The Taliban must now convince the world that Afghan citizens will remain free
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has a point when he avers that the international community must remain engaged in Afghanistan. Given that the Americans and their allies have left Kabul, the focus is now on what the Taliban plan on doing, especially in the matter of governing the country.
There are the very proper fears of conditions going from bad to worse. It is a bad situation Afghanistan is going through. Much the same can be said about the rest of the world. Tens of thousands of Afghans have since mid-August been ferried out of their country, but thousands who have documents that will allow them to leave yet remain stranded in Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul is now a forlorn place, with its systems smashed, with the terminal in need of urgent repairs. The Americans, even as they did a good job of taking thousands of petrified Afghans to freedom, did a bad job of destroying the aircraft and helicopters they could not take back with them.
The act of destroying them looks like vengeance, and a move to prevent Kabul’s new rulers from getting their hands on them. Add to that the US drone attack which left a family of 10 incinerated in Kabul. Much though officials in Washington express their regret, the murder of the family is as much a war crime as the recent attack on Kabul airport, which left no fewer than 175 Afghans as also 13 American soldiers dead.
The war in Afghanistan, contrary to what the Biden administration flaunts in Washington, is not over. What is over is the 20-year involvement of the US in the country. And that is where the worries of the international community will arise again. Of course, the Taliban have been sending out feelers of goodwill, the promises that it will be a different governance method it will pursue this time around. The proof of the pudding, as the old cliché goes, is in the eating.
With reports filtering in from regions outside Kabul of the Taliban shooting people associated with the former authorities and with foreign forces in the past two decades, with women employed in the media turned away from the doorsteps of their offices because they are women, with soldiers of the now non-existent Afghan army being picked off by the Taliban, with news of poets uncomfortable with Taliban politics being put to death, the world has all the reasons to be concerned.
The Taliban, now that they control the country, must assert their authority over their own men and supporters. Besides, with as many as 2,000-plus IS militants moving around freely in Afghanistan -- and the Taliban must blame themselves for freeing prisons in the towns and cities they conquered on their march toward Kabul, the offshoot being the attack by IS-K on Kabul airport -- the Taliban will be put to the test in flushing out IS.
The war, as such, is not yet over in Afghanistan. The Taliban, despite all the reservations the world might have over their past and over their present-day promises, now have a new enemy in the so-called IS. If IS-K can hit Kabul airport and kill and maim people with such impunity, if it can fire rockets at it, the danger it represents is obvious. Do not forget that in these past 20 years, 80,000 Afghans along with thousands of foreign troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan.
And this is where Afghanistan’s neighbours come in. For Pakistan, there is today an opportunity to play a constructive role in handling the situation. With an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees already in the country from earlier spells of conflict and with thousands more now massed on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier at Torkham and Chaman, Islamabad simply cannot expect that the issue will go away anytime soon.
Pakistan’s political and military classes must avoid the mistakes of the past -- helping the Taliban take shape and encouraging it in its destructive politics -- and move firmly in a two-pronged direction. The first will be for the Pakistan army to go resolutely after such militant groups as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, for unless it does that, a now clearly emboldened TTP along with IS-K will create fresh havoc in Pakistan. While Pakistan’s military goes after all forms of militancy in the country, the country’s politicians must establish links with the Taliban leadership in Kabul, the better to convince them to live up to the pledges of good behaviour they have made in recent weeks.
A major role ought also to be played by Turkey and Iran, in light of the Islamist nature of their governments. Indeed, with the return of the Taliban, the region encompassing Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan is now home to different manifestations of Islamist rule. Pakistan’s army, injected with Islamic ideals since the era of General Ziaul Haq, effectively runs the show in Islamabad. President Recep Tayyep Erdogan has in the past many years moved Turkey away from secularist politics to an Islamist orientation.
And in Tehran, the ayatollahs have had unchallenged sway since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. With the region now, therefore, home to politics based on Islam, it should be in the interest of Ankara, Tehran, and Islamabad to engage with Kabul, separately and collectively, on the future of Afghanistan in the interest of the future of the region. The three nations can make such an opening through sending their diplomats to Kabul as well as inviting the Taliban leadership to their capitals for negotiations.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s emphasis on continued international engagement in Afghanistan is fine, but the nature of the engagement needs spelling out. For the West, it will be prudent to keep diplomatic links with the Taliban open, though the withdrawal of Western diplomats from Kabul makes the situation rather complicated. The more immediate need, therefore, is a regional politico-diplomatic approach toward a stable Afghanistan.
At this point, Afghanistan needs a Taliban-dominated and yet inclusive government that will reassure all Afghans -- Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, women, the media -- that 2021 will not be a repeat of 1996-2001. It needs the money reserves now stuck abroad. It needs to re-establish internal security mechanisms, to set up a thoroughly professional military, to have its airports made functional, to have schools re-opened and especially for girls to go back to classes. Waging militancy in the mountains is miles removed from administering a country.
On these issues the Taliban must be engaged -- by the men and women who matter in Islamabad, Tehran, and Ankara. After four decades of ceaseless conflict, Afghanistan’s people need space to breathe easy. The Taliban have spoken of Afghanistan being a free country again. They must now convince the world that all Afghan citizens will remain free despite the circumstances that have arisen of late.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.