Negotiating with the Taliban
The Afghan government spent nearly a year trying to reach a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban — until the group’s fighters swept into Kabul in August 2021. Those negotiations failed to produce a deal, but in retrospect, they tell us a lot about the Taliban, why the country fell so quickly and what the future holds for Afghanistan.
For an insider’s perspective, we hear this week from Fawzia Koofi, a former Afghan government official who sat across from Taliban negotiators throughout the talks in Doha, Qatar.
Later in the episode, host Jenn Williams speaks with Ashley Jackson, a researcher and author who documented a different kind of negotiation with the Taliban — one that Afghan civilians were having across the country in the past few years with members of the group. Jackson wrote about the phenomenon in her book Negotiating Survival: Civilian–Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]
JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.
[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]
JENN: This week, we’re going to hear from a former Afghan government official about what it’s like to negotiate with the Taliban. The two sides started meeting in Doha, Qatar, in September 2020. Their goal was to reach a power-sharing agreement, but the effort collapsed when Taliban forces swept into Kabul in August.
Fawzia Koofi was a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team. She was also a deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament — the first woman to hold that job before the government’s collapse. As you’ll hear in the interview, Koofi basically feels the talks were hampered from the very start. Former US President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in 2019 without including the Afghan government. By the time the Doha negotiations got underway, the government had little to no leverage. Still, the talks tell us a lot about the Taliban — about why the country fell so quickly, and about what the future holds for Afghanistan.
Later in the episode, you’ll hear my conversation with Ashley Jackson. She’s a researcher and an author who documented a different kind of negotiation with the Taliban, one that Afghan civilians were having across the country in the past few years with members of the group. But first, here’s Fawzia Koofi.
Initially, when I first went, Taliban were thinking that we women are there because that’s what the world want, because that’s what the Western world want. We are not there because we are able or we are, like, professional, equipped with knowledge, and empowered enough to represent our country or et cetera. We are there because the Americans and other Western world want us to be there. We are there as a token, basically. And that’s their approach was, also — among some of them.
One dinner I attended — by the Qatar Minister of Foreign Affairs — we agreed that we will share a table, so we don’t sit woman all in one table, but we will divide ourselves so that we are everywhere and visible. So I was sitting in a table, which was all these, kind of, Taliban, Islamic scholars and leadership. One of the guys who actually recently joined the Taliban negotiation team — when I sit there, he reacted, because he didn’t want to sit there. So he said he’s going to leave, because the fact that I was sharing with them table was against Islam, so he wanted to leave. And I was put in a very difficult situation, because for me it was a test. To leave the table was something, of course, against my struggles, because how could I leave, basically, the stage? And in the meantime, he was making a lot of noise. But then what I did was, I continue to engage with other members of the negotiation from Taliban side. I ask them about their families. I try to make the situation normal, and look normal, so that this guy doesn’t make more noises, because it was a kind of official dinner, and it looks so bad that this guy was making all this noise. And for me to leave was like leaving forever. Then I decided not to leave, but sit there and talk. And I continue talking with the rest of Taliban. They offered food, the waiters — the people who were working in the restaurant — and of course, because they knew me and I was the only woman there, they served me first, for — protocol-wise. But I tried to share the food with this guy who was making noise. And all of the Taliban guys laughed and said, “You are very —” in their own way, said, “You are very smart.”
So this was their approach, initially. But over time, I think I realized that some of them do not have knowledge of Islamic principles. Their knowledge is just traditional. And I knew — given my experience in the parliament and dealing with so many men like them — I knew how to deal with them. So I then get along with some of them, and they try to develop some respect. So in the room, I was, like, talking and trying to make myself visible, because it was a challenge to make our voices heard. Not only for Taliban, but for our own team members. That was a challenge. It was difficult to prove — to prove your, you know, your space or to prove that you are. And it’s a challenge. I think it’s a woman challenge all over the world, I would say.
What they try to do is they try to inject this word of “Islamic” in any kind of agreement, conversation we had. And I got frustrated because — and my question to them was, “Why are you so feeling insecure that you want to just put the word of Islam and then, that way, you feel that you protect Islam?” Like, for instance, they said we need to train army based on principles of Islam, and we need to protect cultural heritage based on principles of Islam. And my point was: How do you protect the cultural heritage and the principles of Islam? What if there is a cultural heritage — like we had before in Afghanistan, the Buddhas — what if there is a cultural heritage which actually existed before Islam? What are you going to do to that? And they were like, “We will assist and see if it is in accordance with Islam. If not, we will destroy it.” And I’m like, “Why are you so much in destruction mode?” I didn’t ask this question, but this comes to my mind. Until now, why would people just think about destruction and, like, you know, ruining, and not about construction?
