On Engaging the Taliban: In Conversation with Robert Kluijver (Part 2/2)

This article is the second in a series of dialogue with Robert Kluijver (link to Part 1: https://ledragondechaine.com/2021/10/28/on-engaging-the-taliban-in-conversation-with-robert-kluijver-part-1-2/), Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po. A research analyst of conflict and post-conflict situations, Kluijver spent more than a decade in Afghanistan, and has conducted extensive field work in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan’s tribal territories and Tajikistan. He is currently working on his PhD at Sciences Po on failed state building in Somalia.

The interview, conducted by Samaya Anjum, Lead Editor of Le Dragon Déchaîné, is in response to his policy paper published on 1 September, titled “On Engaging the Taliban”.

SA: One of the last pieces of information that you left us with last semester, right after the conference with Nader Nadery is that both of you made the prediction that the Taliban may not be able to emerge as a political movement and rise to power, because of how they are internally fractured. An argument made was that back when the Islamic Emirate was in place in the 1990s, the Taliban had a structure that was extremely inefficient. Even the ministerial offices were in such poor condition, including technologically, and so even if they are able to take back control after the US withdrawal, the government would be fragile and unable to remain in power for too long. But it was particularly shocking how quickly Afghanistan fell once more, and this time the Taliban have a lot more territory under control than they did back in 1996. What are some lessons we can learn from this, how can we be more sensitive when making predictions about war-torn countries such as Afghanistan?

RK: Samaya, I mean, obviously there’s a case, and it’s really complicated right now so let me try to unravel it a bit. 

So first of all, the analysis of the Taliban as not ready for governing has been borne out. You can read from some sources close to the Taliban which describe the takeover of Kabul – they had secret operational people surrounding Kabul and in other cities but they really were not expecting the government to collapse just like that. So, they’ve been really struggling since then. And I think the caretaker government shows poor acumen, they’ve been getting a lot of the Afghan population turn against them. But at the same time, it shows that they’re panicking, they’re worried about the fractures in their own movement. So the whole purpose of this government is to bind it together with the main external source of power which is Pakistan. They have shared all the posts among the main networks such as the Haqqani network, because they need to first ensure internal loyalty. It’s not an easy job to run a country, nor is it an easy job to provide security in a place like Kabul, so we can easily criticize them. But, you know, the whole security situation and law and order have just disappeared, and they now have to replace it. Their people have never been to Kabul. They don’t even know the way around and it’s hard. So that’s one aspect that they were not ready for, nor have the capacity to control. Most of these people who have become ministers have no knowledge of their fields. 

I mean, why did the government collapse so quickly? Because it was fiction, in a way. The people who were in it at the core, they knew it [the government] was nothing. It was a narrative spun around which everybody seemed to believe. So what lesson can we learn from it? I feel that we’re living in a world where fiction is overtaking reality. I’ve seen it so strongly in Somalia. Narratives are often spun by powerful actors, and although people tend to know or understand that it is but a fiction, they realize the strength of these narratives and often start acting as if they’re true. Like for example, the effect of democracy and elections. We all pretend that it has an enormous impact but if we look closely, that becomes really ambiguous. The whole narrative of Islamic fundamentalism – that these people [Talibans] are all religiously motivated? It’s been really hard for me to find people who are fully religiously motivated anywhere, be it Somalia or Afghanistan. People are motivated by other things, such as feelings of injustice and exposure to it. Injustice is so much stronger a thing, but we never talk about it – we only talk about terrorism and religious fundamentalism.

But from thinking really deeply about the Al-Shabaab Movement, I realized that little by little, they [Islamic fundamentalists] actually start acquiring the traits that we have ascribed to them, and knowing this, they continue to function in our narrative and create more of an impact. So, what’s the lesson?

It is that we have to look closer at reality. We have to work more closely with local forces. Like in Afghanistan at present, if you try to engage the Taliban on women’s rights or civil society, it obviously will not work. If you go to a local district and tell a newly appointed Taliban district commissioner that there is the need for providing aid in that region, he’ll probably help increment the plans and might even allow civil society professionals to be part of it. Because they [Taliban commissioners] have influence there, you can actually make things happen with systems of aid in the micro level which is closer to self governance; self-governance is a natural tendency everywhere. So we have to stop being so convinced by narratives, especially by the greater ones. 

This is one lesson that I have taken, because as we can see in Afghanistan, the narrative has just collapsed. There was nothing left of it, and the strange thing is that people actually do tend to believe in these narratives. Like some of my Afghan friends, who really believed in them and were building on them, but suddenly it turns out that it was all a sandcastle. 

