As the United States and the Taliban inch toward an agreement, the pivotal question of whether the hard-line Islamist movement will be able to peacefully coexist or merge into the more secular Western-backed Afghan republic looms large.
Many Afghans are watching whether the Taliban will keep on pushing for resurrecting their harsh regime, formally called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, or the group will find a way to coexist and even merge into the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the current internationally recognized political system of the country.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan, says the Taliban are keen on being called the Islamic Emirate but their expected agreement has found a way to address the tricky question.
“If they mention this [name], we will mention that we know this group as the Taliban and do not recognize it as a government,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “On the same day we will issue a joint statement with Afghanistan in which we will say that we recognize the government of Afghanistan as legitimate.”
Beyond the imminent agreement between Washington and the Taliban, future talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government, civil society and political factions will have to address the question. It is expected to be the main debating point in the intra-Afghan dialogue aimed at securing a lasting agreement over the future political system for Afghanistan.
Thomas Ruttig, a former UN and EU diplomat and co-founder of the Afghanistan Analyst Network, a Kabul-based think tank, says Afghans are divided over the issue.
“It might be the 'best outcome' option from the Taliban's viewpoint, but it is clear that many Afghans do not agree with it,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
On the ground in Afghanistan, Taliban actions are indicating that they are pushing for seizing power by force after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. In recent days, the Taliban have attempted to overrun two important provincial capitals and have ramped up attacks across the country.
The insurgents have already announced plans to target the September 28 presidential election by calling it “a ploy to deceive the common people.”
Since the beginning of their talks with the United States nearly a year ago, the Taliban have shown some flexibility by engaging representatives of the Afghan society and indicating that they are ready to allow limited freedoms. But senior members of the group are keen to underscore that they are unlikely to abandon their quest for resurrecting their Emirate, which implemented the Islamic Shari’a law and identified the movement’s leader as the ‘commander of the faithful.’
"It is obvious that we struggled for the last 18 years under this name [of the Islamic Emirate] and are conducting negotiation under this name,” a senior Taliban figure told Radio Free Afghanistan on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with journalists. “Now what others call us is not important for us, but we call ourselves Islamic Emirate.”
Wahid Muzhdah chronicled the Taliban rule in the 1990s as he worked in their regime’s foreign office. The Kabul-based author told Radio Free Afghanistan that the Taliban would not accept the current Afghan political system, formally called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Muzhdah argues that the insurgents are likely to push for two main points in future negotiations.
“Firstly, the rule of an Islamic system in Afghanistan,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The second thing is the abolition of the constitution and the creation of a new one.”
He says that the Taliban are unlikely to even accept a cease-fire unless these two demands are met.
The Afghan government, however, is adamant that preserving the current political system is the key toward lasting peace.
Samim Arif a former deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, says that Afghan leaders want to preserve and build on the development and gains their country has made after the demise of the Taliban regime as a result of a U.S.-led military attack in late 2001.
“A power vacuum in Kabul and dismantling the current political system will only attract storms,” he wrote recently. “[This] will ultimately result in the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians and forcing millions into displacement.”
Laila Jafari, a women’s rights activist and member of Afghanistan’s high peace council, talked with Taliban representatives in July. She sees little popular support for a return of the Taliban Emirate.
“We don’t want or accept the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan because it was already tested,” she said. “If the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was accepted by the people, they would have supported it.”
Jafari noted that marginalizing women by banning their education and work was the hallmark of the Taliban rule in 1990. The group also meted out harsh public punishments such as executions for alleged murders, stoning to death for adulterers, and chopping off limbs for theft.
The Taliban, however, are now eager to note that they have changed.
Unlike in the 1990s when they banned photography, their leaders are now keen on being photographed. They have also promised to protect and promote women’s rights under Islamic and Afghan traditions.
“Some members of the Taliban delegation repeatedly admitted that they had made mistakes during the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” Jafari recalled from discussions with the Taliban. “They also said that Shari’a law gives women the right to education, the right to choose a spouse, and the right to work.”
She noted that Taliban representatives were keen on highlighting that they saw women enjoying these rights within a safe environment. “What constitutes a safe environment in their view is questionable for us,” she said.
Given that Afghanistan has been through four decades of war, disagreements among Afghans are expected. Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, says the Taliban and the Afghan government needs to be flexible enough to prevent their country’s slide into a new war.
“Neither the Taliban can impose this [the future political arrangements] on anyone, nor are the Kabul officials in a position to do so,” he noted. “The issue of peace and how a future government system would look like should be discussed in the context of the intra-Afghan negotiations.”
Afghans are bracing for drawn-out negotiations over their country’s political future following an imminent deal between Washington and the Taliban.
They are hoping that once again violence won’t cloud over the prospects for peace in their country.