Living with the Taleban (1): Local experiences in Andar district, Ghazni province

Sahil Afghan 

The ‘Living with the Taleban’ mini-series is a joint research project by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The AAN series editor is Reza Kazemi.print sharing button

Today, we publish the first of three studies exploring how the Taleban rule, and the impact of that rule on residents. Given that the talks in Doha may presage an Afghan state with key positions held by the Taleban or that, at the very least, the pattern of the Taleban controlling particular localities will continue, understanding what it is like to live under Taleban rule is important. Our research explores the local dynamics of citizens/Taleban interactions, lays out how the Taleban structure their government and asks whether local people can affect policy or indeed are able to hold the Taleban to account at all. Our first case study is Andar, in Ghazni province, which has been under partial Taleban rule since 2006/07 and complete rule since 2018. Guest author Sahil Afghan* has visited the district numerous times and followed events there closely since 2001 and finds a Taleban administration which is well-structured, where military men have civilian roles and protest is unimaginable. 

A view of Andar district town, where the Taleban have allowed telephone companies to operate 24 hours, which was not possible before the signing of S.U-Taleban peace agreement. The Taleban closed the district town several times, but since 2019, the businesses had returned to normal.A view of Andar town, where the Taleban have allowed telephone companies to operate 24 hours after the signing of the US-Taleban agreement. Photo: Sahil Afghan.

Andar was chosen as a case study partly because it is a district where AAN has conducted research on both security and political economy many times. (1) However, Andar is also fairly representative as a district in what the Taleban considers their heartland: it is entirely Pashtun, tribal (dominated by one tribe, the Andar) and the insurgency began very early on when, in about 2003, madrassa students began to organise. It has largely been held by the Taleban from 2006/7. An uprising by disgruntled members of the Taleban in 2012 led to some territory being retaken by what initially was perceived as pro-government forces, but meddling by politicians and US forces and abuses by what became Uprising Forces and Afghan Local Police (ALP) weakened the counter-insurgency and the Taleban gradually re-took territory. They captured the district centre in October 2018.

The Afghan government is confined to military forces in two Afghan National Army (ANA) bases and a few checkpoints. The Kabul-Kandahar highway passes through this largely flat and agricultural district. It also abuts the provincial centre, Ghazni city, making it important for both government and Taleban alike. It is home to the most famous madrassa in Afghanistan, Nur ul-Madares where many Taleban and non-Taleban have been educated.

Map: Roger Helms for AAN.

Summary of our findings

  • The Taleban have developed a structured governing system in Andar. Fighters and commanders play sweeping roles, including constituting the district’s supervisory commission, staffing various sectoral commissions to do with health, education etc, collecting ‘taxes’, advising on public morality and addressing local disputes.
  • Except for their courts, the Taleban do not maintain offices. Rather, officials are mobile, to ensure their security. To communicate with them, citizens have to call telephone numbers for the various commissions or make contact via fighters or commanders.
  • Even so, it is unavoidable that rulers and ruled come across each other in many different areas of life. While the Taleban are generally able to get what they want from the local population – food and until quite recently shelter, although never conscripts – the local population is generally not able to influence the Taleban’s actions and priorities. This reveals the highly unequal balance of power.
  • In Andar, the Taleban are not accountable to the people they govern, and locals seem to have no expectation that this could be the case. Taxation has not led to ‘representation’, nor to any accountability as to how taxes are spent (they largely go to the Taleban’s war effort). There have been no open protests against the Taleban in Andar, not because there is nothing to complain about, but because people see it as too dangerous. Some locals have had some positive experience of using non-confrontational strategies; these have sometimes been successful in effecting change, for example, securing temporary halts of fighting during the harvesting season.
  • The Taleban seriously and actively tax all economic and business activities in the district. There is some room for bargaining and those who can verify that they cannot afford to pay may be given exemptions.
  • The one ‘service’ provided by the Taleban and appreciated by the population is justice. People regard Taleban-provided justice as faster, more accessible and less corrupt than that of the Afghan government. At the same time, there is no systematic way to register cases with the Taleban and diverse local Taleban and non-Taleban actors become active in adjudicating cases, depending on the conditions. This research was not able to discover whether adjudicating cases quickly meant adjudicating cases fairly, nor how women experience Taleban justice.

Methodology

This research sought to explore and understand how the Taleban rule in districts controlled or heavily influenced by them: Who makes decisions? What happens if citizens disagree with Taleban officials; how do they – indeed, can they – try to influence decisions? In exploring the Taleban’s subnational (mainly district-level) governance system and their interactions with local residents, we asked about residents’ encounters with the Taleban administration, what demands the Taleban make of the population and whether refusal, or protest, is possible. We focused on two key areas, their court system and taxation, because these are critical to the Taleban’s legitimacy and control. We also sought to examine whether or not people can in any way hold the Taleban accountable, especially in the light of the taxes taken.

This research is based on five semi-structured interviews with people living in Andar district of Ghazni province, as well as the author’s own observations of the Taleban governance system, encounters between the Taleban and the local population and how accountable the Taleban are. As such, it does not draw on previously published research on this subject, much of it from AAN; a list of these sources for interested readers can be found in footnote. (2)

The interviews were conducted face-to-face with five key informants in July 2020: one teacher, one individual who had been a senior official in the Taleban movement (in around 2006-9), one religious figure, one journalist and one elder. All had experience of interaction with the Taleban in different sectors and additionally had detailed background knowledge about local politics and dynamics. ‘Key informant’ is used in this report to refer to individuals who have stakes in and are aware of local life in the district. For stylistic reasons, ‘key informants’ are sometimes referred to as ‘interviewees’. All were men, with an age range of 35 to 50. The questionnaire used can be found as an annex to this report.

Andar fell largely under Taleban influence early on during the re-emergence of the Taleban as an insurgency, from 2006/7, although areas of Taleban control have fluctuated – more in 2010, less in 2012, and then expanding steadily until, in October 2018, the movement captured the district centre. The government retains control only of two ANA bases in Chardiwal and Sinnai and three security posts in Sultanbagh, Mullah Nuhbaba and Nanai.

Andar was among the districts that were the focus of a previous in-depth AAN study into how public services such as education, health and telecommunications are delivered in areas under insurgent control or influence, and of a previous AAN mini-series on people’s thoughts about the prospects for peace in a number of districts.

This report is structured as follows:

  • The governance system of the Taleban at a subnational (mainly district) level, followed by a discussion on how their rule is exercised through, taxation and two, their court system;
  • Other interactions between Taleban and local residents;
  • Taleban and accountability;
  • Conclusion.

The governance system of the Taleban

The Taleban’s subnational governing architectures differs somewhat from that of the Afghan government. Looking at the subnational (provincial and district) administration on the Afghan government side, there is the governor, the police chief and the rest of the tashkil (administrative structure). The military and police, while liaising with the civilian officials, are separate and have different chains of command. The various line ministries – health, education and so on – also answer to their ministries in Kabul.

On the Taleban side, the top authority in the province is the welayati kamisiun (provincial commission) which has six to eight members, mainly senior, experienced and active Taleban officials and ulama (religious scholars), and with any impossible-to-decide issues going up to the rahbari shura. The members are all from Ghazni province and may be changed from time to time, although not all at the same time. They are appointed by the rahbari shura (the Taleban Leadership Council, also known as the Quetta Shura) based in Pakistan, and answer to it. The provincial commission not only oversees the activities of the entire provincial Taleban tashkil, but is also involved in resolving disputes or issues that are left unresolved by lower-level – provincial and district – Taleban officials. The provincial commission is also responsible for appointing district officials, including district governors and other officials. This is in contrast to the Afghan government system where all subnational authorities are appointed by the centre, Kabul.

Taleban district governors are usually from the same district, provincial governors from outside it. On the government side, both can be outsiders. The Taleban’s provincial commission has the authority to question any Taleban member and hold him accountable, starting with the provincial governor and moving all the way down to a ground fighter.

In addition, the rahbari shura appoints a governor and a nezami masul (military commissioner; literally, someone responsible for military affairs), who are answerable to the provincial commission. This is the case in every province, including Ghazni. The governor is responsible for administering not only all civilian, but also military affairs; he is also involved in the fighting. Meanwhile, the nezami masul – who is under the governor – has the authority to question and hold accountable all military figures in the province, starting from the military district governors to commanders to individual fighters.

At the very pinnacle of the Taleban’s provincial administration then, military and civilian roles are blurred. This pattern is replicated at almost every level, where, as detailed below, ordinary fighters can be deployed to collect taxes or arbitrate disputes, and commanders fill roles normally regarded as civilian, such as administering education or health services. The majority of fighters are madrassa graduates, but typically have no subject expertise. Nor do they receive any training for these roles. One interviewee did say that in the monitoring team of the health commission, there were one or two university-graduated doctors. They had come to the district to meet local people and hear any complains or concerns and then relay them to the health commission for the purpose of improvement in this sector.

Currently, Taleban in Ghazni are a mixture of ages, although mainly on the young side; sources said there are some older cadre, but relatively few. It should also be noted that, by the very nature of the movement, Taleban are madrassa-educated and, as well as being fighters, commanders, governors or judges, may also be religious scholars of various degrees, ie mullahs or mawlawis. This means that those in charge in Taleban areas come from a much less diverse pool than on the government’s side and are less representative of the local population. The Taleban might well feel, however, that, as they are bearing the costs of the ‘jihad’, they have the right to rule.

There are other major differences with the government administration. In Ghazni, as in other similar provinces, the Taleban’s subnational governance structure is mobile and dynamic. Except the courts, no provincial and district officials have offices with a fixed physical presence. This is a deliberate tactic, to avoid being easily attacked. It means that, most of the time, officials are on the move, either on motorbikes or in cars, staying over night at changing locations. Taleban officials often move between mosques in different villages of the districts or areas that are on the outskirts of the provincial capitals.

Taleban governors are most of the time on the frontline, especially when they are planning major attacks. For example, Yusuf Wafa, the Taleban governor of Ghazni during the attack on the city in August 2018, was living in villages in the periphery of the city (see this AAN report). This stands in sharp contrast with government officials who mostly stay in their offices. In districts like Andar, government officials have also had to adapt to threats and insecurity; they have been absent from the district for some years. Some began operating from Ghazni city in about 2015, with the last moving there from Andar in 2018.

Beneath the Taleban’s provincial hierarchy lie the district-level bodies and officials, most importantly the military commission, but also the different service-oriented commissions, some of the most significant being finance, justice, health, education, reconstruction and NGOs, prisoners and civilian casualties, agriculture  and dawat wa ershad (outreach and guidance).

District-level organisation

For each district, there are two Taleban governors, known as the mulki wuluswal (civilian governor) and nezami wuluswal (military governor). They each have a deputy and are officially responsible, as their names suggest, for civilian and military affairs. However, unlike at the provincial level, they are not the men ultimately in charge. The real power is with the military commissions the Taleban have for each district. They are composed of one representatives each from every delgai, the unit of Taleban fighters. The representatives comprise a very small and tightly knit decision-making team.

As of August 2020, the Taleban had five to six delgais in Andar, each with one main commander and several sub-commanders, who have the various groups of fighters within the squad under their control. The exact number of commanders and fighters is known only to the Taleban themselves. The members are scattered in the district and come together whenever there is a need to discuss and decide issues. They are all active, full-time fighters.

Two of our key informants said each delgai numbers between three and four hundred active fighters. This would bring the total number of Taleban fighters to around 2,000. (In the Afghan National Army, a delgai is, by contrast, the smallest unit, equivalent to a ‘squad’ and elsewhere, a Taleban delgai would typically number in the dozens and be part of a mahaz, a larger formation of fighters often drawing fighters from across provincial boundaries and typically named for a charismatic commander, alive or dead. In Andar, the delgais are not part of a mahaz). AAN cannot say whether this is a unique exception from the countrywide structure of the Taleban, and why it is in place.

When AAN asked one of the key informants whether this was a large number, he said: “No, because the [actual or potential] number is even more than that.” Not all fighters are present in the district, he said, or actively fighting at any one time; some will be attending madrassa classes either inside or outside Afghanistan and others will be on leave. Each fighter can take a break of about three months each year; some go on leave for six months while others never take a break. During leave, most return to their homes or go to madrassas to continue their studies. Others might go to Pakistan for ‘rest and recreation’. The key informant also pointed out that one delgai had lost “some 300 members in the last, almost 20 years of fighting.” In other words, he implied, the local Taleban have many ‘martyrs’ as well as active fighters.

The delgai’s basic tasks include carrying out attacks on government checkpoints and other targets and maintaining security, a quasi-policing role. Each delgai contributes a member to the district military commission, which has more authority than the two governors, who are not members. The military commission is responsible for overseeing all Taleban civilian officials, commanders and fighters. Members have the authority to question any Taleb in the district by bringing their concerns to the commission.

The district military commission also oversees several ‘sectoral’ sub-commissions staffed from the delgais and led by masuls, whose intensity of activity varies. For example, while the Taleban have a mostly monitoring role in education and health sectors in Andar, with some influence over, for example, teacher recruitment and the curriculum, some commissions are more proactive. For instance, the finance commission is actively collecting taxes from local businesses, both in the villages and in the small towns of the district.

Similarly, the dawat wa ershad commission, the successor to the notoriously harsh and intrusive Emirate-era amr bil maruf wa nahi an il-munkar, the so-called Vice and Virtue police, busies itself making sure locals adhere to the Taleban’s religious regulations. According to one key informant, officials from this commission have appointed certain ulama to meet once a week in a fiqhi majles (jurisprudential council), a meeting to discuss issues concerning Islamic jurisprudence and to address people’s religious questions. In Andar at least, they perform very differently from their Vice and Virtue predecessors, who gave orders, meted out punishments and were an important means by which the Taleban hierarchy controlled the population through fear. The policies of the dawat wa ershad commission, again as witnessed in Andar, are also softer than those of its predecessor. For example, it does not disturb men who shave or trim their beards or do not wear turbans; during the Emirate, the Taleban had insisted men must have a fist’s length of beard and men feared, at least in Andar, to be outside without a turban. This author has himself seen Taleban on numerous occasions, but no one has ever questioned his trimmed beard or lack of a turban.

This commission is also responsible for encouraging government soldiers to leave their posts and surrender or join the Taleban cause. It also asks shopkeepers and other residents, mostly in the district centre, to perform prayers in the mosque, particularly during Eid days, and prevents gambling and any other activities it considers un-Islamic. According to one key informant, the Taleban even monitor young people while they are playing sports to see if they perform prayers on time.

Members of the dawat wa ershad commission also monitor the behaviour of Taleban fighters, and this oversight may be to the benefit of the civilian population. For example, it stopped fighters checking the mobile phones of young men and even beating some of them for carrying smartphones. Also, in early January 2020, Taleban fighters had collected TV sets from some villagers’ houses. Within a few days, commission members stopped those fighters from doing so. As a key informant said, “The fighters were told [by the commission] that this was un-Islamic and illegal because they violated the privacy of civilians by entering their houses.”

These sectoral commissions exist in parallel to the Afghan government’s line ministry directorates, councils and security forces and reflect the slow but steady expansion of the Taleban governance system at a district level.

Mirroring practices at the provincial level, the Taleban district administration in Andar is also highly mobile. Besides the court, which has an office located in a bazaar in the district, at least for the time being, none of the Taleban’s other officials or commissions have an office with a fixed physical presence. Key informants interpreted this mobility as a Taleban tactic to avoid being attacked in the ongoing war. They described how the Taleban have adopted this way of living and governing based on their past experiences. For instance, in past years, night raids and airstrikes targeted mosques or areas where the Taleban would stay or gatherThey realised that a fixed location exposed them to attack.

Locals know only the location of the Taleban court. For the rest of the district tashkil, there are no fixed offices and although they live in Andar, their whereabouts are not known to the population. The Taleban use other ways to connect to the district population. For example, according to a key informant, the civilian district governor is available at times in a mosque in Mirai, the district bazaar. “At other times, he is on the move and will be in a village where people can take their petitions.” In such cases, the Taleban distribute their phone numbers in the area, so petitioners can call the governor and find his location. This system largely applies to all officials and commissions, apart from the court.

In Andar, people can recognise military Taleban easily because they have weapons (mostly AK-47s) and walkie-talkies all the time, but they cannot easily recognise other Taleban officials because they live as ordinary people in the district and do not openly carry weapons. They may still carry a pistol, but they appear as ordinary people and cannot be recognised as Taleban members. For example, the author did not recognise the head of the health commission in Andar, Abu Es’haq, when he encountered him in the district centre. Civilian Taleban officials can only be recognised when someone has arranged an interaction with them.

Taleban fighters do not distinguish themselves in terms of clothing, but may be recognised by their activities, such as when they patrol the district. If people have a problem, they can stop these passing Taleban and ask for help to resolve a problem on the spot. If they are unable to do so, the Taleb can refer the matter to the civilian officials or the supervisory district military commission.

Below, we focus our attention on two areas where the Taleban have been particularly active in areas under their control such as Andar district: their court system and taxation.

Andar’s old district headquarters when it was still under government control. The building which was completely demolished by US airstrikes in November 2018 when the Taleban took over the town. Currently there is no district headquarters building. Photo: Tolonews.

Case study 1: Taxation

The Taleban’s finance commissions at the provincial and the district level are responsible for what the movement views as tax collection. As one key informant told AAN, at the beginning of every new solar year (21 March), each delgai contributes several fighters who become members of the district finance commission. Delgai commanders nominate one person, along with two or three assistants, to collect taxes in the delgais’ areas of operation for the period of one year. The head of the district finance commission can either accept or reject the nominations. The tax collectors are replaced at the start of the following new solar year in order to avoid corrupt structures from evolving. (This has been a problem in other areas: disputes from 2009 to 2013 over tax collection in Jowzjan, for example, and the failure of commanders to forward money to the centre led to intra-insurgent conflict locally – read AAN reporting here.) In Andar, one key informant said, “We haven’t seen a person stay tax collector for consecutive years.” With no presence in the district, the government is unable to collect any taxes.

