A Discussion About Afghanistan with Former Taliban Prisoner Paul Refsdal

By Suzanne Schroeder

Note: This paper is drawn from an interview with Paul Refsdal, a Norwegian journalist kidnapped by the Taliban while filming members of the organization in 2009. Mr. Refsdal was very candid, discussing a variety of issues, such as his conversion to Islam and ideology of the Taliban. This paper focused primarily on his insights regarding negotiation, local interests, and the role of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future.

In June, the Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal, agreed to an interview to discuss his 2009 kidnapping by the Afghan Taliban and various aspects of the insurgency. As US forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, with only a residual footprint remaining in an advisory capacity, I wanted to ask Refsdal’s opinion on the future of the country and what he thought the Taliban’s role might be. His answers contain what may be one of the central takeaways from the NATO/US experience there: that any hope of establishing lasting democratic governance must be based on an understanding of local concerns and alliances.

Imprisonment, bargaining, and releases

Refsdal discussed the Layha, the Taliban Code of Conduct, which first appeared in a rudimentary format in 2006. The Afghanistan Analysts Network’s Kate Clark1 and former EU representative for Afghanistan Michael Semple have examined how the Layha reflects the practical concerns of the insurgency and what adaptations the Taliban have made in response to changing conditions. Kidnapping, like all Taliban activities, is ideally meant to follow the rules as they are presented, yet various “excuses” are employed to circumvent them. For example, saying that a captive was a “spy” is used as a justification for kidnapping. There is a practical reason for this: kidnapping and ransoms are a major funding source for the insurgency. In Refsdal’s case, no ransom was paid for his release. He explained that the existing hierarchy among the group that he had originally filmed intervened and ordered his safe release.

When discussing the recent prisoner exchange that resulted in the release of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban custody, Refsdal commented on “the importance of keeping politicians out of hostage negotiation.” Much public discourse about the exchange focused on a largely media-manufactured political controversy that could potentially undermine similar future negotiations. The more important and constructive takeaway that the media missed may be that the exchange established some foundation to build on towards future talks with the insurgency. The Taliban demonstrated that if each side can agree to workable conditions, they were willing to fulfill their end of the bargain.

Negotiations and stability

One of the most interesting answers to my questions was Refsdal’s discussion of generational differences among the Taliban, and how this has the potential to affect future stability:

“The US strategy of killing Taliban leaders surely can be defended from a military point of view, but it can be disastrous for the future of Afghanistan. When foreign forces have left and the Afghan government will sit down with the Taliban to draw up the future of their country, we want wise old men to sit around the table. Not a bunch of angry young men.”

He also discussed local peace agreements that have occurred between Afghan security forces and local Taliban commanders. This sense of local compromise has a long history in Afghanistan. In the past two years, several excellent books have been published on the need to have a full, and historically-based understanding of local conditions, alliances, differences, and of competition for access and resources. These conditions drive Afghan responses to the foreign presence.2

On a similar note, Refsdal spoke of the need for de-centralized power, stressing that Afghan democracy must be local, with ethnic lines acknowledged. These are key considerations raised by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn in a recent discussion on future negotiations with the Taliban.3 They point out that future negotiations will likely involve the inclusion of multiple actors in the process. They emphasize that local power structures must be understood and that groups can function democratically, providing that all parties have a sense that they are stakeholders in a process that does not marginalize their interests.

Protracted instability and questions about the future

On the possibility of a protracted impasse between the Taliban and the central government, Refsdal made the following comment:

“First, the Afghan government could offer the Taliban some kind of power-sharing solution, leaving the Taliban in control of most or all of the Pashtun areas, meaning the areas inhabited by the ethnic group from which they draw support.“

If this were to occur, it is unclear what Taliban governance would look like. How would they manage the endemic corruption? If they were able to restore “law and order” as they did in 1996, would they avoid the excesses and abuses that have come to define their tenure as a ruling government? How would a development project be implemented with a Taliban governor in place? What factors would motivate groups who would opt to ally with the Taliban, and those who would continue to resist?

If the power-sharing option were not pursued, then Refsdal went on to suggest that the likely alternative would be, “the two sides fight it out for a couple of years and eventually the Taliban gains control of these same Pashtun areas.” Neither of these options of power-sharing or protracted conflict are very appealing. However, the idea that Afghanistan will be left as an example of intervention resulting in progressive, representative democracy has been abandoned, by all but the most ideologically invested. The final results of the recent elections will be crucial in determining whether a power-sharing arrangement can result without continuing violence or civil war.

Suzanne is an independent analyst concentrating on the Afghan insurgency. She is currently working on a collaborative project documenting occurrences and coverage of school poisoning incidents in Afghanistan. For additional information about her interview with Mr. Refsdal, you can contact her at sues57 [at] hotmail [dot] com. You can follow Suzanne on Twitter at @SuzanneSues57.

1 Kate Clark. 4 July 2011. ‘The Layha: Calling the Taleban to Account’, Afghanistan Analysts Network, available at afghanistan-analysts.org

2 For further reading on this dynamic, see Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living; Carter Malkasian, War Comes to Garmser, Mike Martin, An Intimate War, and Karl Sandstrom, Local Interests and American Foreign policy: Why Interventions Fail

3 Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. 2014. ‘Rebooting a Political Settlement: Engagement and Mediation After the Afghan Elections’, Chatham House, available at chathamhouse.org

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About TJM

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