So for political science students, I think there’s something in there – being suspicious of grand narratives. Let a thousand small narratives replace a big one – there are often vested interests behind one big narrative. I mean, narratives are good. They’re important and we need them for our lives, for ourselves. But try to remain as close to experiencing reality as possible. 

SA: Speaking of narratives, there’s one such about the War on Terror that a lot of people find themselves gullible to – Bad war for Iraq, Good war for Afghanistan. Do you feel similarly about it? Because there was one generation of people emerging from the woodworks of the post-Taliban era but 20 years after the US invasion, Afghanistan is now back to square one. 

RK: I would say that the proof is in the pudding. It doesn’t work. For a long time, there was an idea that it was justified to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan in such a manner. But I mean, I honestly don’t know what kind of real reasoning is behind it. 

The attack on the World Trade Centre was also prepared from Hamburg, but they [the West] didn’t invade Hamburg. There was influence from Saudi Arabia, but they didn’t invade the country either. So it was kind of a stretch to say that Afghanistan is responsible for it. Because firstly, without any kind of judicial or criminal justice process, we’ve decided that Osama Bin Laden is responsible for it, even though he hadn’t claimed it. And by extension, the Taliban are responsible because they’re hosting him, so they invaded the country and removed them. Legally, it was a pretty weak basis for a foreign invasion, even though everybody was happy because they hated the Taliban. 20 years later now they’re back, and although they were actually really disliked by the Afghans, they now have quite a lot of local support, and that is something we should not forget. 

SA: My final question to you and I will divide it into three parts-

Firstly, do you think that engaging with the Taliban, which was the title of your policy paper, is still a reasonable thing to do?

Secondly, what do you think the repercussions for this will be? Just a short explanation of Cambodia in the 1970s when the US withdrew from the country, allowing the Khmer Rouge to come to power. The United Nations, in an attempt to navigate the situation with what is “possible” , permitted them to represent the people of Cambodia at the United Nations General Assembly, because there were no other political forces in Cambodia to possibly represent the people. And I can sort of relate that to present-day Afghanistan. 

Thirdly, do you plan to write another paper with the current views that you hold? Because having talked to you, I think they have changed quite a bit since you published your policy paper. 

RK: First of all, yes I am writing a new paper, but I still think that we should engage them [the Taliban]. Because they are supported by a large part of the Afghan population and simply because they could still bring peace. Although now the idea that they will bring peace given the caretaker government that they have announced, and the exclusion of just about everybody from it except their own loyalists, the hopes have diminished very deeply, very strongly. However, I think we should engage them – not at the central level but at the local level. It is a bit more complicated. If we continue to be hostile towards them, the one big concern I have is a civil war, more destruction and the deaths of a lot more people. The Talibans have come to power through making political deals and convincing the population it is probably not so terrible to live under their rule, and perhaps even better than under the Afghan government. They also made deals with local political elites, which gave them a stronghold. So, they’re not going to just disappear. 

There is a bit of political realism here, which is mostly thinking that, “okay, there is a generation of Afghans which has grown up over the past 20 years with different ideas about how society can be structured, and this generation should not be lost by throwing them into war with the Taliban, which they’re really incapable of doing. In which they will lose badly. They’re not fighters, they’re not people with guns – so what’s going to happen is that they’re going to end up as construction workers in Iran or in Pakistan, and we’re going to destroy that whole generation.” The Taliban, they’re not here forever. They’re perishable. And we can kind of create a dynamic where we can still capacitate, so we have to engage the civil society – I call them civil society bit out of ease, but it’s the educated generation, people who want some other kind of society – which we cannot do by turning our backs to the Taliban, it’s not going to work. According to some of my Afghan contacts, there is still a possibility to get the Taliban out of there, but the window of opportunity is narrowing, and it is already much narrower than it was 2 weeks ago. If this doesn’t work, then we’re just facing another new round of war, and it’s going to be a long war again. It’s going to be a deadly and destructive one, and all that we have built over the past 20 years is going to be scattered, atomised and lost again. And we’re witnessing the creation of a new generation of people who grow up in war, without schooling, with only guns. And it’s so heart wrenching. So in that sense I am not in favor. I’m really being led by Afghan people when I write this stuff, there’s not some kind of intellectual mirage of a Western academic sitting in his corner and thinking “do it all over again.” It’s mostly from what I hear from them [Afghan people], from how they think we could engage. They all feel that we need to engage these people, we’re not going to pick up guns because we’re not like that. So we need to talk to the Taliban.
And the West, pointing fingers and saying they’re not going to engage in conversation with the Talibans because they’re abusers of women or minorities, will not help. We have to shut up and admit our faults and think about the mistakes we have made, and just keep supporting Afghanistan like we have. Keep supporting them, but letting them take the lead this time and devise their own plans. Work it out themselves. 

SA: That brings us to the end of the interview.

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