Thrust Back into the Dark Ages: Why the Taliban Deal is Doomed

by Sajjan M. Gohel

Zalmay Khalilzad & Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar sign a peace deal, 29 February 2020. US Department of State

The “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America.”

Even the title is bizarre, flawed, and sadly ironic. U.S. and Taliban negotiators spent months working out the name alone. The Taliban were refusing to remove the term ‘Islamic Emirate,’ and the U.S. was not willing to acknowledge it. Hence, the odd title. The deal itself was the culmination of ten rounds of negotiations spanning more than a year.

The agreement provides for a phased withdrawal of NATO troops, with the U.S. pulling out 5,000 of its 13,000 troops over the next few months and all within 14 months. Britain’s 1,100 troops are likely to be the last to leave as they provide some security in Kabul. In return, the Taliban pledged to not allow Afghanistan to be used as a hub for terrorism. However, the hurdles to peace are so acute and numerous that the chances of a meaningful deal being honored are virtually impossible.

Simply put, the Taliban are misogynistic, drug-trafficking, hostage-taking, suicide bomb-making, acid-throwing, al-Qa’ida BFFs. Asking them to fight ISIS is the equivalent of asking Harvey Weinstein to fight Jeffrey Epstein. This may bring some laughter, but it’s a depressing reality we are now facing.

Any type of agreement with them will be violated and eventually women’s rights and civil liberties will plunge back into the dark ages, heroin will flow in even greater quantities, and al-Qa’ida will be allowed safe passage back into Afghanistan. So when anyone talks about the ‘historic agreement’ with the Taliban, remember the above, that they will violate any agreement with the West and the Afghan government, and keep in mind that the very fact that the Afghan government will even have to negotiate with the Taliban over the rights of women should be a red flag wake-up call to their misogyny. It’s time to mourn for the people of Afghanistan and the ill fate they will once again have to endure and the terrorist reverse flow, which may well end up on our doorstep in the West—again—once Afghanistan is adapted by the Taliban for terrorist training.

The Anatomy of Disaster

Mullah Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban, spent 8 years languishing in a Pakistani prison for being seen as too independent by the Pakistani military. Having fallen out of favour with both the Pakistani military and Taliban, Baradar was released so he could sign a withdrawal deal with the U.S. on the Taliban’s behalf. Mullah Baradar exercises no current influence or authority and is convenient window dressing for the Haqqani network, a Taliban syndicate, to exert their authority and influence. The agreement is skewed in the Taliban’s favour, with the U.S. making several concessions in return for an entirely dubious counter-terrorism pledge.

The agreement has one significant demand of the Taliban: “to prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.” It uses some variant of that language in Part 2 in the Preamble and clauses. The Taliban will interpret the agreement as not being required to prevent terrorism against the West. The bottom line is there is nothing in the agreement that prevents the Taliban from hosting anti-Western terrorist groups.

In the unlikely scenario of the Taliban working alongside the United States to dismantle al-Qa’ida and deny them resources, al-Qa’ida will not stay quiet. In fact, al-Qa’ida has issued a message congratulating the Taliban on their deal, describing it as a victory. Keep in mind that al-Qa’ida core, al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and other affiliated groups are embedded throughout the Taliban. Over half of al-Qa’ida videos are filmed in the Pakistani territory belonging to the Haqqani network. Time will tell whether the Taliban will really betray al-Qa’ida in a way that would be noticeable, such as handing over or killing its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It’s worth remembering that back in September 2019, Asim Umar, the first emir of AQIS, was killed in a joint US-Afghan raid on a Taliban bastion in Musa Qala, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. This was days after Pakistan first guaranteed the Taliban’s willingness to break from al-Qa’ida. Yet, the Taliban didn’t betray Umar.

Signing ceremony in Doha, February 29, 2020. US Department of State

Immediately after the Taliban and the U.S. signed the Doha agreement, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani rejected the timeline for a prisoner swap outlined in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, saying his government’s release of Taliban prisoners was not a promise the U.S. could make. The people who the Taliban wanted are some of their most violent and misogynistic members. Their release doesn’t bear thinking about. However, Ghani has been under immense pressure to provide some kind of prisoner release.

Subsequently, on 2 March 2020, a deadly blast in the eastern province of Khost shattered an 11-day period of relative calm in Afghanistan, as the Taliban told fighters to resume operations against Afghan security forces. General Austin Miller, the head of the U.S. Resolute Support Mission, authorized airstrikes on 4 March against Taliban fighters in Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand, who were actively attacking Afghan security forces. This new era of peace is already looking highly questionable.

For the Taliban, violence is leverage. Thus, it won’t give it up. And now it’s exploiting that clout to strengthen its bargaining position going into the intra-Afghan dialogue when—and if—it begins. For 11 days of less violence, less shooting, and less murdering of women, the Taliban get 4,400 US troops out and, potentially at some point, thousands of their fighters back. The rest of the deal consists of vague promises that they can pretty much break without consequence—and therefore likely will.

Many oppose the agreement’s provisions because it is not a deal for peace but, rather, a deal to remove the United States from a conflict without a viable strategy to prevent Afghanistan from turning into a cesspool for terrorism once again.

