Editor’s Note: Shaharzad Akbar is currently chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She was previously Deputy of National Security Council on Peace and Civilian Protection in the Afghan government. Her writing has appeared in international and Afghan media, including Newsweek and Al Jazeera, and academic journals. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I grew up during the civil war in Afghanistan, and yet my parents encouraged my siblings and I to read world literature, absorb music and art, think critically and progressively, and live our lives as strong and independent women.
Naturally, this is the vision I have for my son’s future. I want him to grow up in a tolerant and globalized Afghan society that gives wings to the aspirations of its children, rather than aiming to control their life choices with force and fear. But I also never want him to walk to school fearing explosions and suicide attacks.
And so, as the US and Taliban get closer to finalizing a peace plan, I, like many Afghans, am watching events unfold with concern – desperately hoping for the best but fretting for the worst. As an activist, I have been a part of efforts to end the four decades of bloodshed and violence in Afghanistan, including sitting across from the Taliban as part of the Doha intra-Afghan dialogue last month.
It’s worth noting here that this war has raged for longer than I have been alive. It has claimed the lives of some of my friends and family members, and driven others, including my sisters, to take refuge abroad. As a new mom myself, I want my son’s childhood memories to be brighter than mine, free of brutal civil war, Taliban rule and a life – like I had then – as a refugee.
Despite my hope for an end to the violence, the rushed approach of American and international engagement with the Taliban and the Taliban’s emboldened rhetoric about their ideas for the future of Afghanistan point to an outcome that would not be a peaceful one. The continued suicide attacks and the Taliban’s threats to disrupt upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan are causing further public anxiety about the possibility of peace.
So, what’s in this US-Taliban deal? If signed, it would supposedly allow US forces to withdraw, force the Taliban to agree not to harbor terrorists and pave the way for intra-Afghan talks that would ultimately result in a comprehensive peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But there are many aspects of the past year’s approach that have already undermined Afghans’ chances for peace.
For starters, the US is focused on concluding a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban by September 1. In addition to the United States’ desperate rush to sign a deal with the Taliban, the red-carpet reception given to the Taliban by different countries, most recently Uzbekistan and China, means the Taliban are further emboldened to pursue a scenario that would require little, if any, compromise on their part.
In Doha, I witnessed their arrogant unwillingness to compromise. Their answers to legitimate questions from the Afghan delegation on women’s rights, governance models, elections, international treaties to which Afghanistan is a signatory and other key issues, were vague and well-rehearsed. They did not show any willingness to enter into fruitful debate, a worrying sign for their willingness to compromise on some of these key topics in future intra-Afghan negotiations.
They specifically used the word “victory” when speaking about the outcome of their negotiations with the Americans. Their members continued to kill civilians, even as we sat across the table from them. More specifically, they bombed a heavily populated area of Ghazni province – which claimed the lives of 14 and injured 180, many of them schoolchildren.
On the sidelines of the Doha talks, a group of Afghan delegates, including myself, had the chance to pose some of these concerns and fears to the chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad. We sought explicit assurances from him that the United States was not compromising on Afghanistan’s hard-won human rights and freedoms. But when I asked him about this, his response was also vague and well-rehearsed, reiterating a phrase he has said time and again, that Afghanistan’s future will be “for Afghans, and Afghans alone, to decide.”
Yet Khalilzad must realize that the content of the US-Taliban agreement will directly affect our chances to succeed, or even have a fair chance, in future negotiations with the Taliban. In this way, the United States does have a responsibility for the country’s future.
For years, the US had three conditions for peace: the Taliban had to lay down arms, abide by the Afghan constitution and denounce al-Qaeda. Today, America’s mighty leverage has been whittled down to extracting a promise from the Taliban that they will not harbor terrorists. In return, America has promised to remove its troops as fast as they can, haste likely driven as much by a US electoral timetable as Taliban impatience to see them gone.
The Taliban’s and the Americans’ lack of concrete statements about protecting the rights and freedoms of Afghans, and Afghan women in particular, left me feeling extremely concerned about the post-settlement future. Who will that future really favor – those who win power and influence at a negotiating table, or the more than 30 million Afghan civilians who have been caught in crossfire for decades?
The Taliban’s unwillingness to compromise, paired with a fractured Afghan political elite that has so far not agreed on principles for the country to follow in intra-Afghan negotiations, will mean that a best-case scenario would be an undemocratic return of the Taliban to the political realm. This could lead to substantial changes to the governance system, the constitution and a considerable shrinkage of existing civic space.
If Taliban rule in their current areas of influence is any indication, it could also mean severe regressions on individual rights and freedoms but also a philosophically different approach to governance. Taliban-style governance prioritizes religious policing, not the equal provision of services and opportunities that enables the talents and capacities of the entire population to flourish.
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The worst-case scenario would be a return to civil war and chaos. In case of a rushed withdrawal and in the absence of strong monitoring and enforcement mechanisms by the international community, either of the sides could withdraw from the negotiations and attempt military victory.
I realize that my vision of a peaceful Afghanistan is defined by my upbringing and my personal values, which will be shared by some but not all Afghans.
I accept that should Afghans ever get the chance to sit across from the Taliban and negotiate, we may have to compromise, giving up part of our vision for peace and freedom in order to preserve an end to violence. I would expect the same from the Taliban.
Still, I remain certain about one thing: I will not give into the fear and tyranny that consumed my childhood. I will follow my parent’s example and raise my child to live with tolerance, progressive values and with eternal hope for the future – whether that future I envision for Afghanistan happens in my lifetime or in his.