Taliban risks squandering any kudos


Afghan insurgents have launched suicide attacks every two or three days throughout the 2013 “fighting season”. Today four more young Afghans staked their claim to paradise or fame by blowing themselves up, after a fire-fight, on the outer perimeter of the Presidential Palace.

The Taliban Movement uses such attacks to boost its claims to be fighting foreign occupation. Previous targets have included the Bagram and Kabul military airbases and US military trainers. Movement propagandists will make much of the few pot-shots that today's attackers took at the Ariana Hotel, which Afghans consider to be CIA headquarters. The Movement also uses high profile attacks to create an impression of military momentum. Commanders tell their fighters that next year, after NATO withdrawal and the collapse of the Kabul government, Taliban will be playing cricket in Chaman Hazoori, the ground outside Kabul's main stadium.

The Taliban spokesman was quick to point out that they are not on ceasefire and are entitled to conduct conduct attacks, despite having opened an office in Qatar. They are pursuing a “fight and talk” strategy. Indeed one strand of Taliban thinking about the office is that it is a chance to develop a political profile commensurate with their profile on the battlefield. The problem for the Taliban is that, despite the spectaculars, they have little realistic prospect of toppling the Afghan government by force. After all, Tuesday's attackers were soon dead and Kabul life returned to normal. It is far from clear that the Taliban's military activities serve their political ambitions. Despite Taliban claims of fighting occupation, most of their operations are now directed at fellow Afghans, like their mine-laying in the villages of Southern Afghanistan and the recent attack on the personnel of the Supreme Court.

Thinking Taliban realise that claims to be fighting against occupation are increasingly hollow as international troops are leaving. By persisting in a military campaign against fellow Afghans the Movement risks disqualifying itself from political talks. The Spokesman was technically about the ceasefire. But Taliban would be well advised to end hostilities before they squander whatever kudos they may have claimed through the military resistance to international presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the challenge for the US and Afghan government in approaching talks with the Taliban is to ensure that they are talking to those in the Movement who really have worked out that the time for the Taliban military campaign has passed. Then rather than scoring propaganda points off each other they can get on with implementing a ceasefire and preventing the slide towards another civil war.

Michael Semple is a scholar and practitioner focused on conflict resolution in Afghanistan and South Asia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School and has previously worked for the European Union and United Nations