By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The endgame of the US-Afghan war is going to come in the not-too-distant future, ending 17 years of western futility, despite the fears of a Soviet Union-like US withdrawal amounting to a potential rout.  This isn’t the Soviet-Afghan war, which left behind a tank graveyard (above) and chaos.

In 1992, as the Soviet occupation collapsed, it left behind an increasingly desperate President Najibullah Ahmadzai, who first sought to flee to India and, when that failed, took refuge in the United Nations compound until 1996, when the Taliban took Kabul. They abducted Najibullah and his brother from the UN, tortured them, reportedly cut off their testicles and hanged the two from a traffic post.  That has to weigh heavily on the minds of the current President, Ashraf Ghani, and his pro-western Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

But unlike the 1980s, when hardly any external powers were directly involved in pushing for withdrawal and helping to negotiate it, today at least four countries – the US, Pakistan, China and Russia – are directly involved in engineering a peace process. Many others are indirectly involved, such as India, trying to tap in to secure their interests. The processes and the dynamism are likely to have a strong impact on the Afghan endgame as well as the post-withdrawal polity.

Post-withdrawal Afghanistan should, accordingly, be different from the chaos of the post-Soviet withdrawal. Too many actors and interests are involved (China and India have spent billions already and Pakistan doesn’t want another wave of refugees) to just allow the country to descend into chaos.

More order this time

Therefore, unlike the 1980s, there is likely to be a peace plan, a new  power-sharing formula (with a new constitution or a heavily amended current one) to accommodate various ethnic interests and make provisions for other socially contentious issues such as women’s rights and education, shariah law and the role of Islam in the country’s politics.

Contrary to widely-held perceptions in the West about the extremely conservative views about such contentious issues as women’s rights, the Taliban, as a recent detailed study by the Afghan Analyst Network (ANN) shows, are no longer just a pack of jihadis, out there to dismantle everything that even remotely looks irreligious.

They are on record as no longer opposed to women’s education. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect of them a system wherein Afghan women would have rights comparable to those women have in the West – or under the Soviet occupation, for that matter. There is no gainsaying that things have changed. A 2012 survey by the charity ActionAid found that a full 90 percent of Afghan women feared the departure of the international community, believing that their lives would significantly deteriorate.

However, according to the ANN report, the Taliban, in areas under their control, have been paying particular attention to the education of girls, even though they have some restrictions in place that they say fit with the overall texture of a traditional and moderate Islamic society.

“The Taliban also monitor education service delivery in other ways,” according to the report. “A key concern for them has been the education of girls, which they do allow, but about which they have set strict requirements. A major condition is that only women teachers are allowed to work and teach in girls’ schools.”

Women’s education

According to the report, they have even established their own department of education to supervise education sector on district levels. Other rules regarding women’s education include rules of hijab and the imperative of studying and teaching Islamic subjects such as fiqah (jurisprudence) and hadith (sayings of the Prophet).

This is in addition to the curriculum that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education has prepared for all Afghans. Schools in the Taliban-held areas accept and teach the same curriculum, an acceptance that also resonates the largely ignored fact that the Taliban do seem to accept the current constitution.

When the now-sacked US Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Afghanistan in September 2018 to push for the peace process and dialogue with the Taliban, Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official in Kabul who remains in regular contact with Taliban leaders, reportedly told the media that the core issue was not the Afghan constitution, which the Taliban in previous years rejected – famously saying it had been prepared “under the shadows of B-52 bombers.”

According to Muzhda, the Taliban now accept 80 percent or more of the current Afghan constitution, although they continue to say that the Afghans played little to no role in its making.

The Taliban’s own self-moderation has been perhaps a key factor in making them a lot more acceptable to external actors such as China and Russia, which otherwise maintained until few years ago a calculated distance throughout the peak years of war.

Afghans hopeful peace process works

They have become a lot more acceptable both internally and externally. A recent survey reported by even the anti-Taliban Tolo news network of Afghanistan showed that a significant number of Afghans are ‘hopeful’ that the peace process would bring stability and that the return of the Taliban to power wouldn’t jeopardize the gains Afghanistan has made towards civil and political liberties, including such issues as education. 

The Tolo report also included a statement from a Taliban representative, who said that they ‘had learned lessons from past two decades.’

One lesson has been the imperative of not remaining an insurgent group, comprised solely of the Pashtuns. Various Taliban representatives have gone on record describing the extent to which the leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has changed the movement, leading them to focus not on insurgency but also on building institutions in their own shadowy state.

That shadowy state has become fully-fledged as the reports of ANN show, but what is even more significant to note is the deep-down transformation of the Taliban, who can no longer be seen as just a pack of religious fanatics.

Taliban to dominate

However, despite the moderation, the Taliban can be expected to dominate Afghanistan. With the Taliban controlling almost 45 percent of the country, there is no doubt that they will have an upper hand in negotiating a power-sharing formula.  China, Russia and Pakistan wouldn’t have problems with the Taliban controlling Kabul, but given the extent of their interests in Afghanistan, they will equally be not interested in seeing Afghanistan turning into a hotbed of ethnic conflict following the withdrawal, thus potentially undoing all the work they’re currently doing.

Just as Russia, Iran and Turkey have become de facto guarantors of a tenuous peace in Syria, a similar arrangement in Afghanistan, with the Taliban being responsible for peace and the regional powers overseeing it, would guarantee peace and a smooth transition from war to politics, ensuring continuity of the institutions created under the current constitution of Afghanistan.

That there will be continuity is evident from the way the bilateral and multilateral talks between the Taliban and the US, and the Taliban and other powers have ostensibly not referred to the need to draft a new constitution, sending a strong message to the world about the misplaced fears of Afghanistan’s return to the 1990s as the result of peace deal, allowing the Taliban’s return to political power.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.