Voices from Afghanistan on who they are, what they offered, and how to approach peace
by: H. Adams, a pen name
On a sunny September morning in Kabul at a birthday brunch, I engaged in a bit of small talk with a young, Western-educated Pashtoon woman sitting beside me. Debate about the best place to get clothes tailored in the city soon blossomed into an intellectually- stimulating discussion about the current political situation in Afghanistan, and, more specifically, the Taliban. “And another good thing about Taliban times…,”she said, continuing with an almost nostalgic explanation of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.
It may be difficult for any Westerner to imagine that there was ever anything ‘good’ about the Taliban. The Western media has created an image of the ‘Taliban’ as a dangerously radical militant collective that poses a direct threat to the international community, supports terrorism, and abuses human rights. But the ‘Taliban’–as the media projects it and foreign policy-makers perceive it–is more of a Western creation than an Afghan reality and, according to many Afghans, particularly the Pashtoon ethnic majority, is detrimental to any progress toward peace in the country.
Over the course of my twelve months in the country, based on conversations with Afghan friends, colleagues, and a variety of civilians, the vast majority of Afghans is by no means supportive of or sympathizes with the Taliban, but many consider them to nevertheless be fellow Afghan civilians whose acknowledgment and incorporation into the fabric of daily life is necessary for peace.
As a political solution involving negotiations with the Taliban increasingly presents itself as the only viable alternative to protracted war, it is necessary to re-evaluate and re-assess the definition of who the Taliban are, their goals, and the threat they now pose to Afghan civilians, the Afghan state, and the international community. Whom are the coalition forces fighting, and to what end? And how does answering this question change the way the Afghan government and coalition forces should deal with them in approaching a peace deal?
To stop and re-address this question nine years after the start of the war reveals some essential insights to be incorporated into U.S. policy in the country. One reason for coalition forces’ reluctance to support negotiations with the Taliban, the perception of the Taliban as a collective enemy, and the continued aggressive military policy, stems from misunderstanding and ignorance on the part of U.S. and NATO forces of what the ‘Taliban’ has become in today’s Afghanistan.
Reassessing the Taliban means understanding the environment from which they emerged. With various foreign entities backing different armed groups within Afghanistan during the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets from 1979 to 1989, the country was divided when the Soviets finally withdrew. President Najibullah’s Sovietbacked regime fell in 1992 to an array of fractured mujahideen groups that had closed in on Kabul, leaving a power vacuum that launched the country into a four-year civil war. In September 1996, when the Taliban took control of Kabul, the capital city had been bombed to rubble by warring factions who had been fighting for control.
Originally conceived as a student’s movement (Talib means ‘student’ in Arabic) with the goals of bringing freedom to the country and then Shari’a law to the government, while unifying the mujahideen factions, the Taliban movement brought peace to Kabul, and by 1997 was controlling the majority of the country, though still meeting continual military resistance from Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance in some areas north of Kabul.
Many Taliban policies were founded in extreme fundamental interpretations of Islamic law and presented human rights abuses according to contemporary international standards. “I’ll tell you a little joke,” said Mawlawi Wakil Mutawakil, the former Taliban Minister of Foreign Affairs, sipping green tea in his home on the outskirts of Kabul one October afternoon. “Let’s put it this way: the Taliban are not as good as they [the Taliban] say, but not as bad as the West says.” Defending many of these policies, he blames the Western media for introducing many of them in an exaggerated fashion and in a negative light. For example, women’s education, he said, was accepted by the Taliban leadership, just not co-education, and in the formative years of the regime, it was not a priority.
According to Mutawakil, the priorities for the Taliban then were the same as they are today.
“Currently, from their declarations, we know that the Taliban have two main goals–Afghanistan’s freedom, because they think Afghanistan is occupied now. And the second one is establishing an Islamic government. The thing in common [the goals when they first emerged in 1990s and now] is they wanted to develop a unified Afghanistan and they want to do it now too. So, it’s freedom, Islamic government, and a united Afghanistan that they fight for.”
Though the Taliban were able to gain control in 1996, they proved lackluster at governance, failing to provide basic services, ease poverty, or reconstruct the country after 20 plus years of war. As Dr. Mohammad Najib Azizi, an economics professor at the American University of Afghanistan, said during a focus group discussion with fellow Afghans in Kabul, Taliban religious ideology did not serve as an appropriate base for a solid government. “As soon as we try to see the Taliban as a political movement, we have to be very realistic,” said Dr. Azizi. “Were they really trying to incorporate themselves into an Afghanistan that would one day stand on its feet? No, they had no vision for Afghanistan.”
