The resumption of any kind of negotiations or diplomatic ties with the Taliban should come with principles and conditions. Such conditions should be no less than those enshrined in the fundamental principle of human rights and dignity and expected in a multi-ethnic and democratic country. Afghanistan cannot afford to settle for anything less than the basic standards enshrined in its former Republic’s Constitution.
Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban’s de facto regime has renounced the former government’s constitution, and the state’s governance now operates without any formal legal and administrative structure. The 2004 Constitution of the Republic wasn’t ideal indefinitely as it requires review and amendments to better align with the evolving needs and rights protection of the people of Afghanistan. However, anything less than the nation’s constitutional rights would signal a colossal historical failure and will open the door for a new phase of the conflict and even separationist movements. The Taliban claims to govern and dispense justice based on their own interpretation of Sharia law, which remains undetermined. Consequently, every individual in a Taliban court or any administrative office should have to decide what the law should be and how to implement the law based on their own interpretations.
While the administrative system may still adhere loosely to the guidelines and legacy of the former Republic, within a non-existent legal framework, these procedures could easily be marginalised or manipulated to align with the interests and ideologies of Taliban members in positions of power. Consequently, the system that the Taliban operate in is fraught with uncertainty, lacking procedural as well as substantive obligations, and suffers from a lack of accountability and the rule of law.
The terms crucial for negotiations, both for the resistance and democratic forces, as well as the international community, must require an end to the conflict, achieving a peaceful resolution between the Taliban and the diverse population of the country, safeguarding rights, abolishing gender apartheid and all forms of discrimination across identities, revitalising the modern education system, instituting a free, transparent, and independent electoral system, reinstating the nation’s economic, civil, and political rights, and upholding Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as enshrined in the UN charter and other international treaties. Failure to uphold these fundamental values could extinguish any hope of a free and prosperous Afghanistan. These expectations represent the collective aspirations of the people of Afghanistan.
Against this backdrop, this piece delivers three main analyses. First, it critically reflects on the status of civil, political and cultural rights in Afghanistan, and examines the political movements of diaspora in the West and their allies’ efforts in rebuilding the country and combatting the Taliban. Second, this exploration focuses on a specific event within the British Parliament, reflecting on the speakers’ declarations concerning the viable diplomatic options in their dealings with the Taliban. Third, by employing a comparative lens, it draws parallels with Spain’s Franco era, to explore and showcase how exiled diaspora members contribute to instigating change in their countries of origin and what Afghanistan can learn from the Spain experiences.
Last month, I attended a Parliamentary Roundtable at the House of Lords in the British Parliament. This gathering, co-hosted by the Tony Blair Institute (TBI) and Mosaic Afghanistan (MA), brought together a diverse array of exiled and diaspora members of Afghanistan, alongside Lords and MPs from the British Parliament, and garnered considerable press coverage. The primary focus of this roundtable was to discuss the urgency of establishing a civil society forum for Afghanistan.
During this gathering, important questions figured in the minds of many, including myself: Can discussions like these, particularly within Western liberal democracies, truly address Afghanistan’s complex issues? How can we, as the people of Afghanistan living outside the country, collectively foster a robust and unified narrative to instigate change within Afghanistan’s political and social landscape? Some might question the significance of such individual efforts, yet thinking about our country naturally prompts this introspection: What can we do?
A snapshot of debates in the roundtable
The panel covered a broad range of topics, with each speaker presenting their perspectives from diverse standpoints. Baroness Helena Kennedy, a member of the House of Lords, initiated the discussion. Kennedy insisted on the challenge of constructing a civil society outside Afghanistan, highlighting the strengths and contributions of Afghan citizens residing in the West. Her focus was on communities displaced due to the Taliban’s assumption of power on the 15th of August 2021 in Afghanistan.
The roundtable shed light on concerning developments in Afghanistan, particularly highlighting radical and criminal initiatives currently underway. This includes the Taliban’s redirection of the modern education system towards investing in religious Madrasas, propagating traditional religious ideologies while excluding women from these educational avenues. Additionally, there was discourse surrounding the escalation of narcotics trade and terrorism in Afghanistan. With the resurgence of the Taliban, both endeavours have gained momentum, providing a safe haven for members of other terrorist groups.
