Worries About Afghan Peace Talks

By Muhammad Suleman Khan – May 06, 2019

Afghanistan is a landlocked country in the north and west of Pakistan. Its estimated population of 29.2-34.1 million consists of various ethnic groups. Demographic data for Afghanistan tend to be unreliable and hard to verify. The figures about the ethnic composition of the country are also disputed by various ethnic groups. According to the 2010 data from the US Department of State, the Pashtun roughly make 42% of Afghanistan’s population, followed by the Tajik who account for 27%.

Majority of the Pashtun are Sunni Muslim, with the exception of the Turi tribe that professes Shiite faith. Other ethnic groups include Hazara, Uzbeks, Baloch etc. Islam is the state religion in Afghanistan. However, the country’s post-Taliban constitution, enforced in Jan 2004, gives fundamental rights and freedoms to religious minorities in the country. The Article 2 of the constitution states: “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law”.  It is not compulsory for a non-Muslim to study Islam in public schools.

Religious Makeup of Afghanistan

Around 99% of Afghans are Muslim. The Sunnis constitute roughly 80% while the Shiites are around 19% of the population. The remaining 1% consists of the followers of Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, and Judaism etc.

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Data source: US Department of State (2010)
  • Shiite: 19%
  • Sikhs: About 1,000-8,000 Sikhs live in cities like Jalalabad, Ghazni, Kabul, and to a lesser extent Kandahar
  • Hindus: An estimated 1000 individuals live mainly in Kabul and other major cities
  • Zoroastrians (a monotheistic religion): 100-200 members live in Afghanistan.
  • Baha’i Faith: About 400 members are living in Afghanistan.
  • Christianity: Approximately 500-8000 Afghans are Christian. Reports suggest most of the Afghan Christians practice their faith secretly.
  • Judaism: As of now there is only one Jew living in Afghanistan. The Jews are said to have resided in Afghanistan for over a millennium. The Afghan Jewish community now mainly resides in Israel and the United States
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A Jewish cemetery in Herat, Afghanistan

Religious Intolerance

The Afghan history is riddled with faith-based violence. Afghanistan’s religious minorities have suffered persecution and violence during various periods. Religious intolerance and sectarian bloodshed often drive mass exodus of Afghans to neighboring countries. In recent years, religious extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), Al-Qaeda, and Taliban have been targeting members of religious minorities particularly the Shiites with impunity. In 2001, the Taliban forces blew up over 1000-year old Buddhist murals in central Afghanistan that led to a global outcry.

Constitutional guarantees have largely failed to improve the situation of the religious minorities. For instance, the Hindus and Sikhs claim they avoid settling of disputes with Muslims at courts due to fear of retaliation. Instead, they prefer dispute resolution through community elders. And if they do knock at the courts for justice, their cases often get delayed unnecessarily by judicial officers. They also suffer from land grabbing. There have been instances of their properties being illegally occupied by influential Muslims. They also report that Muslim communities interfere in their religious rituals like cremating their dead. Their funeral processions are often flanked by police officers due to threats of harassment from Muslims.

Likewise, the followers of Ahmadi sect report social discrimination due to their faith. There are an estimated 600 members of Ahmadi faith, mostly living in Kabul. They mostly hide their faith due to fear of risks to their lives. Ahmadi children enroll in public schools without mentioning their faith. The members of the community have reported harassment by neighbors. Many Afghans consider them Indian, and hence outsiders despite them living in the country for decades. Both Sunni and Shiite clerics have shown hostility towards the community because they view certain Ahmadi beliefs as un-Islamic. Due to chronic faith-based discrimination and restrictions on fundamental rights, many Ahmadis seek to leave the country.

The Afghan Christians have similar complaints of discrimination. They mostly worship and practice their rituals in private, away from the sight of Muslims. The number of Christians has been on the decline for decades. They face risks and challenges while practicing their religion, which is a reason many of them tend to migrate to the West.

The Shiites account for 15-25% of the Afghan population. Most of the Shiites are members of the ethnic Hazara people, though there are also Sunni and Ismaeli Hazaras in the country. Over the last decade, the Hazara people have been targeted by a number of extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Khorasan Province and Taliban. The Hazara localities and social and religious gatherings have repeatedly been bombed in Kabul and other areas, resulting in massive casualties. Despite increased security from the government, the attacks against the Hazara continue.

Talking to the Taliban

In Sep 2010, the Karzai government constituted a ‘High Peace Council’ with the objective to hold talks with the Taliban insurgents. A month after the council’s formation, President Karzai appointed Burhanuddin Rabbani as the council’s head and government’s chief negotiator with the Taliban. The peace talks could not make any visible progress as the Taliban showed a lack of interest in putting down their arms and accepting the Afghan constitution. The peace efforts came to an end after Rabbani, the chief negotiator, was assassinated by suicide bombers in Sep 2011. In subsequent years, various attempts at talks with the Taliban for a peaceful resolution of the conflict failed to achieve any concrete results.