So I had a discussion with them when we were discussing Islamic structure. When they say they want an Islamic centralized government, we said, “You need to elaborate, what do you mean? What is the form of government that you want?” And then we went into discussion about democracy, and because I’m also a graduate of law and political science, and I know that — how the Khalifa, like, the replacement of our prophet, peace be upon him — was elected, in a way, through some kind of consensus. And I said, “In the beginning of Islam, there was some level of consensus and elections, et cetera. So why are you against election?” They had, of course — most of them, their knowledge of Islam is either very, very old or mixed with tradition, or they don’t have it, actually.
One year of negotiation was the most stressful and challenging times of my life because, you know, I was negotiating with a group that were outside Afghanistan, not connected to the daily reality of people in Afghanistan. And we were in this luxurious five-star hotel — nothing to relate with the life of people in Afghanistan. And then, on daily base, there were attacks against civilians, against university students, against women, against targeted killings, against journalists, against human rights activists, and attack at education institutions, et cetera, et cetera.
There were occasions that we actually went to see our family for a few days, and then using that time, you were also consulting with civil society, with women, with politicians, et cetera. I could see that sense of optimism and urgency from the people on agreeing on something. I could see how much people were actually hoping for — for a political settlement that will end this war. But when I was going to the table, and I could see that nothing of that expectation is actually translated into the negotiation — at least on the Taliban side — it was very, very stressful. And especially the — the speed, the pace of the negotiation that were really not to the expectation of people.
We were negotiating about how the future form of a government would look like. And that discussion actually took very, very long. And then, the US president announced withdrawal. So when the announcement happened, the Taliban were not very interested in meaningfully engaging. They were basically passing time and making us to be engaged, and looking to the world that they are actually in negotiation, making us busy on issues that were not really important for Afghanistan. So of course, already, the Taliban were thinking that they are the winner in any case, and maybe very soon they will enter Kabul and capture more provinces militarily. And that’s what they did, actually.
I was in Kabul and I didn’t want to leave it, but you know that I was under house arrest, and it was — I became literally so ineffective. I’m here temporarily traveling across, you know, some of the countries advocating for the people, for woman’s rights, especially for woman access to education, because that’s fundamental. And Taliban cannot abandon Afghanistan from the rest of the world, and especially the rest of the Muslim world. Because if you go to other Muslim countries, also — I mean, I was in Qatar for a year during negotiation — the girls are more at school than boys. So what do — what do Taliban represent? Honestly, I feel absolutely lost, and I cannot even imagine that girls will no more wear that black and white uniform to go to school.
Now, my plan is that I want to go back, because I want to empower further and further that empowered generation — already that you see them protesting on the streets of Kabul, with all the risks that they face. However, that being said, I know that it’s very dangerous, but I will continue to do that, because here, yes, everything is perfect, but it’s not my country. I like the warmth of people, I like the fact that I wake up in the morning, people call me the first thing, asking for something. I miss that. I miss being connected with my people. I spent — dedicated all my life being connected with people, and now, it’s a totally different life. But I think I’m needed more in Afghanistan than Europe or the US.
JENN: That was Fawzia Koofi, a former member of the Afghan parliament and one of the Afghan delegation’s negotiators with the Taliban.
I also spoke with Ashley Jackson. She’s an author and a researcher who just published a really fascinating book called Negotiating Survival: Civilian–Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan. Jackson served as an aid worker in Afghanistan about a decade ago. She returned to the country in 2017 and spent more than two years interviewing hundreds of people across the country, including members of the Taliban and ordinary civilians who are living in areas that the group had come to control. Her book is, in part, about how the Taliban managed to regain power after 20 years of American occupation. She says that the group used not just brutality, but also diplomacy with civilians across the country.
When I moved back in 2017, I came back to investigate the Taliban’s, sort of, takeover by stealth of much of the countryside. I started traveling far and wide to areas under Taliban influence and control. And I did that often with the help of Afghan journalists who, of course, were, were covering these issues for the local media and were, you know, present right throughout the country. And they kind of helped me figure out and investigate what life was like back under the Taliban 2.0, if you will.
JENN: How did you travel safely, especially as a woman? I know you said that you were with Afghan journalists, but I’m just wondering, you know, what was it like for you, just kind of on a day-to-day basis, traveling around? And how did you do that safely?
