By Anthony D'Ambola Managing Editor 8 March 2019

The peace process between the United States and the Taliban is picking up steam, as recent talks in Doha appeared to be the most significant thus far. The United States peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has expressed optimism. The broad strokes of a potential peace accord center around the United States withdrawing its forces (currently numbering around 14,000) from Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban proscribing its violent tactics and preventing the country from again becoming a terrorist safe haven. Foregoing violence, the Taliban is slated to participate, to some degree, in Afghanistan’s political process. The structure and stipulations of a peace deal and its implementation are, of course, important. But over the horizon appears a vexing question: will peace endure? Understanding the Taliban’s governing ideology and how this belief system grips its members is one piece of this puzzle. Examining the historical record of peace agreements between terrorist groups and governments can also guide our thinking by illuminating the considerable ideological obstacles that have precluded durable peace.

Terrorist organizations tend to fracture when group leadership decides to engage in the political process and ultimately settle with its adversary, namely the state. The central cause of such organizational divergence is rooted in group ideology and individual identity. The terrorist group itself takes shape and recruits members based on some sort of ideology – nationalist or religious, for example. Some groups are governed by ideology so extreme that its members’ identities become engulfed by these beliefs.

Consequently, when the peace process occurs and the prospect that the group ends its armed struggle becomes more apparent, a swath of the terrorist group’s members face the reality that the ideology they have fought for – in some cases for decades – is effectively disintegrating; foregoing armed struggle in favor of engaging in the political process is anathema to the group’s founding principles. Thus, they remain committed to armed conflict. Folded into this belief is the fact that many terrorists view their devotion to achieving the group’s goals as their sole avenue to achieving significance (i.e. their only way to attain a degree of self worth). Individuals’ identities are shaped and governed by their affiliation with the terrorist organization and the collective violence they engage in to reach the group’s goals.

Viewed in the context of the Taliban, these ideological underpinnings become stark. The group has been unequivocal about its overarching goal: overthrow the current Afghan government, which it views as apostates, and return the country to the Sharia-based system of law that the Taliban had previously overseen before being toppled by United States forces in 2001. The group espouses and aggressively promotes an absolutist and binary ideology – good vs. evil, us vs. them – that dictates its unyielding drive toward ridding Afghanistan of its elected government. Look no further than the Taliban’s rhetoric regarding the legitimacy of the Afghan government and the country’s constitution. For the Taliban to suddenly reverse course and abandon the core ideology that has for decades driven its armed struggle would result in the group losing legitimacy among at least some, if not many, of its members. It is a near certainty that a segment of Taliban leadership and its fighters will be too staunchly opposed to such an ideological reversal.

The Taliban’s organizational-level ideology has also served as the group’s prime recruiting and motivational tool for its sizeable number of militants (it has at least 60,000 fighters in Afghanistan). This ideology has provided a prism through which Taliban fighters can view the group’s aspirations – and theirs, individually – with meaning and purpose. The prospect of victory, and, thus, a validation of their beliefs, helps galvanize Taliban members into continuing the fight. A legitimate peace deal will require the dissolution of the Taliban’s armed forces. What, then, will become of these fighters? It is unlikely that they will abandon their deeply ingrained ideals, and they will yearn to continue the fight.      

History provides us with useful examples concerning the aftermath of peace accords between terrorist groups and states. In the battle for an independent Irish state, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) engaged in a protracted, violent struggle against the British government, its military, and its people. By the late 1960s, some in the IRA leadership opted to abandon violence in favor of winning an independent state by joining the political process. Disagreement among some IRA leaders led to a splinter group, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which engaged in a more violent campaign for several decades until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The violence, however, was not over. A faction of the PIRA was dissatisfied with the agreement and spun off into the Real IRA, which, in 2012, split again into the New IRA. The violence continues.  

The Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), a nationalist-terrorist group in Spain formed in 1959, provides another notable example. During the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the ETA used violence to oppose his regime’s oppressive policies. Upon Franco’s death in 1977 and Spain’s subsequent return to democracy, the ETA began to fight for regional autonomy while still utilizing violent tactics. Thereafter, a rift emerged within ETA regarding the group’s strategy. The majority favored a combination of armed struggle and political participation, while a minority was staunchly in favor of complete reliance on violent tactics. Thus, the military ETA (ETAm) was born. It, too, engaged in a decades-long campaign of violence, with the group dissolving itself in May 2018.

Perhaps the most salient example is the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). Inspired by the 1950s communist revolution in Cuba, the FARC engaged the Colombian government in guerilla warfare and terrorized the country’s citizens in a conflict that lasted for more than 50 years. In 2016, the two parties reached a peace accord. In exchange for participation in the political process (10 allotted seats in Parliament), FARC militants would turn over their weapons and abandon their insurgency, with some receiving amnesty. Despite the agreement, thousands – somewhere around 40 percent – of FARC guerillas have picked up arms and resumed fighting. While some of the FARC’s leadership may have the acumen to engage in Colombian politics, its young fighters remain bereft of an alternative cause. For many, identity is defined by being a guerrilla and fighting for a cause that provides meaning and significance.

Peace between the Taliban, Afghan government, and the Afghan people is a much-desired outcome. Hundreds of thousands have perished from suicide bombings and assassinations, and countless families have lost loved ones while being forced from their homes. The Taliban has lorded over many rural parts of Afghanistan while banning young girls from attending school and forcing young boys into conscription. Meanwhile, the Afghan government remains incapable of rooting out corruption and providing even the most basic level of government services to Afghans in more rural parts of the country. The Afghan army, though boasting approximately five times as many fighters than the Taliban, is virtually ineffectual. However, dire consequences such as these must not lead to quixotic notions of the Taliban’s willingness to abandon its armed struggle. It has spent decades cultivating and promoting an extremist, inflexible ideology and grooming its members to fight for and fully invest themselves in what it views as a millenarian battle of good versus evil. U.S. negotiators will be haggling over political representation, troop withdrawals, and terrorist safe havens, but the underlying quagmire that will undermine peace is the Taliban’s ideology. It will face the same ideological dynamics and internal strife faced by those that factionalized the IRA, ETA, and FARC; The Taliban will not simply wither away.

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Anthony D’Ambola is a Master’s Candidate in the Security Policy Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. His research is focused on political instability and the intersection of terrorism and geopolitics.