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Opinion

Moving beyond the US-Taliban narrative for Afghanistan

Published on 17 September 2021

Mezhgan Temory

Doctoral Researcher

Since the heart-breaking events in Afghanistan unfolded and the Taliban took over the political capital Kabul, the media, political figures and many security experts have been forming opinions about the current situation in the country.

A majority of those commenting have agreed on two points – firstly, that it is Biden’s fault. “Biden betrayed the Afghan people,” is a slogan that is being widely shared on media by Afghan and non-Afghan commentators alike. Secondly, that it is Pakistan’s fault. Afghans have circulated a hashtag on social media calling on the UN to sanction Pakistan for training and allowing terrorists to operate from and take sanctuary on its territory, and for sending terrorists to destroy Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan itself people are broadly divided into two groups. One group assigning all the blame to Ashraf Ghani, (former) president of Afghanistan, with the other firmly blaming Biden and the USA, whilst supporting Ghani’s policy of removing warlords out of power and limiting the intervention of countries like Pakistan and Iran. To further complicate the picture, many international observers have been critical of the capacity and moral will of Afghan soldiers themselves when it came to fighting and resisting the Taliban. Have they forgotten how many lives they sacrificed over the years to defend the country and fight “terrorism”? I suggest a more nuanced understanding is needed of the multiple factors at play which are preventing the establishment of a peaceful, united, and stable state in Afghanistan.

Conflict in Afghanistan is part of a wider regional and global conflict

The series of wars that have been fought for several decades now were wrongly labelled as the “Afghan war” or a “civil” conflict. Some observers even labelled it as the “peasants’ movement” or the “Islamic movement”. In fact, they would be better described as a global and regional conflict centred on Afghanistan, but this has eluded most people. Although the role of Pakistan does get analysed to some extent, limited attention is being paid to the role of China, Russia, and Iran, and the “Stans”. In the past few months, thousands of Afghan citizens marched in the streets of London, Paris and other capitals to challenge the narrative of the “Afghan” war, calling on regional actors to stop their proxy war in Afghanistan.

This war, and those before it, is influenced by political battles elsewhere, much like the Cold War previously, but with more actors involved, with conflicting and competing interests. This is why the processes for peace negotiations in Afghanistan did not work.

Educated classes have fomented ethno-social divisions

While the role of regional and international actors is essential to gain a more nuanced understanding of “who is to blame” for the triumphant re-establishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan, social divisions across the Afghan population have also played a role.  This is the role of the professional and educated classes (known locally as the Baasawaad or Tahseel Karda), living both inside the country and in the diaspora, a phenomenon that I have witnessed over many years.

This population benefited from all the opportunities provided to them by the Afghan state and its international allies in terms of education, scholarships, freedom of expression, jobs, and funds for their projects. They were not a large group of people, but their communication and outreach campaign was highly effective in creating division in the society, weakening group solidarity and public support to state institutions.

Some of them spoke from the safety of their homes in London, Paris and Istanbul by creating solidarity groups, using anecdotal, sometimes constructed data, without fact-checking, to damage the reputation and legitimacy of state institutions.  Some of them were intent on bringing their leaders – most of whom are former warlords back to power, as many had lost their position under Ghani’s administration.

Unsurprisingly they are the ones who have either left the country in the wake of the current events, or are hiding and continuing their slogans, while shifting all the responsibility and blame on Biden and Ghani. The impact of this group on the current events has gone unrecognised by mainstream reporting. I believe that until these small but influential classes drop their tribal politics, ethnic divisiveness and support for particular warlords, Afghanistan will remain a divided and politically fragmented society, an important factor which the Taliban – who are not the majority – have been able to exploit to their political and military advantage.

The young, post-Taliban generation stands to lose the most

The younger generation who makes up over two-thirds of the population will be the biggest victims of the current crisis and are paying a high cost now for all the damage that has been created. Most will not have experienced Taliban rule and have very different aspirations and expectations from the people who lived during the wars of the 80s and 90s. Despite constituting a demographic majority, youth in Afghanistan are excluded from major decision-making power in social and political life.

Their presence is lacking from any peace forums and talks while the ‘old guard’ (less than 20 percent of the population) often dominated the civic and political space. This had been changing slowly under the Ghani administration. Numerous national development programmes and policies introduced brilliant ideas to increase the civic and political participation of women and youth, and as a result, we’ve witnessed substantial progress. Through my years of development practice in Afghanistan and as part of my current academic research, I have documented significant improvements in terms of socio and political participation, in girls’ education, in improving health indicators and reducing poverty. But this progress is now in real danger of being reversed.

The Taliban’s promises read more like veiled threats

The Taliban are making promises and promoting a narrative that they have changed. They say they prioritise security in towns, but it is not clear whose security is their concern. They talk about peace and reconciliation, but their first action entering in the capital was removing the national flag, which generated a huge reaction among the Afghan population. Thousands of young people marched on the streets and on social media asking for the protection of their flag – a symbol of their nation and identity.

The Taliban leaders give promises of women’s rights, but these come with conditions which have not been clarified. For example, they said women can work, study and appear in public spaces, but with the condition that it be ‘according to the Shariah’ (Islamic laws). Whose Shariah? Sharia is interpreted differently by the different schools of Islam. Given that the Taliban follow two very restrictive Wahabi and Deobandi interpretation of Islam that allow little public space for women, we can expect to see a significant reversal on women’s rights and access to public spaces and personal freedoms that will also affect men.

Beyond hang-ringing – how the international community should engage with the Taliban

This is the time for the international community to engage with the Taliban regime and keep them accountable for their actions. Monitoring the regimes actions is crucial to prevent acts of violence against women, girls, and other vulnerable groups. It is essential and urgent that the international community put pressure on Taliban to deliver on their promises of human rights and ensure that the achievements of the past two decades are not taken away.

Mezhgan Temory is doctoral researcher at IDS. She is a French Afghan and her research focuses on youth citizenship in Afghanistan.

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