The Taliban Do Not Accept an Evolved Afghanistan as a Reality

After nearly two decades of war and military stalemate, the US negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw its troops in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation. However, the Taliban continue to fight and insist on establishing a rigid “Islamic order.” A Taliban commander, Mullah Fazel, recently told a gathering in Pakistan: “The amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a.” This is when Afghanistan is already an Islamic Republic and society has evolved in many ways since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Going back to the Taliban order is not an option for many and could further complicate peacemaking efforts in the country.

The post-2001 system with its shortcomings has many achievements including 9 million children enrolled in school, 35% of whom are girls; the freest media in the region with a dozen private TV and radio stations, newspapers and magazines; 20 million cellphone users; and a dozen private universities. Afghans also progressed in the areas of arts, culture, and sports from cricket to martial arts, which includes female participants. These numbers do not merely represent a temporary change but a profound shift in many Afghans’ thinking on sociopolitical matters. Under the Taliban regime, Afghans could not imagine a day when they would witness an elected president or a peaceful transfer of power. But both happened in 2014 when Hamid Karzai handed over the presidency to Ashraf Ghani. Today’s Afghanistan encourages accountability for elected officials, critical thinking, volunteerism, feminism, environmentalism—the unthinkable under the “Islamic emirate.”

Certainly, the post-Taliban regime is far from perfect. Afghanistan has held four presidential elections and three of them were marred with massive electoral irregularities. Afghanistan remains one of the top ten most corrupt countries in the world with a narco-economy that produces a large chunk of global demand for opium. The quality of education and healthcare need dire improvement. The country remains vulnerable to environmental challenges. The society remains ideologically conservative. Things can easily be interpreted as against Sharia. We remember the beating and burning of Farkhunda, a young woman falsely charged and killed by a mob for heresy on the streets of Kabul. Recently, Afghan author Zaman Ahmadi was released after spending 7.5 years in prison for an unpublished article deemed blasphemous.

However, many Afghans still prefer the post-2001 quasi-democratic system over the Taliban’s theocratic regime. The Asia Foundation survey also found that 65.1% of Afghans are “very or somewhat satisfied” with the way democracy works in the country; 86% of Afghans support women’s education, and 76% support women working outside the home. The return of a draconian regime will make Afghanistan a much more closed society. The threat is real and the Taliban are preparing for such a scenario. In a recent interview Taliban official, Hakim Akhunzada, said the Taliban did not see the environment as conducive for women to go to school beyond the age of puberty.

The Taliban have been seeking a puritanical “Islamic order” in an already Islamic nation where the constitution holds Islamic laws above any other law. From Mullah Omar in 2004 to Mullah Haibatullah in 2019, the group has rejected democracy and boycotted elections. The Taliban has killed and maimed voters and bombed voting sites. Now many in the group see the US-Taliban agreement as a victory and their trolls on social media threaten folks who disagree with them with their return to power. The narrative is that the Taliban is the best alternative. The rest of Afghanistan and the ideas of other Afghans do not matter and are seen as misguided and corrupt.

Additionally, what is casting more doubts on the peace process and the intentions of the Taliban is the level of violence amid a global pandemic – COVID19. Despite a brief reduction of violence (RiV) period in early March, the Taliban have launched hundreds of attacks on the Afghan security forces. In one instance, the Taliban killed 24 Afghan soldiers in their sleep in Zabul. The Afghan security forces, who had earlier paused offensives hoping to maintain the RiV, have now vowed to revenge. Furthermore, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Khurasan launched several attacks, the latest of which was on a Shia Hazara gathering and a Sikh temple in Kabul, mercilessly killing dozens of men, women, and children. In another horrific incident, eight civilians, many of them children, died in Gereshk district of Helmand when a roadside bomb struck their car.

