Matthew Dodwell is a guest author at the Journal. He has recently graduated with a Masters in International Relations from The University of Melbourne, where he focused on security issues in the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.
Intra-Afghanistan peace talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban are currently underway in Qatar, marking the possibility of a new era of peace in a war-torn country. Before the two parties can reach an agreement, they must navigate through a myriad of differences and conflicts that strike at the very heart of their ideologies. Women’s rights, religious freedom, and human rights will all be topics of discussion, though the Afghan Government and the Taliban have conflicting perceptions on what these entail. Although the world is hopeful for the prospect of an end to conflict, any peace agreement will hide abuses to human rights and religious plurality─something the world hoped to end when they ousted the Taliban in 2001.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that the Taliban will overpower the American-backed Afghan Government once foreign forces fully withdraw from the country in May, which will leave Afghanistan in a perilous position: the Afghan Government is over-reliant on international support, and the Taliban is still a strong force even after decades of exile and is hungry for power. But the Taliban actually negotiating in good faith with the Afghan Government would be just as debilitating for the country. The Taliban are extreme and persistent in their ideology and their views must be considered and negotiated with during the peace talks─something likely to leave the Afghan Government and the rest of the world in an uncomfortable position.
For peace talks to be successful and for Afghanistan to see an end to bloodshed, there must be concessions for the Taliban’s viewpoints. These talks give the Taliban legitimacy: they are no longer an outlawed extremist group, but a legitimate power in Afghan politics to be reckoned with. The Taliban currently control large swathes of territory, even after decades of foreign intervention, and are more than capable of
taking the rest of the country by force from an Afghan Government in infancy if they desire. The US has played a large role in Afghanistan’s protection, leaving the country over-reliant on US firepower and under-developed in their own military capability. Once the US completes its withdrawal in May, the Afghan Government simply won’t have the might to defeat the Taliban in battle. The Taliban have the legitimacy to demand a large slice of representation in Afghanistan and the power to overthrow the democratically-elected government to enact their extreme interpretations upon the country if the Afghan Government refuses to concede to their demands during negotiations.
Complicating matters more, around 70 countries have pledged US$12 billion to aid the Afghan Government on the condition that they engage in negotiations with the Taliban. On top of this, the US Government has proposed forming an interim government to take over from the existing Afghan Government─and possibly include Taliban representation─until new elections can be held. These outside influences pressure the Afghan Government to remain at the negotiating table and deliver results to their international supporters, no matter how many concessions the Taliban demand. We should expect the Taliban to take full advantage of this leverage.
Women: An Early Casualty in the Peace Talks?
One only needs to look back to the Taliban’s regime of 1996-2001 to understand how they see the world. During Taliban rule, women were forbidden from fully participating in society: they were banned from working, attending school and university, and needed to be accompanied by a male when outside the home. Although the Taliban claim to support women’s rights today “as granted by Islamic law” and some local commanders support girls going to school, the Taliban have continued to attack girls’ schools, they believe that women should only be allowed to go short distances unaccompanied by a male, and female representation is conspicuously missing from the Taliban’s negotiating team in Doha. Women’s rights are certain to be an early casualty in any successful peace talks with the Taliban.
Persecution of Minorities
Afghanistan’s minorities will also be impacted by a deal with the Taliban. The peace talks were delayed in part due to the Taliban’s insistence on using the Hanafi jurisprudence─practiced by Sunni Muslims, but not Shia or other religious minorities─as the sole religious basis for negotiation. The Taliban’s insistence on Hanafi is a refusal to acknowledge other religious groups in the country. This doesn’t bode well for non-Sunni groups in the country who make up 10-15% of the population. The Hazara people were ruthlessly persecuted by the Taliban, including mass killings, internal displacement, and cultural destruction. Any deal with the Taliban is likely to result in more oppression for Afghanistan’s religious and ethnic minorities.
A Return to the Old Ways
The Taliban have always been insistent in their conservative views on the law, including mandates on beards and burkas, and restrictions on television and music. Amputations and executions were commonplace as punishments for crimes many would consider minor under the Taliban regime. Again, there is little to believe that the Taliban’s views on the law have changed in the past two decades and an Intra-Afghanistan peace deal will need to cede human rights and freedoms to the Taliban’s conservative and extreme views.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Taliban won’t come through on the peace talks, but if they do keep their word, one thing is certain: once the ink dries on the Intra-Afghanistan peace agreement, the Taliban will have some form of power and role in the new era of Afghanistan. The rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities will succumb to more extremist views and continuing funding by the world in return for an armistice. The world is sure to step in to rebuild Afghanistan (including the US$12 billion already pledged), not as an egalitarian democracy that decades of conflict fought to attain, but as an authoritarian theocracy. Afghanistan will see an end to conflict, but unfortunately it is surely to feel like a defeat, not a victory.