Afghanistan: Two years post-Kabul siege

by Dr. Farah Naz

The story of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan goes back to February 2020, when after more than a year of negotiations between the US government and Taliban, a peace deal was signed in Doha. In this agreement the US pledged to draw down its troops to approximately 8,500 within 135 days and a complete withdrawal within fourteen months. In return, the Taliban pledged to prevent its territory from being used by terrorist groups and to enter negotiations with the Afghan government. However, the negotiations faced multiple delays and ultimately made little progress. In this timeframe, violence across Afghanistan continued and the US increased air strikes and raids while targeting the Taliban. In return, the Taliban targeted the Afghan government and made significant territorial gains. On one hand, in April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the US will withdraw its forces by September 2021.

On the other hand, the Taliban continued to capture and contested territory across the country despite their ongoing peace talks and rapidly seized more territory. By the end of July 2021, the US withdrew 95% of its forces and left only 650 troops to protect the US embassy in Kabul. Taliban continued its offensive measures and captured urban areas and seized several border crossings. After provincial capitals began to fall in rapid succession and within days Taliban captured most of the territory. Finally, on August 15, 2021, over two weeks before the US force’s actual withdrawal, the Taliban entered Kabul. The Afghan government collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani and other key government officials fled the country. Since August 15, 2021, over 2 million Afghans have left the country while million more are looking to leave.

After getting in power the major question remained around recognition of Taliban leadership. The world community set three main conditions: 1) inclusive and broad-based government; 2) women empowerment; 3) Afghan soil not be used for terrorist acts in the region and beyond. According to Zabiullah Mujahid, the US is one of the biggest hurdles to its diplomatic recognition in the comity of nations. The Taliban government claims that they have fulfilled all conditions to be diplomatically recognized. But unfortunately, the Taliban government is yet not recognized as legitimate rulers of the country. Here the question arises of what the Taliban have done while taking over and what is the status of these three conditions.

Expecting a broad-based government where all ethnic groups have a position in the government seems to be a difficult one. Afghanistan is a religiously homogeneous country with a 99% Muslim population with 14 ethnic groups including Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkman, Baluch, Pachaie, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, Brahwui and Other Tribes. After getting into power the Taliban tried to include all major ethnic groups but there are limitations to it. Since Pashtuns are predominately the largest ethnic group and they want to keep their status quo after defeating the world’s powerful armies. Hence, the first condition is challenging to achieve.

The second condition of women’s empowerment has its problems. Women are almost 55% of the total population but are cornered due to the Taliban’s harsh policies. The Ministry for Vice and Virtue ordered women to wear face coverings in public, not allowed to travel outside without a mahram, and to appear on any media forums. They banned girls from grades 6-12 to seek education. Taliban demand women receive medical assistance from female doctors alone but do not allow their women to acquire medical or any education. For gynae-related matters, Afghan women will either travel to Pakistan or Iran or give birth at home. Zabiullah Mujahid rejected calls for removing the curbs on women. He asserted that the orders… regarding women are by [Islamic] Shariah and these are the rules of Shariah. But these rules make Afghanistan a unique Muslim country where in all other Muslim countries women have all the rights to seek education and empowerment. The Holy Qur’an and the Last Prophet (PBUH) have stated women’s rights on several occasions. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has become a place of horror where women cannot avail their basic right to education, employment, and liberty. Hence, the Taliban failed to meet women’s empowerment conditions.

Let’s reflect on meeting terrorism-related conditions. The Western forces left behind $80 billion worth of high-tech weaponry. But today those weapons are in use by terrorists operating from Afghanistan across the border in Pakistan. The question here comes to mind why such a huge weaponry was left behind or was it on purpose. If we reflect on the number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan from August 2021 to April 2023, there is a phenomenal increase of 73% during the first 21 months while the number of people killed in these attacks has also increased by 138%. After the recent Zhob cantonment attack incident in which Afghan nationals were involved compelled the Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir to give a strong statement and issued a stern warning to TTP.

Gen Asim says no talks with terrorists and vows to crush insurgents. COAS further stated that the involvement of Afghan nationals in terrorism incidents in Pakistan was detrimental to regional peace, stability, and deviation from the Doha agreement. These terrorist incidents are in direct clash with accepting Taliban rule as a legitimate government. Taliban still harbor foreign militants that are a direct threat to safety and stability in Pakistan and beyond. The involvement of Afghan nationals in acts of terrorism in Pakistan is another important concern that needs to be addressed. The defense forces of Pakistan have serious concerns about the safe havens and liberty of action available to TTP in Afghanistan.

Indeed, 15 August is one of the dates to be remembered forever as it left behind the whole world including the Taliban surprised over their smooth takeover. But the Taliban failed to meet all three conditions to get recognition. Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan’s economy has floundered, malnutrition has soared and hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost. Most women have been banned from working with harsh rules and crackdowns on women’s basic rights and services. But the Taliban need to get flexible towards other ethnic groups, consider women as human beings with specific needs, and understand that limiting 55% of their population to the four walls will weaken their country to the core. Finally, not let its soil be used for terrorism in Pakistan. Taliban must understand that with rigidity Afghanistan is headed towards an impoverished autocracy. Only flexibility can bring prosperity and smart diplomacy to Afghanistan.

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