Once accepted by the finance commission, the fighters-turned-tax collectors go to their areas of control to collect taxes from local businessmen and others in the district’s main town, other small bazaars and even villages. All five to six active delgais in Andar are fielding tax collectors with assistants. There are a total of eight tax collectors, along with their supporters, as of September 2020 in Andar district.

These Taleban fighters hand over the money collected to the district finance commission. In turn, it is handed over from the district to the provincial finance commission, and further on to ‘minister’ level officials, ie the financial commission of the Taleban Leadership Council. These officials later decide how the money is to be re-distributed and spent. They either allocate money for military spending, for treating wounded fighters or for other expenses of the Taleban fighters. AAN has already shown in its “One Land, Two Rules” series that practically nothing from these taxes goes into civilian sectors such as education, health or infrastructure; rather, these services are funded mainly from the government – and often international sources – and only supervised by the Taleban. (See this synthesis report of the study of public services in insurgency-influenced districts.) What is clear is that the district level officials of the Taleban cannot spend or decide on the use of the money autonomously.

The exact method of Taleban tax calculation remains opaque. However, the fact that they maintain some records (eg giving receipts to ‘taxpayers’) gives us indications of their formulations. Broadly speaking, the calculation for a landowner is based on either the diameter of his water pump’s pipe or the pump’s capacity, based on its use of diesel fuel. (4) With regard to businesses, the Taleban charge shopkeepers and other traders an annual lump-sum amount of 2,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly USD 11, given the current approximate exchange rate of 1 USD = 169 PKR). (The Pakistani rupee, PKR, is used in many parts of Afghanistan, not the afghani). This system is not progressive and does not differentiate between larger and smaller businesses. Interestingly, this has not resulted in any sort of protests by the owners of small businesses.

Theoretically, the tax is levied on all landowners and businessmen both in the district’s towns and villages. In practice, it is unclear how many of the ‘taxpayers’ the Taleban are able to reach in their area of control. Although they do have a registrar, the system appears to be fairly random. Additionally, the tax rates are not fixed. As a result, both landholders and traders can and do bargain with the Taleban and are often able to reduce tax payments to a symbolic amount of between PKR 500 and 1,000 (USD 3-6) for an entire year. Overall, it is not known how much total tax the Taleban collect annually. One informant said the money collected just in Andar district was in the hundreds of millions of Pakistani rupees (hundreds of thousands of dollars).

There are also tax exemptions. First, women are always exempt from paying tax, as they are not considered heads of a household and, if there are active businesswomen in Andar district, they are not known to the wider community or the Taleban, because they will be working from home. According to the key informants, men exempted from paying tax include the landless, the poor and those with no active businesses or land, or landowners who have to purchase their water. For example, an imam (leader) of a mosque can qualify for tax exemption because he neither has land nor an active business. In the “poor” category, there are also people who have installed water pumps but have been facing technical problems or otherwise cannot afford to pay tax. In this case, the landowner would explain his problems to the tax collector, but other villagers would be normally required to approve his request for exemption. If his claim is verified, he would be granted an exemption for at least the current year. (5)

Another way of income generation for the local Taleban in Andar is to approach wealthier people to support them, by paying part of their zakat – a religious tax – to the movement. In such cases, they are often told to contribute in kind, by buying clothes, shoes or other commodities for the fighters. In this case, the Taleban also use implicit pressure. In one case, the author himself witnessed some Taleban fighters asking a local villager to pay them some money as assistance. Though the person could not afford it at the time, he could not reject the Taleban’s demand. So he borrowed 1,000 Pakistani rupees from someone else in order to pay the fighters.

Case study 2: The courts

Here, we first present four cases that four of our five key informants told us about and then analyse the findings from the cases. They represent samples of how locals approach the Taleban to address disputes and provide what locals consider to be justice. However, in the first, second and fourth examples given below, what was sought was dispute resolution. Only the third case is a criminal matter. The Taleban may also be asked to make judgments on law and order issues, retribution/revenge.

Case one: Planting a vineyard on someone else’s land?

The father of one key informant purchased land in the 1950s. A vineyard was cultivated on part of the land and a nephew of the seller claimed his uncle had not actually sold that part. The purchaser – who was accused of appropriating another’s land – approached a Taleban judge in 2008 and shared the case with him verbally. This happened before the Taleban had taken complete control of the district. This judge was not a member of the local Taleban court, but lived in a nearby village. He resolved the case by issuing a slip ordering the nephew to show up and bring his documents. When both sides went to the judge the following day, the nephew failed to provide the papers, while the buyer showed his documents. The judge therefore decided that the land belonged him because he had documents. The dispute was resolved within two days.

The fact that the case did not end up going to an official Taleban court suggested that either the nephew was convinced by the decision or that he knew he could not turn to an official court without documents to prove his claim. Both the claimant and the defendant could have written a petition to the official Taleban court if the judge had failed to resolve the dispute. In that case, the issue would have gone to the court or to the Taleban provincial commission. “I think I could reach all the three courts if my case was not resolved or if the claimant had wanted [to pursue it there],” said the key informant. He also said his father had not reached out to the government court because it would have taken a long time to resolve the case and the government system was slow and corrupt.

Case two: Who owns the land providing firewood?

A second key informant described his experience with Taleban justice. This case dates back to 2017, also before the complete fall of the district into the Taleban’s hands. It pitted one individual against an entire community, which included the key informant and lived on a relatively large block of land – between 16 and 18 hectares – known as a qanat. (3) The individual has been taking bushes for firewood from an unused part of the qanat for several years and now claimed that therefore the land belonged to him. He filed a petition with the Taleban’s civilian governor to rule accordingly. Our key informant objected to his claim.

Following this petition, our key informant was ordered to appear before the governor. There, he argued that this was a major dispute, involving far more people than the two in court. The governor decided that the land belonged to the local population and the claimant had no right of ownership because he had not cultivated anything on it. Any sign of cultivation would have been strong evidence of ownership. He ordered the people of the qanat to find ulama to figure out to whom the land belonged. The defendant, our key informant, went to the renowned local madrassa, Nur ul-Madares, where the ulama told him they could not resolve the issue because it was between one man and a community. After that, he went to the primary court of the Taleban, where the judges also said that, since it was a major issue and older than ten years, the rules were that such disputes would be adjudicated once the war was over. It would then be up to the defendant or claimant to pursue the matter. Therefore, the claimant was allowed only to continue taking firewood from the land, but not to cultivate it, as this would change its status.

At the time of writing, both sides were waiting for the war to end at which time the community may resume the case. “If I wanted to take the case to all three Taleban courts, I could do it, but I would be told at every court to wait for the war to be over,” the representative of the community told AAN.

Case three: Dealing with a murderer

A third key informant shared a case in which someone had beaten a relative of his to death in 2018. In this case, relatives of the victim found a delgai commander in their village and told him about the incident. The commander arrested the killer and encouraged both sides to sit together and resolve the issue between themselves, with the help of local elders. The Taleban encouraged the victim’s relatives to forgive the murderer. The victim’s relatives agreed on such terms that the killer must compensate for the loss by leaving all of his property to the victim’s family. The murderer also agreed and then left the village for good. The case was resolved without going to the court. The key informant said that if any side of the case was unhappy, he could follow the official process of taking the case to the Taleban court.

Case four: The road to the mosque has been destroyed

In this dispute which happened in February 2020, someone had destroyed four meters of unpaved road near a canal in a central village so that he could use it as his land. The key informant said he and other villagers had been using this road to go to the mosque. He said that in order to resolve the issue, he went to a Taleban fighter, who was from the same village. The fighter instructed him to go to and share the issue with the civilian governor. The governor gave him a written slip that instructed the local fighter to resolve the issue by consulting elders from the village. The issue was resolved by the fighter with the support of elders. They explained the case to the fighter; he wrote a detailed case report including the description of the issue and its solution that the key informant then took to the governor for his approval. The written decision – that the person had no right to block and destroy the road – was signed by the elders, the Taleban fighter and the two people involved in the dispute. In the letter, both sides said that they were happy with the verdict, and therefore the governor also approved it. The road was restored by the person who had damaged it.

What the cases tell us about the Taleban court system

Some findings can be drawn from these cases. First, there is no systematic way in practice to register a case, whether civil or criminal, with the Taleban in Andar – even though the Taleban, with their hierarchy of judges and courts at various levels, might describe a functioning system. In reality, haphazard justice practices (verbal/informal and in writing/formal) exist in which a diverse range of Taleban actors (fighters, governors, judges) and others (including ulama and elders) are involved, depending on the character of the case and the local conditions.

In the first case the defendant went to meet a Taleban judge, while the second defendant approached the Taleban civilian governor. Meanwhile, the relatives of the murder victim sought the help of a delgai commander and the fourth key informant first shared his case with a local fighter, who then became centrally involved in resolving it. The easiest way for most plaintiffs to access Taleban justice involve finding any nearby or passing Taleban fighter or member to resolve the issue or to offer direction as to where the issue might meet resolution. This ad hockery exists despite of the fact that, of the entire Taleban tashkil in Andar, the court is its only institution with a fixed physical location.

At the same time, there does seem to be a clear-cut procedure for Taleban to follow in the way they provide justice if a case should come their way. When a claimant or defendant shares a case with them, they produce a slip, ordering both parties to the dispute to show up to argue their claims and provide evidence. Taleban may then follow four different ways to find a solution. First, they might instruct both sides in the dispute to resolve the issue between themselves. Second, the Taleban might ask both sides to argue their claim based on documents and evidence and, again, decide between themselves; in this case, the Taleban are able to facilitate the resolution of the issue quickly and on-the-spot, based on the evidence. Third, the Taleban might refer the case to ulama or elders, who are locally knowledgeable and respected figures, to resolve the dispute; in this case, they use and respect ‘traditional’ ways of community-based conflict resolution, something appreciated by many in the local population. Fourth, they might instruct one of the two sides to register the case with the civilian governor.

As a rule, both parties have two weeks to appeal against any Taleban court decision. Such appeals have frequently been reported as occurring elsewhere, up to the Taleban’s Leadership Council as the last resort. However, in none of the above cases did the litigants appeal to higher-level Taleban justice officials or bodies.

Satisfaction among the people with the Taleban court system results from several reasons. One important reasons is the fact that solutions are based on religious teachings and interwoven with tribal and other local ways of dealing with issues, which are still dominant and widely practiced in the society. They also appreciate the swiftness of the courts’ decision-making and what is perceived as a low level of corruption involved (in contrast to the government’s courts). One respondent told AAN: “Both sides of the disputes are [usually] satisfied [because] they are told about the religious [basis for the] solutions. Also, they have the options either to accept or oppose the decisions.” He also pointed out that decisions were of varying quality. He said there had been “weak solutions,” that were later rejected at primary or secondary courts or by the highest Taleban justice officials based in Pakistan. Other, “strong solutions” were accepted and approved by the higher-level courts.

Finally, there is some distinction between the Taleban civilian governor and the district military commission in terms of the cases they receive in practice and how they are managed. The civilian governor has more interaction with locals and this is why, as a key informant put it, “many people take their cases to the civilian governor.” These cases include, for instance, land disputes, traffic accidents, fights between locals (which locally may not be viewed as criminal, but an issue needing to be resolved), financial disputes, divorces and the like. (AAN was not able to explore how women experienced Taleban justice, such as in divorce cases.) However, the civilian governor sends criminal cases such as robberies and murders to the military commission, which will investigate and enforce judicial decisions.

Courts and taxation are just two spheres in which local subjects and Taleban rulers interact. In the following two sections, we turn, first, to other forms of encounters and, then, to a discussion of accountability.

Encounters between residents and Taleban

While living in areas under Taleban control, it is impossible to avoid contact with the Taleban. Apart from tax collectors and judges, people encounter the Taleban in their interactions with the health, education and other sectors; when Taleban fighters seek financial help, in addition to the taxes that people regularly pay; in providing them food or shelter; or when they receive instructions from officials with the dawat wa ershad commission.

A key informant offered the example of his encounter with the head of the Taleban’s education commission when he was organising the re-opening of schooling in the district, following its closure because of coronavirus earlier in 2020. The head of the education commission asked all teachers to come to a meeting at a certain school to discuss the issue. From that meeting onwards, schools have been running as normal in Andar, despite the fact that they remained closed in Kabul and in other government-controlled areas at least until 5 August. The local Taleban have had sufficient clout to overrule instructions from Kabul, from where schools are officially run (see AAN synthesis report linked above).

In the health sector, the Taleban did conduct a few awareness-raising sessions with the public about Covid-19 earlier this year, but otherwise little was changed or done in response to the pandemic. Madrassas stayed open and no lock down had been announced.

In another case, a key informant told AAN that a couple of members from the Taleban health commission, who were part of a monitoring team, had met him and asked if he had heard about any problems in this sector and whether the head of the Taleban’s health commission was causing any problems or neglecting his job. In this regard, neglect meant failures to pay regular visits to clinics, to take care of the supply of medicines and to check on the attendance of doctors. The Taleban had contacted our interviewee because he had influence in the area and was in touch with various people. In this way, the Taleban tried to collect information for their monitoring of health services. As AAN has described, Taleban monitoring also includes direct visits to schools and clinics.

During our interviews, no one reported young men being conscripted into Taleban ranks. This contrasts with the 1990s when the Taleban were fighting against the Jamiat-led United Front, better known as ‘Northern Alliance’, and demanded conscripts, including from Andar. Then, Taleban would go to villages to take young students (taleban) either from village mosques or from local madrassasto the frontline for fighting. In addition, the madrassa graduates who were staying at home were also likely to be conscripted.

When AAN asked the key informants whether this happened nowadays, they unanimously said that the Taleban did not do so, mainly because of the absolute requirement for loyalty from fighters and the danger of infiltration. Voluntary recruitment proved more dependable. “Those introduced or motivated by friends [who are already Taleban] could be trusted more easily than those joining through conscription,” said one key informant. Another said the Taleban could not assume the trustworthiness of just any new recruit: “If it was easy to join, dishonest people might do so, which could prove very dangerous for [the Taleban].” Most join for ideological reasons, not for financial gain, according to the interviewees. Given the estimates of Taleban’s strength in Andar from key informants, ie with their five to six delgais with an overall number of about 2,000 fighters, plus civilian and other officials, they do not suffer a shortage of fighters locally.

The Taleban have not only adopted a softer – or pragmatic – policy regarding recruitment than during the Emirate, but also, the instances in which they have been forcing people to provide them with shelter or food individually have drastically fallen over the last four to five years. All key informants confirmed that these days Taleban fighters come to the mosque of a village and announce their need of food over the loudspeaker of the mosque. In the past, they would knock on the gates of houses and ask people for food directly who would usually comply. The new method of communication has eased things, as the load is shared now by the community and no one is required individually to provide particular or expensive food. One key informant said: “Now it depends on the villagers whether they bring meat or only bread with potatoes.” When asked if it was possible to challenge these demands for food from the Taleban, the key informants said that people were able to tell the Taleban to look for alternative sources, if someone could not afford to provide food, or rejected the demand outright. (6)

Requests or demands for shelter in civilians’ homes eased somewhat from 2015 onwards after the Taleban defeated the ALP and Uprising Forces in Andar and it became safer for fighters to stay in mosques. The signing of the 29 February 2020 peace agreement between the Taleban and the US government, which has brought a cessation of US airstrikes and US-supported night raids against the Taleban in Andar, has almost completely eliminated the need for Taleban to seek shelter in civilian homes. They currently have little fear of being targeted, except – and this is a much less serious threat – by Afghan government forces. It means they can now either live in their home communities or stay in village mosques.

Taleban and accountability

In this section, we wanted to explore whether the Taleban feel accountable in any way to the population, or can be held to account, whether they are, in any way, responsive, to local sentiments or willing to listen to civilians on service delivery or other issues.

Although local residents pay taxes, they have no expectations of accountability, nor even of public service delivery from the Taleban. If they do have hopes of services from the Taleban, it is mostly in regard to reconstruction and development and that the Taleban will allow work by NGOs, branches of the Afghan government and companies. To get permission for paving or widening roads between villages, for example, or building bridges or reconstructing school buildings, local people have to petition the Taleban authorities. One key informant, for instance, said some people had asked the Taleban to allow a private construction company to build a bridge over a river, and the Taleban had said ‘yes.’ In another case, elders in two southern villages made a similar request for some small bridges to be built with the help of a local NGO. Asked whether taxes might have been used to build the bridge one key informant thought it unlikely: “Local Taleban cannot decide on spending the tax money collected from residents in Andar district.” In a third case, teachers had asked the Taleban to allow the Afghan government to renovate several old school buildings over the last couple of years. The Taleban replied positively in those cases. The government education department signed a contract with a construction company which implemented the project in this district. The focal point for such requests is the district Taleban commission responsible for reconstruction and development which local elders would contact.

Two examples of bridges built in 2019 under Taleban auspices in Andar over the district’s main (currently dry) river between Habib Gudali and Mirai bazaar (above) and between Bashi and Tangi village. The Mirai bridge was constructed by a local company, probably NGO-financed; the Bashi bridge financed by contributions from local families collected by the Taleban. Photos: Sahil Afghan.

As AAN has shown in our earlier reports on service delivery, the government and NGOs provide healthcare and education, even in Taleban-run areas and districts (thereby, hoping to keep some influence). The Taleban, however, turn their relatively effective monitoring of education and healthcare into political capital, ie goodwill within a population that so direly needs services that it does not care too much about who actually provides it.

All key informants said the Taleban do not spend tax money on services because, as they are always busy fighting, they are unable to pay any attention to the expectations of the people. One interviewee said the Taleban needed the tax money for themselves. Well-off people like himself would also be asked for extra donations for the ‘jihad’. Another said the Taleban “do ask the people to help them” in implementing projects, such as paving roads; he described, as an example, the Taleban collecting money from local villagers and businessmen to build a bridge. But this is extra money, not tax revenues.

Although none of the key informants openly talked about threats and coercion, this is definitely a feature of Taleban rule. One key informant indicated implicit pressure from the Taleban, saying they were still able “to make people do what they wanted.” The Taleban also have the ability to block the implementation of NGO or government development projects.

