A Modest Proposal to Save Afghanistan—From Itself

With the Taliban at loggerheads and Afghanistan in chaos, one politician has a plan to stave off civil war.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
A child walks amid the rubble of damaged houses in Bermal district, Paktika province, Afghanistan, on June 23, following a 5.9 magnitude earthquake.
A child walks amid the rubble of damaged houses in Bermal district, Paktika province, Afghanistan, on June 23, following a 5.9 magnitude earthquake.
A child walks amid the rubble of damaged houses in Bermal district, Paktika province, Afghanistan, on June 23, following a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

As Afghanistan sinks further into poverty and human rights abuses run rampant, divisions among Taliban leaders that weren’t evident as they fought for power have become an existential time bomb. The Islamist movement that won the war against the United States is splintering, with leaders using religious dogma to push policies that are wiping out progress and protecting terrorists.

Religion has long been a weapon in Afghanistan, where it’s hard to argue against fanatics who believe they’re on a mission from God. Sources close to the Taliban say the movement is dominated by a handful of senior figures who think just that. They’re blocking efforts at political reform that could end Afghanistan’s misery and international isolation.

Various groups in exile, including former ministers in the previous government and warlords who benefited from 20 years of Western largesse, have come up with plans for their own return to power. But they’re unpopular. Resistance groups will probably gain strength for next year’s warm weather fighting season, but they’re not united. The National Resistance Front led by Ahmad Massoud is seen by many analysts and diplomats as having the potential to bring anti-Taliban groups together. But there’s little depth to his political ideas.

As Afghanistan sinks further into poverty and human rights abuses run rampant, divisions among Taliban leaders that weren’t evident as they fought for power have become an existential time bomb. The Islamist movement that won the war against the United States is splintering, with leaders using religious dogma to push policies that are wiping out progress and protecting terrorists.

Religion has long been a weapon in Afghanistan, where it’s hard to argue against fanatics who believe they’re on a mission from God. Sources close to the Taliban say the movement is dominated by a handful of senior figures who think just that. They’re blocking efforts at political reform that could end Afghanistan’s misery and international isolation.

Various groups in exile, including former ministers in the previous government and warlords who benefited from 20 years of Western largesse, have come up with plans for their own return to power. But they’re unpopular. Resistance groups will probably gain strength for next year’s warm weather fighting season, but they’re not united. The National Resistance Front led by Ahmad Massoud is seen by many analysts and diplomats as having the potential to bring anti-Taliban groups together. But there’s little depth to his political ideas.

One proposal gaining traction with Taliban and Western officials alike, however, comes from an Afghan politician, Amin Karim of the populist Hizb-i-Islami political party. He helped draft Afghanistan’s March budget and is now promoting a plan he says will ensure that in coming years changes are introduced that will enable Afghanistan to retain independence, avoid political collapse and civil war, and rejoin the international community.

In his plan, Karim proposes the Taliban cut ties with their terrorist allies as part of a broader commitment to a “political system based on the citizens’ will.” That includes elections and political parties, a parliament, a constitution guaranteeing human rights and especially women’s rights, and freedom of speech and media. The Taliban would also bring in ethnic and religious groups aside from their own Sunni Pashtun cohort to form a “pluralist political system.”

In return, the international community would remove Taliban figures from U.S. and U.N. blacklists, commit to funding development for 15 years, and promise that no other country will “interfere in”—that is, invade—Afghanistan.

He says reform is a matter of survival, not just for the Taliban but for the Afghan state. The way things are going, it’s only a matter of time before there’s widespread revolt. Karim has shared his plan with Western officials, some of whom have told Foreign Policy that they want the discussion to go beyond women’s rights and other humanitarian issues currently dominating the agenda.

The men at the top won’t be budged, according to a source in Kabul who said the country is being held “hostage” to their narrow interpretation of Islam. Meanwhile, non-Pashtun ethnic groups are chafing against arbitrary Taliban violence. Shiite Hazaras are particularly abused as they’re seen by the Taliban as apostate, and as anti-Taliban fighting in the Panjshir Valley and nearby regions persists, Tajiks are also targeted for detention, torture, and killing. Fighting in the north has seen thousands of Taliban gunmen deployed as war over control of lucrative coal exports descends into an ethnic struggle.

With the focus on symptoms rather than causes, the corruption and mismanagement that helped destroy the Afghan republic are set to repeat. The United Nations has outsized control over the economy, bringing in cash on chartered flights for the Taliban-controlled central bank, and aid is distributed by the Taliban-controlled charity sector. But little attention is being paid to the presence of terrorist organizations in the country, including al Qaeda, or the impending wave of migration as millions of young men prepare to leave Afghanistan, seeking jobs and security.