Sam Sharp, the executive director of policy at TBI, equally emphasised their organisation’s commitment to highlighting Western foreign policy options concerning the situation in Afghanistan, particularly focusing on the plight of women and girls. Their work aims to initiate a civil society dialogue that paves the way for a brighter future. TBI envisions itself as an optimistic change-maker, striving to foster discussions and actions that contribute to a better tomorrow for Afghanistan.
Following this, Zalmai Nishat, a fellow of TBI and co-founder of MA, highlighted their collaborative efforts with TBI and MA. He mentioned their connections with numerous figures and organisations spearheading the “civil resistance” against the Taliban. Through consultations with these entities, they’ve formulated a proposal for establishing an inclusive, diverse and democratic civil society forum for Afghanistan. The proposal aims to unite individuals and institutions by creating a structured framework. This involves convening a general assembly to elect a leadership council, which would be supported by a secretariat drawn from organisations actively involved in this initiative.
Catherine West MP, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Shadow Minister for Asia Pacific, echoed the importance of establishing a civil society forum. She highlighted its potential to engage with Parliamentarians outside the formal legislative setting, bolster journalism, and collaborate with academics. West expressed optimism, believing that the Taliban’s actions and ideologies are unsustainable, insisting on the forum’s role in shaping Afghanistan’s future. She underscored the forum’s potential as a true leadership force contributing to the country’s reconstruction and altering power dynamics. Additionally, she emphasised Afghanistan’s international significance in geopolitics and as a regional ally. West raised concerns about Pakistan’s deportation of Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan, highlighting that many of these individuals are vulnerable and had fled the oppressive regime in control.
David Loyn, a BBC Journalist and former communication advisor to the previous President Ashraf Ghani, shared his perspective. Based on conversations with Afghanistan’s leaders, he highlighted the challenge of building a unified civil society. Loyn pointed out that this task isn’t one that Afghans can shoulder alone but requires cooperation from a coalition of countries to spearhead the process. He acknowledged the tragic history of civil war in Afghanistan since the war with the USSR and declared that while Afghans detest civil war, they equally aspire for an independent and free nation.
Nasir Andisha, Permanent Representative of Afghanistan Mission to the UN in Geneva, highlighted a significant social change in Afghanistan over the past two decades. He held the view that this transformation offers hope for the potential of civil society to effect change. Andisha stressed that if one disregards the social progress made in the last 20 years, there’s a risk of complete despair regarding the possibility of change, especially in a country like Afghanistan, which has experienced significant totalitarian rule. He also noted that Afghanistan has never been governed by a fundamentalist or religious entity in its contemporary history, a point that sparks debate given the controversial chapters in the country’s past.
The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan contradicts the provisions outlined in the Doha Agreement, which prohibited their return to power unilaterally. However, given their de facto governance, the question arises: Does the Taliban comprehend or tolerate civil society or any free political or citizen movements? Evidence from press releases and various reports showcases numerous instances of violence against such movements by the group. Therefore, it’s crucial to widen our perspective on civil society in Afghanistan and recognise that the Taliban neither acknowledge nor accept any form of civil society within their political ideology or governance framework.
It is essential for contemporary political forces, Afghans and their international partners, to grasp this crucial point. The formidable barriers imposed by the Taliban against democratic political movements and responsible civil society make it immensely challenging for opposing actors. This situation severely limits the potential for peaceful dialogue or diplomacy to steer the country toward positive outcomes. Unlike the Apartheid regime of South Africa, the Taliban doesn’t offer any prospects for negotiation by coercing oppositions to abandon the armed struggle for peace.
The challenge arises from the Taliban’s steadfast refusal to accept human rights and democratic values. They dismiss these as Western phenomena – while not only the EU or the United States deserve democratic political systems, free elections, and universal human rights.. Indeed, these values are universally recognised as fundamental human rights that every country’s constitution should safeguard. They align with the true essence and message of every belief and religion, a fact that the Taliban fails to acknowledge.
