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Two decades after US invasion, Afghans fear return of Taleban

KABUL: In this file photo taken on July 31, 2020, Taleban prisoners walk with their belongings as they are in the process of being potentially released from Pul-e-Charkhi prison, on the outskirts of Kabul. – AFP

KABUL: Almost two decades after the United States launched air strikes against Afghanistan’s ruling Taleban regime and started what would become America’s longest-ever war, the hardline group are in a stronger position than ever. The invasion that followed those October 7, 2001 strikes quickly toppled the militants, who had harbored Al-Qaeda, the group behind the September 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in America just weeks earlier.

Now, 19 years since the collapse of their brutal Islamist regime, the Taleban are pushing for a return to power, having signed a landmark troop withdrawal deal with Washington in February and currently holding peace talks with the Afghan government. Fearful that the Taleban have changed little since the darkest days of their regime-when they killed women accused of adultery, attacked minority religious groups and barred girls from going to school-many Afghans worry about a new era of Taleban influence.

“I remember the Taleban regime like a nightmare. We are scared for our future and my daughter’s future,” said Kabul resident Katayoun Ahmadi, a 26-year-old mother. She recalled seeing severed hands and fingers on Kabul’s streets following amputations for petty crimes under the Taleban’s strict interpretation of Sharia law.

The 2001 invasion heralded some enduring improvements for young Afghans-particularly girls-and ushered in a constitution guaranteeing certain freedoms including the right to an education. But so far in peace talks in Doha, which started last month, the Taleban have said little about issues such as women’s rights or freedom of expression.

‘Afghan-owned’ deal
Ahmadi’s husband Farzad Farnood, 35, a researcher for the Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies, said a rise in Taleban violence since a deal was signed between the hardline group and Washington shows the militants have not changed. “Is this creating hope for Afghans? No, it is not,” he said. As a teenager, he witnessed the Taleban stoning a woman to death and public executions and floggings in Kabul’s football stadium. His family had to hide their black-and-white television’s antenna in a tree when the Taleban banned music and entertainment. “All the achievements we have made in the last 18 years did not exist in the Taleban era,” he said.

In a statement released yesterday, the Taleban claimed the US “arrogantly rejected” their appeals for diplomacy in 2001, instead launching a “brutal invasion”. “America, its allies and coalitions would have… been spared from infamy and war crimes along with great human and material losses,” they said, adding they welcomed an opportunity to usher in a “sovereign Islamic government”.

Zia-ul-Rahman, a former insurgent who battled foreign troops and Afghan government forces for four years, told AFP the Taleban were pushing for “the establishment of an Islamic system”, even though the country’s constitution already gives primacy to the religion. “We have no problem with girls getting an education or women working, but they have to wear a hijab,” he added. US involvement in Afghanistan has proven painfully difficult for the superpower, draining more than $1 trillion from its coffers and resulting in about 2,400 troop deaths in a war the Pentagon has characterized as a stalemate.

In Doha, the Taleban and the Afghan government are struggling to agree common language on a range of issues before they can even establish an agenda, in talks that could continue for years. Some US lawmakers have said they would oppose any deal that fails to protect women and minorities, but President Donald Trump’s administration has stressed it wants little to do with the outcome which he said will be “Afghan-owned”. Jawed Rahmani, a 38-year-old security worker in Kabul, said US disengagement would inevitably lead to a Taleban takeover of Afghanistan. “These are not peace talks but a deal to hand over the next government to the Taleban,” he said. “People are happier with whatever we have right now, compared to the darkest era of the Taleban.”

Ground rules
Taleban and Afghan peace negotiators have agreed on a code of conduct to safeguard against the risk of any breakdown in talks that began last month in Qatar to bring an end to decades of war, three official sources told Reuters yesterday. The breakthrough was achieved with the help of US officials, as the two sides drew up 19 ground rules that their negotiators should observe during talks, the sources said. While the talks have been taking place in Qatar’s capital Doha, scores of Afghan soldiers and Taleban fighters have been killed in clashes and suicide attacks in which dozens of civilians have also died in recent weeks.

“Firming up code of conduct was extremely crucial as it proves that both sides are willing to continue talks even as we see that violence has not reduced on the ground,” said one senior Western diplomat on conditions of anonymity. The breakthrough came as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani held bilateral discussions in Qatar’s capital of Doha with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy, and Gen Austin Miller, the top commander for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.The intra-Afghan talks are part of a landmark deal signed between the United States and the Taleban in February.

Under the deal, foreign forces will leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter terrorism guarantees from the Taleban, which agreed to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing formula with the Afghan government. Diplomats had told Reuters that the talks had got off to a difficult start, with disagreements over how the Hanafi Islamic code could be used to guide negotiations and on whether the deal signed between the United States and the Taleban in February should be the basis for the talks, as demanded by the Taleban. The three sources said the delegations were putting those differences to one side to move forward and agree on an agenda, but would work on resolving these issues during negotiations. – Agencies

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