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Compared to the Taliban era of the 1990s, Afghanistan has made impressive gains in the sphere of human rights, especially women’s rights. The Afghan constitution prohibits discrimination between citizens “whether man or woman”. Consequently, Afghan women have a visible presence in parliament, cabinet, civil administration and media. As pillars of civil society activism, they have played a crucial role in expanding female education across the country.

For the moment, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission keeps the government under scrutiny and the country’s vibrant media promotes a culture of free enquiry in what is still a predominantly tribal society. What Afghanistan has been able to achieve in the middle of a war, with international help, was virtually unthinkable over a decade ago. We only have to refresh our memory of the Taliban era to appreciate Afghanistan’s current gains in the domain of human rights.

However, as dialogues with the Taliban and the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan moves forward, there is real danger that the decade of human rights gains – through so much effort and so many sacrifices – may be compromised.

I

To explain why I consider these gains (however limited their present scope may be) too precious to compromise, let me go back in time to share some personal thoughts on the evolution of the Taliban movement and its implications for Afghan society. As a reporter with a Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, I covered the rise of Taliban in Kandahar and its spill-over into Pakistan’s Swat Valley in the mid-90s.

The Taliban movement was no doubt a natural response to atrocities committed by rival commanders in the region. Local people abhorred Afghan infighting, which was why the Taliban did not face much resistance in extending their writ beyond Kandahar and disarming the conquered areas. The Taliban were able to enforce relative peace by disarming the rival factions. They were also able to streamline the Afghan taxation system and contributed to reducing poppy cultivation in the country (a fact later acknowledged by the United Nations).

Simultaneously, however, some worrisome signs were visible in the Taliban movement right from the beginning. Taliban leaders, including Mullah Umar, were clear about enforcing a Hanafi Sunni Islamic order in Afghanistan. Thus, in conquered areas, Shariah was strictly enforced, and punishments awarded accordingly. There was little doubt then about the Taliban’s belief system: it was the sum total of Pashtun religious conservatism, which had been radicalised during the anti-Soviet jihad, combined with a violent, exclusivist Islamic creed of Pakistani Deobandis, with some attributes from Saudi Wahhabis. In the spring of 1995, when the Taliban had captured only a handful of provinces in the south and the east, their leaders would not shy from expressing expansionist ambitions, taking pride in “hundreds of Taliban” fighting in Chechnya. They had no qualms in seeking wartime support from criminal warlords like Mullah Rocketi, whom I saw being personally greeted by Mullah Umar inside Taliban headquarters.

In the Taliban’s bigoted worldview, there was no space for minority views or dissenting voices. Thus, as soon as Kabul fell to the Taliban in September 1996, it was clear what they were up to. The mutilated bodies of former Afghan President Dr Najibullah and his brother hung in the city square, a harbinger of the terror spree that was to follow.

What’s left of the statue. Photo Credit: Flickr

Once firmly in power, the Taliban chose to act independently. Even Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which had rushed to recognise the Taliban regime, finally made the uncomfortable discovery that a fundamentalist leadership equipped with political power was difficult to control. The Saudis fell out with the Taliban over the Osama bin Laden issue. The Taliban then destroyed the ancient Buddha Statues in Bamiyan, despite consistent appeals by the whole world, including Pakistan, where the Afghan madrassas had generated considerable manpower support for the Taliban movement in the beginning.

What the Taliban did to the people of Afghanistan, especially to minorities and other unprivileged sections of population, as well as to all those who did not subscribe to their regressive creed, was simply horrendous. I wrote about them in a December 2000-January 2001 issue of the journal, Perceptions.

The traditionally tolerant multi-ethnic society of Afghanistan does not deserve to be ruled by [the] Taliban, who exercise a reign of terror in the territories under their occupation. They have won global notoriety for their maltreatment of women, who are denied the right to education, work, move and speak freely. Those accused of illicit sexual ties are stoned to death, and men accused of murder are shot dead by relatives of the victim party, in case the latter refuse to accept the blood money, and this deadly drama is played right before the eyes of hundreds of people usually in sports stadiums. Hands or legs of the accused thieves are amputated likewise. The Religious Force of the Ministry of Fostering Virtue and Preventing Vice recently disrupted two friendly football matches between Afghan and Pakistani teams in Kandahar and Kabul—in July and October 2000, respectively. In the first instance, the heads of Pakistani players were shaved off—for they violated the dress code of Taliban by wearing shorts; and, in the second case, the players were chased away from the stadium by bearded thugs because the timing of the match violated a recent edict of Taliban’s spiritual leader, which prohibits the people from taking part in any sports activity after 4 pm.

