Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Sunday, July 21st, 2019

A Battle for the Ethos of Afghanistan (Part 1)

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A Battle for the Ethos of Afghanistan (Part 1)

Between May 28 and May 30 of 2019, a delegation of Afghan political leaders from the opposition met with the leadership of the Taliban in Moscow. Afghan politicians ranging from former President Hamid Karzai to the former Governor of the Balkh Province Atta Noor engaged in multiple rounds of formal and informal discussions with Taliban leaders including the group’s second in command Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, its chief negotiator. The series of talks were opened with remarks by both the Russian Foreign Minister Sergy Lavrov and the President’s envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov. While no members of the current government in Kabul were present for the discussions because the Taliban has refused to recognize the government’s legitimacy, all Afghans who partook did so under the oversight of the country’s High Peace Council. Yet, at the opening of the discussions,  both Karim Khalili the Chairman of the High Peace Council and the Ambassador of Afghanistan to the Russian Federation were present.
The discussions did result in some progress, as was noted in depth by the former Afghan Minister of Finance Omar Zakhilwal, who was present. Specifically, he noted the discussions “allowed both sides to share grievances, concerns, and views about the past present and future.” Yet, the discussions ended in a deadlock, which was not unexpected given the inelastic positions of the two sides on key policy matters ranging from the constitution to the potential structure of the military. This deadlock was largely based on disagreements surrounding a proposed withdrawal of all non-Afghan military personnel from Afghanistan which referred to the troops of both the United States and the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). 
This is the result of the fact that the Taliban largely views such forces as “occupying” forces supporting a “puppet government” in Kabul. Many in the Afghan government see them as a security guarantee preventing the country from being overrun by militant groups. Similarly, negotiations between the United States and the Taliban which have been ongoing for nearly a year have reached a similar impasse over the same disagreement. In short, the Taliban are insisting that a timeline be agreed to regarding the withdrawal of international forces from the country prior to the signing of any agreement to end the devastating war in Afghanistan. This is not to say that certain groups within Afghan society do not support the eventual removal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, as all support it as an eventual end-goal. However, significant portions of Afghan society strongly believe such a withdrawal cannot happen until a peace agreement with the Taliban is fully implemented.
At the surface level, agreeing to a timetable regarding the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Afghanistan could easily serve as a confidence-building measure aimed at demonstrating genuine constructive intentions from both sides in the negotiations. This would bode especially well if the Taliban were to similarly agree to a ceasefire in which they would cease targeting the Afghan government in deadly attacks and mining the streets of cities and rural areas across Afghanistan with improved explosive devices.  In fact, similar strategies have been adopted around the globe to varying degrees in efforts ranging from the armistice agreement that halted the Korean War in the 1950s to the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) at the end of the twentieth century.  While previous agreements on troop withdrawals prior to and during the implementation of peace agreements and armistices have seen cases of both success and failure throughout history, it is unlikely to be successful in Afghanistan. This is due to the actuality that the conflict between the Taliban and the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan is not over the secession of a portion of the territory as in Palestine and Kosovo, but a battle over the ethos of Afghanistan.
Despite the fact that the leadership of the Taliban appears eager to engagein peace talks with both the government of Afghanistan and the international community, it is imperative that the Taliban’s historical record is not forgotten. Specifically, the fact that at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the Taliban controlled nearly the entirety of Afghanistan, barbaric laws were imposed on the population under its rule. Women who broke the group’s strict law on their roles were publicly executed in soccer stadiums  and no freedom of speech or assembly existed in the country. This is not mentioning the fact that the Taliban provided sanctuary to the deadly Al-Qaeda which allowed the group to carry out attacks in places ranging from the United States to Tanzania.
Further, in the territory that the Taliban controls across Afghanistan today the strictest legal codes are imposed on the population and those who express disagreement with them are publicly executed. Additionally, women live under medieval-like restrictions and are rarely seen outside of their houses.  It is also worthwhile to examine the actions of the Taliban in the territory controlled by the country’s internationally recognized government. For instance, in all of the presidential and parliamentary elections held in Afghanistan since democratic rule in the country was restored the Taliban have attacked polling stations. This was not due to disagreements with the way elections were conducted or out of fears that they would be rigged but in opposition to the very act of citizens being able to choose their own leaders. The Taliban also regularly threatens and attacks non-governmental organizations and civil society leaders across Afghanistan. This is not to mention the attacks that the group has carried out against diplomatic missions and news outlets. These horrific acts are only a few that have characterized the Taliban over the past several decades.
These actions stand in stark contrast to the record of the Afghan government since the establishment of democratic rule at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Regarding elections, the country has carried out over five separate elections to select both presidents and members of parliament.  It is significant to note that the elections have had issues of fraud, such as in the most recent parliamentary elections when the Independent Electoral Commission took nearly seven months to announce the final results,but  have been ranked as both freer and fairer than many of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Further, all elections have turnout rates that dwarf those of elections in the United States and other established democracies, demonstrating the value that the Afghan populous places on a democratic culture. Further, the country is home to an array of civil society organizations, many of which are led by women, youth, and ethnic minorities that are regularly attacked by the Taliban. According to Freedom House (2019) the media environment in Afghanistan is ranked as freer than in countries located in the western hemisphere including Mexico, Honduras and Ecuador. Afghanistan is also ranked better in this regarding than every country that it shares a land border with. This is despite constant threats and attacks waged against the media by the Taliban for their coverage.

R. Maxwell Bone is Vice President for Political Affairs, Democracy, and Governance at the International Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development (IIPDD). His areas of research include African Studies and Afghan Politics. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter@maxbone55. Abas Alizada is an Afghan youth activist who has long advocated for inclusive governance and reform across Afghanistan. He is based in Mazari Sharif, the capital of Afghanistan’s Balkh province. Follow hi

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