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Afghans Fear Yet Another Civil War

17 Feb 2020 Foreign Policy

Last week the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal was commemorated in Afghanistan: Thirty-one years ago, the last Soviet soldier left the country through the Amu Darya River. But Afghans know that was only the beginning of a new nightmare—the start of civil war—and many people in this war-haunted land fear something similar could happen after the withdrawal of all NATO troops. 

And yet they know withdrawal must—and will—happen. “The Americans have to leave. We Afghans just don’t like foreign invaders,” said Mohammad Naseem, who was a Mujahideen commander in the 1980s in the eastern province of Logar, where he fought the communist government and its Soviet backers. 

“We kill one another for foreign forces and foreign ideologies. This has to end,” Naseem said while eating dried mulberries at the Mandawi, Kabul’s largest open-air market. “But it [the withdrawal] has to take place systematically and with responsibility.” Most of all, says Naseem, who supports Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban need to talk with his government too, not just with the Americans. 

That is likely the biggest remaining issue following the announcement of a seven-day truce between U.S. forces and the Taliban in recent days. If the reduction in violence is successful, a first-stage agreement is expected to be signed on by the end of February. The deal would stipulate a 135-day timetable for a U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, calling for a complete withdrawal within three to five years and the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners, but also for the opening of intra-Afghan talks between different political factions. 

During the Munich Security Conference, which ended Sunday, the final phase of the U.S.-Taliban deal was confirmed by several sides, including the Trump administration and U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who carved the deal together with the Taliban delegation in Doha. Afghan President Ghani expressed his concern that the Taliban could be using the peace process as a “Trojan Horse strategy” to undermine his government but also underlined the fact that the war could not be ended without engaging in a process and testing the insurgents.

But the most frequent gripe of the average Afghan is that, until now, they’ve been cut out of the process. “Basically, we, the Afghan people and our official government, don’t know about anything,” said Idrees Stanikzai, a political activist and leader of Youth Trend Afghanistan, a political movement for young Afghans. 

“The whole deal has been made without us in hidden chambers, and that’s a big problem we should continue talking about. Last but not least, I’m sure that the Taliban, a terrorist group, will come to Kabul considering themselves as ‘winners’ and behave like that.” 

Like many other young people from urban areas, Stanikzai believes that the Taliban will not accept the positive change and development that took place during the last 18 years in their absence. Also in terms of the violence reduction, Stanikzai appears pessimistic. “I think that both sides aren’t trustable. Remember, last time President Trump just cancelled via Twitter everything after months of negotiations. Who can guarantee that this will not happen again? Also, who will be the judge if U.S. airstrikes or Taliban attacks still take place?” he said in an interview. 

During the 18-month-long negotiations between Washington and the Taliban delegation in Qatar, the Afghan government was completely excluded. While Khalilzad repeatedly stated that intra-Afghan talks and an inclusion of Ghani’s government would be crucial to the success of  any deal, critics believed that Washington was mainly appeasing the Taliban, who still question the legitimacy of the “puppet government” in Kabul.

“Afghans are being killed every day. Their lives have become worthless. At the same time, these very people were not represented during all the talks between the Taliban and the Americans. This small group, which wants to reach its goals mainly through terrorism, does not represent an Afghan society which consists of 30 million people,” said Orzala Nemat, a political ethnographer and head of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research organization based in Kabul.  

Many Afghan observers also see the seven-day-long ceasefire as a significant test that will not only reveal the good will of both sides but should also prove whether the Taliban have an organized structure and hierarchy on the ground. This was demonstrated once before during the Islamic holiday of Eid ul-Adha in 2018 when the militant group stopped fighting and laid its weapons down for three days all over the country. Back then, many observers and analysts said that, contrary to how the group is constantly being portrayed, the Taliban have a strict hierarchy in every Afghan province.

Signing a new deal will not end the 40-year-long war but would enable a larger peace process between all different kinds of political factions within Afghanistan, its large diaspora and its civil society. But many observers fear the deal between the Americans and the Taliban could be interrupted by different sides. “The Taliban want to sign this deal. It’s not their interest to disturb it,” said Zakir Jalaly, a university lecturer and political analyst with focus on the Taliban movement. “However, there are other players who are not happy about the US-Taliban peace deal. Obviously, one of them is the Afghan government. Another big opponent of the deal is Daesh (ISIS).” According to Jalaly, it’s possible that both could work separately against the deal to sabotage it.

Already in the past, many attacks and incidents have been staged and blamed on the Taliban or the other way around. “At the moment, there are certain groups not interested in peace, for many reasons. You could find them in the Afghan government, with all its militias, and also inside the Taliban with their stubborn shadow governors or commanders on the ground,” said Bette Dam, a journalist and author focusing on Afghanistan. “The real question is: If something happens, are we ready to find out, rather quick, what the real story is? I don’t think we are, and I think this is very dangerous.”

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