Similarly, residents cannot openly protest against Taleban actions or policies. All key informants unanimously said that no protests had taken place against the Taleban in Andar, including against clearly unpopular measures. For example, the Taleban have been forcing people not to use the asphalted part of the Ghazni-Paktika highway since 2017, blocking this road in order to disconnect the government from two military bases on parts of the highway. In the same year, Taleban banned people from going to a certain bazaar for business after government soldiers had established temporary positions there. No one dared to protest in either case, although the orders have caused inconvenience, trouble and loss of earnings. Several businessmen did go to the Taleban to request the bazaar be re-opened, but without success.

However, there have been local protests against the Afghan government, when they were still in control of the district centre. For example, when Afghan soldiers set up temporary posts in Sardar Qala bazaar in 2017, businessmen protested. As part of their protest, they walked from Andar to Ghazni city demanding the government remove the posts from that area. However, no one dared to stage a similar protest, and demand the Taleban to not attack the bazaar.

The key informants gave different reasons as to why there had been no protests against the Taleban, but all were along the general theme that the Taleban do not allow protests and do not accept criticism, in the way that government officials do. One interviewee said protests were not allowed and local people did not have the courage to break this ban. Another said he had never heard of any protests in Taleban-controlled areas, not because they are happy with Taleban rule, but because people fear the Taleban a great deal. Another respondent said: “If people protest against the Taleban today or tomorrow, the Taleban will find the main organiser [of the protest]. They’ll immediately label him as a government affiliate, a rebel or a person who questions the Taleban cause.” A third said it was impossible for people to protest against the Taleban because Andar was not a city environment where people, from time to time, do hold protests, against the government or the Taleban. One argued the most he could imagine happening would be a quieter, indirect approach to the Taleban, often through elders and local figures of influence approaching administration officials, through a personal connection if they have one, to share their ‘concerns.’ This could also be the route by which people would seek to affect government policy, ie it is a known and normal way to try to influence those in power.

Our key informants gave multiple examples of this approach, of where local populations or individuals have petitioned the Taleban to stop or carry out certain activities. Typical requests would be for the Taleban to stop fighting in certain areas in order to avoid major civilian casualties or for a specific period of time so they can, for instance, carry out seasonal agricultural work. Such requests may be accepted or turned down – and petitioners may also be punished for asking. In the examples below, where the names of villages or people are not given, it is to protect their identities.

One key informant, for example, told AAN that, before Andar district centre fell to the Taleban, some local elders, in 2018, had asked the Taleban not to attack it because there was a district hospital there and they were concerned for the safety of the patients and medical staff. The Taleban did not accept the elders’ request as Andar centre was a major military target for them. Instead, they told the elders to ‘move’ the hospital to a Taleban-controlled area. This happened. Only afterwards, did they attack the district centre. In another example, villagers asked the Taleban not to carry out attacks on security checkpoints near their villages during the wheat harvest. In response, the Taleban set a timeframe for a ceasefire in that particular area for about two weeks. They resumed their attacks and military operations in those areas after the harvesting was over.

One key informant also described how Taleban fighters had rebutted the requests of a villager not to plant roadside bombs near his home. The villager argued that when he had been a mujahed himself, he had not planted bombs near people’s homes. The Taleban fighters told him that if he had been a mujahed in the past, he should be planting bombs for the Taleban now and in a better place in order to avoid losses to civilians. They did not stop their IED-planting near his home.

In other cases, described to the author, the Taleban not only rebutted such requests, but also punished the people petitioning. For example, based on the author’s notes from the time and accounts from local villagers, in August 2018, before Andar fell to the Taleban’s hands, a man complained to the Taleban as to why they had used his orchard and house to attack an ANA military base and ANP post in the Sinai and Kot-e Sangi areas. He complained only after becoming worn down by what he thought was the excessive use of his house by Taleban fighters – they were using his property to launch attacks three to five times a week. After he complained, the fighters of the local Taleban commander went to his house and beat him and his brother. Some villagers complained to the Taleban about the beating of the two brothers, but there was no apology and the villagers returned “disappointed” from their meeting.

In another incident, in early February 2019, an elder (now deceased) from Kuk village also tried to stop the Taleban using his house to attack the ANA Sinai base. The Taleban fighters left his village that day, but later, a key informant said a couple of the fighters came back. Again, they were the fighters of commander Hamza. They dragged Abdul Hai from the mosque where he was praying, forced him onto the back of a motorbike and drove him away. He was then beaten in an unknown location. Afterwards, Abdul Hai began to suffer from heart disease and had to go to Kabul for treatment. The worst of all, said the informant, is that after Haji Abdul Hai died, the local Taleban would taunt the villagers by saying it was because he had complained and, they alleged, had hatred in his heart towards the Taleban that he had died. They believed that if he had not tried to stop the Taleban from using his house, he would not have ‘received’ the heart disease and would not have died.

In yet another example, in early June 2020, the Taleban abducted the grand-nephew of one of Ghulam Muhammad Niazi, one of the founders of the historical Afghan Islamic movement (then still united under the name Jamiat-e Islami – for background, see this external AAN paper, pp 8,10) in Afghanistan, on the suspicion that he was working with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP); he had reportedly said the Taleban would be defeated at the hands of ISKP and verbally abused the Taleban, including insulting one of their ‘martyrs.’ Taleban commanders assured relatives that the young man would return alive, but, sources reported, the Taleban broke their promise and killed him in a mosque on 8 June 2020.

A volleyball in Mirai town during Eid in October 2012. Many people came to the district town that year after the 2012 uprising against the Taleban re-opened Andar district centre after three years. The peace was not to last: political interference and bloody violence were soon to follow. (Photo Fazal Muzhary)
A volleyball in Mirai town during Eid in October 2012. Photo: Fazal Muzhary/AAN.

Conclusion

In Andar district of Ghazni province, the Taleban governance system is relatively well-organised. Their countrywide structure – comprising a supervisory commission, governors, a growing number of sectoral commissions, commanders and fighter groups – exists in full in Andar, although without a fixed administration centre. (Only the district court has a fixed venue.) The Taleban have been ruling the whole of the population since 2018 when the district centre fell to them; for many, Taleban rule began more than a decade ago. Taleban officeholders move within the district centre and the wider province, especially when orchestrating and carrying out attacks against the Afghan government and its checkpoints.

In practice, the population see little difference between the Taleban’s civilian and military wings. This is especially seen in the wide-ranging roles, both military and civilian, played by the five to six delgais and their commanders. The delgais make them up are the backbone of the entire Taleban establishment in the district.

Hiding their administration is one of the Taleban tactics to avoid being targeted. It also blurs the lines between military and civilian, and the authority of both, in practice and in the eyes of the population. As the military wing of the Taleban dominates the governing structures and the everyday lived experiences of those in the district, it is clear that military priorities are paramount.

The Taleban exercise their governance in Andar through various ways. One is the provision of judicial services, which is widely seen as more accessible, quicker and far less corrupt than that of the Afghan government. Diverse actors from fighters up to their two district governors (civilian and military) and from local ulama to elders (often tasked by the Taleban) have become active in adjudicating civil and criminal cases, depending on the individual cases. Furthermore, the adjudication of cases takes various shapes (informal/formal, verbal/written).

This research was not able to confirm whether adjudicating cases quickly meant adjudicating cases fairly, because it did not come across a single case in which the claimant or the defendant had appealed the Taleban’s first-instance decisions by approaching higher-level courts. Similarly, it was not able to explore how women have experienced Taleban justice. It is clear, however, that Taleban rulings are of varying quality and do appear to strengthen the legitimacy of their rule in the district.

A second way in which the Taleban enforce their rule is through taxation. They are seriously and actively involved in taxing all economic and business activities in the centre and the villages of the district. As referred to above, fighters from their delgais collect taxes and, to prevent them from becoming corrupt, the tax collectors are replaced every year. Taxpayers have some room for bargaining over the amount of tax payable, and there is a degree of randomness in tax collection, as it is not clear how many taxpayers are reached, in practice. It is also not clear how much total tax the Taleban manage to collect in Andar. It can be assumed, however, that their tax collection is financially significant. That the poor are exempted from paying taxes creates political capital for the Taleban, as they appear to be taking into account the conditions of the disadvantaged people living under their control, a practice covered by Islamic law. The fact that tax payments can be negotiated might also indicate that taxation carries a strong symbolic element, as a way of projecting influence.

The Taleban courts and their taxation are just two spheres in which the Taleban and residents interact. Living under Taleban rule means that both the governors and the governed ineluctably encounter one another on different occasions and for different purposes. Most encounters are related to the occupations or social positions of those involved, both on the Taleban side and on the local population side.

The Taleban in Andar district are not accountable to the people they govern. While they do collect taxes, people are not able to demand ‘representation’ or even basic services in return. Instead, they use tax money for the war effort and rely on the government or NGOs to deliver basic services. They may also gather additional money from people to implement particular reconstruction or development projects. Local people also do not seem to expect services from the Taleban. Locals may raise related demands through petitioning the Taleban, particularly through elders. While there have been unpopular measures taken by the Taleban, such as limiting access to bazaars, no open protest has taken place because no one dares to do so. People have experienced, though, that a non-confrontational strategy can sometimes succeed, as exceptional examples of temporary halts of fighting (such as during the harvesting season) showed. Yet, the Taleban are an authoritarian organisation and, while local people may be able to influence their actions through quiet entreaties, it can be dangerous just to make a request.

The important point is that the Taleban have been able to get what they want from the local population (food and previously shelter, but not conscription, as this seems to be unnecessary and potentially counter-productive). However, local populations have generally not been able to influence the Taleban’s military priorities or anything else much. This reveals highly unequal relationships within this particular social contract.

Edited by Reza Kazemi, Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig

* Sahil Afghan is the pseudonym of a local journalist with a focus on the Taleban in the south and southeast. He has followed the developments in Ghazni since the fall of the Taleban in late 2001.


(1) Previous reports on Taleban governance, including those by AAN:

Fazl Rahman Muzhary, ‘One Land, Two Rules (10): Three Case Studies on Taleban Sales of State Land’, AAN, 2020.

Scott Smith, ‘Service Delivery in Taliban Influenced Areas of Afghanistan’, US Institute of Peace, 2020.

Human Rights Watch, ‘You Have No Right to Complain’ Education, Social Restrictions, and Justice in Taliban-Held Afghanistan’, 2020.

Ehsan Qaane, ‘One Land, Two Rules (9): Delivering Public Services in Insurgency-Affected Jalrez District of Wardak Province’, AAN, 2019.

Christian Bleuer, Sayed Asadullah Sadat and Obaid Ali, ‘One Land, Two Rules (8): Delivering Public Services in Insurgency-Affected Insurgent-Controlled Zurmat District’, AAN, 2019.

Fazl Rahman Muzhary, ‘One Land, Two Rules (7): Delivering Public Services in Insurgency-Affected Andar District in Ghazni Province’, AAN, 2019.

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, ‘One Land, Two Rules (6): Delivering Public Services in Insurgency-Affected Nad Ali District of Helmand Province’, AAN, 2019.

Rohullah Sorush and S Reza Kazemi, ‘One Land, Two Rules (4): Delivering Public Services in Embattled Achin District in Nangrahar Province’, AAN, 2019.

Obaid Ali, ‘One Land, Two Rules (3): Delivering Public Services in Insurgency-Affected Dasht-e Archi District in Kunduz Province’, AAN, 2019.

Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri, ‘Insurgent Bureaucracy: How the Taliban Makes Policy’, US Institute of Peace, 2019.

S Reza Kazemi, ‘One Land, Two Rules (2): Delivering Public Services in Insurgency-Affected Obeh District of Herat Province’, AAN, 2018.

Ashley Jackson, ‘Life Under the Taliban Shadow Government’, London: Overseas Development Institute, 2018

Michael Semple, ‘Afghanistan’s Islamic Emirate Returns: Life Under a Resurgent Taliban’World Politics Review, 18 September 2018

(2) Previous reports on Andar by AAN and others:

Fazl Rahman Mazhary, ‘Uprising, ALP and Taleban in Andar: The arc of government failure’, AAN, 2018.

Borhan Osman and Kate Clark, ‘Enemy Number One: How the Taleban deal with the ALP and uprising groups’, AAN, 2018.

Fazal Rahman Muzhary, ‘Finding Business Opportunity in Conflict: Shopkeepers, Taleban and the political economy of Andar District’, AAN, 2015.

Fazal Rahman, ‘Elections 2014 (14): Why two thirds of Andar’s polling centres may have never opened’, AAN, 2014.

Matthieu Aikins, ‘Exclusive: A US-Backed Militia Runs Amok in Afghanistan’, Al Jazeera, 2014.

Emal Habib, ‘The Morphing of the Andar Uprising: Transition to Afghan Local Police’, AAN, 2013.

Emal Habib, ‘Killing Mullahs and Wedding Guests, Banning Last Rites: The worsening Andar conflict’, AAN, 2013.

Fabrizio Foschini, ‘The Battle for Schools in Ghazni – or, Schools as a Battlefield’, AAN, 2012.

Emal Habib, ‘AAN Reportage: Who Fights Whom in the Andar Uprising?’, AAN, 2012.

Emal Habib, ‘AAN Reportage (2): The Andar Uprising – Has the tide already turned?’, AAN, 2012.

Emal Habib, ‘The Andar Uprising – Co-opted, divided and stuck in a dilemma’, AAN, 2012.

Frederick Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, ‘The ‘Andar Uprising’ and Progress in Afghanistan’, The Wall Street Journal, 2012.

Frud Bezhan, ‘Afghan Villagers Hit Back against Taliban’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2012.

Robert Burns, ‘U.S. sees potential for wider anti-Taliban uprising in Afghanistan’, Associated Press, 2012.

(3) Qanat is a local unit of measuring land by the reach of the particular subterranean irrigation system, karez (canal). For a description of the qanat system, read this BBC report.

(4) For example, the Taleban in Andar charge as annual tax a person who has installed a four-inch water pump powered by several solar panels 5,000 Pakistani rupees (approximately USD 29). They charge the owner of a three-inch water pump PKR 4,000 (USD 23) and of a two-inch water pump PKR 3,000 (USD 17).

(5) For example, one key informant said one villager had two water wells, where he had installed a diesel water pump. He was supposed to pay a tax of PKR 4,000 (USD 23), but was in a bad economic situation. After a lot of negotiation, the Taleban asked other villagers to approve his circumstances, which they did, saying he was really poor and had a large household to feed as well. The Taleban negotiated a lot with him, but he insisted that he could not pay. Finally, the Taleban told him to paint a madrassa, where he was not required to buy the paint but only do the painting. This he did.

(6) Sometimes, if the Taleban have special guests, they purchase meat from the bazaar and ask a villager to cook it for them and bring it to the mosque. If the villager rejects this demand, they will go to another villager until they finally find someone to cook it. Very rarely, as one key informant said, Taleban fighters may go to a house and demand the landlord or occupant to prepare some food for them for lunch or dinner. In that case, the Taleban may inform them in the morning that they need lunch or in the afternoon that they need dinner.


Annex

Questionnaire for Living with the Taleban research “Living with the Taleban

Section 1: The ‘Governance’ system

  1. To your knowledge what is the Taleban’s governance system like? (Prompt: shadow governor office, court, health, education, security and other departments have physical places that one can reach or access. Also ask: Is there a difference between military and civilian Taleban officials?
  • Have you ever submitted a case to the Taleban’s court? (Prompts: What was the nature of the case? How did you go about it? Whom did you contact in the first place to register a case? Did you submit your case in writing or did you just tell a local Taleban court representative about it? Did you ask for help submitting a written case from a lawyer or a knowledgeable person in your district? Do you think there is a systematic way to register a case? In your opinion, if you wanted, would you be able to reach all three court instances: primary, secondary and supreme courts? Did you also reach out to the government court for the same case? Have you ever used the government’s court system? How do the two compare?)
  • To your knowledge or from your experience, who collects taxes for the Taleban? Are the collected taxes recorded? What is an annual tax rate? Is there anyone who is exempt from paying taxes to Taleban and if so, who? Do women who run income-generation projects in your community pay taxes to Taleban?

Section 2: Encounters

  1. From your experience, which Taleban commissions have you encountered? Could you share some details?
  • Have the Taleban authorities or commanders asked for conscripts, shelter or anything else from you or other people in your area? If yes, please describe in detail who in the Taleban asked for these things and how they went about it.
  • Have you or other locals been able to challenge such demands or requests by local Taleban? If yes, please describe in detail how you or other locals have gone about that and what happened.

Section 3: Accountability

  1. Have you or other locals asked the Taleban to do something? If yes, please describe in detail what and how you have gone about it and what happened. (Prompt: allowing the implementation of public welfare projects like building a road or irrigation canal, opening schools, allowing safe passage, releasing hostages, reducing violence)
  • Have you or other locals asked the Taleban not to do something? If yes, please describe in detail what and how you have gone about it and what happened. (Prompt: not closing schools, not attacking health workers, not using civilians as shield, etc)
  • Has there been any individual or collective protests against the Taleban in your area? If not, is it possible to imagine that happening?

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Living with the Taleban (1): Local experiences in Andar district, Ghazni province
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Behind the Statistics: Drop in civilian casualties masks increased Taleban violence

Six weeks after intra-Afghan talks began in Doha, the Taleban and government teams are still arguing about protocol and what should be on the agenda. Meanwhile, UNAMA’s third quarterly report in 2020 on the protection of civilians in the conflict, published today, shows that, since the talks began, civilian casualties caused by the two parties now talking in Doha have actually increased. Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) also shows little abatement in the violence and the Taleban as responsible for the bulk of attacks. Here, AAN’s Kate Clark unpicks trends in the violence afflicting Afghanistan and considers how the Taleban have so far taken advantage of the stronger position which the peace process has left them in.

civcasA wounded child is carried to hospital after a car bomb targeted a government building in the Ghanikhel district of Nangrahar province on 3 October 2020. More than forty people were reported injured and 15 killed. Photo: Noorullah Shirzada / AFP

This report draws on two data sets – UNAMA’s third quarterly report of 2020 on the harm suffered by civilians in the Afghan conflict and ACLED’s documenting of incidents of violence, (1) which have been collated and illustrated by data analyst, Roger Helms. The report is also part of ongoing work analysing the Afghan conflict since the United States and Taleban signed their agreement in the Qatari capital, Doha, on 29 February 2020. (2)

Not as hopeful as it might seem

On the face of it, the UNAMA’s Q3 report looks more hopeful than usual. It recorded a 30 per cent drop in the overall number of civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. This was the lowest number for the first nine months of any year since 2012. However, as UNAMA points out, the Afghan war is still one of the most deadly in the world, causing “inordinate and shocking” harm to civilians, so this is a drop from extremely high numbers of civilians killed and injured to still very high numbers. Moreover, the details of the report do not point to hopeful long-term trends.

