Can a disaster in Afghanistan be averted?

The Taliban must ensure a peaceful transition and prevent abuse of civilians if Afghanistan is to have a chance at peace.

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Kandahar on August 13, 2021 [AFP]

Back in April 2021, I argued that a full-scale disaster in the form of a protracted civil war in Afghanistan could still be averted, but it would have required two things from the Taliban.

First, the group had to opt for a reasonable response to the surprise announcement by US President Joe Biden of a complete, unconditional withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11. At the time, the Taliban viewed this as a breach of the February 2020 Doha Agreement between the group and the US.

Second, the Taliban had to offer credible assurances that its return to Kabul would lead to a reduction in violence and would not erode civil rights, in particular those of women and minority groups.

Then and now, it remains clear that the high level of polarisation among Afghans and fear of what the Taliban did during its short rule between 1996 and 2001, as well as the strong opposition in the region to an Islamic emirate, risk sparking a conflict if the group tries to walk into the capital by force – particularly now that President Ashraf Ghani has accepted his resignation may be imminent.

The speed of the Taliban’s advance and the lack of resistance faced so far have come as a surprise to all sides including the Taliban leaders themselves. But this should not blind anyone to the fact that throughout modern history, no single political, religious or ethnic group, regardless of its size, has been able to enjoy full hegemony and legitimacy across a piece of land without reaching a political settlement with all other groups.

The Taliban has made electrifying advances precisely because it has realised that it cannot hold and maintain control based on an exclusive narrative of Pashtun nationalism. Rather, local alliances are being made in the north with local Uzbek, Tajik, and other communities. Military force was never a solution in Afghanistan and cannot bring peace and prosperity to the country today.

The Taliban put to the test

However, the irony of the Taliban spreading its control so widely and so quickly is that its ability to control, secure and, most importantly, supply those areas will be tested for the first time. The overnight transformation in the movement’s responsibilities is huge – from a guerrilla force reliant on what supplies can be offered to it by local communities it is turning into an authority in control of complex urban spaces.

The first and most important requirement across the many provinces that have fallen to the Taliban, particularly those where its fighters faced no resistance whatsoever such as Paktika, is an acceptable degree of stability, justice and dignity. Disruption to people’s lives by Taliban fighters, driving them out of their villages, looting homes and conducting summary executions will haunt the movement and fuel years of conflict to come.

The desire to represent the Afghan people comes with the responsibility to govern and hold a nation together. This is recognised on some level by Taliban leaders, who have issued declarations of amnesty and ordered fighters to protect community assets and refrain from acts of vengeance in the recently captured districts.

In July 2019, the Taliban jointly declared at the Intra-Afghan Conference in Doha that it is of utmost importance to avoid civilian casualties, support the displaced, and protect public infrastructure. But, as numerous local reports are emerging, the movement is struggling to prevent cases of abuse and control the behaviour of young fighters spurred on by the spoils of urban centres.

If the rhetoric of peace from the Taliban political leadership continues to be matched with the reality of atrocities on the ground, the 2020 agreement with the US and any degree of validity it holds will be threatened.

This has already forced the hand of the US to act in support of the Afghan government and to join in airstrikes against the Taliban. The US is deploying thousands of troops to Afghanistan to protect American citizens, as is the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. Even Qatar, as the host of the Taliban Political Commission and the intra-Afghan negotiations, will come under greater pressure domestically and internationally if those scenes of violence continue to be aired.

A chaotic collapse of Afghanistan’s existing institutions, including the army, police and civil service will leave the Taliban presiding over a nightmare scenario akin to Iraq and Syria. The group will find that many intellectuals, investors, and people with technical capacities have long left the country to Turkey, the UAE, Pakistan, and India in addition to the thousands of qualified men and women who are being evacuated by the NATO nations. The Taliban must remember that under such a scenario it will remain under the thumb of Pakistan in perpetuity, trapped in the shadow of its politics with India.

What should the Taliban do to avert a disaster?

The Taliban’s rapid advance has ousted some of Afghanistan’s traditional warlords: Abdul Rashid Dostum has fled to Uzbekistan, Atta Mohammad Noor is reported to have left the country, and Ismail Khan is under house arrest in Herat. With them out of the political scene, the many fragmented factions in Kabul are now no longer talking in the same disparate tones. They are doing their best to cast aside their differences and present a united front.

The Taliban should show humility in victory and listen carefully to what settlement is being offered by the government in the interest of avoiding bloodshed in Kabul, a city of 6 million civilians.  Given all that was said earlier, there is no escaping forming a transitional administration that could see the country through the coming dark days.

Any transitional government must be inclusive, respecting all sides, and seeing beyond the current presidency. Such an inclusive structure is necessary to legitimise the decision of any consultative council on selecting the format and leadership of a new executive governing authority.

The Taliban must protect all state institutions, including the civil service, and do its very best to ensure they continue to function. This is a major lesson from Iraq and Syria: Any transitional arrangement should not undo the armed forces or civil service.

Finally, to be able to meet the salary bill for the civil service, including health and education, the Taliban must improve its relationship with the international community of donors. It could begin to do so by protecting their missions inside the country and making sure it follows a zero-tolerance policy against all forms of human rights abuses, in particular those directed against women and girls. And that is not because the West cares more about those issues, but because Islam is based on those principles.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.