‘Winning’ in Afghanistan could never have happened when the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations’ most important ‘partner,’ Pakistan, was singularly dedicated to U.S. failure in state-building and defeating terrorism in Afghanistan, despite the lucrative remuneration it received. Principally, the Taliban are the Pakistani military’s strategic asset, and their presence in Afghanistan provides ‘strategic depth’ and thwarts the Afghan aspirations of Pashtunistan, which is the reunification of the Pashtun people divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan, courtesy of the colonially created Durand Line. The Pakistani military was never going to give up the Taliban project just because they were told after 9/11, “You are either with us or against us.”

This Doha agreement puts no real pressure upon the Pakistani military to stop its agenda, and thus, it will not. The flaws in the deal must be shared across the West, as no other country had tried to highlight the concerns and pitfalls of what will now transpire in Afghanistan. What the West is setting up is not future peace but future instability. It’s a real indictment that the television show Homeland has a greater understanding of the power politics of the region than Western bureaucrats.

Women’s Empowerment vs. The Taliban’s Misogyny

Another issue is women’s rights, given that under Taliban rule (1995-2001), women were not allowed to work, attend school, or engage in any meaningful activities outside their homes. In 2019, the Taliban chief negotiator Sher Mohamad Stanakzai said they have not changed their ideological views. He refused to accept that al-Qa’ida was behind 9/11, accused the U.S. of creating ISIS, and insisted women would be granted ‘rights according to Islam.’ He would not specify when it came to this latter statement, employing the same selective language used by the Taliban to suppress women in the 1990s. This is a green light for the Taliban to continue promoting their misogyny in Afghanistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani said in his deeply disturbing New York Times op-ed that “All Afghans have equal rights, rights of women granted by Islam.” In case it’s not clear, Haqqani is separating men and women as if women are not part of the first phrase. It’s also what the Taliban said back in the 1990s—a carbon copy. Therefore, the Taliban are reiterating that women will have no role in politics and civil society, especially as the Taliban doesn’t believe there is room for civil society in their version of Afghanistan.

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan protest against the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1998

For the Ghani government, any reduction in the rights of women is a red line. The Ghani government wants the Taliban to respect the Constitution, which guarantees protection for minorities and women. It is unfathomable that any future negotiations between the Ghani government and the Taliban would entail the Taliban demanding that women’s rights be a negotiating topic. What will be telling is if Western leaders and bureaucrats put pressure on the Ghani government to compromise over the rights of women. The irony is that the Taliban fear women because if women’s empowerment was ever able to realise its full potential in Afghanistan, it would be the most powerful weapon to defeat the Taliban. This is why the Taliban continue to want to enslave women.

Sirajuddin Haqqani is the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban and the leader of his Haqqani network. His NYT op-ed illustrates the Taliban’s long-term agenda. Haqqani resembles both an ideological and a narco-crime lord. Under his leadership, the network has embraced criminal enterprises, such as kidnapping, while adopting a wide range of money laundering operations through front businesses like car dealerships and chemical companies. Let’s also not forget that he is an internationally-proscribed terrorist according to the U.S. and the United Nations.

A Final Warning

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan will once again come to resemble a hotbed of terrorism as it was in the 1990s when civil war and extremist forces came to dominate the country’s politics. It’s important to remember that despite the challenges Afghanistan continues to face, since 2001, when the country was starting from ground zero, millions of Afghans have returned home and began rebuilding their communities. Millions of children, including girls, found their ways into schools. Where infrastructure is limited, there are mobile libraries bringing books to children. Civil society has enabled culture, art, and film to grow and establish roots. Afghanistan also has a cricket team that can compete with the best globally. How will the Taliban, with their outdated and regressive rules, reconcile their beliefs with today’s Afghanistan? Or is it simply that no one outside Afghanistan cares anymore?

People will start caring when young, impressionable people from the West start travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan for terrorist training, as they did from the 1990s to 2007. There will be a new wave of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs), but the West will be unable to deal with it because the abandonment of Afghanistan will have already been completed. The burden will then fall on the law enforcement and intelligence communities to deal with the impact of the reverse flow of the FTFs.

The sacrifices of NATO troops, who have given their blood for an honorable outcome in Afghanistan, demand that the West should negotiate an outcome that does not amount to abandoning the country, nor end up endorsing what Russia wants in the region. For Russia, the Afghanistan issue can help Moscow achieve its goal of splintering the U.S. foreign policy establishment ahead of the 2020 presidential election, which, in turn, will degrade American legitimacy within Afghanistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s focus on Afghanistan is an essential aspect of how Russia seeks to re-evaluate its past whilst furthering its future strategic interests. Just like in Syria, the Kremlin is rewriting history in Afghanistan to both diminish US influence and retrospectively justify its own, as it seeks to regain its status in the post-Cold War world—with the Afghan people caught in the middle once again.

Dr. Sajjan M. Gohel is International Security Director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, Visiting Teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Co-Chair of the Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfPC)’s Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG). He is also the co-editor for the forthcoming NATO Counter-Terrorism Reference Curriculum (CTRC).

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