Less involvement in the war by US forces and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) accounts for most of the reduction in civilian casualties. ISKP caused far fewer casualties in the first nine months of 2020 than in 2019 with a 61 per cent drop from 1,014 (230 killed and 784 injured) in 2019 to 392 (132 killed, 260 injured) in 2019. (The UNAMA report only covers casualties up to the end of September so does not include the most recent atrocity claimed by ISKP, the attack on the Kawsar-e Danish educational centre in Dasht-e Barchi in west Kabul on 24 October which killed at least 30 people and injured more than 70, most of them children and young adults attending classes.)

The US-Taleban agreement of 29 February bound the US to cease offensive action against the Taleban. Since then, UNAMA reports, there has been a “sharp drop” in US airstrikes and civilian casualties caused by international forces have “all but ceased.”

The third factor bringing down overall civilians casualties is that the Taleban have carried out far fewer large-scale urban suicide and complex attacks. This reduced the overall number of civilian casualties attributed by UNAMA to the Taleban by about a third this year compared to last year: 2,643 civilian casualties (1,021 killed, 1,622 injured) in the first nine months of 2020, compared to 3,901 civilian casualties (961 killed and 2,940 injured) in 2019. This trend, already noted before the 29 February agreement, has come about as the Taleban have largely refrained from attacks on towns, cities and major military centres.

It is important to pick apart the Taleban figures, however. Firstly, although the overall civilian casualties are lower, that reduction was brought about by the Taleban injuring fewer civilians in 2020 than in 2019, and they actually killed more civilians (1,021 in 2020 compared to 961 in 2019). Also, it seems that many Taleban attacks have gone undeclared this year. UNAMA found that the number of civilians killed and injured by ‘undetermined’ insurgents increased by half in the first nine months of 2020 compared to 2019 and now represent seven per cent of all civilian casualties. This trend can be seen even more startlingly in the ACLED data, more on which below. Finally, although the number of civilian casualties caused by the Taleban has been lower than last year, this does not reflect any reduction in violent incidents. This year has seen short periods of reduced violence, including over the two Eids and in the eight days leading up to the signing of the 29 February agreement, but overall, there has been a net increase in Taleban attacks.

The US has repeatedly accused the Taleban of violating a verbal agreement made alongside the written agreement signed in Doha that both sides should substantially reduce violence. The Taleban dispute this, saying the agreement only bound them not to target US forces and left them at liberty to attack government forces and personnel. Just how much the Taleban have been attacking their fellow Afghans this year can be seen in the graph below which uses ACLED data. It shows the Taleban responsible for the bulk of attacks this year, especially since the US-Taleban agreement was signed.

Graph by Roger Helms for AAN.

Also apparent from the graph is how many attacks were carried out by groups which ACLED could not identify. Such attacks have increased both since 29 February and compared to last year. Unidentified group attacks have doubled this year compared to last. Attacks on civilians have more than doubled. ‘Armed clashes’ between armed groups tripled. In some weeks, the attacks attributed by ACLED to ‘unidentified groups’ outnumbered those attributed to the US and ANSF combined.

Looking through the ACLED incident reports, and the types of ‘event’ carried out by the unidentified groups shown in the table below, it is evident that the vast majority involved insurgent tactics, particularly the use of IEDs. The Taleban appear to be the likely perpetrator of most, alongside a small number probably perpetrated by ISKP and with some government attacks that did not get attributed and private murders added in. Also notable from the data set is the concentration of attacks by unidentified groups in Afghanistan’s urban areas, especially provincial capitals. People living in cities such as Kabul, Lashkargah, Kandahar, Sar-e Pul, Herat, Tirin Kot and Ghazni will recognise this pattern after months of what has seemed to be the increased threat of magnetic bombs and other devices: they may have been mostly spared large-scale attacks this year, but have still been threatened by smaller-scale acts of violence. As AAN reported in August, the Taleban, like other parties to the conflict has been reporting their attacks much more sparingly since 29 February and this is the likely reason for the ballooning in unattributed insurgent attacks.

Graph by Roger Helms for AAN

The decrease in ANSF attacks since 29 February is also noticeable in the ACLED database. The ANSF first took a ‘defensive posture’ after the signing of the US-Taleban agreement in the hopes of encouraging a more general reduction in  violence, and since 7 April, an ‘active defensive’ posture, which means forces can make pre-emptive strikes to prevent enemy attacks, but not take offensive actions. However, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in July that “the majority of ANDSF forces remain in defensive positions.” This stance has major implications for civilians: as Taleban attacks on ANSF positions have increased this year, if they fire from civilian-populated areas and the ANSF responds, the ANSF is failing to avoid killing and injuring civilians. This trend shows up clearly in UNAMA’s reporting which is looked at in more detail below.

The UNAMA report in detail 

In the first nine months of 2020, UNAMA documented 5,939 civilian casualties: 2,117 Afghan civilians were killed and 3,822 injured.

Who is killing and injuring civilians?

Source: UNAMA Q3 report (page 5)

The chart above taken from the UNAMA report illustrates the percentage of civilian casualties which UNAMA documented the various parties to the conflict as being responsible for, in the first nine months of the 2019. Altogether, UNAMA attributes 59 per cent of civilian casualties to insurgents of different stripes and 27 per cent to the various pro-government forces.

How are civilians being killed and injured?

Source: UNAMA Q3 report (page 4)

The second chart, again taken from the UNAMA report illustrates how civilians were killed and injured in the first nine months of 2020. The pattern is somewhat different from 2019 when more harm was caused by suicide and complex attacks (22 per cent) and air strikes (11 per cent), IEDs caused about the same harm (20 per cent) and less harm to civilians was caused by ground engagements (28 per cent) and targeted killings (8 per cent). Search operations, which led to three per cent of all civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2019, do not even appear in UNAMA’s latest report after the cessation of night raids by the US-supported (reportedly CIA) NDS special forces and Khost Protection Force.

Looking at civilian casualties resulting from ground engagements, UNAMA gives the following breakdown: 43 per cent caused by pro-government forces, 31 per cent by anti-government elements and 26 per cent coming from crossfire or other types of incidents. (3) UNAMA is especially concerned by government forces’ use of indirect fire, including large-calibre howitzers, mortars and rockets, particularly when these are fired into civilian-populated areas. The Afghan National Army (ANA) was responsible for more than three-quarters of the casualties caused by such fire by all pro-government forces in ground engagements in the first nine months of this year. Women and children, caught at home or near home, made up nearly three out of every four of these casualties.

At the same time, the Afghan Air Force is also killing and injuring more civilians this year than last year – 349 civilian casualties (156 killed and 193 injured), an overall increase of 70 per cent, and an increase in fatalities of 50 per cent. Afghan Air Force strikes “often hit civilian homes,” reports UNAMA, “causing on average, more than five civilian casualties per civilian casualty incident.”

UNAMA reiterates its call to the government to stop using indirect fire (mortars, rockets, grenades) in populated areas and to “continue to develop and improve tactical directives, rules of engagement and other procedures in relation to the use of armed aircraft.” It reminds the government that its “obligation to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians is not lessened” even when insurgents intentionally position themselves with civilians “in order to prevent themselves from being targeted” (often referred to as civilian or human shielding). It also reminds insurgents that “such co-location is prohibited under international humanitarian law.”

UNAMA has documented a drop of 51 per cent in the civilian casualties caused by IEDs this year compared to 2019 (no breakdown by insurgent group is given), but also notes the Taleban’s increasing use of pressure-plate IEDs, which are triggered by anyone walking or driving over them. These are inherently indiscriminate and therefore considered unlawful devices and indeed were banned by Taleban leader Mullah Omar when the group was in power. 43 per cent more civilians were killed and injured by pressure plate IEDs in 2020 than in 2019, “almost all,” said UNAMA “attributed to the Taleban.”

UNAMA also tracked a sharp rise in targeted killings by insurgents, the majority of which it again attributes to the Taleban. These resulted in 1,148 civilian casualties (527 killed and 621 injured), an increase of more than four-fifths compared to 2019. The Taleban and ISKP deem many people considered civilian by international humanitarian law as legitimate targets and UNAMA reports that in 2020, insurgents deliberately targeted those working in the education, health and humanitarian sectors, members of the judiciary, tribal elders, religious leaders and civilian government employees. Just this week, the Taleban reiterated this stance. Their spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, promised more killings, in an interview published on 24 October:

All troops and workers serving in the Kabul administration have waged a war against Muslims for the past twenty years. They are not ordinary folks but a bunch of criminals and mercenaries who have opposed Islam, and despite their proclamation of faith, their killing is not prohibited. So long as they do not repent and accept an Islamic system and continue to operate as an obstacle hindering the establishment of an Islamic system, they shall continue to be killed until that time and there is no prohibition in such a course of action.

Fighting… and not talking much

It is six weeks since the start of intra-Afghan talks in Doha on 12 September. The first ever official talks between the Taleban and a government delegation was opened with much ceremony in the Qatari capital of Doha and attended by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and other international dignitaries. Little progress has been made. The two teams are still trying to agree on ground rules and an agenda for the talks. Tolo News reported on 25 October ‘sources’ saying that both sides had agreed that Qatar should “play a role as mediator to break the impasse over the disputed points.” An annex to this report lays out the details of developments, such as they are.

The war did intervene in events in Doha on 15 October, when the midwife to the peace process, US Envoy for Peace Zalmay Khalilzad, and the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Austin ‘Scott’ Miller met Taleban representatives after the Taleban had mounted attacks on the capital of Helmand, Lashkargah, and its surroundings. It was the latest American appeal (read about an earlier one here) to the Taleban to reduce the violence to give the peace talks a chance. Khalilzad reported afterwards: “We agreed to re-set actions by strictly adhering to the implementation of all elements of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and all commitments made.” A Taleban delegate told the Associated Press (AP), that they had agreed to suspend attacks in Helmand but only after the US envoys had promised to halt the drone strikes, night raids and air assaults against the Taleban. The Taleban accuses the US of breaking its agreement not to attack. The US says it retains the right under the agreement to defend its allies when they are being attacked. As yet, no ‘re-set’ has been seen in the Taleban’s use of violence.

The state of the conflict and the talks

The US-Taleban agreement has already had a profound impact on the war in Afghanistan. It largely removed the US military from the battlefield. With the threat of air strikes and night raids gone, the Taleban have been able to mass and move in large numbers in ways impossible for them since President Barack Obama ordered US forces not to attack Taleban in 2015, a time when they took large swathes of territory from the government. For civilians in areas controlled by the Taleban, as we have reported previously, life has taken on a semblance of normality as airstrikes and night raids have largely disappeared. Before the Doha agreement in the first few weeks of the year, at least 110 civilians were killed or injured in US airstrikes (41 casualties could not be attributed). Since the agreement, six have been killed or injured.

As for the Taleban, their interpretation of the agreement has left them feeling at liberty to attack government forces and personnel, with the only restriction, which they say is self-imposed, on not attacking major population and military centres. Afghan civilians living in cities have seen a reduction, but not a cessation, in mass casualty terrorist incidents. However, in many places targeted killings, overwhelmingly attributed to the Taleban, have increased.

As we recently reported, for the ANSF, the ‘active defense’ order has left police and soldiers in bases and checkposts feeling under siege from the Taleban, frustrated and demoralised. AAN has heard complaints from members of the ANSF, including senior personnel, that they are not allowed by ‘the Americans’ or Resolute Support or the president since the Doha agreement to conduct offensive operations. As one ANA commander of a small outpost in Kunduz told us, a “one-sided ceasefire” had been imposed, making the situation “much worse than before.”

We put these complaints to the US military. A US Defence official said the ANSF were under no restrictions. They were under no obligation to not conduct offensive operations, but the US-Taleban agreement “limits what types of operations the US can support.” He said the agreement did not allow the US to support offensive operations, but the US military “can and will defend the ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] from attacks by the Taleban.” If nothing else, the response of the ANSF to lower levels or a different type of US support may show how dependent the ANSF has been on its international ally. For civilians living near ANSF bases and checkposts, the ‘active defense’ posture and the unchecked Taleban has meant an intensification of the war. For them, life has become far more dangerous.

Almost eight months on from the US-Taleban agreement, it is evident how it has tipped the balance of power in the conflict in the Taleban’s favour. The concessions made by Khalilzad to bring the Taleban to the negotiating table – the removal of the US largely from the battlefield, the withdrawal of the first tranche of US troops, the release of 5,000 Taleban prisoners from government custody and the boost to the movement’s international legitimacy – have sharpened the Taleban’s military edge and heightened their confidence.

The reverse is also true. Members of the ANSF are less confident and those in the field are feeling not only the absence of the Americans, but also wondering whether the government in Kabul has their backs. Anxiety has only been heightened by the uncertainty over whether the US will even be around next year. The US-Taleban agreement specifies that all international troops should have withdrawn from Afghanistan by 1 May 2021, although this is conditional on the Taleban’s “commitment and action on the obligations” outlined in the agreement. These conditions are to do with starting intra-Afghan negotiations and not allowing released prisoners, Taleban members and “other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” If the US next president wants to stay in Afghanistan, there is enough wriggle room in the agreement for this to be done; the question is whether he will want to.

So far, neither the US-Taleban agreement nor the start of intra-Afghan talks have brought about a reduction in Taleban attacks, only US and ANSF attacks. Talking and fighting can be normal companions during peace talks and it is also usual for two sides to spend time determining protocol and an agenda. Even so, there is little sign that this particular peace process has blunted the Taleban’s eagerness, in any way, to pursue war. Major offensives such as the recent one on Helmand have been few, but that appears to be due to Taleban reluctance to risk drawing the US back into the conflict, rather than to lack of desire or capability. The recent statement of Mujahed’s, that it is permissible to kill fellow Afghans who testify to their Muslim faith if they oppose the Emirate, is chilling. In the same interview, he went on to promise more fighting and killing, even after foreign forces have left until there is the ‘re-establishment’ of an “Islamic government.” He asserted that “until the rule of Islam takes hold in our homeland, Jihad continues to remain mandatory and Afghans obligated to wage Jihad until such an eventuality.”

The pursuit of this goal is, of course, continuing to cause Afghan civilians to be killed and injured in unconscionable numbers. This report has been a rather dry look at statistics and tactics. Yet the last few pages of UNAMA’s report testify to the human cost of the war and the enduring harm suffered by the victims of war and their families – the long-term disabilities and disfigurements, the nightmares and trouble sleeping caused by lasting emotional and mental distress, the financial ruin suffered by families losing breadwinners or faced with expensive medical bills, and the enduring fear which stops victims going to weddings, visiting family and friends, going to the mosque, or to school. So, this report ends with a quote from woman living in the northeast whose husband was killed in crossfire taken from the UNAMA report:

My husband fell to the ground, on the street. Nobody was there to help him, and he remained there until he died due to serious bleeding. My husband was not a rich man, but he was everything to me and my children […] Since he is not with us, I feel alone with thousands of responsibilities for my children […] I do not have even one afghani to pay for our treatment. I wish I were not alive to see this situation. 

Edited by Rachel Reid


(1) ACLED collects the dates, actors, locations, fatalities and modalities of all political violence and protests across Afghanistan (and other countries) that are reported in open sources; these include independent media, both Afghan and international, state-run media and Taleban websites. The method used by Roger Helms collates incidents reported by the independent press. (See our August report on the war for more on this.)

(2) Previous reports were:

Andrew Quilty, Taleban Opportunism and ANSF Frustration: How the Afghan conflict has changed since the Doha agreement, 12 October 2020;

Kate Clark, War in Afghanistan in 2020: Just as much violence, but no one wants to talk about it, 16 August 2020;

Reza Kazemi and Fazl Rahman Muzhary, Covid-19 in Afghanistan (4): A precarious interplay between war and epidemic19 June 2020;

Kate Clark, Voices from the Districts, the Violence Mapped (2): Assessing the conflict a month after the US-Taleban agreement, 8 April 2020;

AAN team, Voices from the Districts, the Violence Mapped (1): What has happened since the reduction in violence ended?, 21 March 2020.

(3) From 1 January to 30 September 2020, UNAMA documented 2,275 civilian casualties (606 killed and 1,669 injured) from ground engagements. Pro-government Forces were responsible for 986 civilian casualties (270 killed and 716 injured). Anti-government elements were responsible for 704 civilian casualties (177 killed and 527 injured). UNAMA also documented 585 civilian casualties (159 killed and 426 injured) to crossfire and other types of incidents.


Annex: Developments in Doha at the intra-Afghan talks

12 September Start of Intra-Afghan talks in Doha. Two teams, led by Dr Abdullah and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, met in the presence of US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo and other international dignitaries.

A small contact group is established to hammer out a code of conduct for holding the talks and an agenda. It comprises: Muhammad Masum Stanekzai, Nader Nadery, Zarar Ahmad Muqbil, Fawzia Kufi, Enayatullah Baligh, Muhammad Natiqi, Khalid Nur (government) and from the Taleban Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, Abbas Stanekzai, Nurullah Nuri, Shahabuddin Delawar and Qasim Turkman. (For biographies, see here)

Some of an initial 23 points were reported swiftly settled, including starting each session with a recitation of the Quran, ending with prayers, taking lunch breaks and treating each other with respect. Others were trickier. According to Al-Jazeera, as of 23 September, “small changes” in language which had taken “a lot of back and forth between the two sides” were also resolved, including changing “Quran and Sunnah” to “sharia,” “social justice” to “Islamic justice,” and “jihad” to “conflict.” From the beginning, though two sticking points emerged.

