Is the War in Afghanistan Over? | Said Sabir Ibrahimi

SAID SABIR IBRAHIMI, 22 NOVEMBER 2021

On August 15, 2021, the Taliban militant group ousted the quasi-democratic Islamic Republic of Afghanistan backed by the U.S. and reinstated the Islamic Emirate in Kabul. The Taliban argues that since the group controls the entire country, the conflict is over, and the international community should recognize the group as the legitimate government.

Thus far, no country has recognized the Taliban government. Meanwhile, millions of Afghans suffer from acute poverty – what the United Nations calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” This crisis is coupled with an array of security, economic and political challenges that the country faces. Considering this, it begs the question: is the war in Afghanistan over? Has the country achieved peace so that we can offer post-conflict solutions?

Theoretically speaking, Afghanistan is nowhere near a peaceful society. Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung categorizes peace  –  vis-a-vis direct and indirect violence – as negative and positive peace. Negative peace is the absence of direct violence caused by phenomena such as armed conflicts, assaults, riots, and acts of terrorism. Positive peace is the absence of direct and indirect or structural violence such as poverty, racism, apartheid, and discrimination.

Before the Taliban takeover, the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar, were meant to achieve negative peace. The goal was to reach a power-sharing agreement and potentially a political system that could accommodate the wishes of Afghan factions in a multi-cultural society. However, those peacemaking efforts failed due to the lack of consensus by the Afghan elite and the international community.

Direct Violence Persists

The Taliban narrative is that they have brought stability to Afghanistan and entered Kabul without violence. However, the Taliban insurgency has killed more than 60,000 from Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in the last two decades. In the same vein, thousands of the Taliban’s fighters have died for their cause. According to the United Nations, the Taliban was also responsible for a large portion of the nearly 100,000 deaths and injuries of civilians.

Furthermore, after their military victory, the Taliban has engaged in more direct violence, including extrajudicial killings across the country. There are sporadic reports of revenge killings from Kandahar to Nangahar. Amnesty International reported that the Taliban killed at least 17 ethnic Hazaras, 13 of whom belonged to ANDSF after surrendering in Daikundi. In Panjsher, the BBC reported that the Taliban killed at least 20 civilians. Also, much of the direct violence go unreported due to a lack of media freedom and coverage.

Terrorist attacks by the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) also persist. IS-K’s first major attack after the Taliban takeover was on August 26, near Kabul airport during the evacuations. The attack killed some 200 Afghans and 13 American service members. IS-K also carried out several attacks on the Taliban. However, IS-K’s biggest victims continue to be civilians, particularly Shia Hazaras. On October 8, IS-K’s attack killed 150 and injured 200 Shias in Kunduz. Similarly, on October 15, IS-K’s attack on a Shia mosque in Kandahar claimed the lives of at least 47 people and left dozens maimed. 

Meanwhile, another source of direct violence is the armed resistance against the Taliban, namely, the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), led by Ahmad Massoud and former Vice President Amrullah Saleh. NRF called for a national uprising. NRF claimed that they control most of the sub-valleys in Panjsher province. One of the NRF’s commanders, Saleh Registani, said that the resistance had adopted tactics akin to the guerilla warfare against Red Army in the 1980s.

Furthermore, several transnational extremist groups, including al-Qaeda, the East Turkmenistan Movement (ETIM), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), threaten security in Afghanistan and the region. The Taliban has provided assurances to the international community that Afghanistan will not be a sanctuary for terrorism. However, the Taliban is part of the same ecosystem of extremism as al-Qaeda, IMU, and ETIM. The group lacks the resources and political will to act against terrorism.

Indirect Violence and the Emirate 

The Taliban regime exacerbated the existing structural violence they inherited from the previous kleptocratic and corrupt government. The Taliban’s interim government is exclusively made up of men, representing a handful of Pashtun tribes and religious scholars who have little to no formal education. Major ethnic groups and minorities such as the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and women are excluded. The establishment of an exclusionary government may have helped maintain internal cohesion for the group, but it has created despair and confusion for the nation.

The international community also pushes for an inclusive government. As a result, it has cut development aid which constitutes over half of Afghanistan’s GDP. Afghanistan’s $9 billion of foreign assets have been frozen. This is a reaction to the Taliban’s decision to take the government by force and put those on the United Nations sanction list in cabinet positions. As a result, this has left an impoverished nation. According to the World Food Program, more than 14 million people are on the verge of starvation.

The new regime rejects pluralism. There is a de facto ban on anything deemed un-Islamic, including music and art in public spaces. The Emirate has reinstituted the notorious Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which polices people’s behaviors. According to Human Rights Watch, the regime has “severely restricted” media. Several journalists have been arrested, some even tortured. Many Afghan journalists and media personalities left the country as dozens of television, radio, and print outlets were closed down.

There are also other forms of indirect violence. For instance, the Taliban asked some 800 Hazara families in the Gayzab and Patoy districts of Daikundi to leave their houses and lands. After the public outcry, the Taliban appear to have suspended forced evictions in Dayzab. Nonetheless, hundreds of families in the Hazarajat have been displaced. In Balkh province’s capital city of Mazar e Sharif, BBC Persian reports that the Taliban has asked an entire township of Hazara Shias to vacate. Another example of structural violence is discrimination against women. Women are excluded from high-level government positions, and thousands of girls are prevented from going to school and universities.  

Conclusion

Since the Taliban took control of the government, the level of violence has decreased in some ways, but the reality is that the war in Afghanistan is far from over. The former main drivers of violence are no longer engaged in confrontations, but there is a reshuffling of the drivers of the conflict. The Afghan military has been dismantled, foreign troops have withdrawn, and the Taliban’s suicide bombings and other guerilla attacks have ceased. However, the people of Afghanistan continue to suffer from direct and indirect violence in the form of terrorist attacks, extrajudicial killings, guerilla warfare, forced displacement, and an inept government unable to deliver services.

In the last 40 years, several times, many thought that the war in Afghanistan was over. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the civil war that led to the creation of the Taliban erupted. In response to September 11, 2001 attacks, the  U.S. and its allies toppled the Taliban regime. Twenty years later, the Taliban are now back in power. Afghanistan has had many moments of choosing between peace and war, but those in charge failed to opt for peace. The recent intra-Afghan negotiations were meant to end the conflict, but Afghan factions and the international community could not achieve that desired outcome due to competing interests.

Sadly, the war in Afghanistan continues in the absence of a  functioning legitimate government in Kabul that can deal with the challenges of governance and terrorism. Surveys show that most Afghans prefer a pluralistic society, with multiple political parties, elections, and freedom of speech. Afghan civil society and former political leaders call for accountability and a representative government despite the current repressive regime. Former President Hamid Karzai said that the Taliban needs to gain legitimacy at home first to gain international recognition.

The Taliban seems to be making the same mistake that the newly established Republic made in the early 2000s under U.S. pressure by not focusing on political resolutions. If there is a will, Afghanistan can achieve a moderate, decentralized, and pluralistic state to reach negative peace. The road to positive peace that can ensure social justice, economic, political, and gender equality is a long way to go for Afghanistan.

***

Said Sabir Ibrahimi

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a Non-resident Fellow with New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.  Previously, Sabir has worked for several non-profit and developmental organizations, including the Norwegian Refugee Council and the U.K. Department for International Development in Afghanistan. He tweets @saberibrahimi.

Cover Photo by UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights. 

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