Image: iStock
Image: iStock

The United States and the Taliban have reported progress after their intense negotiations in Doha, Qatar, to end the war in Afghanistan that has lasted for around two decades. Both sides seem delighted with the expected outcome of the discussions, although the Taliban clearly seem to have the upper hand over Washington in these talks.

Once determined to fight until the full defeat and expulsion of the Americans from Afghanistan, the Taliban are now getting to the finish line with several accomplishments to brag about. They will soon be going to their supporters with the “great news” that they have once again “defeated” a superpower. The last time they did so was in their war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

It has taken the United States 18 years to realize that the Taliban were actually a mistaken enemy in its war against terrorism. After all, the Taliban were not involved in planning or executing the attacks of September 11, 2001. The only reason they were soon embroiled in the war between Washington and al-Qaeda was that they had provided shelter to the terrorist organization’s chief Osama bin Laden, and subsequently refused to hand him over to Washington.

The Taliban’s ties with bin Laden dated back to the days when even the US deemed the Saudi terror master as a “freedom fighter” against the Soviet Union. So the Taliban had more reasons to be surprised at the sudden change of mind, and allies, by the Americans.

Changing priorities

The US has dramatically changed as a country since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. His surprise election has shaken every aspect of American society, including the country’s foreign policy and the approach toward Afghanistan. For former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, a victory in Afghanistan would be not only the removal of the Taliban from power but also building a stable democratic country that could guard and sustain the gains made throughout the years.

For Trump, success in Afghanistan and elsewhere is defined differently. He sees success in America disengaging from foreign wars, and withdrawal from international treaties, organizations and other global commitments. He has even criticized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and there are fears about the future of the formidable military alliance and America’s role in it.

Seen from Trump’s “America First” perspective, it makes sense for the US to withdraw from Afghanistan to save lives and resources in a war that has already cost more than a trillion dollars. The reason the Taliban have such a big advantage over the US in the ongoing negotiations is that Washington is not making many demands on the Taliban. All it wants is assurances that terrorist groups will not use Afghanistan to carry out future attacks on the United States and other countries.

The Taliban could have assured that much earlier after al-Qaeda was significantly weakened. The minimum requirements that the US is putting in front of the Taliban as a precondition to its withdrawal show that Washington does not want to make more commitments to the future of Afghanistan once it departs.

False expectations

As things stand today, it is easy for all countries and stakeholders in the region to blame one another for the failures in Afghanistan. One thing is clear: Afghanistan has failed to become a functioning democratic state despite sincere efforts and several rounds of elections.

Neither have strong political parties emerged to take advantage of the ouster of the Taliban from power in 2001 to make Afghanistan a robust democracy nor did the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police attain the excellence that could prepare them to thwart future Taliban attacks.

As the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan, there was false hope among educated and progressive Afghans that the Americans were there to impart democratic values such as the rule of law, human rights, and press freedom and permanently close the door for the Taliban ever returning to power. Today, as the US negotiates with the Taliban and prepares to provide them a share in the future government, it is, in a way, telling all the liberal Afghans who believe in democracy and human rights to go to hell. The way the Afghan government has intentionally been excluded from the talks is an insult to that country’s sovereignty and its people.

The departure of the Americans is destined to revive the age of Taliban tyranny, restrictions on women’s education and gross violations of human rights. The Taliban are not ruling out the possibility of imposing sharia law. If the regressive and repressive Taliban movement and mindset could not be reformed in two decades, it is unlikely that American engagement for a few more years is going to make any difference.

Hence there is deja vu among the Afghans as the US prepares to withdraw, reminiscent of the Soviet retreat in 1989.

But there is a slight difference here.

The American disengagement following the Soviet defeat triggered anger among the mujahideen and the religious right. This time, we might see a liberal backlash from educated Afghans who believe in a modern democracy, gender equality and education for all fellow citizens.

They are unwilling to see their country fall back into the hands of the Taliban. They don’t want Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to decide their country’s future. Afghans in general and the Pashtuns in particular (barring the Taliban, of course) feel humiliated by the way the negotiations are taking place.

The Afghans blame Pakistan, particularly its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, for keeping the Taliban militarily and politically alive throughout these years.

The Pashtun uprising

Pashtun rage in Pakistan has been mounting for years, where a political uprising known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or Pashtun Protection Movement, recently erupted, culminating in massive nationwide protests. Agitated over the Pashtuns’ lack of control over the socio-political and economic decisions that directly affect them, the PTM has threatened the Pakistan Army so much with its popular street support that the latter has warned all news organizations against reporting any PTM events.

A victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan would mark a setback for the PTM and their like-minded cousins in Afghanistan who want to separate religion from politics and also end the political influence of the Pakistan Army on the Pashtuns in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Hence any future clashes between the Taliban and liberal Pashtuns would provide us with a preview of what turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Pashtun areas would look like in the future.

Pakistan will be an obvious beneficiary of the looming American exit from Afghanistan as it has long complained that the war there has brought home terrorism, illegal weapons and religious extremism on its territory. The Afghans vehemently deny this charge and instead blame Pakistan for destroying the peace in their country.

Pakistan is one of the only three states that held diplomatic relations with the Taliban government. Islamabad hopes that an end to the Afghan war will significantly improve the state of law and order on its frontiers. A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would help reduce India’s influence in Kabul and also pave the way for Pakistan to send more than a million Afghan refugees back to their own country if the situation normalizes.

Protecting local allies

While talking to the Taliban, the US must also seek assurances that the group will not reverse whatever successes that have been made in the fields of development, human rights, and women’s education.

The Taliban must pledge not to harm Afghan citizens who have worked for years as translators, interpreters, support staff, and guides for the foreign organizations and their local partners. Without assurances for the lives of so many Afghans who contributed to the best of their abilities to Afghanistan’s stability, progress and prosperity, it would be easy for the Taliban to target these unarmed citizens simply by labeling them as “traitors” or “collaborators.”

Many critical issues like this may seem trivial, but the US must not overlook them while devising an exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s future hinges on democracy, human development, and respect for human rights. The Taliban have had an abysmal track record on all of these fronts. It is important for the US to extract a pledge from the Taliban to respect all of these noble values that have been an essential part of US foreign policy for decades and are essential to the future of millions of Afghans.

Malik Siraj Akbar

Malik Siraj Akbar is a Washington-based journalist and political analyst. He has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government. 

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