ASHLEY: Well, I think as a woman, in many ways it’s easier to, to work in Afghanistan as a — as a foreign woman, anyway. You can talk to both sides. You have better access, certainly, to women than a foreign guy would. And there’s a culture of, I mean — part of the repression and the restrictions come out of this idea of protecting and respecting women rights, so —
ASHLEY: — for better or worse, I felt very protected and respected in lots of ways. Of course, you wear a burqa, you, you follow local customs. But this is at a point where the Taliban really wanted to talk to outsiders. They really wanted to show off what they were doing, and kind of present themselves in a different light.
JENN: Right. So like you said, by that point, the Taliban was making real progress in gaining control across the country. So you write in your book that a lot of that had to do with the way that the group itself interacted with civilians. So tell me a little bit about that. What were some of the ways that you saw the Taliban interacting with civilians, and how do you think that led to, you know, some of their ability to gain control?
ASHLEY: Well, the Taliban that I met was wildly different than the Taliban I heard about in 2009. I mean, I think in 2017, they had adopted this idea that they were a state in waiting. They were no longer this sort of ragtag insurgency that they had been a decade prior. And you know, when I first arrived in Afghanistan, they were attacking aid agencies, they were attacking schools, as you know, quote-unquote symbols of the occupation.
ASHLEY: In 2017, it was a total 180. They were going into government schools and appointing education monitors and forcing “ghost teachers,” as they’re called, to show up for work. They were forcing students, in some cases, to attend classes. And so they’re even, in some cases, kind of winning over parents who are really dissatisfied with this terribly corrupt education system, who desperately wanted their kids to get an education. I talked to so many people who sort of had this attitude of resignation that, you know, they didn’t like what the Taliban stood for, but they were a less bad option than the Afghan government, who couldn’t deliver the kind of service — it couldn’t compel people to actually do their jobs so that, you know, people could get access to health care and education. And so it was this really, really strange situation of the Taliban using government — and, you know, things funded by the international community — to their own advantage, to kind of further themselves in community after community, even if we have to sort of take credit for what the enemy is doing. And that’s how I think they got a wedge in community after community.
JENN: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. If you’re thinking about, you know, an insurgency, there’s only — you can only hold control with military, you know, power for so long. And at some point you need to actually start running a city. In one of the stories that you tell in your book — in the introduction, you tell the story about Haji Aman and about, you know, this local, kind of, elder, and how he managed to negotiate with the Taliban to reopen schools. So I’d love it if you could tell us a bit about that story here.
ASHLEY: I think the war in Afghanistan has been presented as very black and white, good against evil, Taliban against the good guys. But actually, it is a civil war where it’s brother against brother in some cases. And for civilians, what that meant was that they used those connections — the fact that they might have gone to school with a Taliban fighter, or they might be related to one — in order to survive. To sort of negotiate the Taliban’s rules, to try and get a relative released from jail or what have you. And the book opens with this story of this extraordinary elder, in some ways. He negotiates with the Taliban to reopen schools — and on a range of other issues — but he’s really the advocate for the community, with the Taliban, trying to get the Taliban to loosen up, to be less cruel to the population, to allow them to at least have access to things like schools and clinics, and so on. But Haji Aman is not exceptional in a lot of other ways, because in village after village, this is exactly how people have sought to navigate and survive the war. It’s how they’re surviving now, by the way. I mean, they’re still negotiating with the Taliban. The Taliban sort of said that girls effectively could not return to school at the secondary level. This attracted a lot of attention in the media. But it’s elders like Aman who have renegotiated in province after province, village after village, so that these girls can return to school. It’s these kinds of very quiet, local negotiations, which are basically the only hope that I think Afghans have now, in terms of lessening the harshness that they’re going to face under a Taliban regime.
JENN: So tell me about how Haji Aman actually went about that kind of sensitive negotiation.
ASHLEY: So this is the culture of negotiation in Afghanistan. It’s completely alien to me, as a New Yorker. We’re very direct people. It’s the opposite in Afghanistan. And when you’re negotiating with the Taliban, definitely not overtly fighting them — you’re not getting into a confrontation with them, you’re not making demands. You’re giving them a very subtle message. So what Haji Aman did was — you know, the Taliban had refused all of the community’s demands. The community was increasingly dissatisfied. Haji Aman has to deliver something for the — for the community. His standing as an elder depends on that. And so what he says to the Taliban commanders — he says, you know, “It may become unsafe for you here. I can’t control what people will do. You know, you just have to show — you know, you have to show them something. You have to show them a little kindness or something.” That’s effectively what he says. And I’m sitting there with, with my translator, and we’re talking, and he starts laughing, of course, because the meaning in Afghan culture is very clear. He’s just leveled a really harsh threat. You know, that would have been lost, sort of, on an outsider’s ears.
