Dangerous misperceptions: US inability to read the Afghan Taliban mindset

Dangerous misperceptions: US inability to read the Afghan Taliban mindset

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Since the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan about three years ago and the re-emergence of the Taliban as the de facto government, Washington has been focusing on factors leading to the capture of power and the chaotic exit of US forces after the long conflict. No conclusive recommendations have been formulated so far to identify the reasons that led to the collapse of a government that needed a strong US military presence for its survival. Failure to correctly assess the inherent flaws in the new scheme of things worked out by US planners was perhaps the main reason of the undoing of a system that was too closely linked to America’s continued military presence.
Now there is a new approach to deal with the ‘threats’ posed to US interests if the status quo is allowed to continue. In a new study carried out by prominent and experienced scholars and diplomats, it has been claimed that the US just can’t abandon the region and allow militancy to expand in scope and influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The study has highlighted the presence of Daesh in Afghanistan and the activities of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in its border areas with Pakistan. The study is based on the assumption that the Taliban government continues to extend support to the TTP for attacks on Pakistani territory. The study also doubts the seriousness of the Taliban government in eliminating Daesh from its soil. 
These are questionable assumptions and any fresh policy formulated on the basis of such unfounded opinions could lead to even more frustrations for a super power. Firstly, it is not fair to assume that the Afghan Taliban and TTP are pursuing similar agendas and are linked by common interests. Some basic facts are ignored in this logic. The Afghan Taliban who appeared on the political landscape of the country in 1994, were committed to two fundamental objectives. One was to expel foreign forces from the country and the other was to establish a new governance system based on religious law. The TTP on the other hand was created after 2001 in the wake of the induction of the Pakistan army into the tribal areas. It was generally believed the army was brought into the tribal areas to safeguard US interests in Afghanistan. This perception created a strong and enduring resentment that culminated in the creation of TTP. Unless this rationale is correctly understood, there cannot be a sustainable resolution of the militancy problem in the area. 

It is not fair to assume that the Afghan Taliban and TTP are pursuing similar agendas and are linked by common interests. 

Rustam Shah Mohmand

Likewise, it is incorrectly concluded that the Afghan Taliban and TTP have abiding common interests. Some elements of TTP may have extended support to the Taliban in their resistance against US forces, but it was never the principal goal of the TTP. Their struggle then and now is the restoration of the old governance system in the tribal areas. The mess that is seen in the tribal or merged areas, from the alarming rates of murders, robberies, attacks on government forces and installations, lends at least some support to the theory that the old system operated with more success in ensuring peace and tranquility in the area. There is a belief in some quarters that TTP has launched successful attacks inside Pakistani territory with the help of the Afghan Taliban administration-- which the latter have strongly denied. The real question to ask is: What would the Afghan Taliban gain by de-stabilizing Pakistan’s border areas? Would they be so naïve as to support a militant group and lose the cooperation of a country so vital to their interests?
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are living in Pakistan and the two countries share a long border. Pakistan needs Afghanistan for its access to Central Asia; Afghanistan needs Pakistan for its access to the sea.
Perhaps the biggest misperception in Washington is the inability to correctly understand the Taliban’s view of governance. Taliban will not tolerate the presence of entities like Daesh or Turkistan Islamic movement and will deal decisively with such groups as soon as they acquire resources. Now that the world is not aligned with the current dispensation and the country is isolated from international financial systems, the Taliban do not have the resources in manpower and equipment to destroy Daesh and other such groups. Taliban would like to foster working relations with the US and create an environment where US interests are not threatened by any group that operates from Afghan soil. This is the dilemma of US policy makers; not being able to read the Taliban mindset.
Continued isolation can lead to gross misunderstandings in handling issues that could be resolved relatively easily and quickly if there is a policy of engagement. The sooner this is accepted and adopted as policy, the better. 

- Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.

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