Understanding the Taliban, Easier Said than Done

At an event last week at New York University, four men who know the Taliban better than most Westerners shared their perceptions of the group behind the insurgency fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan. What emerged was a portrait of shadowy figures, little understood by even those who have had close contact with the group. With “reintegration” now the “buzzword du jour” and calls for a negotiated settlement to the war gaining momentum, we have yet to understand just who it is we will be negotiating with.

“We still understand very little about the Taliban,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, echoing comments made by other panelists. A writer and scholar, van Linschoten has spent the last four years working closely with former Taliban minister, Mullah Zaeef, to edit his book “My Life with the Taliban.”

The panelists explained that the movement today is a different beast than the one that emerged in the 1990s. The original group began as a small faction of the mujaheddin, and consisted of poor itinerant students. Hopping from one madrassa to another, they slowly created a barrier between themselves and the outside world.

According to Michael Semple, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, when the Taliban emerged years later as a force to be reckoned with, they left not just the international community scrambling to figure out who these new players were, but also Afghans themselves.

“We understand far too little about the Taliban for our own good,” Semple said, referring to both the West and Afghans.

And that is the way the Taliban likes it. According to panelists, gaining access to Taliban leaders in earlier years was much easier. Now, they have surrounded themselves with what Semple describes as an “iron curtain.”

New York Times reporter David Rohde had the “opportunity” to see how the Taliban function up close, when he was captured by the group in Pakistan and held for seven months. While he jokes that he “failed most spectacularly at trying to talk to the Taliban,” his experience did leave him with a picture of a “complete Taliban mini-state.” Rohde emerged from the experience convinced that the group must be negotiated with, not eliminated.

Despite the incomplete picture of who really comprises the Taliban, panelists agreed that a political solution to Afghanistan’s civil war offers the only way forward. But it will not be easy.

“It’s absolutely possible to achieve a political solution in Afghanistan,” says Semple, though he believes efforts thus far have been half-hearted at best. Negotiations with the Taliban, should they ever come to fruition, will hinge on incentivizing the process for the group, which is acutely aware that it lacks a real constituency within Afghanistan. There will also need to be serious reassurances that the West will not get overly involved in the process, something that drove off Taliban leaders attempting to engage in talks in the past.

Judging by relations between the Taliban and Afghan officials on a local level, there are some rays of hope, says van Linschoten. He says that on the local level, the disparate groups can be seen both working and socializing together, something he argued was an encouraging sign for the possibility of negotiations, not cause to write off those who fraternize with the group. The panelists also agreed that a recent U.N. move to de-blacklist certain key Taliban players and a 2011 withdrawal date are also incentives for the process to start moving forward at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield.