Istanbul Conference: Is it worth it?

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After more than 40 years of war in Afghanistan, there is hope in some quarters that the longest war for the country and the US will come to an end and peace will prevail. The reason for this hope comes from the Istanbul conference. The conference was to take place on April 14 but was postponed to April 24 and then on May 5th and now to a date in May that has not yet been announced and most probably will be after the Eid-ul-Fitr which may fall on May 13.

Looking from the point of view of a religious minority and one of the four main ethnic groups in the country, the conference will not bring peace, stability or justice to the country. Here is why?

One of the main points that casts doubt on the outcome of the conference is the makeup of the two delegations that does not represent the overwhelming majority of the people of Afghanistan. They represent the Taliban and mainly the government in Kabul or the republic.

The Taliban Delegation

The Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun and made up of only men with no women. Ethnically they have only one each Tajik, Uzbek, Turkman, and Baloch, and no Hazara in their midst. No woman has ever been in the rank and file of the Taliban. They are exclusively Sunni Deobandi Muslims with extreme ideology akin to Salafi Jihadists that were active in Iraq and Syria such as ISIS. There are no Shiite or Ismaili Shiite among them as they are considered heretics. So, in terms of their ethnicity and sect of religion, they only represent the Sunni Pashtuns in the conference and even that only the male. Women have no place in the Taliban’s lives except to bear children and be homemakers. They do not represent the interests of the whole Pashtuns as there are sizeable number of secular and educated people who do not espouse the extremist ideology of the Taliban. The same is true for women that are not and cannot be represented by a misogynist group of religious zealots.

The Kabul or the Republic Delegation

The Kabul delegation is not better than the Taliban’s. From the two lists that so far have been leaked as the members of the delegation from the government, most are Pashtuns and hard-core nationalists at that. Only a few are included from other ethnic groups and even fewer are women.

In the latest list there are 30 people in the Kabul delegation and if there is no change in the delegation, it would be disastrous for the overwhelming majority of the people, the ethnic relations and the fragile balance in the ethnic representation in the system. Of the 30 people there are 14 known Pashtuns, some of them close associates and allies of Ashraf Ahmadzai. There are some unrecognized figures who are included in the team as perhaps symbols of diversity with no known affiliations. There are four known Tajiks and of the recognized leaders of the Tajiks only one will be included. There are three Hazaras that include one traditional leader, there are two Uzbeks, one Baloch and one Ismaili Sayed.

The conference with these two delegations not only cannot solve Afghanistan’s problems or create a credible mechanism to run the country but will create more problems. Here are briefly the reasons why the conference will not be of any value to the people of the country.

  1. The majority of the two delegations are Pashtuns, some with family or tribal ties to the Taliban. The Pashtuns make up an estimated %40 of the total population. The ethnic group has run the country for more than 250 years except for two short hiatuses, with disastrous results. A repeat of the past mistakes will bring nothing but disaster.
  2. The Pashtuns favor a centralized presidential system with control over the entire country to ensure their dominance in the system. Traditionally, that has led to marginalization of the other ethnic groups who favor a more decentralized system.
  3. Women are not sufficiently represented. The overwhelmingly male delegations cannot represent the rights, wishes and aspirations of the women. The Afghan women are not the hapless helpless beings that were treated to be during the reigns of the Mujahedin and the Taliban in the 1990s. Thanks to the presence of the international community in the last two decades there has been important and valuable progress in women participation in education, politics, economics and social affairs. There are women ministers, ambassadors, members of parliament, judges, educators and other civil servants. Depriving them of their proper role in society is not only a violation of their rights but also taking the country back to the dark days of the past.
  4. There is no representation of the civil society, of the war victims and their families who have suffered enormous hardship at the hands of the terrorists. Also absent are the representatives of the youth.

From the look of it, the conference in Istanbul is an exercise in futility. The US has made a deal with the Taliban and is very eager to leave the region. Under any definition, it is a surrender and a capitulation. The haste with which the US is leaving, it will never look back. The two sides, the government in Kabul, as well as the Taliban, are not interested in peace or reconciliation as such, rather they both want the power, one under the republic, the other under the Emirate. As experience shows, the Taliban will not honor any agreement that they sign with the others.  They both have one thing in common, though, and that is the ascendance of Pashtun to power under one form or the other or a combination of both. In either case, there will be no major role for the rest of the population. So, the best option for the non-Pashtun ethnic groups would be to boycott the conference. Why bother to take part in a conference where you are not represented and the outcome is pretty much clear not to be in your favor? Putting a rubber stamp on a document that ensures your subjugation is akin to signing your death warrant.

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