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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Afghanistan: Kabul residents share fears of Taliban return

'The Taliban’s thinking is still 20 years behind; their focus in on women’s clothes and not our potential'

Afghan men fill containers with water from a pump in Kabul on January 30, 2019.AFP
Afghan men fill containers with water from a pump in Kabul on January 30, 2019.AFP

A lot of our conversations in Kabul and across Afghanistan these days are about peace. For the first time in my lifetime, the end of this conflict seems like a real possibility. But as we watch developments between the Taliban and the US administration, we are cautious. As Afghans we have learned the hard way not to raise our hopes too high. A saying in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages, translates as: “A person bitten by a snake will always be afraid of any long rope.”

The recent meetings between Taliban leaders and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy for peace, are reported to have produced an initial framework for peace in Afghanistan, including clauses for the US withdrawal of troops and – if rumours in the bazaar are to be believed – a more controversial proposal for an interim government involving the Taliban. Mr Khalilzad has denied that such a proposal is under a consideration, but regardless, for many Afghans, talk of the Taliban returning to power has brought back grim memories.

From 1996 until 2001, the Taliban imposed a fundamentalist Islamist rule over most of Afghanistan. My own memories of visiting Taliban-ruled Kabul from Pakistan, where my family had sought refuge, are unpleasant. As a child, I recall watching a barbaric public execution in a Kabul football stadium, and the fear and trauma that followed for days after. Years later, when I returned to a Kabul stadium to cheer for our national team, I became emotional at the disturbing recollection.

In recent days, I have seen hundreds of posts on social media, in which Afghans – particularly women – share stories of the Taliban’s casual brutality. In one, Mariam Atahi, a spokesperson for Save The Children in Afghanistan, wrote about her last day at school, just days after the Taliban’s invasion of Kabul in 1995.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen, just like thousands of other girls across Afghanistan. One day before their [arrival in Kabul] we had a party in our class. After the party, my teacher kissed us and said goodbye, hoping she would see us the next day. None of us realised we would never see each other again,” she wrote.

After the Taliban came to power, they banned education for women. Girls like Mariam were forced to stay home, or study clandestinely in underground schools.

Today, Ms Atahi fears a new generation of Afghans could lose much of what has been gained since the Taliban were forced from power. “I fear if they will come and undermine the social justice, our basic human rights, our personal freedom, the freedom of speech, the rights of women and even our basic sense of peace,” she said.

The Taliban have issued some conciliatory statements lately. "After the end of the occupation, Afghans should forget their past and tolerate one another and start life like brothers," spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AP this week.

There is even a suggestion they may tolerate women in the workforce. Many in Kabul are not convinced.

“They want to draw lines for what women’s rights entails,” Shkula Zadran, who works for an international organisation in Kabul, told The National. “The Taliban’s thinking is still 20 years behind; their focus in on women’s clothes and not our potential.”

Women are not the only group who are feeling vulnerable right now. Thirty-year-old Shakir Ahmadzai told The National that he is praying the Taliban will never return. If they do, he is considering leaving the country.

“They will destroy everything we built in last 18 years,” he said. “I know a lot of us are afraid that this will be the end of democracy in Afghanistan, the end of freedom of speech, and even the end of a free life.”

Rights groups have urged the US and Afghan governments to ensure that progress made since the US invasion is not trampled up on.

“Afghans – women and men – desperately want peace,” said Heather Barr, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But they – and their government – have so far been shut out of the negotiations over their own future, with no influence and very little information about what is being discussed and agreed.

“We know from 20 years of looking at the role of women in peace negotiations that if you are not at the table, your interests are not protected.”

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Mr Khalilzad has offered assurances to Afghans that their interests are in hand.

“The path to peace doesn’t often run in a straight line,” he tweeted on Thursday. “The situation in #Afghanistan is complex and like all sensitive talks, not everything is conducted in public.”

While “significant progress” was being made, he cautioned that the war will not be resolved immediately. “You can't eat an elephant in one bite!”

Updated: January 31, 2019 08:45 PM

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