Afghan Ambassador: ‘The Ball Is in the Taliban’s Court’

Roya Rahmani says the Taliban have no justification for continuing their war after the departure of international troops.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrives for peace talks in Moscow.
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center) and other members of the Taliban delegation arrive to attend an international conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on March 18. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

In a little over a week, the first of 3,500 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan will begin to fly out of the country, leaving behind 20 years of war and a flurry of questions about what the country will look like going forward. The scheduled departure, meant to be completed by Sept. 11, puts pressure on the Taliban to finally stop its violence, according to Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States.

“For 20 years, [the] Taliban were justifying their war on the basis of the presence of foreign troops on the ground,” Rahmani said in an interview with Foreign Policy this week. “Was it really about the presence of foreign troops? If it was, then it’s time to stop the silence [on peace talks], stop the killing, and come and become a constructive part of Afghan society.”

After the latest attempt to hold peace talks earlier this month in Turkey failed, Rahmani made clear “the ball is in the Taliban’s court.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: How is the Afghan government going to be able to protect gains that have been made on women’s rights and human rights over the past 20 years?

Roya Rahmani: The Afghan government should continue to do what it has been doing over many years, but particularly over the past five years, which is continue making space for women to be incorporated in decision-making at all different levels, whether it is in government, or in legislative bodies, or facilitating the environment for them to be an active part of the private sector, as well as all other arenas and walks of life. But I have to tell you that this is directly tied to what happens, securitywise, because the deterioration of security impacts women in more ways than the rest of the system.

To be very frank, the presence of the U.S. military had a great psychological impact in general that provided a sense of security to Afghan citizens, but especially to women. However, I would not say that it is the presence or absence of troops that would impact the rights of women on the ground. What would impact their rights is what happens with security. Should the security [situation] deteriorate, women would get the biggest blow, there is no doubt about that. Women would suffer in more ways than we know. They become more restricted, their mobility is limited, and their access to education, to employment, to public spaces become a lot more restricted and limited. So yes, it would impact them severely should the situation deteriorate in addition to the fact that, of course, the deterioration of security is a question of physical security, as well as their families’, their children’s, like everybody else.

FP: What expectations do you have for the security situation in the next few months?

RR: First of all the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] have been conducting over 96 percent of all the operations currently, and increasingly, [they’re doing] more and more. So they have stood up to the challenge, they have been at the forefront of this fight. And while the presence of the [U.S. and international] troops and support we have received was absolutely critical, and we have been extremely grateful for and we will remain grateful, the vacuum that their absence would create, we hope to be filled with additional support for the security forces.

So we are hoping that that would be replaced by additional support for the capacity and capabilities so that [the Afghan military] can move to that 100 percent. They have already, I think, stood up to the test. And they have taken that challenge on now for several years. 

I would say now, the ball is in the Taliban’s court. 100 percent. For 20 years, [the] Taliban were justifying their war on the basis of the presence of foreign troops on the ground. Now that that’s no longer the case. Foreign troops are leaving. Was it really about the presence of foreign troops? If it was, then it’s time to stop the silence [on peace talks], stop the killing, and become a constructive part of Afghan society. So this is the biggest test for the Taliban and for their allies or supporters to really come to the table and try to find a settlement that would end the conflict, and finally the Afghanistan people would start to live in [the] peace and security that they deserve. 

FP: The Taliban agreed not to attack U.S. troops as part of last year’s peace deal—but that agreement doesn’t last beyond May 1. Are you worried about an uptick of Taliban attacks?

RR: Well, against Afghans it never stopped. And in fact, in fact, it’s increased. There were many parts of this agreement that were violated by the Taliban, including attacking the center of the city. So that’s, that has not changed drastically for Afghans. The only thing that they did respecting that agreement was not attacking the American and allied forces since the signing of. But in terms of the Afghan forces and civilians, there has been an uptick throughout. We would be, of course, devastated to see even further escalation of violence as the spring comes, but if that is the case, then it is once again a clear indication that the Taliban had no intention for peace or peaceful progress.

I hope that they do not do that [attack U.S. forces]. Our citizens and our government would like to provide as safe and orderly a return of the troops as possible. The escalation of violence in any case is moving us further away from the table. The people who are getting killed, who are losing their family members, their limbs, their life, their livelihoods, why would they like to make peace with a group that continues to inflict on them? 

FP: How confident are you in the peace talks? Could the Taliban eventually be part of an interim government?

RR: [The peace process] is the only way forward other than violence, deterioration, and bloodshed. If they are Afghans, if they want to live in a peaceful Afghanistan, this is the time, and that is a source of my confidence. Because other than that, it’s very clear, what justifies this violence? What justifies [the] killing of your countrymen and women and children and destroying its infrastructure and continuing to inflict fear, pain, and bloodshed? There’s absolutely no justification. 

In terms of what format would they be able to become part of society? I cannot get ahead of myself, because unfortunately, the peace talks that were paving the way for a political settlement never fully took off. They spend five months discussing the procedures and then after that, we all know that for one reason or another the talks were derailed. The commitment for peace is there, because it is the desire of the people and the Afghan government has demonstrated its own commitment. President [Ashraf] Ghani has been very committed to pursuing a political settlement for a durable and real peace. And he has been continuously working with options and coming up with them. Now, once the talks start, whatever settlement is reached that would lead to a durable peace in Afghanistan, that would be acceptable to the people of Afghanistan, that would mirror their desire and their understanding of peaceful living, that would be the path forward.

FP: Do you expect the United States to help foot the bill for Afghanistan’s government in the long term, or will Kabul be able to wean itself off of American aid sooner?

RR: This is the critical question moving forward. We need continuous support for our security forces, because they continue to be at the forefront of the fight against terrorism and extremism. We need civilian support or assistance with the kind of programming that would help Afghanistan toward self-sufficiency. In the medium term, what is very important is to support Afghanistan’s budget, especially in the face of the economic crisis that was exacerbated by the COVID situation. But in the medium term, what is very important is to support the kind of programming that would lead to a strong economic self-sufficiency and economic reliance. That would include investment in infrastructure, investment in promoting trade, connectivity, investing in Afghanistan’s minerals and natural resources, and its potential for reviving the trade and transit hub in the region.

FP: What is the likelihood of peace? Or of civil war?

RR: I choose to remain hopeful. I would like to see, and hope that this would be sort of the window of opportunity for peace. It’s a very delicate moment, we have to exercise vigilance, because this moment will define not what is to happen now, but which direction Afghanistan will be going moving forward. 

FP: How has Afghan society changed since Taliban rule?

RR: When the Taliban [ruled], Afghanistan was a country that was not recognized internationally, that had trade with only one other country in the world. It was a country that was disconnected from the rest of the world, there [was] no single girl being enrolled in school. The Afghanistan of today is a completely different Afghanistan. From being a full member of the World Trade Organization to a country that is more than 85 percent connected to mobile phones, to a country [where] 40 percent of school enrollments are comprised of girls.

This is a shift in mindset. The number of women active all around the country, whether they are in government positions, or they are deputy governors, or teachers, or in sports, or in music, or in politics, or in the legislative body, is unprecedented in our history. The human capital that has been developed in the past 20 years is unprecedented in our history. A very critical shift happened in Afghanistan. In 2014, for the first time, one elected government transferred power to another elected government. Afghans embrace democracy.

Update, April 26, 2021: This article has been updated to correct a transcription error.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch