Afghanistan 2021 Is Not Afghanistan 1996. That Offers Hope for Peace
By Mirwais Wakil and Anthony Pahnke
Many pundits, in their commentary on Afghanistan, are not doing their homework. While it is true that the Taliban have advanced in the country as the U.S. and its allies are in the process of withdrawing their forces, reality is complicated. The situation is fluid and it’s not 1996, when the Taliban took Kabul, anymore. More importantly, the reality in Afghanistan and the region provides a lot for peacemakers to work with.
Let’s start with the Taliban.
By most accounts, the Islamic fundamentalist group seems unstoppable, gobbling up territory as fast as they can. We are made to believe that on the one side, there is this unrelenting, determined armed group of jihadis, and on the other, a weak group of government officials on the run.
There are problems with this black-and-white oversimplification.
First, there is the reality that most of the Taliban’s recent gains have come in areas where government forces were already weak. In addition, taking over territory does not mean controlling it. In fact, several districts have changed hands multiple times between the government and Taliban. Also, while government forces in certain areas have lost ground, the vast majority of Afghan security forces remain active, with just an estimated 1 percent fleeing in the face of Taliban expansion.
Moreover, despite their professed fundamentalist religious leanings, we know that where international aid agencies go, Taliban officials are willing to allow certain freedoms for the population – even for women. We also have learned that in other areas, local leaders have negotiated with the Taliban over matters such as education. The Taliban vary their approach to different local populations.What this means is that the Taliban are willing to negotiate.
Still, the Taliban seem to now have momentum.
But again, it’s critical that we recognize that international relations circa 1996 – when the Taliban first came to power – are not the same as today.
Back then, Afghanistan, with the Taliban in charge, had few international connections. Supported mainly by Pakistan with some assistance from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Taliban managed to install a highly repressive regime with little care for human rights. On a veritable political island, the Taliban could do what it wanted.
Fast forward to now and that island is underwater, flooded by the interests of new and old actors alike. More specifically, various players share a common interest in creating stability and order – not spurring civil war and further disruption.
To start, consider China and its interest in Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. Regardless of who is in charge in Kabul, powerful neighbors to the east want stability and access. In fact, the Taliban know they must stay within China’s good graces, and have recently promised their neutrality with respect to the Uyghur Muslim situation in China.
There is also Russia. The failed Soviet occupation ended in 1989, with Russia retreating. Yet, instead of staying away, Russia has found reasons to return — not to occupy, but to remain relevant and engaged in the region. There are significant Russian investments in agriculture, transportation, and mining. The Russians have hosted Taliban delegations a number of times, showing that the Kremlin intends to stay politically present in Afghanistan’s future.
And then there’s Pakistan, which has functioned as a Taliban safe haven for years. Pakistan has also hosted millions of Afghan refugees for decades, some since the days of the Soviet invasion. While the U.N. has called attention to how Pakistan has treated refugees well when compared to other states around the world, it also appears that such tolerance is coming to an end, as reports show anti-Afghan violence and discrimination is on the rise.
Meanwhile, the increase of refugees into Iran have prompted reactions from that country’s government, indicating that Tehran’s willingness to assist its displaced neighbors is decreasing.
And if people fleeing violence and persecution don’t go into Pakistan and Iran, chances are they will head to Europe. Such population shifts would contribute to already tense relations within Europe, where populists regularly scapegoat migrants.
The possibility that millions may flee is due to another change that has taken place in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, namely, economic growth. One place where we see this is in the increase in GDP, which has jumped from $4 billion to $20 billion between 2002 and 2020. Accompanying economic development has been increased access to the internet and higher education.
In addition, the number of girls in school has increased significantly from when the Taliban were in power. In fact, that statistic went from near zero to 40 percent. Similarly, literacy rates have shot up across all ages and genders. Health care provision, likewise, has improved over the last couple decades, showing a population, particularly in cities, that has become accustomed to improved living standards.
Will these millions of people acquiesce to Taliban rule? Most likely not. The odds are that they will pack their bags and leave.
So, to put it simply, Afghanistan is complicated. The country is not the same as it was some 25 years ago, and the Taliban, for all the attention the group has received of late, are not the solid, coherent force that some represent them to be.
More importantly, there is nothing in this fluid situation that dooms the country to endless conflict. Just think about it: a once recalcitrant fundamentalist group has been found willing to negotiate over certain matters and powerful states have expressed real interest in stability.
Taking all of this into consideration, with peace talks in progress, now is as good a time as any for deals to be made. Neighboring countries as well as middle powers and giants like the EU, Russia, and China all want peace in Afghanistan. This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to use the pen and put down the gun.