A. The jurisprudence to resolve any disputes arising during the talks. The Taleban want Hanafi jurisprudence to be used only. This is the school of Sunni Islam to which most Sunni Muslim Afghans, including the Taleban, adhere. This option would give no provision for Afghan Shias or the tiny Hindu and Sikh populations.

B. The status of the US-Taleban agreement reached on 29 February 2020. The Taleban has demanded it be recognised as the ‘mother deal’ underlying the intra-Afghan negotiations. The government was not part of this agreement and has suggested four alternatives, according to Tolo News, reporting on 25 September

1: The terms of the US-Taleban agreement could be accepted as underlying the talks, but the terms of the joint declaration between the Afghan government and the US and the Afghan government and NATO should also be accepted as applicable.

2: Neither the US-Taleban agreement nor the joint declarations be recognised as having any authority and the negotiations move forward based on the decisions of the Consultative Loya Jirga held in Kabul on 7 August.

3: Talks start “based on the national interest of Afghanistan.”

4: The Quran and Hadith are the main authority for the talks, replacing all others.
15 October US Envoy for Peace Zalmay Khalilzad and commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller met Taleban representatives to discuss a reduction in violence after the Taleban mounted attacks on the capital of Helmand, Lashkargah, and its surroundings.

20 October The contact group is reduce to three members each: Ghulam Faruq Majruh, Fatima Gailani and Rasul Taleb for the government, and Nabi Omari, Qari Din Muhammad and Latif Mansur for the Taleban, reported Tolo News. The two outstanding issues remain – the legal basis for resolving disputes and the status of the US-Taleban agreement.

25 October According to Tolo, both sides agreed that Qatar should “play a role as mediator to break the impasse over the disputed points.”

Behind the Statistics: Drop in civilian casualties masks increased Taleban violence
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The false inclusivity of the Taliban’s emirate

OPINION

The hypocrisy of the Taliban’s mantra of inclusion has been exposed during the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha.

The Afghan peace process entered a pivotal phase with the start of the long-awaited intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha on September 12. Shortly after the talks commenced, however, the process was stalled due to disagreements over the procedural rules for the negotiations.

One of the two main points of divergence concerned the Taliban’s insistence on a particular Islamic jurisprudence – the Hanafi fiqh – as the sole religious basis for the negotiations. (The other issue revolved around whether or not the US-Taliban accord should form the overarching foundation, or the “mother deal,” underlying the intra-Afghan talks.)

While the Hanafi jurisprudence is practised by most Sunni Muslims in the country, the Taliban’s obdurate stance would de facto exclude millions of other Afghans who are Shia Muslims or members of other religious minorities.

By contrast, the Afghan government proposed to rely on the Hanafi jurisprudence by default while also respecting the religious liberty of Shia Muslims and other Afghans. The government’s position largely reflects the Afghan constitution which underscores the centrality of Islam – rather than a particular Islamic jurisprudence – in governance and virtually all aspects of Afghan life. The Taliban, of course, dismiss the current constitution as un-Islamic.

These preliminary disputes, while frustrating, help lay bare the contours of the Taliban’s real vision for Afghanistan. For a long time, the group’s default answer to questions regarding their approach to governance, from elections and judicial philosophy to free speech and women’s rights, consisted of a well-rehearsed and vague notion – an “inclusive Islamic” emirate.

That vagueness, however, is slowly dissipating.

The Taliban’s parochial view of Islam is particularly instructive against the historical backdrop of their persecution of ethnic and religious minorities. One of the most notorious atrocities in Afghanistan’s 40-year conflict, to give but one example, was the Taliban’s massacre in Mazar-i Sharif in 1998 of thousands of Hazara civilians – targeted because of their ethnicity and religion (Hazaras are mostly Shia Muslims). During the mass killing, the Taliban presented three options to the Hazaras: “become Sunnis, leave Afghanistan, or risk being killed”.

The Hazaras and other minority groups have faced these grim choices for centuries in Afghanistan. Sikhs and Hindus are leaving the country in droves. Afghanistan’s sole Jew, meanwhile, lives an uncertain and precarious life.

Afghans often pride themselves on the strong solidarity and cohesion between Sunni and Shia in the country. That is certainly true considering the scale of religious sectarian violence in the broader region. The Taliban’s rhetoric and actions, however, jeopardise that cherished sense of Afghan unity.

Moreover, the Taliban’s lingering disdain for Shia bears an eerie resemblance to the ideology behind the continued targeted attacks against Shia and Hazaras claimed by (relatively nascent) terrorist groups such as ISIL (ISIS), and their affiliates, in Afghanistan. While the Taliban and ISIL may generally view each other as foes, when it comes to targeting ethnic and religious minorities, there are concerns about their strategic collaboration.

Investigations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan must comprehensively examine the conduct of groups like the Taliban, ISIL and al-Qaeda, including their organisational policies and official pronouncements which may evince persecutory intent on, inter alia, ethnic and religious grounds.

The Taliban’s exclusionary vision is not merely confined to the rejection of other Afghans’ religious freedoms. Rather, it seems to pervade their entire ideology and, hence, modus operandi. A closer scrutiny of life in Taliban-controlled areas as well as the composition of their Doha delegation – the Islamic emirate’s public relations opportunity before global audiences – reveals further exceptions to their concept of inclusivity.

Notwithstanding repeated claims that they support women’s rights, for instance, the Taliban has continued to attack girls’ schools. Also, women and young people, while comprising most of the country’s population, are conspicuously missing from the Taliban’s negotiating team. Moreover, despite Afghanistan’s rich pluralism and cultural mosaic, there is extremely little ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural and professional diversity within their ranks. This absence speaks volumes. It tells us, through calibrated action rather than hollow rhetoric, who is actually welcome in the Taliban’s emirate.

The blatant inconsistency between the Taliban’s mantra of inclusion and praxis of exclusion, this early in the intra-Afghan talks, should not be a surprise. The Taliban has already reneged on its counterterrorism pledges to the United States by continuing to operate closely with al-Qaeda.

The Islamic emirate’s recurring duplicity, however, must serve as a reminder of the perils of hastily taking a leap of faith towards the Taliban. A lasting peace, after all, is possible only through a genuinely inclusive process – not through one masquerading as such.

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


Mehdi J Hakimi is the executive director of the Rule of Law Program and lecturer at Stanford Law School. An expert on Afghan law, he was the former Chair of the Law Department at the American University of Afghanistan. Hakimi has managed global legal reform initiatives sponsored by the US Department of State. He has advised international organisations, governments, elite academic and research institutions, and global law firms on, inter alia, the Afghan legal system.

The false inclusivity of the Taliban’s emirate
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Our secret Taliban air force

Wesley Morgan

The Washington Post

22 October 2020

Wesley Morgan has reported on the U.S. military and its wars since 2007. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley.”

Inside the clandestine U.S. campaign to help our longtime enemy defeat ISIS

Tyler Comrie photo illustration for The Washington Post; Getty Images, iStock

What Frye didn’t know was that U.S. Special Operations forces were preparing to intervene in the fighting in Konar province in eastern Afghanistan — not by attacking both sides, but by using strikes from drones and other aircraft to help the Taliban. “What we’re doing with the strikes against ISIS is helping the Taliban move,” a member of the elite Joint Special Operations Command counterterrorism task force based at Bagram air base explained to me earlier this year, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the assistance was secret. The air power would give them an advantage by keeping the enemy pinned down.

Last fall and winter, as the JSOC task force was conducting the strikes, the Trump administration’s public line was that it was hammering the Taliban “harder than they have ever been hit before,” as the president put it — trying to force the group back to the negotiating table in Doha, Qatar, after President Trump put peace talks there on hold and canceled a secretly planned summit with Taliban leaders at Camp David. Administration officials signaled that they didn’t like or trust the Taliban and that, until it made more concessions, it could expect only blistering bombardment.

In reality, even as its warplanes have struck the Taliban in other parts of Afghanistan, the U.S. military has been quietly helping the Taliban to weaken the Islamic State in its Konar stronghold and keep more of the country from falling into the hands of the group, which — unlike the Taliban — the United States views as an international terrorist organization with aspirations to strike America and Europe. Remarkably, it can do so without needing to communicate with the Taliban, by observing battle conditions and listening in on the group. Two members of the JSOC task force and another defense official described the assistance to me this year in interviews for a book about the war in Konar, all of them speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk about it. (The U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan declined to comment for this story.)

Afghan elders in the Korengal Valley listen during a meeting with American and Afghan military officials in 2008. Most of the elders have strong family ties to local Taliban fighters. (John Moore/Getty Images)

With the Taliban fighting the Islamic State in Konar, a peace deal was always going to require at least tacit U.S.-Taliban cooperation against their mutual foe. In March, days after U.S. diplomats and Taliban representatives inked a withdrawal deal in Doha, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan and the Middle East, told the House Armed Services Committee that the Taliban had received “very limited support from us.” He declined to elaborate, and the form that support took has not been publicly revealed.

But inside JSOC, the team working on this mission is jokingly known as the “Taliban Air Force,” one task force member told me. As negotiators closed in on their deal in Doha, officers repurposed tools honed against the Taliban: Reaper drones and an intelligence complex with nearly two decades of practice spying on Afghan guerrillas. Unwilling to communicate directly with Taliban commanders, the task force worked to divine where and how its old foes needed help by listening to their communications.

By using such signals intelligence, members of the task force told me, they could tell when and where in the mountains the Taliban was preparing thrusts against the Islamic State, then plan airstrikes where they would be most useful. Taliban units on the ground appeared willing to take the help, waiting to assault Islamic State positions until they heard and saw the explosions of bombs and Hellfires. “It’s easy to capture the Taliban’s communications — a lot of it is just push-to-talk radio comms,” meaning walkie-talkies that anyone can listen in on, SAID Bill Ostlund, a retired Army colonel who led the JSOC task force in Afghanistan earlier in the war. “Why directly coordinate with them when you can do it that way?”

The Konar operations may offer a glimpse of what lies ahead for the United States in Afghanistan: the outsourcing of what has long been a core U.S. military mission — fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — to the uneasily coordinated forces of the Afghan government and the Taliban, with U.S. counterterrorism forces in some cases helping both. Under the Doha agreement, the Trump administration hopes to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan next spring, but a CIA presence reportedly may remain. And if a new U.S. administration halts the military withdrawal, it will have to find ways to hunt the Islamic State and al-Qaeda with just the 4,500 uniformed troops the Pentagon has said will remain by November, or even fewer — a smaller force than the United States has had in the country since the early months of 2002.

The precursor to this strategy has been in place for years. Joseph Votel, a retired Army general who commanded JSOC, told me that during his 2016-2019 tenure heading Central Command, even before the U.S. military provided air support, it “deconflicted” with the Taliban — refraining from bombing Taliban units that seemed to be preparing for attacks against the Islamic State. “I can understand a certain distaste for doing it,” Votel said about the new approach. “But if you buy into the overall strategy of bringing the Afghan government and the Taliban into reconciliation while maintaining pressure on international terrorist groups, it’s the kind of thing that needs to happen.”

It’s not clear whether the government in Kabul — which was not a party to the Doha negotiations but is now in its own talks with the Taliban — is aware of the role U.S. airstrikes have played in Konar. (Afghan government officials declined to comment for this story.) But government troops have cooperated with the Taliban there, too, even as they fight bitterly in most other parts of the country. When U.S. soldiers visited the province in 2018 to support an Afghan military offensive against the Islamic State, Afghan troops would sometimes bring in tough-looking, heavily bearded locals from the battlefield for American medics to treat. It was clear, some of the U.S. advisers told me, that the men were Taliban fighters who were collaborating with government troops as guides and scouts, although Afghan officers wouldn’t say so explicitly since they knew that the United States considered the Taliban a hostile force. And during Afghanistan’s presidential elections in September 2019, Taliban fighters guarded some villages in Konar’s Pech Valley against the Islamic State, burning the houses of suspected members of the group and encouraging residents to vote.

American soldiers return to their base, Camp Restrepo, in Kunar Province’s Korengal Valley in 2009. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

The silent rapprochement with the Taliban puts the U.S. military in an odd spot. Even though the group is fighting the Islamic State, it remains allied with al-Qaeda, the enemy that brought U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the first place.

Yet Konar veterans I spoke with seemed realistic about the calculus, seeing this as necessary to keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way. “I don’t think Americans should be on the ground in firefights with the Taliban, and we need somebody fighting ISIS, so I don’t see a problem with it. That doesn’t mean I want to break bread with them,” said Jason Dempsey, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who fought in Konar in 2009. “Emotionally it’s hard partly because we’ve spent nearly 20 years conflating al-Qaeda with the Taliban, but the Taliban didn’t strike the United States on 9/11.”

Votel, who spent time in Konar in 2007 and 2008, drew a comparison to the way U.S. forces handled Iranian-backed Shiite militias — including some that had previously fought against U.S. troops — during the campaign to push the Islamic State out of Iraq. “It’s not a whole lot different,” he said. The Shiite groups “were playing a role against a common enemy, and we tried not to do anything that might make ISIS’s job easier fighting them.”

Other veterans were less sure that the United States is backing the right horse. The Islamic State’s Afghan branch doesn’t appear to have plotted any attacks on the West, as its counterparts in Iraq and Syria have; the Taliban, meanwhile, has yet to break its long-standing relationship with al-Qaeda. “Just as an American taxpayer, are we more concerned about ISIS taking over Afghanistan, or the Taliban?” asked Loren Crowe, a two-time Konar veteran who was shot in the leg as an infantry company commander there.

What if the U.S. withdrawal plan has its calculus backward? The Doha agreement requires the Taliban to prevent terrorist groups from using its territory to plan international attacks, but not for the Taliban to break its ties with al-Qaeda — and last summer, a top Taliban spokesman refused to acknowledge that al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Although its numbers are always hazy, the U.S. military guessed last year that the Taliban hosts 300 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan’s east and south, more than double its estimate a decade ago, when nearly 100,000 U.S. troops were in the country. And there’s no indication yet that the Taliban has any plans to break with its old ally after the U.S. withdrawal, which will take away most of the tools — like aerial surveillance and drone strikes — long used to keep a lid on al-Qaeda.

The Afghan branch of the Islamic State, meanwhile, appears to be composed mostly of local fighters from Konar and surrounding areas, not foreign terrorists. Some have joined for ideological reasons, but many others have done so because the organization offers high wages and the promise of advancement. “We’re not seeing foreign fighters up there. These are localized folks,” two-time Konar veteran Brig. Gen. Joe Ryan told me of the Islamic State last year in a book interview. “I’m not saying there aren’t worrying indicators, but I don’t believe that a transnational terrorist attack is going to emanate from Konar anytime soon.”

If it’s true that the Islamic State doesn’t pose much threat to the United States or its allies from Afghanistan, and that the Taliban can keep that group under control or even defeat it with a little help from the U.S. military on its way out, it’s a point in favor of the Trump administration’s withdrawal plan. But officials expect that al-Qaeda can be finished off in much the same way. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who negotiated the withdrawal deal, told an audience in Washington last month that the remaining al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are on the run. But if U.S. counterterrorism strikes can’t defeat them in the coming months, that could scuttle the pullout and force Washington to keep troops in the country after all. In which case, the JSOC task force would keep pursuing al-Qaeda and the Islamic State indefinitely, and weighing what to do about the Taliban day by day and valley by valley — using drone strikes in some provinces to aid the group against the Islamic State and in others to kill off the al-Qaeda operatives who are the Taliban’s allies.

As long as the soldiers, intelligence officers and contractors charged with America’s counterterrorism mission go looking for people to kill there, that is, they will keep on finding them. “There will always be dragons to slay up there,” Crowe said.

Our secret Taliban air force
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McMaster says Trump’s Taliban deal is Munich-like appeasement

Oct. 20, 2020
National security adviser H.R. McMaster at the White House in October 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s Afghanistan policy is confusing and unclear, even for his own officials. His top general and his national security adviser are publicly battling over U.S. troop withdrawals in the country. And now H.R. McMaster, a retired Army lieutenant general and former national security adviser, has publicly said that Trump’s Afghanistan policy is a “travesty,” and that his deal with the Taliban constitutes appeasement similar to Europe’s accommodation with Adolf Hitler in the Munich agreement of 1938.

McMaster, doing a publicity tour for his new book, sounded off about the Trump administration’s recent approach to Afghanistan during an online event hosted Thursday by the Alexander Hamilton Society, a nonprofit foreign policy network that operates on college campuses across the country. McMaster told the audience that, during his term as national security adviser, the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan had been on track to be sustainable and effective. But in making a deal with the Taliban, he said, Trump has now betrayed the mission and undermined U.S. security.

McMaster said that Trump repeated and then exceeded all of the flaws of the Obama administration’s approach to Afghanistan by seeking to bring the Taliban into the Afghan government and pressuring the Afghan government to go along. Trump, he said, apparently forgot that the Taliban are the enemy, and that they are intertwined with terrorist groups.

“War is a contest of wills. And we have to have the will ourselves to prevail,” McMaster said. “These are some of the most horrible people on earth. These are the enemies of all civilized people.”

Gabriel Scheinmann, executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society, asked McMaster: “Is this our Munich agreement? Are we pursuing a policy of appeasement with Taliban?”

“Yes, yes, we are,” McMaster replied.

McMaster said that by pushing for an Afghan power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, the Trump administration was not only undermining its Afghan government partners but also undermining the moral and legal underpinning for U.S. intervention there. Trump’s strategy “renders the war unjust, because we no longer have defined a just end,” he said.

“It’s just a travesty,” said McMaster, predicting failure. “We will pay the price, and we’ll be back. We’ll have to go back, and at a much higher cost.”

McMaster’s comments came as the internal Trump administration battle over Afghanistan troop withdrawals spilled into public view last week. National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley are sniping at each other in public, each claiming to understand the president’s policy better than the other.

