Nine rounds of talks between the US and the Taliban delegations ended in early September in Doha, Qatar. According to the statements made by US envoy, the two sides are “at the threshold of an agreement.” US talks with the Taliban were part of an effort to facilitate US withdrawal from Afghanistan before the 2020 US presidential elections. The contacts and the talks with the Taliban will eventually result in bringing some troops home, but by all accounts they will not result in an honorable deal for which the US or its soldiers, who have served and sacrificed in the region, can be proud. It would be a deal forged with a terrorist group that has been involved in death and destruction for more than two decades in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, mostly innocent civilians, and the US, as well as international military personnel.
The deal between the US and the Taliban alone will not result in peace in Afghanistan for several reasons.
1- US-Taliban agreement would have no legal status since it is a deal between the US as a country and the Taliban as a movement, but a movement that holds neither an official nor a representative position in Afghanistan, in effect being a non-state actor. It raises a serious question that the US as a foreign country and the Taliban as a proxy terror group, that is created, supported, trained, armed, equipped and advised by Pakistan, will sit and decide about the future of Afghanistan. The US plays in the hand of Pakistan that tries to secure Afghanistan as a “strategic depth” for itself, a strategy especially directed against rival India.
The talks are not inclusive since the Afghan stakeholders are not present. The often-repeated mantra of “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led,” is no more. The Afghan government, the masses of non-Pashtun ethnic groups that constitute the majority of people of Afghanistan (the Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun), the women of Afghanistan, the intelligentsia, the civil society – all who do not want to go back to the harsh and archaic rule by the Taliban in the 1990s are not included in these talks.
2- The talks do not take into account other terror groups that currently operate in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not the only terror group that is active in the country. Since 2015, another group and an even more vicious one – namely ISIS or ISKP (IS Khorasan Province) with an estimated 2000 fighters is active in the eastern and northern parts of Afghanistan. In a recent horrible attack carried out in a wedding hall on the southwestern side of Kabul by a suicide bomber, several hundred people, including men, women and children but mostly civilians, died or injured. ISKP claimed responsibility for the crime.
3- Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women participation in all spheres of life increased exponentially. There are women ministers, ambassadors, senators, MPs, educators and business leaders. If the Taliban try to subdue half of the population and put them practically under house arrest, they would fight tooth and nail to resist. They are not the helpless, hapless people that they were made to be in the 1990s. They have built wide contacts, are very active in social media, and have wide international support.
4- The talks have no credible accountability mechanism to ensure the Taliban do not aid and abet other terror organizations. One of the four points that the US has raised in the Qatar negotiations is Taliban’s agreement not to allow Afghanistan to be used by foreign terror groups. Being a terror group itself, the Taliban are inextricably linked to a plethora of terrorist groups, ranging from Al Qaeda to homegrown minor terror cadres. In a recent report, the UN mentioned that the Taliban continue to have links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Their association goes back decades when some of the Arab fighters including Bin Laden helped and supported the Afghan Mujahedin. Some Pakistani terror groups helped the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan, and after their demise in 2001, helped them get settled and thrive in Pakistan. They are present in Afghanistan and carry out joint operations against targets there. The Taliban provide on-the-job training for terror groups from the region such as Uzbeks, Uighurs, Turkmen, and others. Neither Afghan culture nor battle comradery allows the Taliban to send their fellow terrorists home. For the same reasons, they did not turn over Bin Laden to the Saudis (one of the guardians of the Taliban), or to the Americans.
5- The majority of the people of Afghanistan are opposed to the reinstatement of the Taliban. A recent poll indicated that 84% of the people of Kabul are against their return. In an earlier survey by AISS (Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies) the overwhelming majority of Afghans considered the Taliban as the enemy. The resentment was even greater among other ethnic groups such as the Hazaras, who suffered massacres and mass incarceration during the Taliban reign in the late 1990s.
6- Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, numerous schools and universities, both public and private, have sprung up around the country educating hundreds of thousands of students. At the same time, thousands more who had gone to Iran and other countries during the war have returned with higher educational degrees. The Taliban’s archaic policies will target these people especially to deny them propagating their knowledge and experience.
So far the Taliban have been negotiating under the title of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This term embodies everything about the Taliban that the Afghans oppose: their rejection of the constitution and elections, and banning of women education and their participation in social and political life among others. As a result, everything that the Afghans with the help of the US and NATO built and achieved in the country will unravel and we will go back to square one.
This scenario could only be avoided if the deal that the US is going to make with the Taliban will be acceptable to all Afghans. The Taliban terrorist group must not once again be forced upon Afghans. This is the likely consequence if the US withdraws in haste and leaves a void in the country which can be filled by regional proxy groups. If other agreements such as the one between the US and North Vietnam is an indication, the sooner the US leaves, the sooner the Taliban will take over the country by force. Without a proper mechanism and strength, there will be a blood bath and all those who helped the US and NATO forces such as the police, the people’s militia, the religious minorities will be slaughtered by the Taliban.
On the other hand, regional Islamic powers such as Iran and the Saudis have not settled their scores in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain and will possibly engage in a proxy war in Afghanistan. There is an unlimited supply of militants in Pakistan that could be hired with Saudi petrodollars. Iran has trained a sizeable proxy force that it used in Syria and will be more than willing to do the same in Afghanistan if it deems necessary.
Afghans do not want to go back to medieval times under the Taliban. The only way most Afghans will be able to accept a return of the Taliban is through a federal system where they would run their affairs as they want in the territory under their control. Other zones or regions will have their own systems in which representatives of all segments of the population participate in governance. The least that the US can do is to leave a legacy of self-governance through a federal system.
If the Taliban are brought to power in Afghanistan, a civil war will be the likely outcome. It would be unlike any conflict raging in the region. Nearly four decades of conflict have created so much hatred and resentment that reconciliation to save the country would not be possible.