Ahmad Masoud Amer highlighted that religious leaders are integral parts of Afghanistan’s society. These individuals coexist to some extent within the Taliban’s governance system, or at least refrain from opposition, knowing that the Taliban might take action against any dissent. While combating religious extremism is crucial, it’s equally important to strategise on engaging and bridging the gap with these religious leaders scattered across Afghanistan. The necessity for Afghanistan’s civil and political forces to devise mechanisms and formal processes that enable reformists to collaborate with these religious figures, aiming to reduce extremism, cannot be overstated. Indeed, achieving a peaceful future for Afghanistan relies significantly on engaging with all the stakeholders and finding resolutions through dialogue and negotiation but also remembering the reality that negotiating peace with the Taliban may not garner a positive outcome.
Mobilising and reinforcing contemporary democratic forces
In the pursuit of political change in Afghanistan through a collective and determined effort involving Afghanistan’s people, both within the country and abroad, It is crucial to remind all factions and parties of the country’s diversity. Afghanistan comprises various nationalities, ethnic groups and tribes, languages, religions, and political beliefs, each with its own vision for a decent, free, and peaceful life in their homeland. Every perspective is crucial in the struggle for an independent, sovereign Afghanistan – a nation deserving a dignified existence like any other, not one in ruins. As such, it is decisive to combat any emerging populist movements from the outset. Populism typically represents a simplistic ideology that divides society into two distinct and adversarial groups: the ‘pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’. The populist narrative could never be better illustrated than now in the history of the country, as it is vividly evident in the Taliban’s conduct of radical policies and the false optimism that they propagate.
Equally important, when reconstructing Afghanistan and through the diaspora’s contributions, it’s imperative to avoid falling into the pitfalls of populism. This means steering clear of discourse rooted in ethnic, tribal, or religious differences. Embracing such narratives could hinder the establishment of general trust and ultimately doom reconstruction efforts to failure.
The efficacy of debates like the TBI-MA assembly, organised outside Afghanistan, raises the question of their impact. From my perspective, their value primarily lies in one aspect. When these discussions avoid promoting a populist agenda, their main impact is in rallying diverse civil and political factions within the UK and abroad. They align these groups with the diaspora’s plans and democratic aspirations for Afghanistan. A similar effect could extend to events in other Western nations and regions such as Asia, Africa, and Latin America, all united against the current extremist control in Afghanistan and beyond. This unity amongst nations to support Afghanistan’s people, uphold democratic forces, and counterterrorism and extremism, thereby curbing the Taliban’s oppression, stands as a significant accomplishment in itself.
However, despite ongoing dialogues outside Afghanistan and concerted efforts amongst civil society and political forces, working towards shared ideals rooted in human rights and international law, the outcome remains uncertain. Some contend an armed struggle could potentially serve as the sole viable avenue for achieving reconciliation in Afghanistan. Proponents of this perspective argue that such a course of action might not necessarily incite another civil war, asserting that the Taliban lacks substantial support within the country’s population. They posit that if there were robust movements within Afghanistan equipped with the necessary resources and backed by international partners, a possibility for a change in regime could swiftly emerge. Today, the strongest political movement leading the armed and political struggle against the Taliban is the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. However, the prospect of an armed struggle without sparking civil conflict, particularly in a nation as divided as Afghanistan, poses significant challenges, especially considering the disproportionate representation of diverse communities within the Taliban group and their de facto regime. Another perspective may pose that this disproportionate representation could itself be a reason to unite all those different communities as a nation against the totalitarianism and cultural hegemony of the Taliban. Yet, while there is an argument in favour of armed struggle, claiming that it won’t lead to a divide might oversimplify a complex situation; remembering that armed struggle for freedom has a price.
Can Afghanistan learn from the past experiences of other countries?
