Dr Martin Parsons is a former aid worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.
The US State Department has just announced that they are ‘cautiously optimistic’ after the Taliban announced it will sign a peace deal with the US by the end of the month. Deal it may be, peace however, is likely to prove somewhat more elusive.
To put it bluntly, peace is not the absence of fighting – although apparently that is not even promised in this deal – just a reduction in Taliban attacks, in return for US troop withdrawal. If peace were the absence of fighting then it would have justified Britain making peace with Nazi Germany in 1940.
I have written before on Conservative Home about the parallels between the Nazis in the 1930s and threat today posed by radical Islamists in general and the Taliban in particular. But as someone who, as an aid worker, actually lived under the Taliban in Afghanistan, let me just highlight a few aspects of what life was like then.
Women pretty well disappeared off the streets, not allowed out unless accompanied by a male guardian, a situation which led to thousands of war widows with no male relative, facing starvation.
The religious police (officially the department for the suppression of vice and promotion of virtue) brutally enforced strict sharia on the streets. They were both feared and despised by ordinary Afghans in equal measure. Even after the Taliban were evicted from power, if someone thought to be a former member of the ‘vice and virtue’ appeared in a public place – everyone would go quiet. People were terrified that they would return.
Men were beaten up on the streets with sticks and plastic hosepipes if they weren’t in the mosque at the time of prayer – or even simply because their beard wasn’t long enough.
It was worse for anyone deemed to be an enemy of the regime. There were multiple public executions in cities such as Kabul. In other areas, opposition fighters were given the choice of fighting for the Taliban or walking through minefields as human minesweepers.
Those suspected of leaving Islam were automatically executed. When the Taliban took over Jalalabad where I lived, they hanged an Afghan Christian in an outlying village. Someone with a grudge against him had tipped them off and a Bible was found in his house. That’s the sort of police state we can look forward to again if the Taliban ever regain power.
The small Hindu minority, mainly shopkeepers, were forced to wear yellow badges, which drew parallels with the yellow Star of David which the Nazis forced on the Jews. In fact, even before the 9/11attacks the US Congress had unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution condemning such blatant human rights abuses.
So, what has so dramatically changed that the US State Department now feel they can negotiate with the Taliban? True we have seen the rise of Islamic State, which in some respects, such as their reintroduction of slavery for non-Muslims, was even more radical than either the Taliban or al Qaeda. The danger here is one that western governments have too often fallen into, thinking they can negotiate with one extremist group, because another group is seen as even more radical. But it’s the same ideology with the same goals, just different methods.
The question the US government urgently needs to ask, is what were its original war aims when it went into Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks? Those initial aims involved removing the Taliban from power and preventing Afghanistan becoming a base from which groups such as al Qaeda could launch attacks on the west.
Have those aims been achieved? At best only partially. The Taliban no longer control the Kabul government, but still directly control around 74 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, and are actively contesting a further 190, with the Afghan government only fully controlling 133 districts including Kabul.
Will this new deal even deliver the second of those objectives – preventing a group like al Qaeda establishing bases in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks on the west? According to a report issued by the UN Security Council last February al Qaeda and Islamic State are already well established in Afghanistan, a fact admitted later last year by the commander of US forces in Afghanistan.
Far from either preventing the Taliban regaining power or a group like al Qaeda using the country as a base from which to launch attacks, the proposed US deal with the Taliban makes both of these more likely – and thus lasting peace less likely. There are at least four fundamental flaws which have been evident since the very start of the US attempt to negotiate with the Taliban, a process begun under the Obama administration:
- It fails to understand Afghan culture. The Taliban are a primarily Pushtun group and the two central pillars of Pushtun culture – known as Pushtunwali, are hospitality and blood vengeance. The latter involves the absolute duty placed on Pushtun men to kill a member of someone else’s family when a member of their own extended family has been killed. However, and this is the crucial point, they do not have to do so immediately. Pushtuns will often wait 20 years for an opportune time to take blood vengeance. Waiting for the best time to kill your enemy is absolutely part and parcel of Pushtun culture.
- Shari’a has been understood for centuries to prohibit a permanent peace treaty with non-Muslims. All that is allowed is a temporary truce to allow the Islamic armies to gain a strategic advantage. This is based on a peace treaty known as ‘the treaty of Hudabiya’ which according to Islamic texts, Muhammad made with the pagan Quraish tribe who then controlled Mecca. Muhammad dispensed with the ‘treaty’ two years later when he had become strong enough to take Mecca by force.
- Having a strong functioning government that is respected and seen as independent by its own people is an essential prerequisite for peace in any country. Without this basic building block of nation building, no county can be anything other than a failed state. Yet, far from strengthening the Afghan government, this proposed US deal with the Taliban massively undermines it in the eyes of the Afghan people. It is as if at the height of the troubles the US government had done a deal with the IRA – and then expected the UK government, which hadn’t even been a party to that deal, to implement it. No self-respecting government could possibly accept such humiliating terms.
- Although the full details of what this US Taliban deal are have yet to be published, it appears to involve US troop withdrawal in return for the Taliban not actually agreeing to end their attacks, but simply to decrease their number and to ‘talk’ to the Afghan government. It all sounds rather reminiscent of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which naively assumed that in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, Iran would start acting like a responsible state and stop formenting terrorism around the world.
This proposed US-Taliban deal looks ominously similar, with a disturbing lack of any effective teeth, only this time the stakes are even higher. The US state department should be urgently asking itself what exactly it plans to do if in two or even five year’s time, al Qaeda, Islamic State, or whatever similar group has emerged to take their place, has set up training camps in Taliban controlled Afghanistan from which to launch attacks on the US and its western allies?
The only real hope that exists for lasting peace in Afghanistan is to strengthen the Afghan government and its institutions, not undermine them. And as I have argued here before, do whatever is necessary to stop the Taliban regaining power. Then slowly seek to spread those values of freedom and respect for all, out from the capital into the rest of the country. That will take many years. But the alternative is the Taliban back in power and quite possibly letting all manner of other radical jihadist groups intent on attacking the west base themselves there.