The Taliban may have been a failure of a political movement, but it was the fundamentalist Islamic ideology that initially formed its momentum, the driving factor being the duty to carry out jihad, or struggle–in the past, a struggle for unification and restored security; now, a struggle against foreign occupying forces. In an early morning meeting in September with the former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan and former Taliban spokesman, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, at his home, he told me that he believes this Taliban ideology will be the point of defeat for coalition forces: “The Taliban have ideology. And the Americans are faced with this ideology, which you are not able to defeat.”
But today, the ties to religious ideology may not penetrate too deeply outside the core of hard-line Taliban leaders, and the importance of it may be over-emphasized by former leaders such as Zaeef and Mutawakil. As historian and anthropologist Thomas Barfield writes in his recent historiography of the country, Afghans have never been a collectively ideological people–both the Communist and the original Taliban regimes were ultimately failed pursuits in religious and political ideology, respectively.’
However, one could consider the determination to preserve national and personal freedom and independence as the true Afghan kideology.
“For Afghans,” said Tariq Usman, a middle- aged man in a white turban with a long black beard who works for an NGO in Kabul, “freedom means more than anything. This has been the banner and slogan of Afghans throughout history.”
It was a lack of Afghan ownership and independence, coupled with the failures of the Afghan government and international community to build a legitimate, effective and ethnically-balanced system of governance and national unity, which caused frustration, not just ideology, to burgeon into what many refer to as the Taliban resurgence in 2004. Matt Hoh, former U.S. Foreign Service member who served in Afghanistan and is currently the director of the Afghanistan Study Group, believes that “local grievances” fuel the rank-and-file of the insurgency much more than extreme ideologies.
“Many of these groups are reconcilable and do not subscribe to the extreme ideologies of many of the Taliban leadership, but receive support from the Taliban leadership for practical reasons,” said Hoh, who was reached via email in October. “The grievances of many of these groups are varied but include resentment of foreign forces, resentment of a corrupt, illegitimate and unrepresentative central government, exclusion from power or from the political process, resentment towards an ethnically and regionally imbalanced army and police force, resentment towards government economic policies, long-running feuds within sects, tribes, families, and criminal opportunity.”
While it is debatable whether the demise of the Taliban would have taken place inevitably due to their failure as a government and popular disenchantment, the U.S. ousted the regime in the aftermath of Sept.11, 2001. Mistakes made by the U.S. immediately after this ensured the eventual resurgence of Taliban momentum and planted the seeds for bitterness and resentment that soon festered amongst many Pashtoons, the ethnic majority.
If the Taliban would have been given the right to maintain political space in the country after their demise, the coalition forces would have significantly lessened the chances of retaliatory action by the group. Already a failed, weakened political movement and disliked by the majority of urban Afghan civilians, and arguably the majority of rural civilians, any political space given to the Taliban would have served to merely legitimize the group and give them a platform for future political involvement in order to quell future rebellion. This may have turned out to be nothing more than a political gesture, given that the Taliban leadership would possibly not have accepted a political space in a government dominated by groups who had been fighting them.
“While the Taliban was removed as a government, they should have been treated separately as a movement, like a party,” said Mutawakil. “But that didn’t happen, which created more problems.”
Instead, in the wake of the U.S. invasion, the Central Intelligence Agency literally flew millions of dollars into the country to fund militant groups, namely the Northern Alliance (now regrouped under the title the United Front), to serve as the foot soldiers to the U.S.’s aerial bombardment of the south and east of the country. Most of these groups were non-Pashtoon, and all of them anti-Taliban.
“The U.S. has the right to make sure that their land is not attacked from outside. And this applies to any country,” said Mutawakil. “But they don’t have the right to give all resources to one Afghan and take the rights of another Afghan. They cannot discriminate inside Afghanistan. They cannot be the controller of resources in Afghanistan and act as an aggressor. There should be justice when distributing resources and giving political empowerment.”
By cashing in on an opportunity to keep American soldiers off the battlefield, the U.S. helped rip an already tattered seam in Afghan national unity.