It started Oct. 7, when O’Brien told a crowd at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would go down from about 5,000 to 2,500 by early next year. Referring to the Trump administration’s push for the Afghan government and the Taliban to strike a deal, O’Brien said: “Ultimately, the Afghans themselves are going to have to work out an accord, a peace agreement.”

Just hours later, Trump tweeted that all U.S. troops “should” be out of Afghanistan by Christmas, a typically vague tweet that could be interpreted either as an opinion or an order by the commander in chief. Asked about the troop withdrawal issue by NPR on Oct. 11, Milley took a direct swipe at O’Brien.

“I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit,” Milley said. “I’m not going to engage in speculation. I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”

O’Brien hit back at Milley during an online event Friday hosted by the Aspen Strategy Group, repeating that Trump intends to draw down to 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan soon. “It has been suggested by some that that’s speculation. I can guarantee you, that’s the plan of the president the United States,” O’Brien said, pushing back on Milley’s claim that O’Brien didn’t speak for Trump. O’Brien also said that Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the Defense Department are “fully on board” with implementing the withdrawal plan.|

Officials tell me that O’Brien is definitely closer than Milley to being able to speak to the president’s intentions. Trump has been angry at Milley since the general publicly apologized for his role in the clearing of Lafayette Square with chemical agents so that Trump could hold a Bible photo op there in June.

Esper, who has also been on thin ice with Trump since that incident, has been keeping a low profile, traveling overseas and avoiding the U.S. media.

McMaster is surely voicing the concerns of many of the senior military brass who have spent years fighting in Afghanistan and worry that Trump is squandering those gains. He has spoken out against his former boss very selectively. At the Hamilton Society event, he implicitly criticized his successor, John Bolton, by saying that the national security adviser shouldn’t publicly reveal dirt about the president, especially while that president is still in office.

“You’re in a position of trust,” he said. “And to violate that trust and confidence during that administration is a travesty, because how are future presidents going to trust their national security advisers?”

McMaster says Trump’s Taliban deal is Munich-like appeasement
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The Intra-Afghan Peace Talks: Warring parties negotiate, victims of war are excluded

Ehsan Qaane

Afghanistan Analysts Network

Facing the past. Mass grave on Kabul’s Tapa-ye shuhada-ye danayi (Martyrs of Knowledge Hill), a memorial for the 40 students killed in an attack on an education centre nearby in August 2018. The message on one of the placards reads: “Who is representing victims in peace negotiations?” Photo: Hadi Morawej/AHRDOViews on the ongoing peace talks

War victims’ groups in Afghanistan and human rights institutions have long supported the notion of a peace process based on the concept of inclusivity and justice. They argue that inclusion, which would improve prospects for a lasting peace, is an essential right of victims as well as an integral part of any peace talks. Ever since the United States made clear its sole focus was to withdraw through a ‘peace deal,’ and with the Afghan government and the Taleban now starting their own peace talks, calls for a victim-centred peace process have grown. So far, however, there’s little sign that the warring parties are listening.

On the opening day of the intra-Afghan talks, on 12 September, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) released a press statement welcoming the start of the talks, which it described as “a unique opportunity to end the war and suffering in the country.” The AIHRC called for “recognition of the expressed wishes of victims” to be “the heart of the deliberations.” (1) Two days later, on 14 September 2020, a symbolic gathering of around 100 survivors and relatives of victims of war was held, at a mass grave for 40 students killed in an attack on the Mawud education centre in Kabul in August 2018. The mass grave is named tapa-ye shuhada-ye danayi (Martyrs of Knowledge Hill) to honour the students who were massacred. The gathering was organised by the National Victims-Centred Peace Network, which released a resolution in which it described the peace talks as a “historic opportunity to achieve a just, victim-centred and sustainable peace” and encouraged the negotiating teams to take the best interests of the nation and victims’ demands into account at the negotiation table (see annex for the full text of the resolution). (2)

Victims’ rights activists have been at pains to remind participants in the peace talks that victims should be recognised as a significant constituency in Afghanistan. The Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG), a coalition of 26 individuals and organisations including victims’ groups, argue that since victims form “one of the largest constituencies in the country,” the talks should reflect that. In a position paper released earlier this year, the group cited the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)’s reporting which shows that more than 35,000 civilians have been killed and 66,000 wounded since they began to systematically collate civilian casualties in 2009.

Demands and expectations

The three organisations mentioned above, the National Victims-Centred Peace Network, the AIHRC and the TJCG, have all put forward position papers or recommendations about victims’ representation in the ongoing peace talks. With some differences in the detail, the positions taken by these entities are broadly alike. There are a range of overlapping mechanisms proposed, including direct testimony from victims to parties to the conflict (AIHRC and TJCG), a National Victims’ Consultative Jirga (AIHRC) and a committee representing victims who would be a formal part of the peace talks (Victims’ Network and TJCG).

a) AIHRC’s proposals

In June 2020 the AIHRC published a paper on the inclusion and rights of victims in the peace talks. The paper lays out four mechanisms, two of which relate to victims’ direct participation.

  • Victims’ testimonies: a group of victims “from across the country and of a variety of types of violence” should have the opportunity “to speak directly to the parties about their experience in the conflict.” These victims should be selected “through independent and impartial bodies agreed by the [warring] bodies.”
  • National Victims’ Consultative Jirga and Outreach: a consultative jirga would “discuss issues of victims, justice and reconciliation,” to respond to “initial outcomes” of the peace talks. The assembly should not have decision-making powers. Prior to the jirga the parties to the conflict should engage in outreach with victims, inviting online submissions and consultations, facilitated by civil society/social networks.

In addition to these two proposals, the AIHRC recommended two other means through which victims’ interests could be furthered, through wider civil society inputs, rather than victims per se. First would be a sub-committee which would consult regularly with both sides involved in the negotiations. Second, avenues for written proposals should be shared with the negotiating parties.

b) National Victims-Centred Peace Network’s proposals

The Victims’ Network called on the negotiating teams to create a formal mechanism to directly include victims in the talks in a 14 September resolution:

  • Joint Special Victims’ Committee: this should be created by both parties to the conflict as a key part of the negotiation process “to follow up on the basic demands of victims and their families.” The committee should establish and introduce a “well-defined mechanism of access and communication with victims.”
  • In addition, the Victims’ Network would establish a secretariat which would also communicate with negotiating teams on behalf of members of their network.

c) Transitional Justice Coordination Group’s proposals

TJCG’s paper provides case studies from other countries, including Colombia, to argue that in places where victims have directly participated in talks, a more durable peace has been established. Based on this argument, TJCG proposes the following mechanisms.

  • Representation in all peace institutions: this means victims should be included as members of the negotiating delegations and the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR).
  • Technical Committee: this should be established within the HCNR to provide advice to the victims’ representatives in the negotiating delegations.
  • Victims’ testimony: not dissimilar from the AIHRC proposal, the TJCG proposes that victims that have “substantive engagement” with “negotiating delegates and primary conflict actors.” The paper says that victims’ testimony can have a “transformative impact on peace negotiators and victims alike,” citing Columbia as an example where such a process changed views of both victims and conflict actors for those involved and the wider public.

Now that talks have started without these elements in place, some of these proposals may seem less likely to be taken on board. However, the talks are still at a preliminary stage, with many modalities yet to be finalised. Also, as will be discussed later, the government is still working out its own policy on victims’ inclusion.

New terms to bring victims back into the spotlight

Victims of war and other forms of conflict-related have been marginalised for many years as a political force in Afghanistan. In an attempt to re-boot their demands, there has been a noticeable shift in the language being used by victims’ advocates, with ‘victim-centred peace’ and ‘victim-centred justice’ replacing the term ‘transitional justice’ when talking about the inclusion of victims of war in the peace talks. Since 2001, transitional justice was the preferred term for tackling victims’ wishes and dealing with past atrocities, at least among victims’ groups, human rights activists and the media. But in the last two years, discussions among victims’ rights and human rights advocates have brought consensus on alternative terms for transitional justice (the author participated in some of these discussions).

There are two reasons for the shift. Firstly, ‘transitional justice’ – adalat-e enteqali or enteqali adalat in Persian and Pashto – as a term, is not widely understood. In English, its meaning is also not obvious per se, but its wide use means it has come to be understood. Usually, transitional justice is defined as a set of processes and mechanisms, including truth finding, reparations and criminal justice, which ensure there is justice during a transition from war to peace or from an authoritarian to a democratic government. In Dari and Pashto, the two official languages in Afghanistan, the exact translation of ‘transitional’ has given us adalat-e enteqali or enteqali adalat, but enteqal usually refers to a physical movement. Often Afghans assume it refers to physically moving justice from one place to another.

Secondly, the shift to new terms reflects a pragmatic distancing from the negative connotations that transitional justice has gained in Afghanistan. Opponents of transitional justice have deliberately attempted to identify it exclusively with criminal justice, with those who fear being accused as war criminals inciting their followers to stand against taking any action to do with dealing with past wrong after the transition to a post-Taleban administration in 2001.

An apparent conflict between peace and stability on the one hand and justice on the other has been posited as far back as the Bonn Conference in December 2001 with the argument that justice had to be sacrificed to stability. Important players at Bonn, particularly those representing the mujahedin factions, but also the US took this position and it was backed by the United Nations chair of the conference, Lakhdar Brahimi. (3) The conference helped set a course where the interests of political factions and short-term stability were deliberately and explicitly prioritised over justice. (For detail on this, see AAN’s major report on transitional justice from page 14 onwards. 18 years later, there has been no accountability for any war crimes, including mass atrocities. Yet, nor has there been peace. Many have argued that ignoring justice was one factor fermenting instability.

In 2005 the AIHRC released its report “A Call for Justice”, the findings of its national consultation with victims of pre-2001 war crimes. Also in 2005, the Afghan government published its three-year transitional justice “National Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation, and Justice,” but was unable to implement it in the face of political opposition. Mujahedin leaders from the main civil war factions organised a large gathering in Kabul where they invited their followers and former fighters to rally against the government’s plans. Thousands of people gathered in the Ghazi soccer stadium, where transitional justice was labelled a ‘foreigners’ policy’ against the mujahedin, designed to put them behind bars. This narrative, which ignored the restorative component of transitional justice, has been consistently aired on some of these mujahedin leaders’ private TV channels over many years. Subsequently, the Afghan parliament, with its high proportion of former mujahedin leaders and commanders among its members, approved an ‘amnesty law’ in 2007, which gave a blanket amnesty to those involved in wars before 2001 and a conditional amnesty to those who continued to fight in the post-2001 era if they reconciled with the government. (4)

Reducing transitional justice to only criminal justice has had two implications. Firstly, it shifts focus from the victims to the perpetrators. Holding perpetrators accountable is indeed an essential part of transitional justice, but finding the truth, healing wounds, compensating victims’ losses and bringing institutional reform are also core elements of the process. These components were addressed in the government’s national action plan, but were lost in the noise of the former warlords’ criminal justice narrative. Secondly, it created an unnecessary fear among those who had been involved in the conflict – including low-ranking fighters – that if transitional justice were implemented, they would be put behind bars. To the extent that transitional justice has an accountability component, the focus is generally on command responsibility, rather than fighters, but this was lost.

This narrative helped to divide society between those who believed that the past should be left alone and those who longed for justice. The proponents for justice failed to create a sufficient political and social constituency for their cause, while the opponents succeeded in derailing the implementation of the transitional justice national action plan and control large parts of the victims’ constituency that is divided along political and ethnic lines. This was particularly true under the leadership of the former president, Hamed Karzai, who was significantly influenced by former mujahedin leaders, including several alleged war criminals. When Ashraf Ghani, his successor, was first campaigning for the presidency in 2013, it was hoped that he would distance his administration from people implicated in potential war crimes and publish the AIHRC’s Conflict Mapping Report as he promised during his campaign. However, his selection of General (now Marshall) Abdul Rashid Dostum as Vice President – albeit on condition of a half-hearted public apology – swiftly diminished such hopes.

Today, the tendency to equate transitional justice with criminal justice is still a dominant narrative which discourages the warring parties from involving victims in the ongoing peace talks. Human rights institutions and victims’ groups are hoping that by using ‘victim-centred peace’ and ‘victim-centred justice’ as alternative terms they can bring back the focus to victims’ needs and their potential to make a positive contribution to peace.

The Afghan government’s position

The Afghan government still seems to be formulating its policy on the inclusion of victims in the intra-Afghan peace talks, within the recently constituted State Ministry of Peace. However, hostility from presidential and vice-presidential offices risks undermining more positive intentions at lower levels of government.

In a blow to victims, President Ghani made perhaps his most clear statement yet against a victim-centred peace process. Speaking at a ceremony in the palace to celebrate International Peace Day on 21 September, Ghani suggested that what he called ‘the Spanish model’ of dealing with its past could be a model for Afghanistan. In Spain, after the death of the fascist dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975, a decision was made not to talk about the previous thirty years in Spain, Ghani said. This ‘pact of forgetting,’ as it became known, culminated in the 1977 Amnesty Law which blocked the investigation of Franco-era crimes, leaving uninvestigated the mass graves of more than 100,000 people. However, the Spanish model remains politically controversial, with successive left-leaning governments providing greater recognition for victims, as well as exhumations of mass graves and the removal of some monuments celebrating Franco. (5) The president’s statement went against the decision of the August 2020 Consultative Loya Jirga that “the government should secure the consent of families of victims of war.”

Ghani argued that “in the contemporary history of Afghanistan, we fought against each other and killed each other but tomorrow we need to accept each other as brothers and sisters.” He added that the past must not destroy our future and “forgiveness” was what was needed, adding that he saw a willingness to forgive in the nation, citing the experience of the June 2018 ceasefire (AAN’s report on the ceasefire here).

In the same peace ceremony, First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh spoke for almost 25 minutes but did not say a word about victims. As a former director of the National Directorate for Security (NDS), an institution repeatedly documented as using torture (see UN reports cited here and AAN dossier on torture here), and a leading proponent of the former anti-Taleban coalition, the United Front (better known as ‘Northern Alliance’), the factions of which have also been accused of war crimes he is not known for his pro-victim stance, nor is he an advocate for the peace process, having bluntly stated that he, personally, is irreconcilable with the Taleban.

The second vice-president, Sarwar Danesh, is more supportive of emphasising human rights in negotiations with the Taleban and has previously pledged that human rights would be respected in any peace process. At the peace ceremony he recited verse nine of the Hujurat chapter of the Quran where it says, “… make peace between them fairly, and do justice. Indeed, God loves the just.” While he did not explain what he meant by a ‘just peace’, he had been speaking about Taleban ignorance of Shia Muslims, so this point appeared addressed to the Taleban, rather than both sides.

Despite these mixed messages at the top of government, there have been modest movements within government in policy terms. The State Ministry for Peace and the Afghan Islamic Republic’s negotiating team both have proposals for the inclusion of victims in the peace process, though their plans seem to be in a very early stage.

On 13 October, the State Minister for Peace, Sayed Sa’adat Mansur Naderi and the chairman of the Afghan Islamic Republic’s negotiation team, Masum Stanekzai, held their first virtual meeting with representatives of war victims. In the meeting, Naderi promised to establish a special committee, consisting of representatives victims, victims’ organisations, the High Council for National Reconciliation, in the ministry to manage victims’ affairs related to the peace talks. Stanekzai said the war victims would be “the central part of the peace talks.” He added that the experience of other countries had revealed that in non-exclusive peace talks, victims were the most vulnerable group.

Prior to this, on 22 September 2020, the State Ministry of Peace hosted a victims’ hearing session in the Presidential Palace (where Ghani had proposed the Spanish model for Afghanistan just a day earlier). The Deputy Minister for Human Rights and Civil Society, Dr Alema, in her inauguration speech, promised that her ministry, in cooperation with ‘relevant organisations’, was establishing “structures and mechanisms” to ensure victims’ participation in the peace process. She insisted that the warring parties “must” listen to the victims of war and make sure that “victims benefit from the [peace] agreement the most.”

Meanwhile, it appears that the Afghan negotiation team has formed a committee representing victims’ rights, though this has not been well publicised. On 16 September 2020, team member Habiba Sarabi, told AAN that she is the chair of the team’s Committee for Human Rights, Women’s Rights, Vulnerable Groups and Victims and that it has a mandate to communicate with victims and relevant civil society organisations to collect their views. Sarabi said that she was in regular contact with the AIHRC, the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation and the Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace, which is an civil society organisations joint initiative. The day she spoke to AAN, she had held her first official round of talks with these organisations. Shaharzad Akbar, the Chairwoman of AIHRC, confirmed having been in contact with Sarabi, told AAN on 9 October 2020 that she was glad, at least, that the Afghan government negotiating team had created such a committee because human rights organisations like AIHRC now had an ‘address’ to give their recommendations to. She hoped the Taleban would do the same. Previously, after President Ghani presented his peace plan the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan in 2018, the government retrospectively added a Victims’ Affairs Committee to the plan (read AAN’s analysis on the 2018 peace plan here). However, this committee never came into being (nor did nine others also mentioned in the peace plan as bodies to address various segments of the Afghan society). Instead, the State Ministry for Peace was established in June 2019. Within the ministry, no department is designated as covering victims’ affairs, though the Department of Programmes is in contact with some victims’ groups.

These developments show that victims have some allies in government, which brings a little hope that the committee and the ministry’s consultations may bring some positive developments for victims. However, there are evident contradictions between these promises of greater inclusion and the stark words and actions of president Ghani, including the prisoner release made under US pressure. Overall, the dominant view within the Ghani administration is that justice will have to wait for peace. (6) These contradictions could be the result of divisions between government factions and the lack of any serious efforts to find a consensus. Or it could suggest a lack of interest from the Afghan government, allowing space only for tokenistic gestures towards inclusion. Alternatively, the Afghan government might be responding to pressure from third parties, like the US in the case of the Taleban prisoners’ release. Some in the government negotiating team believe that the strategy of the government representing victims is bad policy: in a 1TV discussion on the victims’ place in the peace talks, Dr Amin Ahmadi, a member of the government negotiating team, argued that victims and other relevant stakeholders should self-mobilise and act independently from the Afghan government. His argument was that the government’s involvement could politicise victims’ involvement, creating new hurdles for their direct participation in the talks.

