Ahmed Rashid: “If they just talk to ordinary people, the Taliban will change…”

Further to my earlier post on Ahmed Rashid’s SOAS speech on Friday, there is another statement Rashid made which deserves to be questioned further. He suggested that there was an essential flexibility in the Taliban’s ideology, and that it would be softened if and when the Taliban spent more time talking to ordinary people. Should they spend more time speaking to ordinary people, the Taliban would understand their needs better and consequently moderate their behaviour and approach to governing any areas they hold, be more accommodating of modernity, and be more inclined to making a peace settlement.

There are two comments one should make in response to this striking idea:

1. The Taliban are, by Rashid’s own reckoning, a natural movement arising from the Pashtun peoples in the south of Afghanistan and the Tribal Areas (albeit stimulated and supported by external agents). If they ultimately are of the people, would they not since their emergence as a force in the mid-1990s already have had some little time to get to know their own people and understand their needs? Perhaps not. Kate Clark and Christine Roehrs, in her excellent analysis of the Taverna du Liban bombing of Kabul last week on the Afghanistan Analysis Network, points out that the Taliban’s main occupation seems to be the killing of rather than listening to Afghan civilians. In a recent UNAMA report, the Taliban were found to be responsible for 74% of civilian casualties in 2013, most of them Afghans, including “government officials, mullahs or tribal leaders judged to be pro-government, women activists or alleged spies”, i.e. people trying to get on and live ordinary lives.

2. Is it really the case that a movement whose tenets are held to come from a divine revelation going to moderate them for the exigencies of modern life? What substance does the movement have if it forsakes these notions?