The Taliban released a short statement today confirming that representatives of its “political office” are set to meet with an American delegation tomorrow (Dec. 17).
The face-to-face is to take place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And according to the Taliban, “[r]epresentatives of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and [the] United Arab Emirates will also attend the meeting.”
Notably absent from the Taliban’s statement is any mention of the Afghan government. The jihadists have publicly rejected any talks with President Ghani’s government, repeatedly describing it as an illegitimate “puppet” of the US.
According to Voice of America (VOA), the encounter in the UAE was brokered by Pakistan, after President Donald Trump requested Pakistan’s assistance in jumpstarting the talks. Citing Pakistani officials, VOA added that previous talks in Qatar stalled because the Taliban insisted on “a date or timeframe” for the US and NATO withdrawal before participating in any sort of peace process with its Afghan foes. Such a timetable would be a major concession just to initiate negotiations.
The Trump administration has attempted to pressure Pakistan into ending its support for the Taliban and other jihadist groups. The US withheld millions of dollars in military aid, but this did not alter Pakistan’s behavior.
The State Department confirmed earlier this year that Pakistan continues to provide a safe haven for the Taliban’s senior leadership, including the al Qaeda-linked Haqqanis.
The Taliban has been using diplomacy to undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government, while boosting its own international credentials.
The Obama administration’s talks with the Taliban further strained relations between the US and then President Hamid Karzai. The US agreed to allow the Taliban to open its “political office” in Doha with the understanding that the insurgency group wouldn’t refer to itself as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – the name of its authoritarian regime prior to the US-led invasion in Oct. 2001.
The first thing the Taliban did upon opening its office in mid-2013 was unfurl a banner with the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” on it. This offended Karzai’s government, as it implies that the Taliban’s regime is the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan.
The Taliban has continued to press this point. Not only does the group constantly refer to itself as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” it is also argues that only its extremist, sharia-based government is a legitimate representative of the Afghan people.
For instance, the Taliban released a statement on Nov. 16 concerning a conference in Moscow. The Taliban attended; the Afghan government did not. The statement was tellingly titled, “The Islamic Emirate’s Effective Diplomacy.” From the jihadists’ perspective, the Russian-hosted event was a good opportunity to expose “the crimes of the foreign invaders and Kabul administration and their corruption among other topics.” The Taliban added that in Moscow it “clarified the present situation of Afghanistan and exposed the policies, oppression and corruption of the savage aggressors and Kabul administration.”
The Taliban consistently refers to Ghani’s government as the “Kabul administration” — a derogatory phrase.
The Taliban elaborated, saying the “Islamic Emirate’s delegation presented its religious and national stance at the Moscow Conference through which the doubts of various countries were removed and it became further clear that it is only the Islamic Emirate which at present truly represents the Afghan people, that it has indeed been successful in obtaining the public’s support and is struggling for defending the Afghan people’s rights and state sovereignty — such struggle is the human and legal right of any nation which they must not be deprived of.”
The Taliban crowed that “in the military field the Islamic Emirate has defeated the occupying enemy alongside its enslaved forces on the one hand, and on the other hand it has forced the tired enemy into embarrassment in the political field.” That is, according to the Taliban, the US and the West have been embarrassed into negotiations.
Much of the rest of the Taliban’s statement on the Moscow conference was in this same vein, trumpeting its ability to tell its story in the media, while undermining the US and the West (“the imperialistic powers”), as well as the Afghan government.
In a separate statement on Nov. 28, the Taliban commented on a conference in Geneva that “was also attended by Ashraf Ghani along with his team.” The Taliban said its “Islamic Emirate, as a representative of the valiant Mujahid Afghan nation and as a sovereign entity, is fighting and negotiating with the American invaders for the success of Jihad” — in other words, to get the US and its foreign allies to withdraw from Afghanistan. Moreover, it was a “waste of time” to talk with “powerless and foreign imposed entities” — meaning the Afghan government.
It remains to be seen if Zalmay Khalilzad, who leads the American delegation, can actually get the Taliban and the Afghan government to sit down at the same table — or if the US will proceed without such talks.
At least one American official claims they aren’t even really negotiating with the Taliban. “We are not engaged in peace talks with the Taliban,” John R. Bass, the US Ambassador in Afghanistan, said earlier this month, according to TOLOnews. “We are not negotiating on behalf of the Afghan people, we are not negotiating on behalf of the Afghan government, we are not in negotiating period.”
Previous talks have been held in Qatar, a nation that has offered a permissive fundraising environment for the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the UAE, Qatar’s geopolitical rival, has also allowed freedom of movement for the Taliban. Shortly before he was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in May 2016, the Taliban’s emir, Mullah Mansour, visited Dubai. His trip, which was first reported by the Washington Post, was for “shopping and fundraising.” Mansour then visited Iran before returning to Pakistan, where he was droned to death.
Other Taliban figures have been known to travel to the UAE for fundraising as well.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.