The longest war in US history is in the process of finally winding down, at least as far as the US is concerned. The US has begun the first stage of the process of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan from 13,000 to 8,600, one of the elements of the peace deal signed by the US with the Taliban. Another element is that the Taliban begin negotiations with the US-backed Afghan government to begin today in Oslo and that the government release 5,000 Taliban prisoners it is holding. The Afghan president signed a decree yesterday authrorizing the release of just 1,500 prisoners. It is not clear if this will satisfy the Taliban enough to start the talks.
A further complication has arisen because yesterday two separate Afghan presidents were sworn in at simultaneous ceremonies in adjacent venues, confusing the picture as to whom the Taliban were expected to negotiate with.
President Ashraf Ghani, who was declared the winner of last September’s election, and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who charged fraud in the vote along with the elections complaints commission, have refused to settle their differences.
The two ceremonies were held at the same time on Monday, with Ghani’s in the presidential palace and Abdullah’s next door in the Sapedar Palace, both packed with each rival’s supporters.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed, in response to questions from the Associated Press, said late on Sunday the Taliban were still committed to the deal but said the duelling presidential inaugurations were “not good for the Afghan nation”.
One of the main concerns is the possibility that as soon as the US withdraws all its troops, the Taliban will very likely overthrow the current US-backed government and return as rulers of the country. In other words, we would be back to where we were before 2001, with little to show for the vast numbers of dead and wounded and suffering and destruction that the war caused. We all remember how reactionary the Taliban were, opposing education especially of women and shutting down the arts such as music and films, demanding that men wear long beards, and smashing TVs.
But at the same time, it has been nearly two decades since they were ousted from power by the US invasion. Are the Taliban the same as they were then?
Some argue that the Taliban has changed, especially in its attitudes towards women, pointing to the talks that were held in Doha last year.
The historic intra-Afghan peace talks took place in Doha and could potentially lead to the end of an 18-year war that has ravaged the region. Asila Wardack, the director-general of the United Nations Department of the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was present at the latest conference between the groups in Doha and revealed that the Taliban who were present at the talks have vastly changed in the last few decades.
“One thing that we know is that the Taliban are not those Taliban that they were 20 or 18 years before,” Wardack said via Skype at an event on ensuring the Afghan peace process is inclusive at Georgetown University on July 11.
She went on to say that the Taliban who attended the talks are not the rough fighters many think of, rather they resembled politicians you would see in a more traditional government. Wardack recounted how at one point a Taliban representative even joked that the group of Afghani women representatives were “dangerous women” and asked them not to give the Taliban a hard time.
“My findings – maybe I’m wrong – but their attitude has totally changed towards women, towards government employees,” she said.
But others argue that the Taliban has not changed its ideology but has just got better at public relations. But having said that, they do now face greater public pressure to curb their extremist views.
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Heather Barr said in some areas the militants now allow girls to attend primary school, “if it was segregated by gender, the teachers were female, and the Taliban controlled the curriculum”.
However, it was “ridiculous and harmful” to suggest that proved the Taliban had softened their stance on women, she said.
“Limiting girls to primary education is an extreme form of misogyny … Too many men are in a rush to argue that a Taliban deal will be fine for women. Women know better — but is anyone listening to them?”
Qasem said the restrictions were unpopular. Times have changed since the Taliban were deposed, he added.
“This time, if they don’t change, it might create a backlash,” he told AFP.
There are some signs the insurgents are listening.
Phone use is permitted during the day and televisions watched without fear of punishment, a far cry from the violent Taliban purges against technology in the past.
“What they say is don’t listen to music, listen to sermons and religious programs. But there is no smashing of TV sets anymore,” Thomas Ruttig, from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told AFP.
Mullah Rauf, a former Taliban commander, said the insurgents had evolved.
“They can’t have a hardline government anymore. Nowhere in the world do such governments exist,” he told AFP by telephone from Panjwaee, a Taliban district in Kandahar.
As America pushes for a peace deal, many Afghans want to know the Taliban’s intentions once foreign troops leave.
The militants say they do not want to rule by force, but share power with other parties.
Taliban justice is one area “where compromise will be the hardest”, [Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute] said.
Ruttig said the militants had not abandoned their ideology, but know “they cannot rule against the population”, and therefore might be open to some compromise.
“But whether that’s good enough for most Afghans — who now have tasted completely different freedoms than what they had under the Taliban — that will be up to the Afghan population,” Ruttig said.
In some sense, that is true for all societies. Whatever the laws and constitutions and official government statements might say, it is only when people value and are fiercely protective of their freedoms and rights that those survive. When people are lackadaisical about them, then it is easier for authoritarian governments to undermine their fundamental rights.
As Justice Learned Hand said back in 1944, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”