For real peace, Afghanistan needs a Plan B

A US exit opens the way to complete takeover by the Taliban, precisely what they – and Pakistan – have long wished for.

Firefighters spray water at the site of an explosion targeting the convoy of Afghanistan's vice president Amrullah Saleh in Kabul on September 9, 2020. - Afghanistan's vice president Amrullah Saleh sustained minor injuries on September 9 in an explosion targeting his convoy in Kabul that killed at least 10 people, officials said, as government-backed negotiators and the Taliban prepared to meet in Doha for the long-delayed peace talks. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
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In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani outlined what he saw as the objective for his country: “a sovereign, united, democratic Afghanistan at peace with itself, the region and world, capable of preserving and expanding the gains of the past two decades”. For a nation that has seen so many years of conflict and suffering, it is a goal that can’t come soon enough. And his government’s efforts to make good on the US-Taliban peace agreement signed earlier this year by releasing more than 5000 Taliban prisoners shows the lengths to which Ghani will go to prove his commitment.

The Taliban have made no comparable concessions. The Taliban’s consistent position has been to capture state power in Afghanistan. The patronage the group receives from Pakistan demonstrates their common end goal is in direct contrast to Kabul’s objectives. This kinship is unsurprising, given Pakistan’s desire for Islamist rather than nationalist rule to consolidate its influence over Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s aim to impose a puritanical Islamic state to outlaw all other forms of ideological or political competition.

If there is to be any chance of realising the vision Ghani describes, Afghanistan desperately needs a Plan B, a strategy to protect the fragile democracy the country has built over the last two decades. Otherwise, a regression to the dark days of the past is practically inevitable.

The Taliban today remain reliant on Pakistan for their existence, while Islamabad maintains its commitment to establishing a client state. The mutual alignment of their ends meant that Pakistan provided the Taliban with strategic military, economic and political support that enabled them to grow as a movement and eventually to seize Kabul in September 1996. For the Taliban to fit in with the vision of a “united, democratic Afghanistan” would require a fundamental reorientation of the movement, and a complete jettisoning of their malign character, together with a seismic shift in Pakistan’s treatment of Afghanistan as a client state.

Speaking at a recent event in Kabul, Afghanistan’s First Vice President and former head of intelligence Amrullah Saleh remarked, “What have the Taliban contributed or brought except for destruction?”

For the Taliban to fit in with the vision of a “united, democratic Afghanistan” would require a fundamental reorientation of the movement, and a complete jettisoning of their malign character.

On Wednesday this week, Saleh, a fierce opponent of the Taliban, survived a targeted attack in Kabul that killed 10 people. In predictable fashion, no one claimed responsibility, and the Taliban denied any involvement. But such attacks bear the hallmarks of the Taliban’s playbook, which is to attack, then to deny, and to still get everyone to ride on the peace train.

The US desire to withdraw from Afghanistan has given the Taliban a free hand to execute attacks with impunity, as the Americans have demonstrated that they have no desire to pressure the Taliban in any way at all.

The memory of the Taliban’s brutality against ordinary Afghans when they ruled until October 2001 runs deep across the country and elicits a mix of a “never again” sentiment with a fear of revenge if they return as victors. An Afghan member of parliament with whom I spoke cautioned, “There is no guarantee about an end to the insurgency, regardless of any peace agreement. Taliban are still calling for an emirate.”

It is a fantasy to think the Taliban have changed their ways, despite being out of power for almost 20 years. Not a single Taliban statement indicates change. Reports of the Taliban’s brutality are plenty, including when their fighters overran the northern city of Kunduz in October 2016, committing extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, torture, looting and house-to-house searches by death squads. Such practices are common in areas under Taliban control or influence, and their claims of holding members of their ranks to account for abuses are fictitious, because Taliban officials do not consider such acts unlawful. The Taliban’s interpretation and application of Sharia law provides them with a permanent cover to violate human rights and still justify them, no matter their brutality.