afghanistan, an aid-dependent country that receives 80 percent of its funding from foreign donors, cannot afford the isolation of that period, according to analysts.
The Taliban’s language has changed to reflect the present moment, just as their use of social media, online propaganda, and a savage English-language website has progressed — while they still often ban smartphones in areas they control.
Analysts believe their words have become assertive and triumphant as a result of the decisive change in their military fortunes, a stance that would have been unlikely only three years ago.
The Afghan government’s insistence on a deadly endgame with the insurgency is a corollary of such posturing. Since they can’t, government officials seldom say that they, not the Taliban, are the winners. Too much evidence of Taliban supremacy can be found in the insurgents’ steady offensive in the countryside, systematic encroachment on towns, and overrunning of military bases.
American negotiators are promoting consensus and power-sharing proposals, but Afghan officials are overwhelmingly opposed to them, in part because any transitional government would almost certainly require Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, to resign. He has flatly declined to even think about it.
Instead, the government uses ominous words, meaning that the bloody war will only escalate. A senior official told reporters earlier this month inside the heavily guarded presidential palace complex that a compromise, coalition government — recently suggested to both sides by US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad — will simply be used by the Taliban as a “Trojan horse” to seize power.
Knowing the insurgents’ psychology, it was “totally impossible” to expect them to agree, the official said. “I am not suggesting a better future scenario. However, we will continue to fight.”
In remarks to the Aspen Institute in January, Mr. Ghani sounded overwhelmingly negative. He said of the Taliban, “In their eschatology, Afghanistan is the location where the final battle takes place.”
He said that we should “hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”
The grim outlook of the Ghani administration represents the insurgent group’s territorial gains. According to the US government’s Afghanistan watchdog, Afghan security forces abandoned nearly 200 checkpoints in Kandahar, the Taliban’s historic stronghold.
Mr. Giustozzi said of the insurgent group’s statements of victory, “I think they are 90% right.” “The battle has clearly been lost. Clearly, things have taken a turn for the worse. Under Ghani, things have gotten worse. The tide is turning in their favor.”
Although the Taliban may believe they have prevailed, other armed players in the Afghan equation would make a forced takeover difficult, according to some analysts. That was the situation 25 years ago, when the Taliban were forced to combat warlords mostly in the north and east of the country and struggled to achieve complete power.
In recent months, a militia in central Afghanistan led by local warlord Abdul Ghani Alipur has inflamed anti-government sentiment. Long-time power players in the country’s west and north have mobilized fighters to protect the country from the Taliban if necessary.
In the meantime, the Taliban rely on fear to keep rural communities quiet. The insurgents’ secret network of ad hoc underground jails, where those accused of working for or with the government are tortured and punished, is an important weapon.
However, some people believe the Taliban are less corrupt than Afghan officials. The judges in the group adjudicate civil and property disputes, perhaps more effectively than the government’s shaky agencies.
In some Taliban-controlled areas, schools for girls have been allowed to continue functioning, according to Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a recent paper — though he states that this could be motivated more by political necessity than a softening of ideology.
In other places, the Taliban’s increasingly confident messaging has permeated deep into its ranks, due in part to events that have validated it.
People said it was impossible to fire on US forces,” Muslim Mohabat, a former Taliban soldier from Kunar Province’s Watapor District, said. “They said if you opened fire on them, the gun barrel would bend, but we attacked them and nothing happened.”
Mr. Mohabat, who fought in some of the war’s most bloody fights with the Americans, said, “And we kept fighting them and forced them to flee the valley.”
The insurgents claim that their successes would eventually lead to the fall of the Kabul government.
“There is a feeling on the battlefield that ‘We’re stronger than ever,’” Ashley Jackson, a Taliban specialist at the Overseas Development Institute, said. “Power sharing and equality are diametrically opposed in their political culture.”