The Asia Foundation survey also found that 93.1% of Afghans fear to encounter the Taliban. For over two decades, Afghans have experienced the tyrannical reign of the Taliban in their midst. In the 1990s under the “Islamic emirate,” the economy also collapsed. The disgustingly salty bread rations by the United Nations were the only source of nutrition for many in an isolated Afghanistan. People would need to go to a Public Call Office to make an international call from the capital, Kabul. The Taliban moral police beat women in public for “immodesty” and jailed men for trimming their beards. They severed the hands of thieves, stoned the “adulterous,” and executed the condemned during soccer matches. These primitive practices continue to this day in areas under Taliban control.

Despite all these atrocities, the Afghan people favor negotiations with the Taliban to end this endless suffering. The Asia Foundation survey found that 89% of Afghans favor talks with the Taliban. The Afghan government offered to recognize the Taliban as a political party and enter negotiations. However, the Taliban rejected talks until a US-Taliban agreement was reached. Now that there is an agreement, the intra-Afghan negotiations are yet to begin while the Taliban have denounced the recently proposed Afghan negotiation team. 

The Taliban represent one of the many factions in the country, yet they aspire to rule all Afghans. The group either does not seem to realize an evolved Afghanistan as a reality or simply the goal is to establish the so-called “Islamic emirate” — an order that will take a heavy toll on the economy, pluralism, media freedom, women’s liberties, civil society, freedom of expression, and could be the end of the democratic experiment in the country. It will also leave no room for factional political participation and power-sharing, which will bring the country to the brink of yet another civil war. If the Taliban want to have a future in Afghanistan, they will need to accept the rest of the country as a reality, pursue a peaceful political struggle and not repeat their mistakes of the 1990s. The Taliban excuse for their jihad was “foreign occupation” – now foreigners are leaving – it is the Taliban versus the rest of Afghanistan.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in post-2001 rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Comments and follow at @saberibrahimi

The article was originally published on Tolonews.

Pakistan Sees Afghanistan Through India’s Lens

Since the summer of 2018, the United States has been negotiating a deal with the Taliban that would facilitate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, initiate a ceasefire, forge a counter-terrorism understanding between the two warring parties, and kick-start the intra-Afghan talks. The Taliban has so far refused to engage in formal negotiations with the Afghan government but they have participated in some unofficial and secret talks. Pakistan, who has been providing sanctuary to the Taliban over the last 18 years, has a crucial role to play in peacemaking efforts. While recently Pakistan has offered to assist with the peace talks, uncertainties remain as Islamabad continues to see Afghanistan through the lens of its geopolitical rival, India. Islamabad has long sought a subdued government in Kabul through its strategic depth policy to fend off India’s threat to its northern border.

In February 2019, after the attacks on the Indian military in Pulwama, relations between India and Pakistan soared. India claimed that the attack was planned in Pakistan and retaliated with surgical strikes. Pakistan denied the charges, shot down India’s jets and closed its airspace to commercial flights between Kabul and Delhi. The Pakistani ambassador in Kabul warned that the worsening India-Pak relations could jeopardize the Afghan peace process. Foreign Minister, Mahmood Qureshi, warned the US that “India’s ‘aggressive posture’ could affect joint efforts for peace in Afghanistan.” In August Islamabad-Delhi relations further deteriorated when Prime Minister Modi’s government revoked Article 370 of India’s constitution that gave special autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. On August 6, 2019, during a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament, one opposition leader, Mr. Shahbaz Sharif, emphasized that India’s actions in Kashmir can hurt peace in Afghanistan and alleged that Modi’s administration was an impediment to peace. Islamabad’s envoy to the US also asserted that deterioration of the situation in Kashmir could harm the US peace efforts.

This past September, when Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the US, Afghanistan was on the top of the agenda for discussion with President Donald Trump, but, yet again, Afghanistan was linked with the issue of Kashmir. Mr. Khan said, “We also want to talk about all three neighbors: Afghanistan, India, Kashmir [sic] and of course Iran.” However, Islamabad’s Kashmir efforts have got little attention in the international arena, including in China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend. In the meantime, India has rejected the US offer to mediate saying that the dispute is a bilateral India-Pakistan matter.