The Taleban’s stand

The Taleban have not taken any public position on the inclusion of victims’ representatives in the peace talks, nor have they commented on demands from victims’ groups’ and human rights institutions. They also did not answer AAN’s questions on this subject, which were submitted twice to Muhammad Na’im Wardak, the Taleban’s spokesperson.

However, based on the Taleban agreement with the US (full text here), it could be argued that the Taleban have not taken the victims’ rights seriously. After around 18 months of talks behind closed doors, the Taleban and US signed this agreement in February 2020 to bring a conditional end to their conflict. While the Taleban in its regular incident reports often accuse US troops of killing civilians or committing war crimes, they signed an agreement with the US in which accountability for war crimes or civil remedies for victims of those crimes is not mentioned. As the discussions happened behind closed doors, it is not clear whether justice for victims was a topic ever raised by the Taleban or not, but they have made no public comment on the participation of victims or their representatives in the US-Taleban discussions or Intra-Afghan talks.

It is notable that five victims of unlawful detention and other abuses by the US at Guantanamo are among the Taleban’s representatives in the current peace talks, though their presence relates more to the legitimacy the experience has conferred on them within the movement, rather than informing any policies related to accountability or justice. Taleban positions on Guantánamo over the years have focused only on the release of their own people, not the rights of other Afghans or detainees of other nationalities being illegally detained. In the negotiations to exchange those five prisoners for Seargent Bowe Bergdahl, which was made in 2014 (AAN reporting here), the Taleban actually refused to try to get other non-Taleban detainees out as part of the swap, according to AAN colleague, Kate Clark, who has written extensively on this subject (for example here).

The Taleban negotiating team also includes senior leaders whose potential war crimes are documented; this includes command responsibility for potential war crimes. While the Geneva Conventions encourages warring parties to provide the “broadest possible amnesty” to fighters at the end of hostilities, this does not apply to those who had command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. (7) This would implicate members of the Taleban senior leadership.

The US position

The US has no diplomatic track record of taking the rights or needs of Afghan victims into account beyond some forms of compensation payments. Rather, it has long made its hostility towards accountability measures in cases of allegations of war crimes clear, with regards to its own forces, but also its Afghan allies. It signed a number of bilateral agreements with the Afghan government to limit investigation of its military personnel by the Afghan government or a third party, starting in 2003 with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and most recently the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed in 2014. The BSA declared that the Afghan government could not investigate US forces accused of crimes nor could it hand them over to a third party.

The US claimed it would prosecute any wrongdoers through domestic judicial bodies. However, wrongdoers are rarely put through a judicial process and few have received even received any bureaucratic sanctions, such as loss of pay or being fired. Some, such as the head of Bagram detention centre were promoted after a detainee died after being tortured on his watch. (8) The failure to deal adequately with alleged perpetrators of war crimes the attention of the International Criminal Court, particularly with regards to CIA torture (AAN’s analyses here and here).

In the February 2020 US-Taleban Agreement, like the Taleban, the US did not insist on any accountability for the victims of war crimes allegedly committed by the Taleban. Indeed, it agreed to the release of more than 5,000 Taleban prisoners, convicted in Afghan courts for a variety of crimes including murder. For instance, according to the Afghan government, the mastermind behind the massive May 2017 explosion at the green zone of Kabul, close to the German Embassy, which killed nearly 100 people and injured 350 others, was among them. 105 prisoners were also released despite outstanding complaints by individual plaintiffs’  – maybe victims or their relatives – against them. (9)

Conclusion

There is still time for the Afghan government and Taleban – and the US as a major actor still in the context of the Doha peace talks – to demonstrate to victims of the war that they are seen and heard. A small chink of light has been offered by the State Ministry for Peace and the Afghan government negotiating team’s promises to establish mechanisms to consult with victims. The proposals from human rights organisations for the inclusion of victims in the peace talks provide principles and potential structures that could further elaborate those mechanisms. However, these modest gains stand in contrast to the striking lack of political will among those charged with making peace, the Afghan government, the Taleban and the US. The so far only limited mobilisation and organisation of victims is also a hurdle.

The Afghan government is divided, though its leadership is generally hostile to ideas of accountability for and remembering of the past. President Ghani favours forgiveness – or a “pact of forgetting” that would echo the failed Spanish experiment. This approach is already reflected in the 2007 ‘amnesty law’ and bolstered by the continued political clout of the former leaders of mujahedin groups who were involved in the war before 2001, including Abdullah Abdullah, who chairs the High Council for National Reconciliation, as well both of President Ghani’s vice-presidents. The former mujahidin commanders fear that by opening the door to the past, the crimes of the pre-2001 era would be investigated.

The Taleban have demonstrated no interest in the rights of victims during the peace process, or prior to it, concentrating only on the rights of their own members. They have made clear they expect a blanket amnesty, including for those most responsible for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the Taleban’s case, which has some high-ranking figures in their negotiating team, this threat may discourage the Taleban from opening the floor to victims’ representative during the peace talks.

The US has, in practice, demonstrated no desire to push for accountability, either of its own forces or allies. The US made an agreement with the Taleban on prisoner release with no consultation with victims or the Afghan government in a clear indication of its willingness to overlook the demands of the victims as the price to pay to get the Taleban to sign its agreement.

Despite these obstacles, victims and human rights organisations still have avenues ahead. They can support the limited number of political allies in the government by mobilising victims, the media and other sympathetic voices. Efforts to shift the language towards a victim-centred peace may help persuade the government and Taleban leadership that the inclusion of victims does not necessarily mean trials, but raises possibilities of compensation and healing that even their fighters can benefit from. Afghanistan has had many decades of evading past crimes, but president Ghani would do well to learn the real lesson from Spain, which is that you can enforce a silence on victims, but you can never make them forget.

Edited by Rachel Reid, Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig


(1) The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has a long track record of working for war victims’ rights. In 2004, it published a report as a result of a national consultation with war victims to reflect their views on how to deal with pre-2001 war crimes and war criminals, called “A Call for Justice.” The Afghan government then developed a three-year transitional justice national action plan (from 2005-8), which mandated the AIHRC to document war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated from 1978 to 2001. The documentation was completed in 2012 and the “Conflict Mapping Report” was shared with Hamid Karzai, the former president, when he was in the office, and then with Ashraf Ghani, the current president. Both men refused to publish it.

(2) The network, with technical and logistical support of Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation (AHRDO), has organised four regional gatherings so far, with three more to be completed by mid-October. According to chairperson Hadi Marifat, once these regional gatherings are complete, elected representatives of each region will come to Kabul to convene the Victims’ National Assembly to decide on their demands and how to engage with the peace negotiating teams and other relevant actors.

(3) Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria, cited Chile as an example of justice being sacrificed for peace while giving South Africa as an example of accountability being jettisoned in favour of a truth and reconciliation process. See “Transcript of the Press Conference by the SRSG for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi,” 27 August 2002.

(4) For more detail on these events, see AAN’s 2013 report on transitional justice in Afghanistan “Tell Us How This Ends: Discussing Transitional Justice.”

(5) General Franco ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. The ‘pact of forgetting” was hailed by the strong conservative forces in the country, some of them with roots in the Francoist movement, and originally also the socialist party (PSOE), as a necessity to allow the country to transition to democracy. Others decried the policy, with divisions on the issue and in society continuing. After the 30 years had elapsed in 2007, a Historical Memory Law was passed by the then socialist government which went some way towards recognising calls from victims for the exhumation of mass graves and removal of public symbols commemorating Franco, though it was not fully implemented. In September 2020, a new bill was introduced, the Democratic Memory Law, which among other things, makes the state responsible for identifying victims buried in mass graves (see media reports herehere and here and this report of a human rights organisation).

(6) The Afghan government sought to block efforts of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation in Afghanistan, trying to shield itself by taking small administrative steps towards addressing war crimes, such as creating a War Crimes Unit in the Office of the Attorney General. However, it has failed to hold any senior officials accountable for the potential crimes of interest to the ICC (mostly torture and extra-judicial killings on the part of the Afghan government). For more see this Human Rights Watch report

(7) Article 6(5) of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions: “At the end of hostilities, the authorities in power shall endeavour to grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict, or those deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the armed conflict, whether they are interned or detained.”

(8) There has been no prosecution of anyone involved in the death of Gul Rahman in Bagram in 2002 who froze to death on the bare concrete floor of a cell in CIA custody after interrogators ordered his clothes removed because he was being “uncooperative.” A CIA review listed contributing factors leading to his death: “dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to ‘short chaining’ [ie being held on a short chain]. ”His case was referred to the US Justice Department. It decided not to bring charges and, in 2012, the US Attorney General prosecutors announced that the investigation would be closed because “the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt” (see here and here). The 2014 US Senate report into the CIA’s use of torture detailed how, in March 2003, “just four months after the death of Gul Rahman, the CIA Station in Country recommended that [redacted] CIA officer receive a “cash award” of $2,500 for his “consistently superior work.” The manger of the detention side stayed in position and “was formally certified as a CIA interrogator in April 2003 after the practical portion of his training requirement was waived because of his past experience with interrogations” at the site.

(9) After protests from French and Australian governments, six prisoners involved in murdering of French and Australian soldiers in Afghanistan were not released, but moved to Qatar to be kept under house arrest (read media report here). For AAN’s legal analyses on the prisoners swap see here and here.


ANNEX 

The National Victim-Centred Network’s resolution which was presented on 14 September 2020.

The entire peace process must be victim-centered, just and aimed at healing the wounds of victims of war and avoiding future recurrence of violence and crime.”

Resolution

Conference of War Victims’ families and relatives on the start of Intra-Afghan Peace Talks 

Decades of devastating and brutal war have claimed countless victims among the oppressed people of Afghanistan, largely among the civilian population, with women and children often the primary targets; people have paid the irreparable human, material and spiritual price of war with their lives, properties, rights and interests.

Now that “negotiations and peace talks between Afghans” has started, we, the families and relatives of the victims of war and violence, call for our active participation in this process, so that our voices are heard and our concerns are taken into account in all its aspects and reflected in the final agreements. We call on all negotiating parties to recognize the active participation of victims in the negotiation process as one of the main pillars of sustainable peace, and do not allow the negotiation process lead to the re-victimization of war victims.

According to the Islamic and international humanitarian rights, civilians, women, children, public property, infrastructures, civil property, the sick and those who surrender in battle are considered absolutely safe, and any assault on them is considered a “war crime”. The comparative experience of the countries involved in the conflict shows that a thorough handling of and accountability for violations committed during war and conflict is one of the inviolable principles of permanent peace that ensures the irreversibility of wars and conflict. Without a reasonable and transparent mechanism to deal with conflict-related crimes and violations, we could face fragile peace in the most optimistic scenario, and in the worst case, civil conflicts would return with greater intensity. War crimes can be dealt with legally, judicially and in accordance with international human rights instruments and national laws. The perpetrators of these crimes should be held accountable and their sentence cannot be suspended and not can it be subject to statutes of limitation [the time after which a crime cannot be tried in court].

We believe that peace cannot be realistic and sustainable without respect for human rights, justice and equality and ending of culture of impunity and violence. The essential precondition for the implementation of human rights and justice in the peace process is to allow active and meaningful participation of war victims in the peace negotiation process and to establish a mechanism to address the rights and rational demands of the victims.

Victims of human rights violations, in addition to the enjoyment of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other national and international instruments must have effective, equal and non-discriminatory access to justice and to the competent judicial institutions that uphold their human rights. Damage to victims should be compensated in a rational, equitable and timely manner, opportunities should be provided for rehabilitation and, eventually, it should be ensured that their rights are not violated again.

Peace is not just an absence of war and temporary ceasefire, but a situation in which all citizens enjoy their human rights without discrimination, have access to justice and live a dignified, peaceful and non-violent life.

Our basic requests, as families and relatives of war victims from the ongoing peace process, are as follows

  1. Our first demand from the parties to the intra-Afghan peace talks is “A permanent, countrywide ceasefire” to prevent the killing of more civilians.
  2. The Parties shall concentrate on the country’s best interests and Afghanistan’s suffering people and victims, and strive to make good use of this historic opportunity to achieve a just, victim-centered and sustainable peace in which the Afghan people’s human rights and civilian rights are guaranteed.
  3. Negotiations should provide victims with access to justice, truth, and compensation for material and spiritual harms, and should ensure that such disasters do not happen again. Addressing the past and the rights of victims should be an integral part of the peace process agenda. 
  • We call on the negotiating teams of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban to establish a joint special committee to follow up on the basic demands of the victims and their families as soon as possible, and this structure is to be a key part of the negotiation process mechanism.
  • set up a Victim-Centered Peace Working Group to work in a focused and organized way with negotiating groups on both sides and hold talks with the Joint Special Committee for Victims’ Affairs and other relevant groups and committees.
  • assist in the systematic handling of the victims’ basic demands and ensure a permanent and durable peace.

Families and relatives of Afghanistan war victims

September 14, 2020

 

The Intra-Afghan Peace Talks: Warring parties negotiate, victims of war are excluded
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Afghanistan Donor Conference 2020: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Shops on the main street through Istalif, Afghanistan, where they make distinctive turquoise pottery, June 30, 2016. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Shops on the main street through Istalif, Afghanistan, where they make distinctive turquoise pottery, June 30, 2016. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Amid the complexities of this crucial and delicate moment, the outcome of the donors meeting, to take place in Geneva, is uncertain: It could effectively promote development and peace in Afghanistan, or it could turn out to be counterproductive. That will depend on whether participants come together and focus on a four-year development and peace framework or allow the meeting to be hijacked by one of several conflicting agendas that might undermine the peace process. While the more than 70 nations and organizations at the conference share an interest in Afghanistan’s development, they also have differing political goals.

In the present circumstances, the high-profile format and four-year time horizon of the Geneva meeting comprise a bold initiative, injecting a welcome medium-term development perspective despite all the short-term uncertainties. It also carries significant risks, ranging from the government failing to meet donors’ expectations to grossly inadequate aid pledges to tensions over peace negotiations. In the Afghan context, where overall risks are high and the current situation fraught with danger, informed risk-taking by the international development community is likely to be an important ingredient in helping make peace sustainable.

Similar to past quadrennial donor meetings in 2016 (Brussels) and 2012 (Tokyo) as well as earlier regular meetings, the Geneva conference on November 23-24 is billed as a “ministerial level pledging conference.” Its purpose is to commit the Afghan government and the international community to shared development objectives for 2021-2024 as well as ensure financial support for the Afghan administration. Other anticipated outcomes of the conference include a joint political declaration—not a feature of past quadrennial donor meetings—and a new aid architecture and mutual accountability framework.

Opportunities

Geneva will bring into the public discourse the views of development donors, which have been largely missing from the current peace talks and from political dynamics on the non-Taliban side. It will provide an opportunity for Afghanistan’s partners to make explicit what they see as the parameters for continuing to provide significant development assistance and support to the Afghan government budget. This signaling will be directed at the Afghan administration, to be sure, but also, indirectly, at the peace process and at the Taliban as a potential future partner in the government.

With its four-year framework, it will also at least partly offset the short-termism that pervades issues of politics, peace, and security in Afghanistan. Donors could signal continuing commitment to Afghanistan’s development, providing an antidote to concerns about “aid following the troops” once U.S. forces leave the country, possibly as early as May 2021.

Pitfalls and Risks

While past meetings generated disappointment and cynicism after promised levels of aid failed to materialize or to deliver expected results, this event sets up the opposite risk. If aid commitments fall precipitously short of the 2016 Brussels pledge of $3.8 billion a year (a total of $15.2 billion for 2017-2020), the Afghan state and its development achievements would be in danger. Both a low level of assistance pledges and going for one-year aid commitments this time—though the latter would be from some perspectives understandable—may feed the abandonment narrative that is already widespread among Afghans and clash with the conference’s four-year development framework.

There is also a risk that donors will force the Afghan government to promise reforms that far exceed its political bandwidth and technical and bureaucratic capabilities. Then, if donors’ expectations go unmet, future aid may be in jeopardy. The Afghan government has overpromised and underdelivered in past mutual accountability frameworks, and this counterproductive pattern must not be repeated.

Threading the Needle

While the structure for the Geneva conference—co-organized by the Afghan government, Finland, and the United Nations—is in line with past practice, in the current context it gives rise to various dilemmas.

First, inviting the Taliban would be unacceptable to the Afghan government, for understandable reasons. Yet the group is a major stakeholder in Afghanistan’s future and in the peace negotiations. Its exclusion misses an opportunity to directly expose Taliban leaders to the complexities of managing international aid and to donors’ expectations regarding human, gender, and political rights.

Second, past meetings gave the Afghan administration a showcase for its achievements and a forum to advance plans for reforms tied to state-building, an agenda the international community strongly supported. This focus could now be problematic. For peace negotiations to progress toward an agreement, the current administration almost certainly couldn’t be left unchanged over the next four years. Thus, the Geneva meeting and its four-year time horizon (coinciding with the rest of President Ashraf Ghani’s five-year term) could send signals that may be seen as benefiting and entrenching the current administration. Whereas the U.S.-Taliban discussions and agreement arguably undermined the position of the Afghan government, the Geneva meeting may carry the opposite risk.

Third, the joint political declaration expected from the conference will be challenging to put together. The Ghani administration probably would resist including anything raising questions about its longevity, but the president’s political opposition might resent an ironclad guarantee for Ghani’s term. The administration might also try to ensure that the declaration supports and reaffirms the existing Islamic Republic constitution and state structure, to which the Taliban would react badly.

The Afghan government, therefore, will face a challenging dilemma at Geneva. Should it try to use its platform to reinforce its negotiating positions vis-à-vis the Taliban? Or would it do better to appear at least somewhat open and flexible—particularly if there is pressure from donors? The government may be tempted to put forward a hard line and try to co-opt development partners to get behind it, but this may alienate key donors that support a peace process that will most likely require difficult compromises with the Taliban.