ASHLEY: But Afghans fully understand what it means to make these sort of indirect threats. It’s, it’s drawing a line in the sand, in a way where you allow the other side a little bit of leeway to, to back up. You know, because if you confront someone, if you draw a red line or if you slap down an ultimatum, it’s hard to, to find a way out of that. It’s hard to find a compromise, right? So Afghan negotiating culture, and definitely in negotiating with the Taliban, you always want to give them a way out. You always want to give them an option to do the right thing and to take credit for doing the right thing, and being magnanimous, and all these kinds of things. So that was kind of how these deals played out.
JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators. We’ll be right back.
JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m Jenn Williams. So you just heard Ashley describing how a village elder dealt with the Taliban. Now, you’ll hear about a teacher who really changed Ashley’s perspective on how we should think about how civilians are negotiating with the Taliban.
ASHLEY: So this teacher was, was pretty incredible. I met a lot of teachers. I met dozens and dozens of teachers, because they were on the front lines of, kind of, negotiating with the Taliban over education. They’re also sort of respected learned figures in the community and tried to play a role in moderating things. But this one teacher — when I met him, he really put me through my paces and quizzed me about various things, all these kinds of things. But then we were talking about the Taliban — and the Taliban are slapping down all these rules on education, they’re removing parts of the curriculum — and I keep pressing him to, you know, “How do you feel about this?” This is not a shrinking violet, right? You know, but he keeps insisting, “It’s all fine. Everything’s fine, everything’s fine.” And there’s this culture of non-confrontation. And, of course, him not wanting to say anything overtly against the Taliban, for fear of the consequences. But I keep pressing and pressing because, you know, I know this guy has an opinion. I know he has an interesting — something to say. And he says, “Look. We dance with whoever is there. We danced with the mujahideen in the 80s. We danced with the Karzai regime when they came to power after 2001. And we dance with the Taliban. That’s how we survive.” And it was this really powerful, really poetic kind of way of putting this really impossible, brutal, terrible situation he was in — that this was just, you know, how — how they get through life. It’s, it’s these — these sort of dances with different actors who — you don’t have control over who your dance partner is, for lack of a better term. But you do have control over how you interact with them, how you react to them. The kind of calculations that you make. But it had this, also, kind of tragic quality to it as well. It’s just this never-ending dance. The partners change, but the wars just continue and take new forms.
JENN: Right. Yeah, I thought that was really powerful when I — when I read that in the book. There was a part of his quote, too, where he said, you know, “It’s not about who we can support. We do not have that luxury.” And you know, that moment where you kind of realize, like, you’re pushing him to say, I do or don’t support this, you know, XYZ policy the Taliban is doing. And he’s trying to explain to you, like — lady, it’s not about whether I support them or not. That’s not even an option here. Like, of course I support them, because I have to survive.
ASHLEY: Exactly. And I think this is, you know, even though — intuitively, I knew that —
ASHLEY: — in dealing with all these civilians. But the war has been framed in this way of — counterinsurgency, winning hearts and minds, good guys and bad guys. The bottom line, yeah, is survival.
JENN: Right, absolutely. So as we’ve talked about, negotiating, you know, with civilians, is definitely one piece of the strategy that helped the Taliban gain control. But you know, I want to be clear as well, at the same time, that the group has used violence to gain more territory. You know, violence both against government forces, you know, and US troops and at times NATO forces. But, but also against ordinary Afghans, right, to maintain their control. So tell me about that piece of this, about how the Taliban has used violence to control the population, and what that looked like on the ground for you — in terms of this kind of broader conversation that we’re having about, you know, civilians navigating survival.
ASHLEY: Absolutely. When I talk about civilians negotiating with the Taliban, they’re doing it, effectively, at the point of a gun. You know, they didn’t ask the Taliban into their village. They didn’t vote for them or endorse their control. They’re dealing with the hand they were dealt, effectively. And a lot of people have fled, and the Taliban has killed far more civilians than the international government forces. We’ll never know, actually, how many. But it’s the everyday coercion and everyday fear that I think is, is much more insidious. And this uncompromising brutality was just – it was present in the most horrific ways that would come up, almost incidentally, in conversations. You know, it was just — it was just everywhere.
