Neil Krishan Aggarwal is a cultural psychiatrist and the author of two books: Mental Health in the War on Terror (2015) and The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate (2016).
For the second time in nine months, the Afghan peace talks have stumbled because of differing expectations between the Taliban and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group formed by Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States. On March 5, the Taliban released a statement spurning the talks; it complained that its authorities had “not been kept informed about negotiations” and that “unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, blacklists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile, misleading negotiations will not bear any results.” The same day, The New York Times reported that an Afghan official close to President Ashraf Ghani dismissed this statement as “just public bargaining.” After all, the official said, Taliban representatives initially opposed the first round of talks, in May 2015, but showed up anyway.
Unfortunately, the Taliban’s “public bargaining” is not empty rhetoric, and to discredit its statements demonstrates either willful ignorance or brazen callousness toward the Afghan war’s human toll. Its participation in the first round of talks did not herald good faith efforts toward peace. Afterward, the Taliban seized Kunduz, the first city to fall after the 2001 U.S.-led NATO invasion. And the United Nations reported more than 11,000 Taliban-related civilian casualties in 2015, more than the previous record, set in 2014.
Instead, all of us should understand the Taliban’s worldview on its own terms, and for this, there is plenty of fodder: Since 1998, the Taliban has used the Internet to disseminate messages in Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto and Urdu. There is no mystery about the Taliban’s goal to implement Islamic law throughout Afghanistan. After the first round of talks, representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government supposedly agreed to negotiate the status of the constitution and the role of women’s education. However, the Taliban followed up with a statement suggesting such negotiations could lead to “un-Islamic and illegitimate agreements” that would tangle up the peace process. It alleged that Afghanistan’s Constitution was coerced, “drafted under the shadow of B-52 bombers of the foreign invaders.” And regarding women’s education, the Taliban wrote that it was committed to women’s rights, in so far as those rights are “bestowed upon them in the sacred religion of Islam.”
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For two decades the Taliban has fought relentlessly to implement its interpretation of Islamic law throughout Afghanistan. We saw what that looked like between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban ruled more than 90 percent of Afghanistan: Islamic law, to the Taliban, means subjugating women and minorities. There is no reason to believe its interpretation has changed.
We should not let our desire to end this war of attrition lead the Quadrilateral Coordination Group to negotiate away the very rights and liberties that have been hard won in the first place. Each QCG member knows the high stakes involved. Afghanistan’s government must demonstrate its ability to govern beyond the capital, Kabul. China remains suspicious about the Uighur Muslims training with the Taliban. Pakistan no longer controls the Taliban officials who splintered into competing factions after the reported demise of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder and supreme leader. And the U.S. needs an exit. Already, the Afghan conflict is the longest war in U.S. history, and has cost more than $700 billion and 2,300 lives.
Member nations of the QCG are tired. But we need to understand whether the Taliban is acting as a good faith negotiating partner or just biding its time until the war-weary QCG members accept defeat. Rather than initiate talks without preconditions — as the QCG has done — we should do the opposite: Before talks begin, we must demand that the Taliban explain its positions in writing — which shouldn’t be difficult, given its propensity for issuing statements. Does the Taliban consider the peace process illegitimate, and any potential agreement as “un-Islamic”? What rights — whether based on Islamic law or secular republican traditions — would women, religious minorities, Shia Muslims and non-Pashtun Sunnis have in any future with the Taliban? If the Taliban were included in any power-sharing agreement, would it respect international laws and treaties? How will the Taliban faction negotiating with the QCG enforce peace upon other factions?
We should also question the QCG’s concessions. Why have QCG members dismissed Taliban statements as public bargaining? Why have QCG members equivocated in taking the Taliban’s worldview seriously? Two rounds of unsuccessful talks have exposed the bitter truth that QCG members may only be acting in their own best interests — not those of Afghan civilians or the international community.