It might be beneficial for the diaspora and exiled community to seek examples from other nations, studying their past and present experiences in civil war and political struggles. Contemporary Spanish history is an ideal reference for comparison. The Spanish Civil War, which took place between 1936 to 1939, stands as a dark chapter in Spanish history, epitomised by a bitter struggle between the Republican forces and the Nationalists led by General Franco. This conflict emerged against a backdrop of deep societal divisions, political tensions, and contrasting ideologies – similar to the situation in Afghanistan. It resulted in the overwhelming defeat of liberal and left-leaning factions, solidifying the ascendancy of the Church and the military. General Franco’s regime emerged as a powerful and repressive force, marking one of the darkest periods in Spain’s cultural and intellectual history. Censorship tightened its grip, curbing free expression across the press, literature, and the arts, breaking all aspirations to align with modern European culture. The aftermath of this war saw an extensive exile of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who opposed Franco’s regime. Many fled to various corners of the world, seeking refuge from political persecution, censorship, and repression – experiences echoing the plight of the people of Afghanistan. We are witnessing is an era of exile for intellectuals outside the country, juxtaposed with the oppression and brutality inflicted upon the population by the Taliban.
In Spain, the exile of intellectuals played a profound role in shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape within and beyond Spain. In a fractured and politically, religiously and ethnically divided Spain, these exiled minds constituted a reservoir of knowledge, creativity, and progressive ideas. They nurtured a vibrant exchange of intellectual discourse, advocating for democratic values, human rights, and social justice – fundamental views suppressed under Franco’s authoritarian rule. Their presence abroad became a beacon for the Republican cause, denouncing the brutalities perpetrated by the Franco regime and galvanising support for the ideals of a republic.
Against this backdrop, the Spanish diaspora emerged as a force for change and transition. Despite being scattered across different continents, the diaspora maintained strong connections with their homeland. Their advocacy and activism abroad served as a catalyst for influencing political and social conditions in Spain. The diaspora, through various means, such as diplomatic efforts, international networking, and ideological support, contributed significantly to laying the groundwork for the transition from dictatorship to a republic.
These efforts were multiple, extending beyond mere rhetoric. The diaspora’s influence was palpable in fostering educational, cultural, and economic development within Spain. Intellectuals and academics who returned post-Franco aided in the restoration of academic institutions, nurturing critical thinking and academic freedom. Additionally, economic contributions through remittances and investments boosted Spain’s economic growth, while political engagements on international platforms helped integrate Spain into global networks.
Ultimately, while not directly responsible for the establishment of a republic in Spain, the Spanish diaspora served as an important, but often forgotten, player in shaping the socio-political conditions favourable to such a transition. Their commitment to democratic values, advocacy for human rights, and efforts in various spheres collectively contributed to the gradual evolution towards a more democratic Spain after the Franco era.
In summary, the past experiences of nations in disorder, like Spain, offer vital lessons for today’s struggles, such as the one in Afghanistan. Just as the Spanish diaspora influenced change post-Franco, the diaspora of Afghanistan holds similar potential. They are dispersed, but they can be connected, their collective activism and advocacy can shape Afghanistan’s future. While their role wasn’t singular in Spain’s transition, it was significant. Similarly, the Afghanistan diaspora’s commitment to democracy and progress – as opposed to populism – can fuel Afghanistan’s path to a brighter, more democratic tomorrow. It must not be forgotten that the global geopolitical sands are shifting, and we are entering a multipolar world, Western leverage can only be increased, within the boundaries of international law, by the democratic forces of Afghanistan and therefore it is a two-way interaction based on the interests of the both.
Ahmad Ali Shariati is a Law Tutor and PhD researcher based at the School of Law, Politics, and Sociology at the University of Sussex in England. He is a British Council Scholar and Chevening alumnus. He was a former Government Lawyer for the Republic of Afghanistan, with a vast regulatory and institutional background. Ahmad Ali previously earned his LLM in International Commercial Law from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and another LLM in Public International Law from Khatam al-Nabieen University in Afghanistan. His doctoral research focuses on the critical examination of States’ responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and accountability regimes at the intersection of international environmental, climate change and energy law.