Many of the American-backed warlord militias had been responsible for destruction of the capital, criminal activity, and the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians during the civil war. Many Afghans, regardless of ethnicity, were expecting to see such warlords punished, not funded. Whether intentional or not, many Pashtoons perceived the funding of non-Pashtoon groups, their U.S.-backed pervasive presence in government, and the unequal distribution of resources, as injustice and a denial of rights. “Their [Pashtoons’] rights were completely stepped over,” said Farhan Yusefzai, a 26-year-old who owns a logistics company in Kabul.
Today, non-Pashtoons dominate the government’s security institutions, namely the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, the Afghan National Directorate of Security, as well as the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. While accurate statistics don’t exist, neither do they matter much–perceptions can be as influential in one’s beliefs as fact.
“The Pashtoons have been disenfranchised and excluded from the government and the security forces,” said Hoh. “Until the political process is amended to allow for the Pashtoon inclusion in it, support for the Taliban, who advertise themselves as national liberators or as protectors of the Pashtoons, will only continue to grow. The international community, by not understanding this issue and by failing to ensure that all elements of the Pashtoon population are included in the government and security forces, has exacerbated this tension and the conflict.”
Furthermore, the terminology standardized by the Western media coupled with a general American misunderstanding of the complex cultural and ethnographic landscape in Afghanistan has created an image that equates being a Pashtoon with being a Talib.
“The international forces completely failed to distinguish between a Pashtoon and a Talib. Anyone who has got the turban and the long beard, they thought he’s a Talib,” said Dr. Azizi. That perception, together with civilian casualties and the bombing of villages, believes Dr. Azizi, is what brought the reemergence of the Taliban, “this time not as a political force, but as a military force. The Helmandis, Uruzganis–are they really Taliban? No, but since they are fed up with government officials, they prefer to have a side with the Taliban.”
WHO ARE THE ‘TALIBAN’?
When anti-government militancy started gathering momentum around 2004, the Afghan Taliban, headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar and based out of Quetta, Pakistan, was just one of many groups that were operating in the country. Such groups included the Pakistani-based Taliban, foreign jihadists, remnants of Al Qaeda, and other Afghan militant groups such as Sirajuddin Haqqani’s network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami and Mohammad Yunus Khalis’s Hizb-i-Islami.
Nuances in the definition, goals, motivations, and beliefs of militant groups become important when assessing the threat they pose. While the Afghan, Quetta-based Taliban is often quick to take credit for any attack or kidnapping, this may be political strategy by the Afghan Taliban to exaggerate the level of power or military success to seem greater than it actually is. What ties these various groups together is little more than a common enemy–without that common denominator, their individual strength and level of threat will be greatly reduced.
As Mr. Usman said, “This is not one war on terror. There are many wars in Afghanistan. How to distinguish the parties involved in these wars? There’s a lack of understanding on the part of the U.S. and ignorance of the Afghan context.”
This is a fact that is lost to the Western media and the international community’s habit of referring to all fighting groups within Afghanistan as ‘the Taliban.’ For example, the recent tragic incidents involving the shootings of foreign medical aid workers and their Afghan colleagues in Badakhshan, and the kidnapping of British aid worker Linda Norgrove in Kunar province, were both credited to the ‘Taliban’ in the Western media, though this is uncertain. Alternative, local assessments credit the kidnapping to a Salafist group based in the Eastern region of the country, which is loosely affiliated with the Taliban but divergent from an ideological perspective.
“It’s not only Taliban. There are different foreign intelligence groups and different warlords,” said Ajmal Obaid Abidy, 31, a political activist. “It’s not Talibs creating problems in Takhar, Ghor, or Badakhshan (northern) provinces; they are local commanders creating problems. Then they call them Talibs, but it’s not Talibs.”
Distinguishing the Afghan Taliban as a separate entity is less complicated than defining them and their motivations for fighting. While a core group of Taliban leadership nurtures the ideology of the group, others fight for various reasons, including financial and physical security.
But despite the many reasons for fighting or the various levels of ideological loyalty, all Afghan Taliban share one essential characteristic: they are all Afghan. As a student at the American University in Kabul, Kakail Nuristani, 25, asserted, “We are fighting our own people. They (the Taliban) are as Afghan as we are.”
The international community’s grapple with this concept was evidenced in the global guffaw to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s comments during his speech at the Peace Jirga in June 2010, when he reached out to the Taliban, referring to them as “brothers,” “friends,” and “jan” (an Afghan term meaning ‘dear’).
