MOHAMED CHEBARO January 26, 2022
From an early age, Afghanistan captured my imagination. Growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, I had a natural interest in following up on the many failed invasions of that country, as well as its many attempts at nation-building and the frustrations of its people as they sought to live peacefully with one another, their neighbors and the wider world.
There are many myths about Afghanistan that evoke national pride among its citizens and varying degrees of admiration in those studying its state and society from outside. Key among those myths is that Afghanistan has defied invaders from Alexander the Great to the British, as well as kicking Soviet troops out of the country and, last but not least, the alliance that fought and reigned in the name of “enduring freedom.”
Although myths remain myths, the facts are that every power succeeded, to varying degrees, in their campaigns to occupy Afghanistan. But they all — as well as Afghanistan’s various competing ethnic, religious and ideological groups — failed at nation-building and attempts to ensure peace, security, stability and now subsistence for its people.
The Taliban and their newly established government will not be any different. They first took control of Afghanistan in 1996, following an extreme and outdated interpretation of Islam, before they were toppled from power in 2001. They stormed back to lead the country in August last year as the US-led forces began withdrawing, but Taliban rule version 2.0 is unlikely to deliver nation-building or power-sharing, let alone any slim dose of freedom or liberty that could help put food on the tables of ordinary Afghans.
Having accepted an invitation to hold talks with representatives of the US, UK, France, Germany, the EU and Norway in Oslo, the Taliban delegation led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi is seeking to unblock the country’s frozen assets in the US and elsewhere in the hope of preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. They also want some kind of international recognition, despite the movement remaining aloof to sharing power with the previous regime, granting some basic freedoms, allowing political participation, and respecting women’s rights and their access to education.
From the Western point of view, the talks aim to find practical steps that will allow the channeling of urgent aid into the country. They also want to engage with the group in the hope of seeing a willingness to uphold the rule of law, respect the rights of all the people and work for a stable and inclusive Afghanistan.
Encouragingly, the Taliban also met with members of Afghanistan’s civil society, including women activists and journalists, to discuss human rights. Those who attended were cautious, declaring that it was an “icebreaking meeting” and that the Taliban have “displayed goodwill.” Some were grateful that the Taliban delegates acknowledged them and listened to them. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid even tweeted after the meeting that the participants recognized “that understanding and joint cooperation are the only solutions.”
Of course, the Taliban want to be inclusive in Oslo, especially when they are seeking to unfreeze the country’s assets of approximately $10 billion. And though their tolerance on the ground is not at the levels they have talked of in Norway, the crisis is not solely of their own making. However, their first stint in power and 20-year campaign of violence against the US-led effort to stabilize the country have not helped the situation.
Yes, life in Afghanistan was precarious even prior to the Taliban’s return to power last August. But aid organizations now claim that 23 million Afghans — more than half the population — face severe hunger and nearly 9 million are on the brink of starvation. The US has made sure to state that its sanctions against the Taliban should not affect the flow of aid. Even during the Western rule of Afghanistan that lasted two decades, more than 50 percent of Afghans survived on less than $2 a day, while 80 percent of the entire budget of the US-backed government came from international donors.
Years of drought have affected the country’s agriculture, which makes up 25 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, and the US withdrawal meant that public sector employees were left without salaries. The subsequent deterioration in conditions has led to widespread job losses in both the public and private sectors. A shortage of currency domestically means there are limits in place on how much Afghans can withdraw from their bank accounts, while foreign remittances from the country’s diaspora are not flowing in due to banks and clearing institutions’ reluctance to deal with a state facing US sanctions.
Taliban rule version 2.0 is unlikely to deliver nation-building or power-sharing, let alone any slim dose of freedom.
One hopes the talks in Norway will not be the last and that some creative solutions are found to ensure funds and aid get to those most in need, while not serving to tighten the Taliban’s grip on society. But the onus today falls on those forces that last year rushed to grab power and remove the quasi-functioning state apparatus instead of reforming it to work hard to persuade the international community they are not just a violent rebel group capable of undermining the previous government. The Taliban must prove they are capable of ushering in a transition and purging corruption, replacing it with good governance based on the rule of law, be it temporal or religious, as long as it serves the people, peace and the stability of the country.
The new version of the Taliban might talk the talk, but they are unlikely to walk the walk, as being a rebel group is one thing, but holding the reins of power is another. Calling the previous government a bunch of corrupt, wasteful embezzlers that shut out large parts of society is easy, but embarking on a nation-building quest and upholding the rule of law is a much taller order for the Taliban and many similarly religiously inspired groups elsewhere in the world. I hope I am wrong, but the Taliban are not different.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view