JENN: So just to kind of jump forward here a little bit. So you left Afghanistan in 2019, and did you imagine, then, at that time, that the Taliban would be — would be back in power within such a relatively short time? Did it feel like it was heading that way even then?
ASHLEY: Absolutely. I mean, throughout the course of my research, I would come back to Kabul and I would meet with diplomats in their heavily fortified compounds, and I would tell anyone who was listening what was going on. I mean, a lot of people knew, and I think as peace talks — or the political talks in Doha between the US and the Taliban — progressed, it became a kind of inevitability that the Taliban would return to power in some form. But I think there was a lack of recognition that they already controlled most of the country, and that the government itself was completely hollowed out, fighting amongst itself, rotten, unable to come up with any sort of compelling counterargument, rhetorically, to the Afghan people, or a real military strategy to fight back the Taliban once international forces — or American forces, more precisely — left. And I think anyone who is surprised just hasn’t been paying attention for the past five years.
JENN: And I guess that brings me to my last, kind of, general question here. You know, the fact is the Taliban is the government in power there, whether, you know, anyone likes it or not. So what are the lessons that you draw — that you take from this experience, and your understanding of how the Taliban actually, kind of, operates and negotiates? And how can you, kind of — what do you take from that in terms of going forward, and how, maybe, the U.S. and international community — NGOs, the UN, et cetera — can maybe work with the Taliban in practical ways to try to alleviate this — the sanctions crisis, this economic freefall, you know, that we’re seeing?
ASHLEY: Right. You know, I’m asked a lot, you know, how should the international community engage with the Taliban about questions of recognition? And I absolutely hate it, because it’s the wrong question. The question is: How can you alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people at this point, of which — you know, the international community is absolutely partially responsible for? The problem is, right now, a lot of the, the US — and a lot of the Western states, its allies — are in this defensive grandstanding, kind of, public relations spin mode. And that is the worst way to deal with the Taliban. If you condemn them, if you tell them not to do something, if you call them out, they’re guaranteed to sort of dig in their heels. Especially as they’re now, kind of, fighting for control, fighting for the image of competence and authority, now that they’ve sort of been thrust into power — or thrust themselves, actually, into power. And so these quiet negotiations at the local level, the way that the communities were doing it, the way we’re seeing Afghans in some areas able to do it now, with the Taliban, that they’ve taken over — just keep pushing, keep finding ways to give them the space to do the right thing, and cut off all the other options and give them, give them credit for doing the right thing — as unpalatable as that might be, that would actually be the most effective. And I’ve been talking to aid agencies, you know, who are now negotiating with the Taliban over girls’ education, all sorts of things, and they’re using the same tactics. They’re saying, “Oh, you know, if you, if you cut off our girls’ education program, my donors back in, you know, this Western country, they’re going to become very upset. And I can’t — you know, they’ll probably shut everything down. The donors will pull all the money, and then what are we going to do?” [LAUGHS] And so, like, you always want to blame someone else, but make the threat very, very clear. And it wouldn’t be lost. I mean, the Taliban would — it would absolutely understand what you were saying. But it gives them — it gives them a little bit of, “OK, we can back up, we can reframe this,” kind of thing. And I think that is — when you’re dealing with an insurgency as fearsome as the Taliban, that’s incredibly important.
The real issue is that there is a fate far worse than the Taliban. If the Taliban is not able to solve the liquidity crisis, is not able to keep people from starving, is not able to consolidate among its internal political ranks, it could split apart. There could be other factions in neighboring countries. There could be a far worse civil war ahead. And, you know, in the medium term, not — not too off in the distant future. So I think for the international community, the question is: How do you avert something worse? Because it can always, always get worse.
JENN: That was Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute and author of Negotiating Survival: Civilian–Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan.
These days, the Taliban is allowing some small number of girls to study in schools in certain parts of the country. In other areas, though, education has gone underground in defiance of the group.
[LIVELY ELECTRIC GUITAR MUSIC]
The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Megan Cattel, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you like the show, please follow us on your favorite platform and leave a review. It really helps. And if you appreciate Foreign Policy and are sick of reaching your article limit, we have a special deal just for you. Head over to ForeignPolicy.com to become an FP subscriber and use the code NEGOTIATE to get a 10% discount.
Next week on the show, you’ll hear about the current peace process in Libya and the presidential elections that are scheduled there for December 24th.
WOMAN: If you don’t talk to the guys with the guns, you know, you’re going to undermine your own project, because if they decide they don’t like what’s going on, they’ll just use force of arms to stop it.
That episode next week on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.