Ways Forward

To exploit opportunities and contain risks at Geneva will demand deft diplomacy, careful planning, and thoughtful management of the event. Donors need to navigate between strong statements upholding fundamental principles that constitute conditions for continued aid and avoiding specific positions that could become untenable as the need for compromise arises to reach a sustainable peace agreement.

The four-year planning horizon for aid should be maintained. If donors decide to limit their pledges to just a year or two, they should clearly state that similar amounts of assistance will continue in following years, providing agreed-upon conditions are met.

With regard to the level of aid, there is a need for donors to signal predictable, stable or modestly declining amounts. Any reductions should be concentrated in off-budget aid while assistance through the Afghan budget is maintained, contingent on effective use of funds and containing corruption.

Donors may clearly state their conditions for assistance—including protection of gains in human development and rights. However, they will need to avoid appearing committed to a particular Afghan administration or to the current one’s five-year term, which would rule out other possible formulas for a peace deal. Such nuancing could take the form, for example, of a clear statement in the conference communique, noting that aid pledges and indications are to support the Afghan people and key enunciated principles, not for a particular administration or leaders.

In the new aid architecture and mutual accountability framework that is expected to come out of the Geneva conference, donors and government should avoid setting unrealistic expectations and instead seek stringent prioritization of expenditures and aid—in other words, doing less with less but doing it better. That means focusing on essential government functions and a few core development programs that have good track records and avoiding new or scattered initiatives with marginal impact or those that would take too long to achieve results.

Donors should also create aid-linked incentives to improve the functioning of core institutions and programs by zeroing in on what makes them work. The essential elements are well understood: competent, empowered Afghan management teams with an adequate degree of political insulation and containment of corruption.

Finally, the conference and the conditions placed on aid pledges need to underline the importance of Afghanistan increasing its own contribution to national development and starting to convert the rhetoric of “self-reliance” into reality. Securing more revenue through improvements in the Ministry of Finance—and curbing widespread corruption in revenue collection—must become a priority, one that over time will begin reducing Afghanistan’s need for foreign aid.

Afghanistan Donor Conference 2020: Pitfalls and Possibilities
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Whose Islam? The New Battle for Afghanistan

By 

Mr. Osman is a senior consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

The New York Times

Finding common ground on the role of Islam is the most decisive task in the peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The Taliban need to spell out their ideas about the role of Islam in society and governance.
Credit…Hussein Sayed/Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — As the major warring parties in Afghanistan sit down for peace talks in Doha, Qatar, an old, unresolved debate is emerging as the central question: What should be the role of Islam in Afghanistan? A humid seaside resort on the Persian Gulf, where the delegates are gathered, has become the unlikely venue for a search for answers acceptable to most Afghans.

The Taliban, who fought for decades to establish an Islamic political system, struck a deal with the United States in February that calls for American troop withdrawals conditioned on the Taliban engaging in peace talks and promising not to allow the country to be used by transnational terrorists.

They started the peace talks on Sept. 12, aware of the difficulty of persuading other Afghans and the international community to accept their understanding of Islam. The Taliban also seem to have reached a conclusion internally that their 1990s model of government is not tenable today.

When the Taliban seized territory across Afghanistan in the 1990s, the group founded a new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” but they consulted almost none of the country’s diverse political and religious groups. The result was a style of government which enforced at gunpoint the norms and lifestyles of rural southern Afghanistan on the entire country. Imposing an extremely austere lifestyle on Afghans, banning women from work and education and ignoring the pleas of the international community, turned the Taliban into an international pariah.

Establishing an “Islamic system,” of governance is now the thrust of the Taliban’s demands as it negotiates with Afghan officials and representatives of the political opposition. But the Taliban need to clearly detail their ideas about the role of Islam in society and governance.

The country already has a constitution that holds Islamic jurisprudence above all other laws. Afghan officials consider the character of their system sufficiently Islamic. Their emphasis in the peace talks is on protecting the gains of the last two decades, including women’s rights, freedom of expression and electoral democracy.

If peace is going to result from these talks, those two perspectives on what Islamic governance in Afghanistan looks like will need to be reconciled.

What is it about the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that the Taliban reject so vehemently? The Taliban say the current system was created under the shadow of Western military forces, caters mainly to Western norms and gives an insufficient role to religious authorities.

I have interviewed members of the Taliban and its leadership over many years. They see the Kabul government elites as secularists who seek to Westernize Afghan society. Instead, they see the active promotion of Islamic values and morals in society as one of the primary functions of a “true Islamic government.”

In my interviews, the Taliban cited as un-Islamic the absence of gender segregation in the current Afghan public sphere; they see the relatively free Afghan media as encouraging “moral corruption,” and they object to the banking system designed on international rules and want Islamic banking. They want a greater role for religious leaders in policy and lawmaking and greater promotion of religious education.

Many Afghans fear that the Taliban favor a return to their heavy-handed rule of the late 1990s. It is true that the Taliban are uncomfortable with the liberalizing society — with degrees of freedom of expression, lack of gender segregation and Westernizing influences — that has flourished in some parts of Afghanistan in recent years.

But there are hints emerging from Taliban ranks that they could be influenced by public opinion, perhaps allowing room for compromise. For instance, the Taliban now allow schools for girls in areas under their control where there is strong popular demand. It is a break from their strict rules restricting education for women during their earlier rule.

The Taliban banned technology and communications during their earlier rule. They have since become pretty proficient users of the internet and mobile phone technology, and, in some areas the group controls today, when local elders petitioned for their community’s internet access the Taliban granted it and guarded the telecommunications towers.

The Taliban seem to understand that they need to go further than tolerating girls’ education. Last month, Hibatullah Akhunkzada, the leader of the Taliban, deputed Mawlawi Abdul Hakim, the movement’s senior most religious scholar, to lead the Taliban negotiators in Doha. Mr. Hakim has no experience in political negotiations, but the personal involvement of such an authoritative religious figure seems to suggest that the Taliban intend to clarify their positions on the role of Islam in governance after the actual negotiations start, and that they will want to convince Taliban fighters that any agreement signed by the group’s leaders will uphold Islamic values.

I have gleaned from conversations with Taliban officials recently that they have certain positions for the negotiations, but they have not nailed down a definitive vision of what they will agree to, leaving the specifics to evolve during talks. The Taliban cite the composition of their delegation for the intra-Afghan talks — it includes a deputy leader, the senior most religious figure and over 60 percent of its most authoritative body, the leadership council — as evidence of their seriousness about reaching a deal with their rivals.

A compromise on the state system will most likely require drafting a new constitution for the country. President Ashraf Ghani has already offered the Taliban the opportunity to amend the current constitution, but only through the existing constitution’s amendment procedures, which would give the government control over the process. Afghan opposition political figures and groups have signaled their willingness to consider structural reforms to the current constitutional order while preserving protections for civil and political rights.

Significant questions remain: Would the Taliban accept elections? Would they accept a coalition government? An elected parliament? In recent weeks, the Taliban leaders have revealed that they envision a religious authority at the apex of a future Afghan government — if not the chief executive position, then a body with power to oversee the executive.

Peace negotiations will be strained on questions such as the Taliban’s refusal to accept the current share of women’s participation in public service. Without the Taliban agreeing to a compromise on individual rights and freedoms, an agreement won’t be reached.

In fact, the Taliban’s positions and attitudes stem from Afghan cultural norms as much as they do Islamic doctrine, which influences them in both strongly conservative and relatively progressive directions. The socially conservative views the Taliban espouse are common among rural Afghans, as well as a substantial share of urban educated youth.

Unlike other modern jihadist groups, the Taliban are not fixated on a literalist reading of textual sources. Their movement was born out of a combination of Islamic oral tradition and pre-Islamic cultural norms, and does not have a single ideological document. In fact, that absence of a definitive intellectual foundation in the Taliban has driven some of its more educated radicalized youth to join rival groups such as the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

The absence of core, rigid ideological texts might enable the Taliban to integrate into mainstream Afghan politics. There are many in Afghanistan who are deeply skeptical about genuine change in the Taliban and the prospect of future transformation. But there are no easier ways to test and build on those possibilities than through political engagement in the context of ongoing peace negotiations.

The evolution of the Taliban’s political thinking, though, is likely to be slow. Rushing the negotiations would risk producing an unstable result that only papers over the two sides’ differences; successful negotiations will require not only patience but also a more hands-off approach from other governments than they are usually comfortable with.

The shaping of the post-Taliban Afghanistan by the Western governments, primarily the United States, eventually turned out to be its vulnerability and undermined its legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghans. A new dispensation in Afghanistan will need the support of conservative elements of Afghan society if we want the long war in the country to finally be over.

Borhan Osman is a senior consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

Whose Islam? The New Battle for Afghanistan
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Clemency for the Taliban will not lead to peace in Afghanistan

OPINION

Impunity only encourages armed groups to continue with their violence against the civilian population.

When given a choice between security and freedom, people always choose security. That is why so many dictators and demagogues survive by creating a false sense of threat and then presenting themselves as the saviours.

The same logic applies when people are given a choice between safety and justice. They would choose safety over justice. In the case of Afghanistan, this has fed a continuous cycle of violence over the past few decades.

The absence of any legal consequences for violence and war crimes has only further emboldened armed groups. The release of Taliban fighters as part of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban and the continuing negotiations between the armed group and the Afghan government will not lead to peace. Only a thorough transitional justice process will.

A repeat of history

The decision to sideline justice to supposedly maintain security and peace is not without precedent in recent Afghan history.

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1987), more than 800,000 people lost their lives. The United States and several Muslim countries supported the mujahideen’s fight against Soviet forces.  Both sides regularly committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law throughout the conflict. While the atrocities committed by Soviet forces were widely reported on, war crimes committed by the mujahideen during the same period were largely undocumented.

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, infighting broke out between various mujahideen groups which led to more war crimes being committed. In February 1993, for example, the infighting between mujahideen factions resulted in the Afshar massacre, in which up to 1000 Hazara men, women and children were brutally murdered. Intra-mujahideen fighting lasted from 1992 to 1994 costing up to 50,000 civilian lives. It is this violence and upheaval that gave birth to the Taliban, which took over Kabul in 1996 and established an Islamic emirate. In August 1998, the Taliban executed between 2000 to 5000 civilians from the Hazara ethnic group in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The 9/11 attacks on the US turned the odds in favour of the same mujahideen as the US-led coalition which invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 allied with them against the Taliban. In 2007, after a US-backed government was installed in Kabul, mujahideen leaders involved in the 1990s civil wars passed legislation in parliament granting them amnesty for their war crimes. The justification given for these laws was simple: if the international community and the government of Afghanistan tried to bring them to justice, the mujahideen would provoke more chaos and insecurity.

Hence, no transitional justice measures were carried out, thereby sacrificing accountability to maintain an illusory post-2001 peace. Suffering for more than two decades, the people of Afghanistan who were the primary victims of the mujahideen’s war crimes let go of justice in the hope of security.

The absence of a transitional justice process against the mujahideen emboldened the Taliban and reassured its members that there would be no consequences for their actions and they continued to commit ever more gruesome violence against the Afghan people. In other words, the impunity the mujahideen enjoyed did not really bring peace to Afghanistan.

This approach to war ethics is problematic, not only because it denies justice to the victims of the Taliban atrocities but also because it strengthens the Taliban’s capacity to prolong the war to achieve its goal of establishing a theocracy.

Transitional justice in Afghanistan

The release of thousands of Taliban fighters after the armed group concluded an agreement with the US on February 29 this year has been justified as necessary to jump-start peace negotiations. However, the odds are against any permanent peace in the country.

The Taliban will not give up violence because it knows that it is only through violent means that it can have any political power. Even with its enormous corruption scandals and its own track record of violence against civilians, the government in Kabul is still preferred by 92 percent of Afghans, according to a 2015 poll. Any impunity the Taliban enjoys will also motivate other groups to continue committing crimes against the Afghan people.

Because of this, calls are growing for the leaders of the Taliban to be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Nevertheless, Taliban leaders are unlikely to face the court soon. Not only the Afghan government and its international backers would be happy to give the members of the group amnesty should they agree to make peace, the US itself is not willing to allow the ICC to investigate the crimes its troops allegedly committed in the country.

Moreover, an ICC investigation at this critical junction risks undermining the ongoing Doha peace talks, as it may discourage the Taliban from agreeing to make peace.  But there are ways to achieve some transitional justice without insisting on an ICC investigation.

The war crimes committed in Afghanistan in the last four decades by all parties can and should be officially documented. This would put an end to widespread attempts to whitewash history and force the perpetrators of these crimes to face some accountability. Following the documentation of these crimes, all political parties, including the communists, the mujahideen factions and the Taliban, should officially apologise to the people of Afghanistan in general and the victims of violence in particular, to officially acknowledge and atone for their past crimes.

A public apology by leaders involved in war crimes has a precedent. During his 2013 election campaign, President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, issued an apology for being a part of the 1990s civil wars. Dostum’s apology and pledge to never repeat his past mistakes was welcomed by many Afghans.

The people of Afghanistan are once again being asked to choose between justice and security. While an acknowledgement of war crimes and a promise by perpetrators to not repeat them would not heal the victims of these crimes, it can be an important step towards healing Afghanistan. If these steps are backed by a commitment by the international community to prevent further human rights violations in the country, Afghanistan can finally leave its painful past behind and turn its face towards the future.

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

Clemency for the Taliban will not lead to peace in Afghanistan
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Afghan Talks: A Road Leading to Peace?

The preliminary preparations for the intra-Afghan talks are taking shape in Qatar, aiming to set the stage for the official negotiations that were called for in the US-Taliban agreement signed at the beginning of the year. 

In my opinion, the establishment of long-term stability in Afghanistan will also serve the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran, specifically in relation to the withdrawal of foreign forces, fighting and containing extremist groups, repatriating refugees, and combating the production and trafficking of narcotics.

However, it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the current intra-Afghan talks without a deep understanding of the wording and the spirit of the US-Taliban agreement.

In the Doha agreement, the Taliban consolidated all of their demands within a specific framework and timeline; however, they made no promises to address the issue of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire, which is a fundamental demand of the Afghan people.

In the classified portion of the agreement, the United States obtained a commitment from the Taliban to not stage attacks on provincial capitals, which might lead to the erosion of morale among the security forces and ordinary citizens.  On the other hand, the Taliban have been granted carte blanche to expand their territorial grip over other areas using their military forces. In fact, the only serious condition asked of the Taliban was to not aid or collaborate with any group that could pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies.

The Taliban correctly self-identify as the champions of the Doha agreement; they have realized that the United States’ vested interest in implementing this agreement will prevent other Afghan socio-political forces from undermining it. The Taliban deem this agreement irreversible, at least as far as its American architects are concerned. The United States’ approach in addressing the issue of prisoner swap and particularly its insistence on releasing the last 400 prisoners – testifies to the accuracy of this view.

The importance of the current peace talks for the Taliban is largely to kick-start the process of lifting sanctions on the group’s senior officials, which is expected to take place within a specific timeframe as outlined in the Doha agreement. Nevertheless, there are no indications that they have come to believe in these negotiations as a venue to reach a comprehensive peace agreement, though one should be hopeful. The Taliban’s attitude to the Afghan government and other political movements is reminiscent of what led to the civil wars of the 1990’s. If–and I emphasize if–this calculation proves true, then we should expect the Taliban to see the peace negotiation process as merely a means to buy more time.

There are major gaps between the demands of the negotiating parties. The Taliban perceive the current (govt) in Afghanistan as illegitimate. It appears that they are tacitly striving to reestablish their Islamic emirate. By conceding to “the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government,” the American architects of the Doha agreement have practically moved past the current Afghan system of governance and guaranteed this new political order. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with a fragile internal consensus, is attempting to preserve all the accomplishments of the past two decades

We must accept that the essence of the Doha agreement is to abrogate the Bonn Agreement of 2001 and all its inner workings, to make a new regional arrangement in line with Afghanistan’s future, and to change Afghanistan’s domestic political landscape. These new developments grew out of the United States’ reevaluation of its political objectives in this region.

As far as the United States is concerned, the Taliban is an Afghan extremist movement that is pursuing its political ambitions in its own domestic territory. However, the complex structure of the Taliban’s internal relations and its connections with other extremist movements seem to have been deliberately neglected. The recently published reports in the Western media, particularly the latest report by the UN sanctions committee, confirm this failure.

In the grand scheme of things, it appears that the United States is seeking to turn Afghanistan into a geopolitical connecting point in the political economy of the two regions of Central and South Asia.  Making a strategic mistake, the United States is pursuing a vision for peace in Afghanistan that hinges on an overly simplified redefinition of the domestic situation of this country.

At last, it should be noted that the path chosen by the United States (Doha Agreement) cannot lay the foundations for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. This statement is not a disapproval of a nation-wide peace in Afghanistan, which is an inevitable necessity not only for Afghanistan but also for the entire region; the vital issue is the requirement of having a realistic approach to achieve a calculated peace. This agreement has created a supposition of bias towards the Taliban in Afghanistan (and also in the domestic political arena of the United States), which could lead to the gradual formation of unnecessary internal divisions in that country.

Without any doubt, the Taliban is a reality of Afghan society and their participation in governance will guarantee stability and sustainable development in Afghanistan. Although the current system of governance in Afghanistan is not free of its own challenges, granting unilateral concessions to the Taliban, including its demand for structural changes to the Constitution, will only foster the group’s sense of victory and throw the fate of these negotiations into doubt.

The most critical miscalculation that was made in the process of reaching the Doha agreement was the attempt to recreate the political atmosphere of 2002 in Afghanistan by moving beyond the current system of governance and setting off on a path to produce a new political framework in that country. There are no guarantees that this change in strategy will be successful.

By restoring the internal balance that has been rattled by the Doha agreement, supporting the role of the UN in facilitating the peace process, renegotiating parts of the Doha agreement, and settling on a realistic definition of peace, a legitimate intra-Afghan agreement that is accompanied by the necessary guarantees of support from the international community and her neighbors can be reached.

Afghan Talks: A Road Leading to Peace?
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