In May 2014, as the three-person team I was on went to deliver emergency aid packages to the victims of flooding in northern Afghanistan, the police commander who escorted us told stories of his career in the armed forces that kept my mind busy for the rest of the trip. He said that he used to serve in Faryab province, also in the north, but was relocated after killing Taliban insurgents. He explained that "it is a very small village [the insecure area we were to pass through], less than 1,000 residents. It is not that we cannot defeat them; it is that they [people in Kabul] don't allow us to do so. They [the insurgents] are Karzai's brothers."
While there is not even minimal evidence showing official support by the Afghan government for the Taliban, there are strong grounds to believe that the country's fight against the Taliban lacks political will more than military might. In 2001, when American soldiers stepped onto Afghan soil to help the Northern Alliance topple the Taliban, the militant group was ousted in only three months. Our family, which had been living in Ghazni for a year, moved back to Kabul, and I traveled back and forth between the two cities without any concern for my safety. But three years later, the Taliban re-emerged, though they were not yet strong enough to threaten the stability of the country.
In 2006, after President Hamid Karzai started showing serious signs of frustration with America's strategy and a violent protest in Kabul against ISAF night raids that killed civilians, the military strength and public legitimacy of the Taliban gained momentum. They grew unexpectedly in both the number of their recruits and in the quality of their fighting skills. Years after being thrown out of Kabul, they were able to capture several key southern districts in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, among others. In 2009, as Carlotta Gall said in a discussion about her new book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, the Taliban were about to capture the city of Kandahar, and people witnessed their commanders touring the city without any resistance from security forces. Yet despite the Taliban's re-emergence as a formidable force, there has been a lack of commitment and conviction on the side of the Afghan government to fight them.
One of the ways to see this lack of commitment is the evolution of Karzai's terminology when referring to the Taliban. During his first few years in office, the Taliban were condemned as "insurgents." Later, the term "armed opposition to the government" was used, in a sense creating a more politically legitimate position for the Taliban. In 2005, Karzai condemned the Taliban's assassination of Mawlawi Fayyaz, the head of Kandahar's religious council, calling it an act by "the enemies of Afghanistan's peace and prosperity"; he did not mention the phrase "Taliban," though the group claimed credit for the attack. Then, in 2008, as the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship floundered, Karzai said he would do whatever it took to bring peace, including conducting direct talks with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader. His stance became one of conciliation, essentially cajoling them to participate in an Afghan-led peace process.
In 2009, Karzai started calling the Taliban his "brothers" -- a term with deep connotations in Afghanistan's traditional society. Two years later, he said he would offer protection to Omar, if he agreed to negotiate. Two years after that, Karzai even stated that Omar could run for office! And as recent as July 28, during his speech for Eid, Karzai asked the Taliban for peace, saying that he is sad for their lost ones too; just one day later, a suicide bomber killed his cousin, Hashmat Khalil Karzai, in Kandahar.
This pro-Taliban rhetoric is also shown in how Karzai has sided with different political wings inside the government. For example, after a controversial raid in Parwan province, Karzai lashed out at his Western allies, blaming them for causing civilian casualties. These accusations were based on a false report from a team led by Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a pro-Taliban parliamentarian -- Parwan's provincial governor rejected the findings of the team, but was overlooked by Karzai.
With the absence of a strong anti-Taliban public discourse, Karzai's vocabulary shift also reflects a change in public perception of the Taliban: elevating them from a defeated and hated regime to a group claiming legitimacy and vying for power. People have been referring to their judicial rulings in rural areas, and commentators have been advocating for them with unprecedented benevolence. For example, among the controversies surrounding the signing of a bilateral security agreement with the United States is the fact that a local television station released audio tapes of Wahid Mozhda, a known political analyst, talking to Taliban fighters about sabotaging the pact. In response to public outrage, Mozhda defended his relationship with the Taliban without any hesitation. While supporting the Taliban was considered taboo during the early years after the 9/11 attacks, more than a decade later, during his presidential campaign, Mahmoud Karzai, the president's older brother, called them "a large group of Afghans, the same as teachers and farmers who shouldn't be ignored" -- a disturbing analogy that received no real reaction.
Now, with a new administration taking power soon, the question of ending the current conflict is more important than ever before. Abdullah Abdullah, a known member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, has said that peace talks would not work unless the Taliban are defeated militarily. In contrast, Ashraf Ghani has appeared reluctantly committed to fighting the Taliban militarily, calling instead for acknowledging their "grievances" to achieve peace and praising Karzai's efforts.
As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, the fate of the country is in the balance. Peace is undeniably a priority for the next administration. However, instead of prodding the Taliban for incommensurable negotiations, both Abdullah and Ghani should bear in mind -- learning from Karzai's decade-long experience -- that Afghanistan needs a committed political will to defeat the Taliban forcefully, so that they have no chance of survival unless it is under the laws of the Afghan government and its constitution.
Moh. Sayed Madadi is a Kabul-based Afghan civil activist working on democratic governance and human rights. He is a member of the Afghans' Coalition for Transparency and Accountability, a civil society group advocating for good governance, and the co-founder of the Youth Empowerment Organization, which focuses on youth engagement in local governance.
Photo by SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images