India’s presence in Afghanistan has triggered the feeling of encirclement for Pakistan but Kabul and Delhi have been cautious and have not entered greater security cooperation. The focus rather has been trade ties, development aid, and limited security assistance. Delhi has invested over $3 billion in development projects such as building the country’s parliament, training some Afghan civil servants and military officers, providing educational scholarships, and most importantly investing in the construction of Chabahar port in southeastern Iran which will connect India to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2019, the trade volume between Afghanistan and India reached nearly $1 billion and expected to increase to $2 billion by 2020. On the peace efforts, India has supported the US peace initiative and maintained that the process should be inclusive and “Afghan-owned.” 

In some ways, Pakistan has played a positive role in initiating US-Taliban talks in Qatar. Islamabad had released the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Baradar from its custody to participate in the US-Taliban talks in Qatar. The talks had produced an agreement “in principle.” However, the negotiations were canceled by Mr. Trump who cited dissatisfaction with the deal and the Taliban’s insistence on violence. With Mr. Trump’s recent visit to Afghanistan, the talks are expected to resume. Pakistan has repeatedly reaffirmed its support to the process and also has participated in diplomatic forums such as the Afghanistan-China-Pakistan ministerial forum and a recent China, Pakistan, Russia, and US meeting in Moscow. The Moscow meeting has issued a communique endorsing the current peacemaking efforts – signaling a positive sign for international cooperation. Also, PM Khan has inaugurated a 24/7 customs facility at the Afghan-Pak Torkham border crossing and deemed it as a transformative project for the region.

Afghanistan and the US have welcomed these positive developments, however, a recent US Congressional Research Service report said Islamabad continues “to view the Afghan Taliban as a relatively friendly and reliably anti-India element in Afghanistan.” The existence of many Pakistani fighters in the ranks and files of the Daesh in Afghanistan also raises questions about the viability of peace in the country even if a political settlement is reached with the Taliban. Some Afghans remain skeptical because of the escalation of violence and the Taliban’s unwillingness to enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan factions. For the first nine months of 2019, the number of civilian casualties remained record-high at 8,200 – 2,563 killed and 5,676 injured. Additionally, there are on and off Afghan-Pak Durand Line skirmishes that continue to take military and civilian lives. 

Undoubtedly, internal political dynamics are key to the success of peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan but the role of neighbors, in particular Pakistan’s policy toward the country, remains equally crucial. Improvements in Pakistan’s behavior such as in facilitating talks between the Taliban and the US are positive signs but it seems as if the strategic depth policy is well alive and Pakistan continues to see Afghanistan through India’s lens. This policy has proven to be futile in many ways and a lose-lose situation – there is no Pakistan friendly government in Kabul, the issue of Kashmir remains unresolved, access to Central Asia is a challenge, and Afghanistan continues to suffer from violence. Pakistan must adapt its strategy toward Afghanistan or it will impede Afghan-US peacemaking efforts. Instead of trying to fend off Delhi’s influence with militancy, Islamabad can secure good relations with Kabul through economic development and respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty. This will be in line with Prime Minister Khan’s vision, which is “to promote peace and prosperity in the region and move towards resolution of conflicts.” 

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Previously he has worked with several developmental organizations in post-2001 rehabilitation efforts in Afghanistan. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Comments and follow at @Saberibrahimi

The article was originally published in the ToloNews. Photo credit: ToloNews.

Can Qatar Enhance Its Mediation Efforts in the Afghan Peace Process?


Qatar has emerged as a conflict resolution actor in the international arena attempting to mediate political solutions from Lebanon to Sudan, and even for Afghanistan, albeit with mixed results. In 2013, at the request of the US and the Taliban preference, Qatar allowed the Taliban to open their so-called political office in Doha. While the Afghan government never officially recognized the office, the office remained as the de facto address for the group, besides their sanctuaries in Pakistan. In 2014, the US and the Taliban agreed to a prisoners’ swap in which one US serviceperson was exchanged for five Taliban members released from Guantanamo Bay. Doha would facilitate official and unofficial dialogues between the US, the Afghan government, think tanks, and the Taliban for years to follow. However, Qatar would mainly act upon the request of the US or the Afghan government and not take on a proactive mediator role in the Afghan peace making efforts.