A changing of the guard at the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, with the appointment to the mission of Markus Potzel, Germany’s former ambassador to Kabul, coincides with a broadening of its mandate “to facilitate dialogue between all relevant Afghan political actors and stakeholders, the region and the wider international community.” This, one source said, “creates space for more engagement from their [Taliban] side.”

This is where Karim’s proposal comes in. He says he has received nods from several important regime figures who acknowledge the need for change before people turn on the Taliban—and the Taliban turn on one another. That would open the gates to a wider armed resistance, possibly supported from the outside, and for the former warlords to join the fray—a recipe for civil war.

The immediate fight is between the dogmatic hard-liners—led by a small group around Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada (who may not even be alive), including interim Prime Minister Hasan Akhund—and survivalists such as acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has close ties to al Qaeda and a $10 million FBI bounty on his head.

“Who would have dreamed that the voice of reason in Afghanistan today is Siraj Haqqani,” said a Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Karim’s plan couldn’t have come at a better time. The devastating earthquake on June 22 has exposed the Taliban’s inability to govern or stop a debilitating brain drain. The plan represents a homegrown solution to the political stalemate, enabling all domestic parties to claim ownership, rather than digging in against outsiders telling them what to do.

The national meeting of religious scholars underway in Kabul, for instance, is being attended by 3,500 mostly Sunni Pashtun men, despite almost a year of entreaties to include women and other ethnic groups. Security for the meeting mirrored that of similar events held by the former government, with checkpoints, searches of all attendees, and helicopter patrols overhead. And, just as during the former government, it was attacked by an opposition group calling itself the Freedom Fighters Front.

The rhetoric on display was predictably extreme. Akhund, the interim prime minister, exhorted attendees to accept the current Islamist way of doing things; his deputy Abdul Salam Hanafi said women would be represented by men; and a cleric from Herat said anyone opposing the Taliban should be beheaded.

That kind of talk should hardly be surprising. Throughout the Western presence in Afghanistan, following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion that removed the Taliban from power, little attention was paid to domestic Afghan politics.

“We have either sided with the republic, with corrupt presidents, or we have shifted towards this current realism and think we have to co-exist with the Taliban. Or we have focused on the military. Or we have focused on some warlords. But the real politics of the place has not interested us,” said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk openly.

“It is over now, the oxygen is being sucked up by Ukraine, and it’s highly difficult to influence a leadership postmortem. I think Afghanistan is at the moment in the hands of either no one, because it’s no longer sexy enough, or it is fully in the hands of humanitarians and human rights people,” he said, referring to the lack of proper governance. “We have mainly relied on interest-driven data, but if you rely on the NGOs, they will always tell you that the apocalypse is happening tomorrow.”

The biggest hindrance to Karim’s proposal could be Karim himself due to his association with Hizb-i-Islami, which has deep grassroots support. It isn’t liked by the Western clique for little reason beyond the reputation of its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord infamous for brutality during the 1992-96 civil war.

Karim’s proposal, according to Western officials who’ve assessed it, is the best one out there, even if it echoes many demands made before the Taliban cemented their power, which came from the West and were seen as being superimposed on Afghanistan. If agreement on these points is reached, preferably under the auspices of the U.N., the Taliban could expect diplomatic recognition within two or three years, Karim said.

That might be fanciful, given what the Taliban have been doing since last August: trashing rights, trampling on freedoms, locking women in their homes, and killing enemies. Some diplomats are skeptical about elections, for instance: The Taliban would probably lose any national vote as they don’t represent the majority. And the republic had a bad track record with election losers repeatedly taking power. 

While the European Union had no official reaction to Karim’s paper, the EU’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Andreas von Brandt, has commented publicly on his support for a more inclusive government with representation of all ethnic and political groups, as well as women. The EU does have some leverage with the Taliban as the only Western entity to return to Kabul since August. And the Taliban have a grudging respect for their old battlefield foes, which include EU member states.

“We don’t have forever to enable a political dialogue,” said another diplomatic source, also speaking off the record. “The problem in the north will only get worse and will distract the Taliban from dealing with [the Islamic State-Khorasan]. The armed resistance is bullish, and if they get another winter to coalesce around Massoud, they will gain momentum.

“So things will get worse, and that will pour fuel on a smoldering fire. Proposals like this offer some way forward.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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