Terrorism & Extremism

How Not to Negotiate With the Taliban

Sana Tariq
Tuesday, May 2, 2023, 8:30 AM
Taking stock of failed dialogue efforts with the Taliban to strengthen future U.S. engagement for Afghanistan.
U.S. and Taliban representatives sign the Doha Agreement on Feb. 29, 2020. (U.S. Department of State, https://tinyurl.com/273y93hy; Public Domain, https://tinyurl.com/4958s587)

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Since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the policy debate in Washington, D.C., and other Western capitals has focused on the merits of engaging in dialogue with the Taliban. Opponents of engagement point to the few gains that have been achieved through dialogue. After all, they point out, continuous negotiations undertaken by the U.S. and other international partners failed to prevent the revival of draconian restrictions, most importantly on Afghan women’s rights to education and work, which had previously isolated the country in the international system from 1996 to 2001. The latest restrictions prohibit Afghan women from working for the United Nations (UN), in a severe violation of international law. 

As the UN finds itself attempting to negotiate out of this impossible corner, the United States and the international community soberly accept that there are very few policy options left on the table to influence Taliban rule if dialogue is abandoned, as it is the lowest-risk instrument for engagement. Instruments of exclusion, such as sanctions, do not yield positive results for reforming Taliban policy. 

Drawing on my professional engagement with Afghan groups, I offer guidance on how not to negotiate with the Taliban so that the U.S. and international partners may better position themselves in their dialogue with the de facto authorities. 

If these lessons are not reflected upon, the international community runs the risk of continuing to be rebuffed by a regime that controls the fate of 40 million Afghans and remains a concern for global terrorism. One need not be reminded of the chaotic military withdrawal the Taliban wrested from the world’s superpower through their tough negotiations. 

The Need for Effective Dialogue 

What is missed by much of the debate is consideration of whether dialogue, as a policy tool, has been conducted effectively. The repeated failures in recent months to open direct channels of high-level communication to the Taliban’s seat of power in Kandahar, specifically to the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Amir Haibatullah Akhundzada, have laid bare some of the mistaken assumptions behind such efforts. 

It is not enough to just talk to the pariahs; what is required is the effective use of talk. Anything less does not serve the difficult objectives of dialogue. At present, these objectives are to understand how the Taliban formulate policy, rebuild trust in the negotiation process, and gradually move toward mutual understanding on minimum international obligations. 

That, after the sharp turn toward hard-liner rule in 2022, negotiations are driven by the most urgent humanitarian or human rights issues means there is little margin of error for the international community to fail. The stakes are high for both humanitarian and stabilization goals in Afghanistan. 

And the Taliban are not an easy group for internationals to engage with. Decades of highly internationalized and brutal conflict shaped secretive internal structures, suspicion of international involvement in Afghanistan, and alienation from basic international norms, particularly among the rank and file. The surveillance and torture that the Taliban’s political wing was subjected to by the outside world narrowed their ability to trust, compromise, and negotiate. The current endemic uncertainty over the future direction of Taliban policymaking, beset by the internal factionalism between the relative pragmatists who seek to uphold international commitments versus doctrinal hard-liners, compounds long-standing difficulties in negotiating with the group. 

The international community itself has struggled to adjust to the downsizing of its ambitions in Afghanistan after the collapse of international statebuilding. Dialogue alone is unlikely to be capable of moving the Taliban on the most important issues without a creative reassessment of international assistance and diplomatic policies toward Afghanistan, as I have argued elsewhere

Nevertheless, in the meantime, the U.S. and other international actors must continue to talk to the Taliban, and to understand them—especially as hard-liner elements in the de facto authorities continue to espouse policies that harm the Afghan population and that must be unreservedly rejected. Without a fine-tuned understanding of the internal policy dynamics of the Taliban, the international community will keep missing opportunities to help move the needle in the right direction for women’s rights and for intra-Afghan inclusivity. The best time to negotiate for policy reform is when there is factionalism over those policies. 

Moreover, the Taliban also exhibit characteristics that, if carefully understood by the U.S. and others, can inform enhanced negotiating positions and, potentially, facilitate productive dialogue outcomes. The movement’s negotiating strategies are bound by the rules of a powerful jihadist worldview that holds a high degree of discursive consistency across its senior ranks, which is necessary for external interlocutors to understand in order to accurately interpret. Much of this discourse is shared by other Islamist armed groups in the region. 

How Not to Negotiate With the Taliban 

Despite their emergence on the world stage almost three decades ago, much of how the Taliban speak to outsiders, and how they deal in politics among themselves, remains an enigma for the international community. International dialogue efforts with the Taliban have often been plagued by miscalculations of the group, which were then unable to prevent the turnarounds from the Taliban on their previous pledges for intra-Afghan inclusivity and women’s rights. I outline below five recommendations that focus on lessons learned from flawed dialogue attempts with the Taliban to better inform the assumptions guiding future engagement with the de facto authorities. 

Misjudge the Diplomacy of Pariahs

The Taliban occupy a position beyond the margins of international society, confined by terrorist designations and nonrecognition. During the conflict, their strategies for warfare came to encompass a type of rebel diplomacy that sought to contest equal membership in the international community of states. The nature of the U.S.-Taliban agreement was unprecedented and raised concerns about granting partial international legal personality to a sanctioned armed group. 

For this reason, international actors are wary of further engagement that would legitimize a regime that has not yet brought Afghanistan into compliance with its international legal (and especially human rights) obligations. But there is a vast difference between the international legal status of a putative government and the personal status of an individual who represents that government. 

Maintaining protocol with one’s dialogue counterpart preserves a space that does not impose costs on either party to enter. It in no way signifies a move toward diplomatic recognition. In fraught negotiations, costs should be incurred by parties only at the point of meaningful compromise (like reopening girls’ schools), not for protocol issues at the outset of the talk. 

Yet recent delegations of envoys traveled to Kandahar to seek an audience with the amir, the highest-ranking leader in the country, with the objective of overturning his judgment on anti-women edicts. These attempts were not welcomed by a regime that seeks to project its equal sovereignty, and meeting requests were downgraded to a deputy several ranks lower. 

Such initiatives trigger the Taliban leadership’s impulses to assert their independence from foreign pressure in front of their constituencies. That this type of misstep has often been committed with the Taliban in recent years does not diminish the confidence it saps from subsequent engagement efforts and serves to further collapse an already shrunken policy toolbox for Afghanistan. 

Commit Exclusively to the Human Rights Discourse 

Atrocities were committed by all sides during the war, and the memory of those horrors is still thick for Afghans who have been denied justice. Prosecution for the crimes committed by international forces remains largely elusive. Experts have also criticized international sanctions impact on the Afghan economy after the Taliban takeover, for perpetuating widespread civilian suffering after the conflict. 

Afghanistan has clear obligations under international human rights law, as a state party to numerous conventions and covenants. But, as long as the Taliban views the human rights discourse as a tool for one-way accountability that the international community imposes onto them, while accountability for other civilian suffering is neglected, they are likely to cynically devalue human rights-based arguments as a form of power play. 

Misunderstandings over perceived power play should not derail urgent dialogue channels for respecting humanitarian activities and the basic rights they help support. Dialogue to protect the rights of Afghan women and girls, in particular, should not be tainted by this charged politics. 

Women’s rights to education and work are not a foreign imposition on any Afghan government that describes itself as Islamic; they are guaranteed by traditional interpretations of Sharia, which the Taliban claim to uphold. Many senior Taliban understand that Afghanistan will be independent from foreign interference only when its human development is strengthened, which requires educating and employing both halves of the population. Much of the work of skilled negotiators and third-party mediators is reframing shared goals with the regime in order to uphold international law. 

Fail to Interpret the Discourse of Jihadists

The discourse of conservative jihadist groups is bound by certain rigidities. Fundamentalism in discourse is like a great monolithic block—immoveable and solitary—and a challenge for external actors to influence through policy dialogue. 

What is underappreciated is that jihadist discourse imposes constraints not only on external interlocutors but also on members of the movement themselves—and that this reveals useful information for negotiators, particularly in a high-noise context rife with rumors, like Afghanistan. 

This is because the Islamic concept of “hypocrisy” (nifaq) has a robust conditioning effect on the speech of many jihadist movements, particularly at the senior levels of Sunni groups. While “hypocrite” may be a tame epithet in most secular polities, jihadists use the term according to its Islamic meaning of being a covert enemy of God. Hypocrisy is a strong justification not only for expelling an individual from politics but also for opposing any political system that engenders this perceived behavior. What should be of interest to external interlocutors is that hypocrisy is defined primarily as a sin of speech: to lie and to break one’s oath. 

Fundamentalism and veracity are, therefore, two sides of the same coin in the Taliban. Officials tend to offer general platitudes or keep silent rather than make pledges they do not personally intend to keep. Thus, if a senior figure holding an official mandate commits to a specific action, and the pledge does not actualize, this discloses important information about curtailed official hierarchies and the informal power structures that determine policy formulation in the regime.

The corollary to failing to interpret the discourse of jihadists is to view religious hard-liners solely as obstacles in negotiations. But the more doctrinaire a figure is, the more impervious he becomes to international influence—thus the less likely he is to modify his language to conciliate an outside audience, and the more stubbornly veraciously he speaks. Hard-liners are useful for identifying the combatant pressure points on the group’s leadership and the risks of militant fragmentation and defection. 

To present an example of how to apply this understanding of “hypocrisy” to interpreting the Taliban’s complex policymaking process: Two hard-liner ministers who support the bans on girls’ education have also publicly issued statements that girls’ schools are, nonetheless, religiously permissible in certain conditions. It is unlikely that this would be tolerated in the Taliban’s political culture if the reasoning behind the bans was, in fact, simply a religious conviction that educating young women past puberty is impermissible in any circumstances. These statements allow observers to analyze how domestic constituency pressures among the Taliban’s rank and file over segregation in the education system, and not ultraconservative ideology alone, are at play and thus what type of international support is the most likely to make headway into lifting the ban. 

The veracity of senior Taliban sources is distinctive when compared to most other political groups, including some factions in the former internationally recognized government, where typically one needed to know a figure over a longer period of time to assess how they engage in speech. There were systemic incentives for some actors in the former regime, governed by its fluid alliances between parties, to use talk as a nonbinding political tool. 

At the same time, the veracity of Taliban discourse is subject to certain caveats; for instance, it does not extend to all public messaging for conflict and typically precludes admitting to military weakness, as demonstrated by the downplaying of the threat posed by the Islamic State in Khorasan province. And it cannot overcome a lack of common understanding over ambiguous commitments, such as some counterterrorism obligations under the U.S.-Taliban agreement. But clearly defined pledges are important data points. 

Assume Rigidity in Discourse Equals Rigidity in Policymaking

The orders against girls’ education and women’s rights have encouraged the outside world to enlist respected religious scholars to communicate to the Taliban the Islamic obligation to protect these rights. But governments and international organizations will struggle to win over religious hard-liners solely through the use of sophisticated ulema and religious argumentation, because senior Taliban such as the amir are already considered well-established sources of spiritual authority in the movement. 

This form of engagement is more likely to be perceived as patronizing than enlightening. External actors may lose credibility among hard-liner Taliban decision-makers with these efforts, even if they rouse sympathy from the Taliban’s pragmatic factions. 

The solution to the hard-liner problem is in any case unlikely to lie in the use of rhetorical flourishes but, rather, in an analysis of how the Afghan state’s governance structures have evolved since the Taliban takeover. After the suspension of on-budget international assistance and the freezing of central bank assets, the government has in many ways been delinked from the global economy. Power bases in the movement have been shifted away from international finances, which funded the previous regime, inward to taxation and combatant recruitment from rural constituencies. In effect, for state funding, the rights-based conditionalities of international aid have been replaced by the conservative expectations of rural Afghan society. 

Targeting these domestic dynamics in order to reestablish international leverage over the Taliban leadership’s national policymaking is the most promising path for reinstating women’s rights to public life. The international community must change the governance calculus and the menu of policy options available for the Taliban leadership, so that the leadership disempowers the influence of hard-liner policy stances  over national policy formulation in favor of meeting minimum international expectations. 

The concerns that the amir is imposing his personal brand of autocratic draconian governance, divorced from a rational governance calculus, are misplaced. One does not survive as the leader of a hardened militant coalition like the Taliban for six years, when his predecessor lasted only months, without an understanding of factional balancing and counterbalancing. 

Avoid Establishing a Clear International Road Map for Engagement

The road map to the creation of a legitimate intra-Afghan government that was laid out in the U.S.-Taliban agreement unraveled with its non-implementation. The experience soured the Taliban leadership’s confidence in the value of formal dialogue processes, as from their perspective they upheld their obligations (a view that the U.S., UN and other international monitors strongly reject). The loss of trust is particularly pronounced since the Taliban had argued for a guarantor during their negotiations with the U.S. and dropped the demand only after the U.S. conceded to a temporary travel ban delisting. 

Since the Taliban’s military takeover, road maps with the international community have unraveled further. In the first year after the takeover, the Taliban’s leadership refrained from implementing an ultraconservative vision of Afghan society. During this time, private high schools and universities were open for women across Afghanistan, as were public high schools in some provinces. Yet a slew of hard-liner, primarily anti-woman edicts were released in quick succession in the second half of 2022 after the Taliban’s pragmatic diplomats failed to successfully negotiate access to Afghanistan’s central bank assets frozen by the U.S. 

With confusion among Western governments over whether and how to engage the Taliban, the absence of a clear, internationally backed road map has fostered a reactionary process of mutual withdrawal by both the Taliban and the international community. International approaches to Afghanistan that are centered solely on exclusion, disengagement, and condemnation fail to convince the Taliban leadership why they should undertake policy moderation that will alienate important domestic constituencies, when the fruits of international membership are distant and uncertain. Recognition is useful leverage that the international community wields for Taliban reform; but it serves this function only so long as the Taliban leadership believes that recognition is a possibility on the table. Isolation is not viewed as the worst-case scenario by the leadership of this pariah regime.

The disengagement by Western governments departs from the active approach by Afghanistan’s regional neighbors, despite a common international consensus on minimum expectations of the Taliban. This bifurcation in approaches to Afghanistan undermines necessary cooperation for shared counterterrorism and stabilization objectives and risks forum shopping by the Taliban. The UN conference hosted by the secretary-general in May in Doha with the special envoys for Afghanistan to establish a road map to recognition is a much-needed step to lift the confusion that has hampered effective dialogue with the Taliban. Alternative solutions to communicate incremental road maps to revive the trust of all parties in negotiations should be keenly pursued, including through the creative use of third parties when domestic politics are a constraint. 


The complexity of decision-making in the Taliban speaks to the need for the U.S. and others wishing to engage in dialogue with the group to accurately interpret what may, otherwise, to the untrained ear be discarded as hapless confusion or deliberately deceptive messaging. There are clues in the many internal contradictions that comprise contemporary Taliban rule as to where their governance is headed and what is driving it there. The U.S. and the rest of the international community must listen closer to rebuild the confidence of all parties in negotiations and find creative openings to push Afghanistan back on the path toward a just peace, in which it upholds its agreements with the world. 

Sana Tariq is a research fellow for mediation at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha. She has worked on the Afghan file since 2020 on political and humanitarian dialogue tracks. Her research interests lie in peace processes, humanitarianism, and international rules. The views expressed are her own.

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