The Taliban has rejected engaging in negotiations many times, but President Ghani’s proposal to fully recognize the group as a legal political party in 2018 was a turning point. Terrorist organizations change and many have proven to have the ability to engage in politics. Organizations like Hezbollah or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) changed strategy and came to prioritize politics over violence for advancing their agenda. Perhaps the Taliban too is showing signs of transforming into a political party?
Tapping into politics does not necessarily mean letting go of violence. Estimated to have around 60,000 full-time fighters, the Taliban’s territorial reach does not show signs of pull back. They retain the ability to conduct high-profile urban attacks, demonstrate considerable tactical capabilities, and their attacks have become more effective in the third quarter of 2019.
As security expert Audrey Kurth Cronin points out, many groups that engaged in politics have maintained violent activities. Hezbollah became a fully-fledged political party shortly after the signing of the Ta’if peace agreement in 1989, but like the Taliban showed no signs of slowing down militarily. Although it has been running in elections since 1992 and has become one of the most important players in the parliament, Hezbollah has not disarmed like other militias in Lebanon. Similarly, the Taliban are unlikely to commit fully to politics.
Perhaps becoming political could be a means to an end. Conflict negotiations are built on the assumption that parties want the conflict to end. However, in the case of the Taliban this is not clear. United States officials assess that the Taliban does not pose an existential threat to the Afghan government at the moment, but signal that the dynamic can change if the US alters its deployments in Afghanistan.
Negotiations could be a vehicle for the Taliban to force US troops out of Afghanistan, so they could defeat the government and other local rivals in order to reinstate the Islamic Emirate by force. Similarly, Hezbollah’s military capacity competes with that of the government of Lebanon, and both analysts and governments have argued the group’s political activity has only been means to their continuous anti-Israel terror campaign.
Engagement in politics could also feature Taliban radical splinters, which may carry on the terrorist campaign. The Taliban may not be a very fragmented organization under the leadership of Haibatullah Akhundzada, but disagreements within the group could occur if the Taliban and the Afghan government strike a deal. Radical factions could be dissatisfied with concessions made during negotiations and carry on terrorist attacks despite opposition from Taliban leadership.
The IRA is such a case – when the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 granted the formation of an Irish Free State, the organization split. The pro-treaty faction grew into the army of the Irish Free State. The anti-treaty faction – under the leadership of Eamon de Valera — carried on the terrorist campaign. Although until the Good Friday Agreement of 1996 the IRA featured multiple radical splinters that carried on terrorist attacks, the factions also engaged in politics, some growing into the most important political parties in Ireland (such as Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein).
Whether the Taliban transforms into a political party is also a regional bid. The creation of the Taliban was catalyzed by Pakistani influence. Numerous reports have indicated that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency was involved in the creation of the Taliban, and still supports the insurgency as a matter of official policy to contain the influence in Afghanistan of its rival India. Similarly, Hezbollah surfaced when Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps arrived in Lebanon to provide support for pro-Iranian Shiite militias against Israel, and the political party has been depicted as an outpost of Iranian influence.
Several lessons can be drawn from the experience of the Hezbollah and the IRA’s changeover to politics.
Elisabeta is a Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow at Rise to Peace. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at Central European University in Budapest and Vienna.
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