Afghanistan: Pragmatists Significant Voice in Taliban, Says Former Diplomat

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Today, dozens of people took part in a protest rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. They demanded justice for the victim of recent public execution in a province north of the Afghan capital. That execution was caught on video. It's been seen online by people all over the globe. It shows a woman reportedly accused of adultery. She's sitting on the ground with her head covered. A man opens fire and then witnesses are heard cheering.

[RECORDING: Cheering]

Mullins: Local officials blame Taliban militants for the execution but the militants deny they were involved. Michael Simple is a former diplomat who served in Afghanistan. He says it's hard to know which side to believe because in the past this sort of incident has been manipulated by both sides in Afghanistan.

Michael Simple: Sometimes those on the government side who want to paint the other side as being completely beyond the pale. Even when the Taliban haven't done this, they pin it on the Taliban. On the other hand, some of the hardliners in the insurgency, they deliberately engage in this kind of extreme violence so as to make it impossible for anybody else to sit down with the Taliban and cut the kind of deal that the person I talked to would be in favor or.

Mullins: Simple is now a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard's Kennedy School. He himself recently sat down for a discussion with a senior Taliban commander.

Simple: He's a veteran of the Taliban movement, has been with them since the early days. He's held senior posts in their administration when they were running the country. He's remained loyal to the movement and he's done a stint in Guantanamo.

Mullins: I understand you can't say too much more about him but can you tell us how you were able to speak with him and under what circumstances?

Simple: I knew a lot of people while they were in power. I was working for the United Nations in those days and I deliberately have maintained contact with some of these gentlemen since they were pushed out.

Mullins: And we should say that you were pushed out or left Afghanistan in 2007 when you were a diplomat for the European Union because you had met with some Taliban leaders to explore peace talks at the time. So the bottom line message that you got from this Taliban commander who you're calling [Malvi ?? 00:02:24] is what?

Simple: Is that there's a very interesting political discussion going on inside the Taliban movement and one part of that discussion which is represented by Malvi, and I know quite a few other people who articulate fairly similar views, is inherently pragmatic. It starts with the idea that they also know although they're not defeated, they can't achieve a military victory, they're not going to sweep to power in Kabul or take over the country. They are obliged to come up with some kind of accommodation with their fellow Afghans, get it absorbed into some system that they can all live with, and that ultimately they will require some kind of equitable relations with the international community including the United States.

Mullins: He's also saying that the Taliban has no interest in negotiating with the government of president Hamid Karzai. They believe that that government is a tool of the Americans and basically it's Americans who pick the president. It doesn't sound like a good starting point for any kind of a lasting peace.

Simple: The viewpoint that Malvi's put across, it is inherently pragmatic and it does indeed have a vision of reaching some kind of settlement amongst Afghans but they don't expect to be doing it on the kind of terms that either the government in Kabul or the United States have been most obviously pushing, expecting that somehow they would accept the offers which have been put from the Kabul government and sort of sit down and say sorry. They expect some kind of accommodation amongst Afghans which they hope that the international community might buy into.

Mullins: Under that scenario that Malvi, this Taliban commander presented to you, can you describe more of what Afghanistan would look like?

Simple: There's a key point that the Taliban are going to have to confront. The hardliners in the movement are ostensibly fighting to restore the Islamic Emirate which one way or another would indeed look like Afghanistan was in the '90s. I think that a major chunk of the movement has realized it's simply not going to happen because they cannot get the support of the population for restoration of Islamic Emirate. It will not be tolerated by the international community and the Afghan people as a people have themselves moved on. The population is not the same population that it was 10 or 15 years ago.

Mullins: They wouldn't stand for Sharia Law? Is that what you're saying?

Simple: The issue is not even Sharia Law. The issue is about the monopoly of power by a small clique that seeks to appoint itself and to try to dominate society. Afghans have gotten used to different kinds of freedoms. They're simply not going to accept that kind of domination of power in the country by a small clique. Pragmatists in the movement realize that. Hardliners try to pretend that they only have a problem with the Americans and that once the Americans are gone that the Afghan population will accept them. How that debate plays out inside the Taliban movement is going to determine in part whether Afghanistan moves towards a civil war after the U.S. and NATO draw down.

Mullins: Michael, you're using quite a bit the term pragmatist. Is the majority of the Taliban made up of pragmatists?

Simple: The pragmatists clearly are an important function inside the Taliban. Currently the movement does not have democratic practice. It's working in a very highly undemocratic way at the moment. They've never had a chance to test their numbers to show whether they really can determine the direction of the movement.

Mullins: Michael, where do you think this is all leading, if anywhere?

Simple: There is a very serious possibility that as the U.S. winds down its presence in Afghanistan but does try to obviously maintain some kind of engagement, that Afghanistan moves on towards civil war. However, the existence of pragmatists inside the Taliban who have worked out that civil war does not mean victory for them. The fact that many other people in the other parts of the political spectrum in Afghanistan have worked out, they reached the same conclusion that they really must try and avoid civil war. It means that there's a lot to play for.

Mullins: Michael Simple is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School at Harvard. A transcript of his full interview with a senior Taliban commander is going to appear in the upcoming edition of the British political magazine, New Statesman. Michael, thanks a lot.

Simple: Thank you.