Though U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke retracted the comment made during a public address at Harvard University in March 2010 that every Pashtoon has a family member in the Taliban, it was more or less true. The assumed political incorrectness of Holbrooke’s remark revealed the international community’s discomfort with acknowledging the reality of it.
The point is not whether or not every Pashtoon is in fact related to a Talib, but how the international community is or is not willing to incorporate that possibility into their policy in Afghanistan. Being related to a Talib should not be perceived as a crime– in fact, it is mundane. What separates a Talib from a civilian bystander in any given rural village may not be a particular hatred for the United States, a support for international terrorism, or a will to do jihad, but instead simply the need to secure one’s family, land, and livelihood. In some areas, cooperation with militant groups is the only way to do this.
THE THREAT OF AL QAEDA
American President Barack Obama has asserted on numerous occasions that the main reason the U.S. is in Afghanistan is to ensure that it does not again become a base from which Al Qaeda can launch attacks on the American homeland. This implies the assumption that Al Qaeda objectives and Taliban objectives are aligned, and that the Taliban would welcome Al Qaeda back into Afghanistan.
Welcomed as guests to Afghanistan during the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets before the Taliban took control, Al Qaeda was an inheritance, said Mutawakil. Today, the threat from Al Qaeda does not emanate from Afghanistan as it once did in the 1990s. It’s no secret that Al Qaeda poses a greater threat to the American homeland from multiple bases around the world than those remnants of Al Qaeda within Afghanistan, including such places as Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, Europe, and even from within the United States itself. Thus, it is difficult for many Afghans to fathom why the U.S. insists on targeting Afghan villages and maintaining an occupation of the country when the threat is stronger elsewhere in the world.
Former Taliban ministers, Mutawakil and Zaeef, point out that not only are Taliban goals different from Al Qaeda’s, but that the Taliban leadership would not repeat mistakes made in the past.
The one-eyed Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, allowed Osama bin Laden to remain in Afghanistan as a guest, upholding the strictly-adhered to principle of hospitality that is a pillar of Pashtoon culture. Bin Laden was not a strategic asset for the Taliban but instead the cause of their ultimate demise. It is highly unlikely that if the Taliban were to hypothetically take power that they would make the same mistake again.
But Zaeef believes regardless of whom gains power in the future, no foreigners whatsoever should be allowed to dictate the future of the country again. “It needs to be written in a contract and put in the Constitution,” he said. “No Osama, no Obama, no Al Qaeda, no Americans. This is the only way for Afghanistan.”
A BETTER ALTERNATIVE?
Some conditions of life under the Taliban regime are now remembered by many as a preferred alternative to the corruption, insecurity, and injustice that defines the current U.S. and NATO-backed Afghan system of governance and the ongoing war. In war, priorities emerge. As one friend said to me when I inquired about his life during Taliban times, “You tell me which you would rather have–the freedom to fly kites and listen to music, or security, justice, and the ability to move freely without worrying about getting killed?”
The Taliban did in fact secure the one element of statehood that is necessary: a monopoly on violence throughout most of the country. There was relative peace and security.
After billions of dollars of international investment, the present Afghan government cannot offer security, peace, or justice and is often the perpetrator of crimes against Afghans. As Dr. Azizi said, “Our heroes have turned to zeroes.” The socioeconomic status of many has risen considerably, but such gains become less important when human security remains elusive.
“Are drugs good or bad? Is government corruption good or bad? What’s better–an insecure country or a secure country? These are all the good things that the Taliban have implemented but we don’t have them right now with the current government,” Mutawakil said. “I don’t say that the Taliban were angels and everything they did was good. As a human system, they had drawbacks, but we should study different systems. The current government might have problems, but it also has good things.”
“When human beings can fight,” Mutawakil said, speaking in a proverbial Afghan style, “They can also talk.” While fighting may require only bullets, peace and reconciliation talks require far more abstract considerations such as compromise, mutual understanding, and a certain level of trust. Despite this, Mutawakil still believes that, “peace is difficult, but it’s easier than war.”
However essential reconciling with the Taliban may be to ensuring peace in the country, the current reconciliation structure seems to be devoid of the aforementioned ingredients, with a lack of trust between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and coalition forces, as well as rigidity on all sides. The Afghan government and coalition forces are asking for surrender, not reconciliation. They have demanded that the Taliban lay down arms and accept the Afghan constitution, while the Taliban are demanding that foreign forces leave the country. Many believe that negotiations should be unconditional.
