Both sides – the Taliban and the Americans – are content with the ongoing talks many hope will result in a much-needed peace in Afghanistan. After 18 years of military campaigns and bloodshed, the two sides have finally decided to talk, seeking to agree on a political settlement. The sticking point that prevented talks between the two was the Taliban’s stubborn stance that it would only negotiate with the American side and not with the Afghan government. The Taliban labels the Afghan government illegitimate even though the Taliban peace overtures had been made before, only to be rejected by the U.S. Nonetheless, direct talks with the U.S. are happening, and contrary to expectations, the Taliban are taking them seriously. On the other hand, the Afghan people are hopeful that the process will conclude with some form of reconciliation. This reconciliation ideally would end the 40-year old conflict that has fragmented Afghanistan’s social fabric, torn apart millions of families, killed many innocent people, orphaned so many children, and destabilized the region.
The two sides will negotiate to agree on the key issues of countering terrorism, facilitating of an intra-Afghan dialogue, establishing a timetable for the foreign troops withdrawal and yielding a much needed ceasefire. As an Afghan who was displaced by the war at an early age and experienced the bitter realities and hardships of being a refugee in Pakistan, I support a genuine peace initiative and durable stability. However, I don’t think making peace with the Taliban is the right strategy to achieve a lasting peace in Afghanistan. I explore why below.
The Taliban are Anti-Minority
The Taliban’s anti-minority track record is known to all. In its rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban demonstrated that they are against the rights of minority groups. They persecuted ethnic minority groups which led to their mass exodus to neighboring countries and European states. I am Hazara – one of Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups, and Hazaras are distinct from the Taliban in terms of race and sect. In 1998, the Taliban committed a massacre of Hazaras in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. As Human Rights Watch acknowledge, “the Hazaras, a Persian-speaking Shiite ethnic group, were particularly targeted, in part because of their religious identity.” The Taliban can murder minorities and institute its own barbaric rule, but it cannot bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
The ongoing peace talks will surely give the Taliban a major chunk of power in Kabul. There is no guarantee they won’t misuse that power, isolate minorities and resort to their persecution. Unfortunately, the peace talks have given the Taliban a platform to carry out a propaganda campaign, attempting to show that they have shed their past and would adopt accommodative policies towards minorities. I don’t believe it, nor should others. The Taliban are a killing machine with an anti-minority agenda and will remain so. In the last 18 years, the group proved their barbarism by regularly targeting Harazas and other minorities. These systematic murders are not a thing of the past, but have continued in modern times, despite ongoing peace talks. In light of recent events, it would be foolish for Afghan minorities to count on the guarantees provided by the U.S. that the Taliban will abide by a “peace deal” and respect the rights of minorities. The U.S. does not abide by international laws, so any promises it is a party to have little legitimacy, especially with a terrorist group like the Taliban. The U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal was a multilateral agreement, including many European parties, but that did not stop the U.S. from unilaterally exiting the agreement, or from jettisoning the Paris agreement aimed at combating runaway climate change. The U.S. pursues its own strategic interests, not those of the poor and dispossessed throughout the world.
The Taliban’s Misogyny
The Taliban’s anti-minority agenda is complemented by its misogyny. During its reign, the group unleashed the worst forms of repression and abuse – excluding Afghan women from social, political, educational and cultural participation. They were not allowed to work. Moving from one place to another, women had to be accompanied by a male chaperone. The Taliban closed down girls’ schools, depriving them of an education. Their policies made women subservient to husband and family. They banned women from accessing healthcare delivered by men. In the Western media, stoning women for alleged adultery, flogging women for showing skin in public, and public execution of women are identified with the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Sharia law. In the 1980s, “50 percent of teachers, government employees and students were women. And 40 percent of doctors were women.” With the emergence of the Taliban in 1996, women were imprisoned in their homes. This greatly harmed the Afghan economy, but to the Taliban, male supremacy was paramount.
In the post-Taliban era, the plight of Afghan women in urban centers has improved incrementally. Women have gained access to education, work outside the home, and have a presence in the media and public sphere. Women’s situations in rural areas, however, resemble their plight during the Taliban era. When the Taliban becomes part of the government following peace talks, the presence of women in urban centers and in media is unlikely to last. The misogyny of the Taliban is an ideological phenomenon. They have been indoctrinated in fanatical religious schools in Pakistan to hate women. This won’t go away with any political concession and power-sharing arrangement offered by the U.S. In a recent peace talk held in February 2019 in Moscow, the Taliban delegation was pressed for answers on women’s rights. They said they were open to women’s rights, but only on the Taliban’s terms. Prior to the Moscow conference, the Taliban released a statement, declaring their commitment towards women’s rights under Islam “in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.” It was a neat political statement, but it does little to spell out specifically how the Taliban will ensure the protection of equal rights for women. Considering its ambiguity, the statement is more propagandistic in its effort to appease Afghan women, the Western world, and women’s rights organizations. The Taliban’s statements contain no tangible commitments for women’s rights, and their rhetorical support of equality will likely evaporate when they become part of the government. Misogyny is deeply woven into the Taliban’s thinking.
Revealingly, the peace talks have seen the absence of Afghan women – a very important stakeholder in Afghan society and a group that has borne the brunt of the Taliban’s bitter repression. In the Moscow talks back in February, there were a few women in the delegation of Afghan political opposition. They called for “women’s rights to be at the heart of any settlement, and [to be] protected by the international community.” One delegate rightfully raised concern and suspicionabout the Taliban’s “nice statements” on women’s rights. “If there’s no guarantor, how can we ensure that things won’t return to how they were under the Taliban?” The only way to prevent such a scenario is to have women at the negotiating table. It is ironic and hypocritical that the U.S. has not put women’s rights on the agenda in their peace overtures, despite their use of women’s rights as a justification for intervention in Afghanistan in 2001.
The Taliban are not an Independent Group
The main reason to doubt the peace talks relates to the Taliban’s lack of political independence. In the past 18 years, Afghan political leadership has whined about the Taliban are Afghans and how they should be engaged with to reach a political consensus. But they are not Afghans in the true sense of the word. They are thoughtless murderers who carry out the wicked policies of Afghanistan’s enemies to destroy the country, and they seek to take the country back to the Stone Age. The group is a puppet, manipulated, armed and controlled by Pakistan’s intelligence services. Pakistani religious schools provide foot soldiers for the group through religious indoctrination, and the Gulf countries provide financial backing for the Taliban to kill and maim Afghans through terror attacks and suicide bombings.
The Taliban has little popular support among the Afghans. In a 2018 surveyconducted by the Asia Foundation, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they had no sympathy for the Taliban. This distrust runs deeper among minority groups and women, because the group’s horrible treatment of women and killings of minorities are still fresh in Afghans’ memories. The group should be prosecuted for the war crimes they have been committing since the mid-1990s. Instead, they are reconciled with: a crude joke and an insult to the victims of their cruelty. The Taliban is a bloody proxy outfit without any political legitimacy and independence, and the U.S. was complicit in creating the group in the first place. According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, “between 1994 and 1996, the USA supported the Taliban politically through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, essentially because Washington viewed the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia, and pro-Western.”
The Quetta Shura, which consists of the Taliban’s top leadership, is based in Pakistan. It was set up by Mullah Omar in the Pakistani city of Quetta in 2002. The Shura advises the military wing of the Taliban on “operational effectiveness and provides direction.” Crucially, the Shura enjoys full support from Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus. The Shura has wreaked havoc in southern Afghanistan by carrying out regular attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces in Kandahar and Helmand. The people of Helmand were so frustrated about the Taliban’s brutality that they formed a “peace caravan” to force a ceasefire in the province. Unfortunately, the peace movement has not yielded any positive results despite the persistence of its nonviolent campaign. In March, the Taliban attacked a military base in Helmand, killing 23 Afghan soldiers. Ironically, the attack happened while the Taliban is engaged in peace talks with the U.S. in Doha.
There is a Saudi angle to the Taliban as well. Saudi Arabia was one of three countries – including Pakistan and U.A.E. – that officially recognized the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate from 1996-2001. Along with Pakistan, Saudis provided financial and Wahhabi religious support to the group. The “pro-Wahhabist Pashtuns formed the core of the Taliban’s leadership” in the mid-1990s, with their “interest in exporting Wahhabism play[ing] a key role in Saudi support.”One could see the display of Wahhabism during the Taliban’s reign: the religious police whose objective was to spread terror, the hatred of modern media, gender-based discrimination against women, and a religiously-oriented education system. Moreover, Saudi support of pro-Wahhabist forces was meant to counter Iranian influence in Afghanistan, where Iran was supporting the Tajik and Hazara minority groups.
