The Taliban questioned the Kabul government’s credibility and legitimacy, seeing it as both installed and controlled by a foreign power. This is why the Taliban saw themselves and the US as the real stakeholders in the growing conflict in Afghanistan – and hence in any reconciliation process towards a political settlement. Their statement regarding the 2009 election is illustrative:
Our people surely remember that the Islamic Emirate always maintained that the real decision about the results of elections is made in Washington. The elections are held to throw dust in the eyes of people and hide their colonialist agenda under the cloud
The at times seemingly contradictory position of the US towards the insurgency further complicated things. For example, under the Barrack Obama administration, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the idea of talks between the government in Kabul and the Taliban, President Obama announced a troop surge. Post-surge efforts at reconciliation seemed to the Taliban little more than an offer of amnesty in response to their capitulation. As a Taliban statement at the time reveals,
contrarily, the Pentagon is at present making preparation for new military operations in Helmand province, south Afghanistan. Similarly, they put forward conditions, which are tantamount to escalating the war rather than ending it. For example, they want the mujahedeen to lay down arms, accept the constitution and renounce violence. Nobody can call this reconciliation.
Around the time of the surge, President Karzai was calling for the Taliban to lay down their arms and join him. His government established the High Peace Council (HPC) in 2010, tasked with bringing about a reconciliation process, facilitating talks or in any other way supporting an end to the conflict. The Taliban saw the HPC as little more than another organ that worked under the command of the foreign forces. Mawlawi Kabir, a member of the Taliban’s central council, explained a few months after the HPC was founded that ‘[the] peace council is a one-sided entity, having been established to protect their unilateral goals and interests. The council consists of people who practically support the Americans, though they claim being jihadic figures and leaders. But by siding with the American invaders, they had forfeited their credibility.’
Negotiation has only made sense to the Taliban with people they see as holding real power – ie the US. In June 2012 the Taliban announced that they were ‘ready to open a political office abroad to reach a peaceful solution of the Afghan issue and understanding with the US’. Over the next year, the Taliban would repeat that it was the ‘US which is the true independent counterpart to the Taliban. [...] The Americans have been utilising the Karzai administration as a tool for prolonging their occupation.’ A year later the Taliban opened a political office in Qatar, intended as a major milestone in advancing a political process.
The opening of the Qatar office turned into a diplomatic disaster, however, with Taliban representatives speaking in front of the official flag of the Islamic Emirate. President Karzai, who had been negotiating a bilateral security agreement with the US, called off the negotiations and announced that the HPC would not join talks in Qatar as long as the peace process was not Afghan-led. This came as a surprise to the Taliban who in a statement claimed not only that designating the office as an official agency of the Islamic Emirate had been agreed upon beforehand, but that they would maintain their commitment to using the office as a vehicle to talk with representatives of dozens of countries and members of the HPC. Karzai’s outrage over the flag seemed another excuse to end the talks before they had started in earnest.
Despite the breakdown of official contact, the US and the Taliban in 2014 agreed on a prisoner swap. Five Taliban prisoners were released from Guantanamo prison in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, a US army soldier who had been taken captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2009. But while some hoped that the exchange would result in more talks, little has materialised since. Looking at the official communications of the Taliban, little seems to have changed over the past eight years. In their eyes: Afghanistan continues to be occupied by foreign forces; the US determined the outcome of the disputed 2014 election by negotiating the formation of the Nation Unity Government; new President Ashraf Ghani signed the bilateral security agreement with the US that allowed American troops to stay in the country; and Abdullah Abdullah became Afghanistan’s first chief executive. The Taliban saw these changes as more of the same – an illegitimate and corrupt government propped up by the US and others.
In a statement commemorating the 15-year anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban questioned the foreigners’ achievement in relation to their stated goals: to make Afghanistan self-sufficient; to end narcotic production and trade; to form a government according to the will of the Afghan nation; and to establish peace, stability and security in the country. The Taliban stressed that, in fact, in the 15 years of US occupation much had got worse: Afghanistan remained one of the poorest countries in the world; drug production was at a record high; the government in Kabul seemed one of the most corrupt in the world, ‘run by thieves and gangs of evil’; and security and justice were non-existent.