Furthermore, there are fundamental flaws in the structure of the recently-appointed Peace Council. “Are we doing our homework by bringing (former Afghan president and opposition leader Burhanuddin) Rabbani as the head of the High Commission for Peace? No, we have not done our homework,” said Dr. Azizi. Mr. Yusefzai also agrees that for the Peace Council to work, it needs a leader “from a tribe or a group that is actually close to the Taliban.”
ROLE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
During a class I took at Harvard University with Rory Stewart, he asked the class to identify the sources of different problems within Afghanistan and how to address them. Only one criticized the international community itself for contributing to the problems in Afghanistan. No one else had considered that the international community is often a major contributor to the very problems that they claim to be trying to fix.
I was reminded of this recently on a plane ride to Kabul during a conversation with a middle-aged American woman in a t-shirt and no headscarf who worked for the U.S. Embassy. “Do you feel safe living ‘outside the wire?” she asked me, meaning outside of the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul.
Policy-makers who dictate the future of Afghanistan live detached from the realities of everyday Afghan life. The foreign military presence is mainly seen as interference in Afghanistan’s course, if not as downright occupation and dictation, devoid of thorough consultation with or ownership by Afghans.
“They never consult the Afghans. The Afghans have always been excluded out of the equation. What do they know about Afghanistan? How many of those people who are talking about all the problems of Afghans and are coming up with solutions go and sit with the core people?” said Dr. Azizi.
A sense of ownership must be established, even, some believe, at the likely cost of more bloodshed or civil war. But surprisingly, most Afghans I spoke with don’t believe civil war is necessarily inevitable in the wake of a withdrawal of international troops. They believe the scars of 30-plus years of infighting and foreign warfare, and the fresh wounds of ongoing bloodshed, ensure that the different factions will pursue a peaceful route.
“I’m sure they would come together and build the government together,” Zaeef said, referring to various factions that are currently fighting the international forces. “But with no interfering–stop every outside country from interfering.”
Zaeef, a man who has witnessed over four decades of Afghan history, concedes that “today is the worst time. The people of Afghanistan are without destination. They don’t know who their killer is and who their helper is. They don’t know who their enemy is and who their friend is. They don’t know where their source to complain to is. They don’t know who is here to help them.”
However, the common sentiment that the country’s future could not possibly be worse than the present leaves room for hope in surmising the future of the country.
Everyone who has spent time in or studied Afghanistan at some length seems to have prescriptions for the future, suggesting various formulaic solutions. But the only way to understand the reality and the ground truth is not determined by how long one has spent in the country, or how many books one has read, but how many ordinary Afghans ones speaks to, and more importantly, listens to.
Comprehending these perspectives allows one to realize that the international community, namely the U.S., ironically utilizes the same tool of rigidity that they target the Taliban for: extreme ideology, which in any form is counterproductive to peace. The international community’s refusal to reconsider the actual threat and composition of their enemy on the battlefield is based on their belief that a Talib equals a terrorist and that international troops are defending their respective homelands by fighting in Afghanistan.
This ideology is just as debilitating to peace as the Taliban ideology that the international community has vowed to militarily defeat.
The American and coalition forces are not only faced with Taliban ideology on the battlefield, but also the limitations opposed on them by the rigidity of their own ideologies. It is unclear yet which one will ultimately be the source of their defeat.
Lael H. Adams works in Kabul in community and rural development. She earned her master’s degree from Boston University in International Relations and International Journalism with a focus on Afghanistan.
Hamdullah Mohib, a social activist, was born in Afghanistan and moved to the UK in 2000. From 2008 to 2010, he served as Director of IT at the American University of Afghanistan and is now studying for a PhD at Brunel University.
Omar Mansoor Ansari is an entrepreneur in Afghanistan’s Information and Communication Technology industry as CEO of NawPal Language Solutions. He served as Chief of Staff to Ashraf Ghani during his 2009 presidential campaign and then as his advisor until March 2010
Distinguishing the Afghan Taliban as a separate entity is less complicated than defining them and their motivations for fighting… but despite the many reasons for fighting or the various levels of ideological loyalty, all Afghan Taliban share one essential characteristic: they are all Afghan.