No one in their right mind could frown upon the prospect of peace breaking out in Afghanistan after a relentless 40-year conflict straddling the 20th and 21st centuries. Nor can there be any serious doubt that a negotiated settlement is the only way out.
Whether the tentative understanding reached between Afghan Taliban and US representatives in Doha last week represents a meaningful step down that path is less clear.
“Reduced violence” through this week is supposed to lead to a “deal” whereby the US will begin withdrawing some of its troops. The Taliban have reportedly vowed not to entertain foreign guests such as Al Qaeda and agreed to enter into talks with the government in Kabul, which has not been a party to the Qatar negotiations.
The latter condition could pose immediate problems, and not just because of the antipathy between the two sides. When the results of last September’s electoral exercise were finally released this month, giving President Ashraf Ghani a fraction more than 50pc of the vote, the outcome was challenged by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who threatened to set up a rival government.
One of the latter’s chief allies declared: “Even if they put a knife on my throat, even if they hang me, I will not accept an announcement based on fraud.” His identity should clang a few bells: Abdul Rashid Dostum, a crusty old warlord, has shifted allegiances so often since the Khalq/Parcham days that it’s a wonder he can even remember which side he is currently on.
Notwithstanding Dostum’s hyperbole, even the election commission’s statistics suggest that less than a third of Afghanistan’s 9.6 million registered voters cast their ballots, and nearly a million of those were discarded. Of the 1.8m that were deemed valid, 300,000 have been called into question by the Abdullah faction. Ghani’s official tally anyhow adds up to less than a million votes in an overall population of about 37m.
Taliban threats no doubt contributed to the lowest turnout this century, but it may also have had something to do with the fact that allegations of corruption have swirled around both the leading contenders, who played the same roles in the last election.
The chances of meaningful democracy gaining a foothold in Afghanistan are more than likely to diminish once the Taliban join the administration in one form or another. An opinion column published in The New York Times last week under the byline of Sirajuddin Haqqani, described as the deputy leader of the Taliban, says that the future form of government will “depend on a consensus among Afghans”.
If that means nothing in particular, the declaration about building “an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected” should provide pause for thought to anyone who recalls the practices of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996-2001).
Competing interpretations of religious precepts have abounded for centuries. The Taliban were schooled in and implemented the least enlightened doctrines during their years in power. Who can say whether they have overcome that intellectual debility?
Afghan women may not exactly have been liberated in the aftermath of 2001, but at least some of them have regained certain rights and freedoms, and they rightly fear losing them all over again.
The Taliban were effectively the offspring of an insidious ménage-a-trois involving Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US, which lost interest in the region once the Red Army beat a retreat and the Soviet Union subsequently crumbled. In the mid-1990s, many Afghans looked upon the Taliban infiltrated by Pakistan as potential saviours after the mujahideen predictably chose internecine warfare over any attempt at competent governance.
Some of them aligned themselves with the Taliban, including CIA-ISI favourites Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani (father of the NYT contributor), the latter at one time described as “goodness personified” by US officials. The Americans changed their minds after 9/11. The ISI didn’t.
The hubristic folly of the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 more or less equalled the sheer idiocy of the Soviet aggression in December 1979. Documents published by The Washington Post last December revealed that many senior US personnel were aware they were launching an unwinnable war. Douglas Lute, a three-star general who served under the Bush and Obama administrations, was quoted as saying in 2015: “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
Overall, it’s not hard to empathise with the Taliban demand for an American withdrawal. It would be far better, though, if Afghanistan could also be free of the Taliban and Pakistani interference. But don’t hold your breath.
By arrangement with Dawn...