Reconciliation is usually done with credible groups that have political legitimacy and real grievances. But the Taliban’s motive is to hand over Afghanistan to Pakistan, to reinforce its effort to dominate Afghan politics, all with the financial support of the Gulf countries. The international community and other responsible countries should focus on terrorist safe havens in Pakistan where radicals are sent to Afghanistan to kill and destroy. Ideally, talks should be conducted with Pakistan, which is the root of the problem regarding the Taliban’s extremism. The Taliban are simply a tool to advance Pakistan’s strategic interests, namely to limit the presence of India in Afghanistan and to sweep the border dispute with Afghanistan under the rug.
With the start of the U.S.-Taliban talks, there was discussion of Pakistan’s “important role” in facilitating the process by convincing the Taliban to take the talks seriously. Iranian foreign minister Jawad Zarif said in an interview that the facilitation by Pakistan signified the “Pakistani position on Afghanistan is evolving and we believe that Pakistan now is trying to play a positive role in getting a peace process underway in Afghanistan.” But Pakistan’s role will never evolve vis-à-vis Afghanistan. It will stick to its outdated policy of countering India in Afghanistan by propping up a friendly dispensation in Kabul and by confronting any nationalistic Afghan players that raise the border dispute between their country and Pakistan.
In the interview, Zarif added that “Pakistanis also do not wish to see an Afghanistan dominated by extremist groups… but for Pakistan, it is an existential threat.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Pakistan would very much like to see an extremist group take power in Afghanistan. It was the Pakistanis that installed an extremist group – the Taliban – in Kabul in the first place. This group destroyed Afghanistan and killed its people with impunity. There is an infrastructure of extremism and fundamentalism in Pakistan that enjoys full support from the Pakistani intelligence and security apparatus. Extremism is Pakistan’s a preferred foreign policy tool. However, the most important question is: “what does Pakistan want to achieve by supporting the peace talks?” Pakistan may look for a weak and obedient government in Kabul that limits the growing presence of India, and move towards recognizing the current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But with either scenario, Pakistan will emerge with the lion’s share of gains.
Neo-conservatism is the Antithesis of Peace
The U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad – a neocon and hawk – is leading the effort to seal a peace deal with the Taliban. He supported the Taliban, while welcoming its military victories in the 1990s, and downplaying the group’s tendency towards fundamentalism. He promised that “once order is established, concerns such as good government, economic reconstruction and education will rise to the fore. The Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran – it is closer to the Saudi model. The group upholds a mix of traditional Pashtun values and an orthodox interpretation of Islam.” Unfortunately, U.S. engagement with the Taliban resulted in Afghanistan becoming a bastion of fundamentalism and a host for Osama bin Laden and his surrogates. At one point, the Taliban became Khalilzad’s clients for a pipeline project which was propagated by Unocal, an American oil company, for which Khalilzad also consulted. Khalilzad and Unocal facilitated a trip of a Taliban delegation to Houston to discuss the pipeline project to transfer energy from Central Asia to South Asia via Afghanistan. The deal failed, but it was revived when Hamid Karzai was installed as president. The corrupt association of Khalilzad with the Taliban reveals that peace negotiations with the Taliban have nothing to do with the interests of the Afghan people.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, when Afghan delegates assembled in Bonn, Germany to agree on an interim government, Khalilzad has been a regular feature in Afghan politics. He served as President Bush’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan and as an ambassador. According to journalist Andrew Cockburn, Khalilzad backed Hamid Karzai – a relatively unknown figure of “modest reputation” – over the former king, Zahir Shah, to head the interim and transitional governments. He “importuned Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi to prevent the Shah from leaving Rome” to make sure Karzai would be at the helm. Cockburn added that Khalilzad “purposefully picked someone [Karzai] with little internal support in order to ensure that his own authority remained unchallenged. This authority he exercised by operating as the supreme warlord, rewarding or threatening the lesser strongmen who had emerged in various provincial power bases with grants of aid or threats of airstrikes from the bombers and Predator drones at his command.” Karzai played the puppet role brilliantly by promoting the politics of patronage, fertilizing the breeding ground for massive corruption, and helped draft a constitution that gave his ethnic group the upper hand.
