It wasn’t long ago that the Taliban I knew were gearing up for a bloody civil war. It’s what they told me they wanted during repeated meetings in Kandahar and Pakistan: When the foreigners leave Afghanistan, we will take over the country. Their confidence was measured, however, knowing that the Karzai government and the U.S.-backed warlords in the north were stronger than ever. But they were confident they would win, eventually.
On Sunday, Mullah Mohammed Omar put the kibosh to that ill-conceived strategy. In a carefully worded message on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day festival marking the end of Ramadan, the one-eyed Taliban leader emerged onto the world stage as a budding politician.
He promised economic development, including investment in key industries such as mining and energy. He criticized the foreign “aggressors” for ignoring “strategic projects” vital for the Afghan economy. He warned his fighters not to burden Afghanistan’s business elite with extortion and, most strikingly, offered an olive branch to his enemies, both in the Karzai government in Kabul as well as to the Persian-speaking warlords in the northern provinces.
“The policy of the Islamic Emirate,” he wrote, “is not aimed at monopolizing power. Since Afghanistan is the joint homeland of all Afghans, so all Afghans have the right to perform their responsibility in the field of protection and running of the country.” In July, a senior commander in Kandahar told me as much. “In this sense, we have changed our position. We now accept that the politicians in Kabul are fellow Muslims; we are of the same nation. We can talk to them.”
But how genuine is this apparent rapprochement? Without a doubt, there’s strategic value to this position. The Taliban know full well that, as foreign troops withdraw, Afghans will expect them to transition toward governance. For months now, foreign leaders have called on them to join the political process. The problem, however, is that most Afghans lack confidence in their ability to govern. Mullah Omar seems to have caught on to this glaring trust deficit. Much of his message focuses on ways to free Afghanistan from the “tentacles of poverty, unemployment, backwardness and ignorance.”
Are the Taliban starting to seriously think about a postwar Afghanistan? Mullah Omar’s overarching message appears to signal an emerging realization that pursuing the path of absolute victory may not be in the interest of his Islamist movement. The cynics, of course, will say this is just a ploy. But secret talks between the U.S. and the Taliban indicate it’s not. According to The Associated Press, the talks collapsed after a nervous Karzai government leaked them to the media. That they were taking place at all is encouraging.
Moreover, the nationalist tone of Mullah Omar’s message – and the failure to mention the global jihad – is a strong indication that al-Qaeda’s influence over the Taliban has weakened significantly. This would fulfill the Americans’ primary goal in Afghanistan: to ensure that it’s not used as a launching pad for attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
There’s hope now that they can achieve this objective, though nothing is certain. Pakistan remains a wild card, retaining as it does strong influence over Afghanistan’s most intransigent militant group, the Haqqani network. But if Mullah Omar and his Afghan Taliban join the political process, the Haqqanis will be left isolated and vulnerable.
After decades of darkness, this is Afghanistan’s first glimmer of hope.
Adnan Khan is a writer and photographer based in Islamabad.