One of the Taliban’s most senior commanders has admitted that the insurgents cannot win the war in Afghanistan and that capturing Kabul is “a very distant prospect”, obliging them to seek a settlement with other political forces in the country.
In a startlingly frank interview in Thursday’s New Statesman, the commander — described as a Taliban veteran, a confidant of the leadership, and a former Guantanamo inmate — also uses the strongest language yet from a senior figure to distance the Afghan rebels from al Qaeda.
“At least 70% of the Taliban are angry at al Qaeda. Our people consider al Qaeda to be a plague that was sent down to us by the heavens,” the commander says. “To tell the truth, I was relieved at the death of Osama bin Laden. Through his policies, he destroyed Afghanistan. If he really believed in jihad, he should have gone to Saudi Arabia and done jihad there, rather than wrecking our country.”
The New Statesman does not identify the Taliban commander, referring to him only as Mawlvi. His scepticism over his own side’s military prospects, however, is in particularly striking contrast to the consistently triumphalist output of official Taliban statements.
“It is in the nature of war that both sides dream of victory. But the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious. It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this war,” he says.
“The Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect. Any Taliban leader expecting to be able to capture Kabul is making a grave mistake. Nevertheless, the leadership also knows that it cannot afford to acknowledge this weakness. To do so would undermine the morale of Taliban personnel. The leadership knows the truth — that they cannot prevail over the power they confront,” Mawlvi says.
As a result, he says that the Taliban has had to shelve its dream of re-establishing the Islamic emirate it set up when it was in power from 1996 to 2001. “Any side involved in a conflict like this has decided to fight for power. If they fall short of achieving national power, they have to settle for functioning as an organised party within the country,” he admits.
He is scathing about President Hamid Karzai, who the Taliban has consistently derided as a US puppet. “There is little point in talking to Kabul. Real authority rests with the Americans,” he says. “The only other serious political force in Afghanistan is that of the Northern Alliance” — a Tajik-led coalition that led the resistance to Taliban rule and is now a powerful player in Kabul.