In the end, it was a terrorist event on the scale of 9/11 that had to occur in order to persuade the world to intervene militarily in Afghanistan and rescue its people from Taliban rule. Prior to that, the UN Security Council had passed two sets of sanctions against the Taliban regime – but only after the Clinton Administration stopped luring the Taliban regime in order to win a regional gas pipeline contract from the Taliban for the American UNOCAL-led consortium. Faced with growing pressure from human rights campaigners, the US government was left with no option but to publicly castigate the Taliban regime for committing human rights violations. And it did so almost two years after the Taliban captured Kabul. Thus, if the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat was one strategic mistake, the late response to Taliban’s human rights excesses was another. The former created a political vacuum in the war-torn country, out of which emerged the Taliban movement; and the latter enabled the Taliban to conquer much of Afghanistan, including its northern provinces.

II

Today, Afghanistan may be at risk of becoming a casualty of another such pragmatic approach, which the Karzai regime and the US government have already started to pursue. As part of its policy to appease the Taliban and their sympathisers in the Afghan parliament, the Afghan government has in recent years adopted a number of controversial legal measures that narrow down the space for women’s rights rather than expanding it further. It is, therefore, no surprise that a considerable majority of Afghan women surveyed recently fear the freedoms they have gained may not last long, and that the return of a Taliban-style rule was in the offing.

For its part, the US has in the past year or so further empowered its traditional allies among Afghan regional warlords (most of whom have heinous track-records) to establish their own local police forces – an issue over which Human Rights Watch’s recently-released annual report expresses ‘grave concern’. The US government is also reportedly considering the possibility of releasing some Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in a prisoner swap arrangement with the Taliban after they agreed to open a liaison office in Qatar.

Of course, in the end, most conflicts end with a dialogue with the enemy. So should be the case with Afghanistan. The marginalization of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban security, political and economic structure is a reality, and the legitimate grievances of the country’s majority population must be addressed effectively. However, in the process of reconciling with the Taliban, extreme care must be taken so as to preserve, even if not build upon, the gains Afghanistan has made in the domains of human rights in the last decade or so.  Human rights violations have, indeed, occurred in Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban and following their fall. The Taliban era was still exceptionally brutal for the Afghans. If this is not enough, the decade-long war may have produced a breed of Taliban who are believed to be much harder and harsher than their older lot when it comes to the rights of women, ethnic minorities and religious dissidents.

Some recent studies suggest that Taliban leaders have learned bitter lessons from the war, and, therefore, may be willing to reshape their human rights conduct once included in Afghanistan’s power structure. Even if such assessments are true, what remains hugely uncertain today is how the Taliban as a wholesome movement – that came into being quite a while ago, and has experienced a grinding long war against local and foreign forces – will actually conduct itself in the corridors of power.

As the outside world proceeds to withdraw its combat forces from Afghanistan, and rushes to reconcile with the Taliban to smooth along an exit, it can learn a valid lesson from Pakistan’s experience with the Taliban in Swat Valley. In the spring of 2009, Pakistan’s provincial and federal governments accepted the Taliban’s demand for enforcing a ‘system of justice’ in the region to be run on the basis of their version of Islam. But it was a glaring mistake, made because neither of them could understand what the real intensions of the Taliban were. And these intensions became clear within days, when the whole world saw the footage of a 17-year girl being publicly lashed in the valley. The Taliban soon began expanding the ‘system of justice’ to the rest of the country. Only a forceful paramilitary operation could stop that march and prevent Taliban excesses in other parts of Pakistan’s borderlands with Afghanistan. It is a battle that continues unabated.

Indeed, in the case of Afghanistan, reconcile we must. There is no other alternative. But we must do so with a host of incentives guaranteeing Taliban leaders and fighters a career other than war. And we must offer policies deterring them from re-imposing a religious creed that violates basic human rights.

Ishtiaq Ahmad is Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. The article is based on his presentation at Visiting Parliamentarian Fellowship Seminar on ‘Afghanistan after Ten Years: More Rights or Fewer?’, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, February 14, 2012.   

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