The political leadership of the Taliban supported the ‘Khalilzad process’, because it was designed to offer the Taliban an attractive deal. In fact, Khalilzad framed the process largely on the basis of a Pakistani proposal. Although the US-Taliban deal of 29 February does not say much about the future shape of intra-Afghan talks, Taliban sources consistently insisted that they would not talk to the Ghani administration, but only to an interim government that represented the whole Afghan political spectrum. This position has not really changed, as the Taliban agreed to talk to a Kabul delegation in Doha from 11 September 2020 only to define the terms of substantive talks. The Taliban’s team in Doha hinted that once an agreement on the framework of the talks was fully agreed, their first step would be to offer a trade-off: interim government vs ceasefire. Because a long-term ceasefire is essential for substantive talks to take off, the Taliban are still saying that without an interim government talks will go nowhere. When the two teams exchanged agendas for the peace talks in December 2020, the Taliban did not include a demand for an interim government, but placed the permanent ceasefire at the bottom of their list, implying that it would come only once an agreement is reached (or, as they explain privately, if an interim government was to replace the Ghani administration). The omission of the interim government appears to be a strategy coordinated with Khalilzad, who visited Kabul at about the same time, with the Pakistani authorities and with the leader of Hizb-I Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who started campaigning for an interim government right after his visit to Islamabad in September. Khalilzad reportedly strongly advocated the establishment of an interim government as a way to have a ceasefire declared straight away. By early December, various old mujahidin leaders also started advocating it as well. The Taliban hence probably dropped it to avoid embarrassing the mujahidin, who did not want to be seen as supporting an explicit demand of the Taliban. The Hekmatyar version of the proposal for an interim government was much more detailed than anything the Taliban had revealed, and seemed intended to reassure mujahidin leaders that the interim government would be operating under the current constitution and through the Islamic Republic’s institutional framework.
The preliminary talks in Doha, which ended on 2 December 2020, highlighted divisions between Ghani’s four loyalists and the rest of the team. This suggests that the Taliban are right in assuming that with an interim government in place, they would be able to play on the differences between the Kabul factions. Although the rhetoric of all the Kabul-based parties is ‘defence of the constitution’, it is likely that many would be ready to trade off some of the rights enshrined in it for a peace that protects their vested interests.
The Taliban therefore believe that the old ‘mujahidin’ or at least some of them could become useful allies against Ghani and the hard-line republicans. The Taliban identify the most important pro-Ghani or ‘republican’ lobbies in the urban population, the officers of the Afghan National Defence and Security Force (ANDSF), and the wealthy elite that has benefited from the post-2001 regime. These lobbies are well entrenched as is Ghani himself. The Taliban say that they have been promised many times by Khalilzad that he would sort out the ‘Ghani problem’, but Ghani once again survived the troubled election process, seemingly ignoring the threat of aid cuts and even the threat of a de-linking of the US troops withdrawal from the intra-Afghan talks. By avoiding to commit to a complete withdrawal by May 2021, as the Taliban expected him to do over the summer, even Trump has removed a major source of pressure on Ghani: the ticking clock of a withdrawal was expected by the Taliban to ultimately force Ghani to give way to an interim government.
With no other tools of pressure left, and sceptical about the will and ability of the old ‘mujahidin’ to force Ghani out, the Taliban have at the end of the summer decided that they needed to up their military pressure, especially against the ‘republican’ constituencies. This materialised in the October 2020 offensive, which took the Taliban into Lashkargah, Kunduz and Faizabad and which also blocked the highways in several points. What was new about the attacks against the three cities was that contrary to previous raids against Kunduz in May 2020 and against Farah, Pul-I Khumri and Kunduz in August/September 2019, the Taliban did not intend to enter these cities for a few days, but stay there for weeks. Apart from the headline impact of such a widespread offensive, the message appears to have been a warning that the Taliban are ready and able to move on to urban warfare, if Ghani, the ‘republicans’ and any other opponent of making concessions to the Taliban kept dragging their feet. The rocket attacks on Kabul on 21 November, although not claimed and seemingly not carried out by the Taliban, seems to be going in the same direction, as are intensifying targeted attacks on ANDSF officers in Kabul. Sources in the Afghan intelligence and in insurgent groups suggests that the rocket attacks and many targeted assassinations were being carried out by groups operating under the direct orders of Pakistani intelligence.
It is noteworthy that the Taliban did not seem to think that their intensification of military operations would play in the hands of those in Washington who argued for freezing the withdrawal. Clearly the Taliban did not think Trump would object too loudly and might even though that the best timing for issuing a warning to Biden too was exactly even before he was elected: if the Americans were in the end to stay in Afghanistan, this is the type of war they would be fighting.
If the Taliban were successful in kickstarting intra-Afghan talks on their terms, their strategy would probably be to avoid discussing the most controversial issues upfront (such as women rights) and focus instead on defining a long-term path to reconciliation: a transition government taking the country to new elections, transitional power sharing and institutional changes that would embed some Taliban power into the system, such as a Council of Ulema with substantial powers. The Taliban will not push for anything like the re-establishment of the Emirate, but for a hybrid system that would look more ‘Islamic’. A taste of the tactics the Taliban will use to push their agenda through has been given during the preliminary talks in Doha, in which the Taliban managed to impose a heavily ‘Islamised’ framework. The Taliban’s calculus is that it would be hard for the Islamic parties that dominate much of the Afghan political spectrum to oppose such an agenda, even when such parties are not friendly with the Taliban.
Both agendas exchanged in Doha in December featured points about drugs smuggling, but serious discussions about the future of Afghanistan’s shadow economy, which funds the activities of most parties and militias in Afghanistan, are more likely to take place far from Doha and away from the public eye. There are already local agreements between Taliban and various factions and groups over the exploitation of mines and the management of smuggling routes, so perhaps such discussions will be easier to handle than the higher profile ones in Doha.