Cockburn calls Khalilzad the “architect of Afghanistan’s misery,” an appropriate label. It is hard to trust a neocon with a peace project who has brought unspoken misery on Afghanistan and is a signatory to a report produced by Project for New American Century, a notorious neoconservative think-tank. The report, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, advocated for increasing the U.S. military budget, conducting preemptive strikes, and maintaining American global hegemony. In 1998, Khalilzad was also a signatory to an open letter to President Bill Clinton urging him to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The failures in Iraq reveal the bankruptcy of the neoconservative movement whose only business is toppling regimes and propping up puppet leaders. The responsibility of choosing one’s own leaders should be left to the people and their electorate mandate. The neocons’ propaganda and endless thirst for wars, regime change, and killing has produced several failed states and destabilized the Middle East. Neocons cannot be trusted to advance peace and stability in the face of their longstanding commitment to U.S. empire and domination.
The Taliban are a Terrorist Organization
Terrorism is commonly defined as the “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” The Taliban has been engaged in such acts since they emerged on the Afghan political scene in the mid-1990s. Although rampant lawlessness and widespread chaos created by the civil war and the moral bankruptcy of warlords in the south led to the emergence of the Taliban, the group’s brutality and terrorism soon overshadowed their initial noble intentions. With the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Afghans assumed incorrectly the end of killings and destruction. But with the help of Pakistan, the Taliban reemerged in 2005 and has waged a bloody insurgency since then.
The United Nations’ office in Afghanistan started keeping a record of civilian deaths in 2009. Since then, the Taliban has been killing, maiming and amputating innocent Afghans with impunity. In 2018, the United Nationsmission in Afghanistan recorded the highest number of civilian deaths since 2009. Overall there were 10,993 civilian casualties – 3,804 deaths and 7,189 injured. Tragically, “among the dead were 927 children, the highest recorded number of boys and girls killed in the conflict during a single year.” The report added that there was a “five percent increase in overall civilian casualties and an 11 percent increase in civilian deaths compared to 2107.” The UN report attributed 37 percent of the casualties to the Taliban – 4,072 civilian casualties with 1,348 deaths and 2,724 wounded. Last year “witnessed the highest number of civilian casualties ever recorded from suicide attacks and aerial operations.” The former is the Taliban’s preferred method of killing, while the latter is favored by coalition forces and the Afghan air force.
In the past five years, three kidnappings have taken place against the Hazaras and more than eleven attacks have been carried out. In these incidents, more than 544 Hazaras were killed. The Taliban, directly and indirectly, had a role in these incidents. As the UN report demonstrated the Taliban’s terrorism, it is not limited to Hazaras, although they bear the brunt of it. Afghans from all ethnic groups fall victim to the Taliban’s terrorism. Instead of holding the Taliban accountable for its terrorism and mass killings, and referring it to the International Criminal Court, it is being offered political concessions. The Afghan people, particularly the relatives of the victims, should not let this happen. They should resist and use every available means to prosecute the group. The fact that the Taliban is on the UN blacklist speaks of the group’s violence and terror.
Afghans are Excluded from the Peace Process
The Afghans and the families of victims, who have suffered enormously from the atrocities of the war and the Taliban’s terrorism, have been excluded completely from the “peace process.” Even the Afghan government has been excluded. The Taliban’s premise of ignoring the Afghan government makes sense, as the government is neither elected nor constitutional. The current government came into being through extra-constitutional means brokered by the Americans, who installed their own puppet. That is what Americans have been doing in Afghanistan since 2001 – propping up artificial state led by stooges who are out of touch with the people. The government has little to no popular support; it is financed and defended by the Americans. The distinct feature of such an artificial state is mass corruption with westernized educated elites at the helm.
If the Taliban continue to shut out Afghans from the talks, any agreement will lack legitimacy. Americans won’t be in Afghanistan forever. So long as Americans embrace the neocon fantasy that American soldiers “police the frontiers of the Pax Americana,” any effort by indigenous forces to make a deal with a side who is non-indigenous with foreign-occupying power would be unwise. The Afghan people must be a party to any peace agreement. A deal that holds the Taliban accountable to their past crimes and seeks to guarantee that they uphold human rights, women’s rights and recognize the rights of minorities must be part of any political settlement. The Afghans have suffered immensely at the Taliban’s hands. Since the start of the conflict in 2001, more than 100,000 Afghans are estimated to have been killed by the war. Two million Afghans have been internally displaced. According to the UNHCR, “the majority of them are so poor that they are living in slums outside the cities.” Afghans are the second biggest group claiming asylum in Europe. With the proposed facilitation to accommodate the Taliban into the power structure, more Afghans, particularly minorities, might head to Europe and neighboring countries. Currently, there are close to 2.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran, comprising “the largest protracted refugee population in Asia, and the second largest refugee population in the world.” In both countries, they face discrimination, racial attacks, lack of basic amenities, restricted access to education and face the risk of mass deportation.