Afghanistan has been subject to a chronic conflict for over 40 years; the memories of many Afghans from the Arab world are from the spread of religious puritanism and the Arab fighters who rushed to help in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. When the Soviet troops withdrew, mediation efforts failed and the Afghan civil war began over power-sharing in the newly formed Islamic government. By the mid-1990s, the Taliban faction prevailed and controlled most of the Afghan territory, establishing the Islamic Emirate, recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban regime hosted al-Qaeda, who had launched terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 which led to the US retaliation. The US intervention in the country ultimately ended the Taliban regime and established a new, somewhat-democratic system that is recognized overwhelmingly by a majority of the international community.

But the Taliban made a comeback with sanctuary, training and logistical support by Pakistan, financial support from the Gulf countries, and the illicit economy and extortion inside the country. From 2001 to 2017, the US spent more than $130 billion dollars on reconstruction and creating institutions – this was accompanied by 2,500 casualties of US servicemen and women, and Afghans paying the biggest price of all by losing around 50,000 civilians and thousands of security forces. The region, then, also suffered from illicit drug trafficking that led to more addictions across the region and economic downturns, especially with Pakistan needing an IMF bailout. This grave reality-check brought some consensus for a political solution in Afghanistan. Challenges still remain with the Taliban not wanting to enter into talks with the Afghan government, and gaining support from unusual partners such as Iran and Russia, complicating a regional consensus.

At the same time, Doha enjoys a great degree of good relations with a majority of the parties involved in the Afghan affairs. Pakistan, as the main sponsor of the Taliban, enjoys friendly relations with Qatar. Islamabad and Doha have entered into a strategic security partnership and economicties for many years. Furthermore, Qatar enjoys close relations with Iran. During the Gulf crisis and Saudi led blockade, Iran was one of the first countries that supplied necessary food items and most importantly gave airspace access to Qatari air traffic. Doha has also maintained cordial relations with Moscow, although they had their differences over Syria. Russia continues to remain neutral in the Gulf crisis and offered civilian assistance to Qatar. In return, Doha proposed Foreign Direct Investments in Russia. In March 2018, after a visit by the emir of Qatar to Moscow, Qatar Airways announced that it plans to purchase a 25% stake in Russia’s Vnukovo Airport.

Additionally, Qatar is a close strategic ally of the United States. The peninsula is hosting the largest US military presence in the Middle East. There are some 11,000 US military personnel based at the US Combined Air Operations Center in Al Udeid Base, which serves as the main source of airpower and logistics for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and several other countries in the region. Doha and Washington also enjoy economic and cultural ties. Qatar hosts branches of some top American educational centers in Doha, including the Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, and Brookings Institution, and there are robust economic ties between the two countries. During the Gulf crisis, while the White House initially sided with the Saudis, it later toned down its stance and offered to play a constructive mediator’s role. The US has also expressed appreciation for Qatar’s role in facilitating peace talks with the Taliban.

Kabul-Doha relations are limited, but Qatar has helped the country with small-scale developmentaland education projects, as well as participating in international fora on Afghanistan. On a number of occasions, Qatar has offered to mediate between the Afghan actors of the conflict and condemned militant attacks. However, Qatar does not have an embassy in Kabul and operates through its Islamabad embassy. The Afghan government recognizes Doha’s role in the mediation process and curtailing Taliban financing. Kabul has said it welcomes positive peace efforts that are “genuine and tangible.” Afghanistan’s embassy in Doha has even advocated for forging closer economic and cultural relations between the two countries.

