The United States exited from Afghanistan in August 2021, amidst the dramatic collapse of the country to the Taliban. This withdrawal was primarily driven by American national interests, yet it can be inferred that America seeks to pursue its core interests in Afghanistan and the surrounding region through alternative means and mechanisms in its negotiations with the Taliban group. However, the narratives propagated by the United States and other countries following the withdrawal suggest a misleading and false description of events. In the following paragraphs, the author will explore two of these misleading narratives.
The first misleading narrative revolves around the Taliban. This narrative suggests that the current Taliban has transformed or is distinct from the pre-9/11 Taliban era in their treatment of the people, which is far from the truth. Not surprisingly, this narrative was formulated in Pakistan, but was later disseminated by the United States, particularly through Khalilzad — the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation during the Doha talks with the Taliban. During the negotiations, the United States unwittingly and in a rather unexpected role, assumed the position of advocating for the Taliban, seeking to convince the international community, especially the European nations involved in the negotiations with the Taliban that the group had undergone significant changes. The United States ultimately made significant concessions to the Taliban in the Doha Agreement which was signed between the two parties in February 2020. An agreement that paved the way for the collapse of the republic government and the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul in mid-August 2021.
However, subsequent events have clearly demonstrated that the Taliban have not changed. Indeed, the opposite has occurred, and the group has become more ruthless than they were in the 1990s. For example, they have imposed restrictions on girls’ education, hindered women’s participation in society, and imposed their ideology and tradition on the general population across the country. They have also compelled people to adhere to their traditional dress code, particularly brutally enforcing strict dress regulations on women in urban as well as rural areas, prohibiting them from appearing in public places without covering their faces, essentially mandating the wearing of Burqas or something similar. Additionally, they have banned all forms of music except for what aligns with their ideology and traditions.
The Taliban, on the other hand, now possesses U.S. weaponry, which has increased their confidence and empowered the group to act with impunity. According to the New York Times, the Taliban have been held responsible for the deaths or disappearances of approximately 500 former government soldiers and employees within the first six months after regaining power. Further, the presence of Daesh (ISIS) in Afghanistan provides the Taliban with a pretext and means to eliminate perceived threats without accountability to the Afghanistan people, a claim they have even touted as a symbol of their victory to the international community. In stark contrast to their first rule (1996-2001), the Taliban now appears to have control over media and access to modern technology. They exploit these tools to exert control and threaten the people both within and outside Afghanistan’s borders. Over the past two years, the Taliban have incarcerated and subjected hundreds of young individuals to torture solely for expressing their opinions on social media that did not align with the Taliban’s preferences.
Furthermore, compared to their first rule, the Taliban now have over a thousand suicide bombers, posing a threat to both their opponents within Afghanistan and neighboring countries. According to Bloomberg, amid a water dispute with Iran, the Taliban have deployed hundreds of suicide bombers to the border with Iran.
The second misleading narrative, propagated by Pakistani politicians directly and utilized by the U.S. and many other Western politicians in response to criticism regarding their decisions related to the current situation in Afghanistan, revolves around the characterization of Afghanistan as a traditional and complex society. While it is true that Afghanistan is a complex and ethnically diverse nation, it is important to note that not all its citizens adhere to traditional beliefs, especially those subscribed to by the Taliban group.
On the one hand, embracing tradition does not equate to endorsing the ideology of the Taliban. On the other hand, it’s crucial to recognize that different regions of Afghanistan have their distinct traditions and cultures. For instance, cities like Kabul, Bamyan, or Herat differ significantly from provinces like Kandahar or Helmand, which serve as strongholds for the Taliban. While the Taliban may indeed reflect the traditional values of rural Pashtuns, it’s important to note that this does not encompass all Pashtuns. Still, the question arises: why should this tradition be imposed upon the entire population of the country that has different traditions? Or a more significant question can be raised: should a nation be handed over to a terrorist group only because of their traditional beliefs?
Most importantly, the primary victims of the August 2021 tragedy are the young men and women of Afghanistan. These are individuals who received their education during the presence of the international community in the country—a generation that breathed the air of freedom for a few years. They are a generation that aspires and yearns to pursue their dreams, make their own choices, and celebrate their potential and capabilities. Regrettably, this generation is now enduring some of their darkest days, and yet, the world remains largely silent. While the international community may have certain justifications for the older generation in Afghanistan on their decision to leave Afghanistan to the Taliban, they seem to have no recourse for addressing the plight of the young generation.
As someone who was born during the war with the former Soviet Union, began primary education during the war with the Taliban, and completed high school, bachelor’s, and master’s level studies in a better situation, but during the war with terrorism, and eventually left the country in the second Taliban rule, I therefore regard the last two decades (2001-2021) as the best part of my life. I also wholeheartedly thank the international community for their 20-year presence in my country and their support in different sectors. However, I cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening in my country now given the horrific human rights abuse by the Taliban regime. While I am not assigning full blame to the international community for all of Afghanistan’s challenges and recognize the negative contributions of my country’s politicians in this regard, it does make me ponder how the liberal world dramatically relinquished control of a country to one of the most extremist groups in the world. What’s particularly disturbing and surprising is the attempt to rationalize this through misleading narratives now.
In conclusion, the consequences of the Taliban regime are not only detrimental to the well-being of the majority of the Afghanistan population, leading to daily victims, but they also have the potential to impact the liberal world in the long run. The liberal world, therefore, shouldn’t compromise its commitment to human rights values in pursuit of short-term national interests. Instead, they should adapt their narrative regarding the suffering in Afghanistan in a way that is sustainable in the long term. Indeed, acknowledging past mistakes can serve as the crucial first step in this endeavor, and it has the potential to alleviate at least some of the suffering experienced by the new generation in Afghanistan.
[Photo by the U.S. Department of State, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sultan Ahmad Aria is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. Prior to his Ph.D. studies, Mr. Aria worked as a Lecturer in political science at several universities in Afghanistan for six years. He has published more than 15 research and analytical articles in national journals, and newspapers in Afghanistan.