In 2002, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the prevalence of mental trauma in Afghanistan. Although the study is an old one, it provides a clear picture of what war and conflict have done to Afghans’ mental health. The study found that “42 percent of Afghans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]and 68 percent exhibited signs of major depression. In other words, up to 19 million of the country’s 28 million people were suffering from psychological injuries.” Seventeen years have passed since the study, the percentage of Afghans suffering from PTSD and depression has surely risen. With the scarcity of mental health professionals and services in the country, the situation will likely deteriorate further via continued murders, maiming, displacement, and increased psychological suffering of current and future generations.
The Peace Talks Won’t End American Occupation
Stability in Afghanistan will be best served by an end to the U.S. occupation. The occupation is one of the main factors behind the war’s perpetuation since 2001, and has massively contributed to ongoing chaos and instability. The U.S. military industrial complex (MIC) is using Afghanistan as a laboratory to test its latest weapons and technological innovations. In 2017, the MIC dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan. Moreover, the MIC is a towering obstacle ending the war. The MIC feeds off wars for profits through the sale of weapons and lucrative contracts. It has led to a permanent war state with an ever-expanding array of military bases across the globe ensures imperial hegemony and ensures record-breaking profits for private military contractors.
There is endless talk of disasters awaiting Afghanistan if foreign troops should leave. But complete withdrawal is against the interests of the U.S. MIC which is fueled by permanent wars. Furthermore, billions in U.S. aid over the last two decades has done little to help the Afghan people. According to John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), one trillion dollars has been spent in Afghanistan since 2001. That money opened the floodgates for massive corruption, which has made a small group of plutocrats even richer and pushed the common folks towards abject poverty. In one famous incident of corruption, a former Vice President “landed in Dubai with $52 million in cash.” Nothing was done to investigate him or confiscate the money he stole. At the institutional and policy levels, nothing has been done to stem the corruption. Neither the international community nor the Afghans ever bothered to set up a mechanism to hold the recipients of financial aid and technical assistance accountable. Moreover, under the American occupation, Afghanistan has had a massive increase in poppy cultivation. It not only funds the Taliban insurgency, but destroys families and youngsters in neighboring countries and elsewhere. Furthermore, the number of drug addicts in Afghanistan is on the rise.
Last year, Iresearched national investments made in the health and education sectors and women’s rights. In all of these areas, infrastructure and human development achievements have been blown out of proportion and over-publicized. Nothing substantial has been done to make Afghanistan self-sufficient in these areas. Infant mortality is as bad as it was during the Taliban’s rule. And there has been minimum improvement in the standard of living for the masses of Afghans. Corruption has led to an immense waste and confiscation of resources.
Militarily, the occupation has led to more territories being taken over by the Taliban. Now the group controls more than 50 percent of the country. A U.S. withdrawal would likely mean fewer airstrikes and drone deployments, less mass destruction, and fewer killings of Afghan civilians.
The only way out of this conundrum is for Afghans to take responsibility for their condition by taking the country’s affairs into their own hands. Afghans should control their own territory, and enjoy national sovereignty in order to create equal and just laws for all its citizens, and ensure a national interest takes precedent over regional ethnic interests. The simple question that every Afghan should be asking is: “why would a foreign country with no racial, historical, cultural and religious connections to the Afghan people be responsible for “protecting” and “rebuilding” Afghanistan?” In reality, the U.S. is pursuing its own interests, and those interests are in conflict with Afghanistan’s own national interests. This insight should be the starting point for a political process that leads to Afghan political independence. The end of the U.S. occupation is necessary, but insufficient to achieve full independence. Afghans must demonstrate leadership and political maturity by forming a united front to confront the Taliban’s terror and fundamentalism. The Afghan people need to shun the Taliban. It is a terrorist organization with the aim of destroying Afghanistan. It seeks to keep the country weak, poor, and dependent on others. Combating the terror of the Taliban and its extremism must take precedent over particularistic and parochial ethnic preferences. A criminal who spreads terror and indulges in bloodshed should not be afforded protection and hospitality. When logic, common sense and respect for human rights prevail over ethnicity and narrow self-interests, Afghans will be able to move forward and make their country an inclusive home in which all can live and develop.