Doha can play an instrumental role in creating a regional consensus around the question of Afghanistan and mediating between the Afghan elements. At the very least, Doha can act as an influential balancer. Qatar with its good standing with regional actors can influence Pakistan, Iran, and Russia and the prospects of a regional consensus towards ending the war. Doha can also use its leverage over the Taliban and encourage the group to enter direct negotiations with the Afghan government and agree to a ceasefire – a proposal that was raised by the Afghan government in August. Establishment of Qatar’s diplomatic mission in Kabul can also help in this regard. Overall, Doha can play a more prominent role in Afghanistan by proactively participating in diplomatic efforts and positively influencing the actors. This way Qatar can gain international recognition for its contribution to international conflict resolution efforts that can lead to ending a chronic conflict and boost its soft power in the global arena. But it still remains to be seen whether Qatar will, in fact, take on a more prominent role in the Afghan peace process.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan‑Pakistan Regional Project at New York University‘s Center on International Cooperation. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Stay in touch on twitter @Saberibrahimi

Afghan Civilian Casualties, the Elephant in the Room

By: Said Sabir Ibrahimi

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan shouldn’t be treated as simple statistics.

Afghan civilians are becoming casualties of war in alarming numbers. More than 28,000 civilians have been killed and more than 50,000 injured since 2009, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). This number does not include thousands of others who died between 2001 and 2008.

2017 saw 3,438 dead and 7,015 injured — 65 percent of the casualties were attributed to the anti-government elements, namely the Taliban and Islamic State. Twenty-five percent of these casualties have been attributed to the pro-government elements (including 16 percent attributed to the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, and 2 percent to international military forces). Eleven percent of these casualties were attributed to crossfire, and 1 percent to border shelling from Pakistan, while the rest cannot be attributed to any warring parties.

In January 2018, a car bomb attack by the Taliban using an ambulance killed over 103 and injured over 200 people, a textbook example of a war crime. Incidents like these happen in highly populated areas where civilians go about their daily lives. In this particular case, the attack took place near the Ministry of Interior and a hospital where men, women, and children gathered to receive public services.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.


The main problem is the multiplicity of warfronts in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is currently fightingover 20 different terrorist groups, as well as drug lords, while also attempting to rebuild its weak institutions and garner legitimacy. Another problem is the lack of attention and prioritization of the matter of civilian lives by both national and international actors.

Incident after incident, the Afghan government promises to avenge or launch investigations, which never end. Afghan officials send their thoughts and prayers with no real impact on prevention of further deaths. A recent declaration by the Afghan Ulema (religious scholars) barely mentioned the issue of civilian protection.

Consultations about a possible peace process overlook the issue of the protection of civilian lives. Emphasis on the prevention of civilian casualties has rarely surfaced in fora such as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, a forum discussing a possible framework for peace between Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States.


The ANSF must ensure that their rules of engagement and operations include measures that ensure the safety of noncombatants. Protection of civilians must be institutionalized. Stricter control of Afghanistan borders, hunting down precursors to explosives, and raising the issue at the UN and other international arenas are some of the other ways to address the problem.

Among international forces, the U.S. military, which carries out most of the airstrikes in Afghanistan, has not only moral and legal obligations to protect civilians, but also for practical reasons it has to take the matter seriously. U.S. military veterans such as General David Petraeus and Chris Kolenda have acknowledged that civilian casualties by international forces sustained the war and concluded that protection of civilians is essential to the success of U.S. mission in Afghanistan.  

The rest of the international community and humanitarian organizations bear the responsibility to give voice to the voiceless. Recording civilian casualties is a great service to the families of the victims, who would hopefully one day be able to seek justice, but recording alone is not enough. The focus should be on prevention. How can further deaths of innocents be prevented? The international community such as the UN, European Union, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and others can help in building the capacity of the ANSF. They can also raise concerns about the matter with respective actors and emphasize on protection of civilian.

For the Taliban, if it is serious about taking part in a peace process, it must cease attacking civilian targets. No one is winning this war. The Afghan government has made a generous offer by signalling it is willing to enter into negotiations without conditions. The Taliban should seize the moment and enter into negotiations with the Afghan government. The sides should agree to a ceasefire which can help drastically reduce the suffering of civilians.

For too long Afghan civilians have suffered from this chronic conflict. They deserve to be included in national and international debates about war and peace. Civilian deaths shouldn’t be treated merely as statistics and or an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

This article was originally published on the Diplomat Magazine.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Research Associate for Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Opinions expressed in this article are personal. Follow at @Saberibrahimi