After nearly two decades of war and military stalemate, the US negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw its troops in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation. However, the Taliban continue to fight and insist on establishing a rigid “Islamic order.” A Taliban commander, Mullah Fazel, recently told a gathering in Pakistan: “The amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a.” This is when Afghanistan is already an Islamic Republic and society has evolved in many ways since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Going back to the Taliban order is not an option for many and could further complicate peacemaking efforts in the country.
The post-2001 system with its shortcomings has many achievements including 9 million children enrolled in school, 35% of whom are girls; the freest media in the region with a dozen private TV and radio stations, newspapers and magazines; 20 million cellphone users; and a dozen private universities. Afghans also progressed in the areas of arts, culture, and sports from cricket to martial arts, which includes female participants. These numbers do not merely represent a temporary change but a profound shift in many Afghans’ thinking on sociopolitical matters. Under the Taliban regime, Afghans could not imagine a day when they would witness an elected president or a peaceful transfer of power. But both happened in 2014 when Hamid Karzai handed over the presidency to Ashraf Ghani. Today’s Afghanistan encourages accountability for elected officials, critical thinking, volunteerism, feminism, environmentalism—the unthinkable under the “Islamic emirate.”
Certainly, the post-Taliban regime is far from perfect. Afghanistan has held four presidential elections and three of them were marred with massive electoral irregularities. Afghanistan remains one of the top ten most corrupt countries in the world with a narco-economy that produces a large chunk of global demand for opium. The quality of education and healthcare need dire improvement. The country remains vulnerable to environmental challenges. The society remains ideologically conservative. Things can easily be interpreted as against Sharia. We remember the beating and burning of Farkhunda, a young woman falsely charged and killed by a mob for heresy on the streets of Kabul. Recently, Afghan author Zaman Ahmadi was released after spending 7.5 years in prison for an unpublished article deemed blasphemous.
However, many Afghans still prefer the post-2001 quasi-democratic system over the Taliban’s theocratic regime. The Asia Foundation survey also found that 65.1% of Afghans are "very or somewhat satisfied" with the way democracy works in the country; 86% of Afghans support women's education, and 76% support women working outside the home. The return of a draconian regime will make Afghanistan a much more closed society. The threat is real and the Taliban are preparing for such a scenario. In a recent interview Taliban official, Hakim Akhunzada, said the Taliban did not see the environment as conducive for women to go to school beyond the age of puberty.
The Taliban have been seeking a puritanical “Islamic order” in an already Islamic nation where the constitution holds Islamic laws above any other law. From Mullah Omar in 2004 to Mullah Haibatullah in 2019, the group has rejected democracy and boycotted elections. The Taliban has killed and maimed voters and bombed voting sites. Now many in the group see the US-Taliban agreement as a victory and their trolls on social media threaten folks who disagree with them with their return to power. The narrative is that the Taliban is the best alternative. The rest of Afghanistan and the ideas of other Afghans do not matter and are seen as misguided and corrupt.
Additionally, what is casting more doubts on the peace process and the intentions of the Taliban is the level of violence amid a global pandemic – COVID19. Despite a brief reduction of violence (RiV) period in early March, the Taliban have launched hundreds of attacks on the Afghan security forces. In one instance, the Taliban killed 24 Afghan soldiers in their sleep in Zabul. The Afghan security forces, who had earlier paused offensives hoping to maintain the RiV, have now vowed to revenge. Furthermore, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Khurasan launched several attacks, the latest of which was on a Shia Hazara gathering and a Sikh temple in Kabul, mercilessly killing dozens of men, women, and children. In another horrific incident, eight civilians, many of them children, died in Gereshk district of Helmand when a roadside bomb struck their car.
The Asia Foundation survey also found that 93.1% of Afghans fear to encounter the Taliban. For over two decades, Afghans have experienced the tyrannical reign of the Taliban in their midst. In the 1990s under the "Islamic emirate," the economy also collapsed. The disgustingly salty bread rations by the United Nations were the only source of nutrition for many in an isolated Afghanistan. People would need to go to a Public Call Office to make an international call from the capital, Kabul. The Taliban moral police beat women in public for “immodesty” and jailed men for trimming their beards. They severed the hands of thieves, stoned the “adulterous,” and executed the condemned during soccer matches. These primitive practices continue to this day in areas under Taliban control.
Despite all these atrocities, the Afghan people favor negotiations with the Taliban to end this endless suffering. The Asia Foundation survey found that 89% of Afghans favor talks with the Taliban. The Afghan government offered to recognize the Taliban as a political party and enter negotiations. However, the Taliban rejected talks until a US-Taliban agreement was reached. Now that there is an agreement, the intra-Afghan negotiations are yet to begin while the Taliban have denounced the recently proposed Afghan negotiation team.
The Taliban represent one of the many factions in the country, yet they aspire to rule all Afghans. The group either does not seem to realize an evolved Afghanistan as a reality or simply the goal is to establish the so-called "Islamic emirate” -- an order that will take a heavy toll on the economy, pluralism, media freedom, women's liberties, civil society, freedom of expression, and could be the end of the democratic experiment in the country. It will also leave no room for factional political participation and power-sharing, which will bring the country to the brink of yet another civil war. If the Taliban want to have a future in Afghanistan, they will need to accept the rest of the country as a reality, pursue a peaceful political struggle and not repeat their mistakes of the 1990s. The Taliban excuse for their jihad was “foreign occupation” – now foreigners are leaving – it is the Taliban versus the rest of Afghanistan.
Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in post-2001 rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Comments and follow at @Saberibrahimi