Afghans won’t roll over and welcome Taliban back into Kabul, like they did in 1996

Afghans won’t roll over and welcome Taliban back into Kabul, like they did in 1996

The Presidential election in Afghanistan took place last month. Jyoti Malhotra, Journalist and SAWM India member visited the country recently to understand what the Afghans are thinking of the future of the country. It is clear that they will not let the Taliban to take over again but what next? To find out read the complete article.

Abdullah Jaan, a taxi driver in Herat in western Afghanistan, voted in the recent presidential elections. Hasina Jaan, who works in the handloom industry in Kabul, didn’t: “Too much corruption everywhere, nobody deserves my vote,” she said. Suleiman and Nadir, doctors at a primary health care in Herat, voted, as did Zakia Wardak, a woman with dual citizenship living in the US but with strong roots in her home province of Wardak. Mohtesham Agha Jaan, the finance minister during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, didn’t – “the Taliban doesn’t recognise the current regime in Kabul.” Omar Ali, a distributor of medical supplies in Kandahar, didn’t vote either – “we need the Americans to deal with the Taliban,” he told ThePrint, adding, “I don’t think any of the leaders contesting have a plan.”

‘Kaun banega Afghanistan ka Rashtrapati,’ is the question dominating this conflict-ridden country at the crossroads of Asia and Europe today. The future of Afghanistan is at stake, not only because the result of the 28 September election will determine the nature of the power-sharing talks between the US and the Taliban and the consequent withdrawal of the US troops. President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desperation to get out of the “endless wars” – from Afghanistan, where the US has been involved since 2001, and more recently from Syria. The top US commander in Afghanistan said troops were being reduced even without a deal with the Taliban.

End of Taliban’s return

But despite fear of fraud in the voting process, continuing Taliban-sponsored violence, and estimates that less than one-third of the registered voters (2.7 million out of 9.6 million) cast their votes, public interest in the election outcome is running high. In big urban centres like Kabul and Herat, to which this reporter travelled last week, people point out that a return to the bad old days of the Taliban is definitely a thing of the past.

This is the most surprising revelation. That the people of Afghanistan are no longer willing to roll over and welcome the Taliban back into Kabul, like they did in 1996, shows they are desperate for some measure of peace and stability.

Of course, the desperation for peace and stability remains. Eighteen years after they were thrown out by the US, the Taliban are reclaiming significant control over territory, especially in rural Afghanistan. Widespread corruption, killing of innocent civilians through the favourite Taliban tactic of suicide bombing, and the overwhelming dependence of the government and the Kabul elite (many of whom didn’t vote) on the US, are key reasons why the distance between the elite and the street is growing.

Young girls in Herat studying law, in fashionably fitting gowns that pass off as burkhas, with golden zips as embellishment, laughed softly at the idea of the Taliban taking over.

“We are not afraid of them. We know they cannot roll back the rights that Afghan women have got in these past 18 years,” the girls said.

Suleiman, the Herat-based doctor who lived through the Taliban regime, said, “It was not possible for Afghanistan to go through that terrible period again. We cannot leave our country again, to go to Iran or Pakistan,” he said.

Anger against Pakistan

The second big revelation is the widespread anger against the Pakistani establishment. Heratis and the Kabulis have a name for it: ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency. Few know what the acronym stands for, but it is a widespread symbol of hate.

Amrullah Saleh, former Afghan national security advisor and a vice-presidential candidate on the Ashraf Ghani ticket, recounted how he escaped the suicide attack against him on the first day of his campaign in August. “It was a massive attack which went on for 11 hours. The hands may be Afghan but it is clear who the brain was. It was the ISI,” he told ThePrint.

Even ten years ago, the Kabulis weren’t willing to be overly critical of Pakistan. They remembered – and continue to remember – the warmth and generosity of the Pakistani people as they hosted millions of Afghans for decades in and around Peshawar, after the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan in 1979.

But something has changed in the last few years. Most Afghans – whether Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik as well as Shia and Sunni – believe that Pakistan gives the Taliban safe havens (Quetta, North Waziristan, Karachi) as well as weapons and training to launch terror operations inside Afghanistan.

The Afghans know that the US is cosying up to Pakistan because it controls the Taliban. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a key Taliban interlocutor in the US talks, was in a Pakistani jail for eight years or so before he was released. The Afghans realise that despite President Trump’s public show of affection for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the US will continue to rely enormously on Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

This is why Trump’s special Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is received with a mixture of both anger and self-hate in Kabul. After all, you despise yourself most when you hate the person you are most dependent on.

Davood Moradian, the director of the Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies, told ThePrint that Khalilzad sought to “appease the Taliban, behaved like a Viceroy in Kabul and tolerated no debate. Increasingly, the Afghans began to see him as compromised because he only pushed the Taliban view.”

So, when Trump pulled the plug on the Taliban-US peace talks at Camp David last month, the Afghans breathed a huge sigh of relief. Khalilzad and the Taliban’s talks are back on track since, but the Afghans are being much more cautious.

Poll outcome to decide future

Even as the results of the presidential election are awaited, the jockeying for power has begun. Besides incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his key rival Abdullah Abdullah, former president Hamid Karzai too has thrown his hat into the fray.

Now, here’s the third, revelatory learning from a week in Afghanistan: Back-channel politicking will have limited influence because the results of the presidential election will decide the future.

Even those opposed to Ashraf Ghani believe the Afghan elite must arrive at a consensus to wean itself away from the near-total dependence on America and forge its own path.

Afghanistan, once again, stands at the crossroads of history. Who and what they will choose are the big questions that dominate the landscape today.

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About Jyoti Malhotra

Jyoti Malhotra is Editor, National & Strategic Affairs of The Print website in Delhi. She has been a journalist for 35 years and has worked for India's major news media, including the Indian Express, the Times of India and Star News. She has reported in both Hindi and English and consulted for several foreign media. She lives in New Delhi. contact email : jomalhotra@gmail.com