Having harbored al-Qaeda militants, the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 was toppled by the US following the 9/11 attacks in the US. In 2003, the Taliban reorganized and began their insurgency against the Afghan government and NATO forces. Since then, despite national and international efforts to negotiate a peace settlement, the insurgency has continued. As a result, Afghanistan has faced years of instability and violence.
In late 2018, Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed by Washington as the US special envoy to Afghanistan in a bid to strike a deal with the Taliban, which was signed on February 29, 2020, in Qatar. Under this agreement, peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban should have started at the beginning of March.
How Osama bin Laden Got His Revenge
Yet after months of political wrangling, the negotiations will begin in September, according to Afghan officials. The US-Taliban deal states that prisoners on both sides should be released before the intra-Afghan peace talks commence, including 5,000 for the Taliban and 1,000 for the Afghan government. This has proved to be a contentious issue.
The Afghan peace talks are to start soon, but one thing is clear: The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan cannot be easily reconciled with the government’s Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Hence, with a number of sticking points, including a permanent ceasefire or a significant reduction in violence, peace talks will be extremely strenuous.
Both sides have been at a stalemate. The main reasons for this are conflicting positions between the Taliban and the government. The Afghan government has taken an intransigent view regarding the republic system. It has called it a “red line” that cannot be negotiated, though it has made some concessions since the US-Taliban peace talks began. The Taliban have always focused on reinstating an Islamic emirate, often vaguely calling it an “Islamic system” that should be harmonious with Afghan cultural values.
In particular, there are three main areas of contention for both parties.
First, the negotiations could focus on either the revocation or amendment of the Afghan Constitution, which conflicts with the Taliban’s goal of an Islamic emirate. While the current constitution guarantees equal rights for all Afghan males and females, the Taliban sternly deny gender equality as well as other basic human rights.
This is why, in their Moscow statement of February 2019, the Taliban called Afghanistan’s current constitutional law un-Islamic, urging for a new constitution based on “Islamic tenets.” The existing constitution of Afghanistan is believed to be one of the most liberal Islamic constitutions in the region, and the Taliban want to Islamize it based on their extreme interpretation of Islam.
By Islamization, the Taliban would likely centralize power in the hands of one man — the group’s leader — who would have ultimate control as the head of state. He would handpick members of an Islamic council that would serve as the legislative body. The constitution of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was drafted in three days in 1998 by 500 clerics, is a case in point of what governance by the Taliban looks like.
Second, according to Article 61 of the current constitution, the president can only be elected by the people. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a staunch supporter of the existing political system, has repeatedly said that the government will decisively defend the constitution based on the “republic system.”
In this system, the head of state and other elected bodies are elected directly by the people. Article 4 of the constitution explicitly says that national “sovereignty in Afghanistan shall belong to the nation, manifested directly and through its elected representatives.” Afghanistan has held elections as a feature of democracy since the fall of the Taliban, including four presidential and three parliamentary elections.
In contrast, in the Taliban system based on sharia law, legitimacy comes from the decision of an exclusive, small group of religious elites. That is why the Taliban have continuously opposed elections in Afghanistan. Taliban militants have repeatedly carried out attacks around election time, including in 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019. The aims of such assaults were to disrupt the elections, undermine the government and, ultimately, to taint the legitimacy of the outcome of these votes.
More importantly, democratic decision-making is an alien concept to the Taliban as a movement. For instance, the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, declared himself as the leader in 1994. Similarly, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the successors to Omar, were both appointed by members of the supreme council.
Many Taliban members have also expressly rejected elections as a means of choosing a government. In 2018, a senior member of Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council, flatly rejected elections. Referring to the shura, he said that the leadership of a government should be selected by a supreme council because “elections are not according” to sharia law. Likewise, Jalaluddin Shinwari, the former deputy minister of justice under the Taliban regime of the 1990s, said in 2019 that the “Taliban will not accept elections.” The group has asked the US to return power to them and to accept the Taliban’s emirate.
However, aside from the theological argument of opposing elections, the Taliban’s biggest fear in this process stems from the uncertain outcome of allowing the people to choose. The Taliban’s odds of winning and eventually returning to power are extremely slim. Therefore, the group is likely to make every effort in the Afghan peace talks to win power as long as they do not involve elections.
Third, human rights are of the utmost importance when examining the Taliban. Respect and the protection of individual rights supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are fundamental elements of a democratic system. Article 7 of the current Afghan Constitution assures respect for human rights. Likewise, Article 22 guarantees equal rights for all Afghans before the law, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity or religion.
Conversely, the Taliban are strongly opposed to respecting such universally accepted values and rights. They have never shown flexibility to accept a democratic and republican state, which values human rights. Rather, the Taliban have steadfastly reiterated their intent to reinstall an Islamic emirate that will respect human rights under their model of an “Islamic framework.” As per the Taliban‘s ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, this would be incompatible with a democratic state’s human rights values.
To cite just a few examples, the Taliban have been notorious for their hostility and discriminatory policies toward ethnic and religious minorities and women. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they committed massacres against Hazaras in Mazari Sharif and Bamyan, slaughtering hundreds of civilians, including women and children. This attitude remains unchanged.
Similarly, under Taliban rule, Sikh minorities in Afghanistan were required to hang a yellow cloth on their rooftops and, in particular, Sikh women had to wear yellow cloths in public to identify themselves. Likewise, when they captured Kabul in 1996, the Taliban forbade girls and women from attending school and going to work, except in rare cases as medical staff with strict conditions.
Finally, the Taliban’s Dastur (draft constitution) stipulates that the amir al-mumineen, an Arabic term that means commander of the faithful, “must be a male Muslim follower of the Hanafi Islamic jurisprudence” — referring to a Sunni Muslim school of thought. The Taliban originally reserved this title for Mullah Omar.
Though the matter of Dastur seems to be missing from the current discourse of the movement, the patriarchal nature of the Taliban still holds true, not only for the head of the state but also for other key positions. By only allowing a man to hold the role of head of state, the Taliban’s system of governance discriminates against women and members of other faiths — including Muslims of different Islamic sects — both of which are conflict with basic principles of human rights.
Despite claims by the Taliban and speculation by some researchers, the group’s general values have not changed. For example, in Taliban-controlled areas of today, women who wish to work or get an education are forced to do so under stringent conditions. In reality, this deprives women of the right to education and work as they are likely to be reluctant to attend a school or get a job.
Will the Afghan Peace Talks Work?
The evidence so far suggests that both the Taliban and the Afghan government have shown some flexibility in agreeing to talks. Yet the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan remain incompatible. Both forms of governance negate each other. Unless the two sides accept considerable concessions in their positions, the possibility of reconciliation appears slim. This is particularly applicable to the Taliban.
If the Taliban wish to smoothly reintegrate into society, they will have to adapt their policy about the governance system to a society that is very different from what they saw in the late 1990s. If they do not give in to the will of the new Afghan society of today, the group will face the resistance of Afghans who have sacrificed a lot over the last 19 years. Moreover, the chance of overthrowing the Western-backed Afghan government — if that is still the Taliban’s goal — seems far less than possible.
As a nation marred by violent conflict for decades, Afghanistan is highly dependent on international aid and assistance. Therefore, as the intra-Afghan talks begin, the Taliban have no option but to change their restrictive position with regard to holding free and fair elections and upholding human rights and other critical issues protected by the current constitution.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.