The Latest Push for Peace

In early Sep 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, as special advisor on Afghanistan. Khalilzad was tasked to lead the Afghan peace process in order to bring an end to America’s longest war. The Taliban expressed interest in negotiations with the US in Dec 2018. The talks began in Doha, Qatar in late Jan 2019. On 25 Feb 2019, Khalilzad claimed that the fresh round of talks was more productive than they had been in the past.

One of the key Taliban negotiators is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who was released by Pakistan just months before the initiation of the latest round. Pakistan had arrested Baradar from the port city of Karachi in 2010. According to Khalilzad, a “draft framework” of a peace deal has been agreed, based on the commitment from the US to withdraw the international forces from Afghanistan, and from Taliban not to allow jihadist groups to operate in the country. What is conspicuous in the peace talks is the absence of the Kabul government. The Taliban refuse to talk to the Afghan government, dismissing it as a puppet.

However, not everyone is happy with the exclusion of Kabul from the talks. American journalist Edward Luce wrote in the Financial Times on 4 Apr 2019 that “Just as he (Trump) is preparing to leave Syria’s Kurds to their fate at Turkey’s hands, he is willing to risk sacrificing Kabul to the Taliban”. Luce likened Trump’s Afghan policy to America’s policy in Vietnam. The Afghan officials are angry at being shut out of the peace process. They claim their exclusion legitimize the Taliban and undermine their authority. Many political analysts believe the chances of achieving peace in Afghanistan would be slim without the inclusion of Kabul in the process.

The sixth round of talks began on May 1, 2019 with focus on four main points:

  1. Troops withdrawal
  2. Guarantee against terrorism
  3. Talks between Taliban and Afghan government
  4. Lasting ceasefire

The seriousness on the parts of both the US and Taliban indicates a peaceful settlement of the conflict might finally be close. Although hopes are high, still the Taliban have not observed a ceasefire, and continue to carry out attacks in the country. President Donald Trump is keen to end the war that reportedly costs around 45 billion dollars a year. In Apr 2019, Khalilzad told Afghanistan’s Tolo television that the US’s focus was terrorism in Afghanistan. He assured the US would sign no agreement with the Taliban unless there was a permanent ceasefire and a genuine commitment to end the war. “We want peace to give us the possibility to withdraw”, he added.

Pakistan, Afghanistan’s most important neighbor, supports an “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned” peace process in Afghanistan. The US government has been cognizant of Pakistan’s significance in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table. In early Dec 2018, the US President, Donald Trump, wrote a letter to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, seeking Pakistan’s help with the Afghan peace process. In order to facilitate the US-Taliban dialogue, Pakistan also released key Taliban figure Mullah Baradar who had been in prison since 2010.   

Women and Minorities in Post-American Afghanistan

The US-Taliban peace talks have sparked a hope that the nearly two-decade old war in Afghanistan would come to an end. However, the conspicuous absence of Afghan women from the negotiations has been unsettling for the defenders of women’s rights. The brutal suppression of women by the Taliban during the second half of the 1990s still haunts a large part of the Afghan society. Long-term peace and stability would continue to remain a dream unless all Afghan stakeholders including the religious and ethnic minorities are taken on board in the peace process.

Any peace settlement between the US and Taliban that overlooks human rights including the rights of women, children, and persons belonging to minority religious groups would be extremely fragile. Susan Chira of the New York Times fears that the future of Afghan women is not on the American agenda for its peace talks with the Taliban. She believes the talks primarily revolve around terrorism and US military presence in Afghanistan. In the past, the Taliban had completely curtailed the women’s rights to movement, education, and work.

Apart from women, religious minorities are also apprehensive about the ongoing negotiations that would likely bring the Taliban back to power in Afghanistan. The Hazara, a religious and ethnic minority, fear persecution under Taliban rule. The Hazara people are already under fire from the Islamic State and Taliban forces. They have repeatedly been hit by IS suicide bombers in recent years. Similarly, non-Muslim minorities equally dread a potential return to power of the Taliban hardliners. They see escalated risks and threats to their lives in the post-American Afghanistan.

The country has seen a sharp decline in the number of non-Muslim minorities since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad. The Afghan Hindus and Sikhs already suffer harassment at the hands of their intolerant Muslim neighbors. They often rely on police protection to cremate their dead. According to Awtar Singh Khalsa, an Afghan Sikh, the Muslims throw stones and abuse at their funeral processions. In such a situation, the religious minorities see even darker times ahead in the context of the US-Taliban talks.

Experts warn that a hasty American withdrawal would jeopardize the future of Afghanistan. They point to the fact that the US-Taliban negotiations have so far overlooked the issues and matters relating to women and religious and ethnic minorities in the post-American Afghanistan. The Taliban’s open aversion for women’s freedom does not augur well for the future of an Afghan society that has seen women coming into businesses, politics, government institutions, colleges, and universities over the past years.

Women are an integral part of the Afghan society and their absence from the talks presents risks for them after the US withdraws from the country. The outcome of the talks is hard to predict at this stage. However, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban agrees to fundamental human rights for all Afghans as per the international laws. Whatever the outcome of the peace settlement, the women and minorities in Afghanistan are currently worried by the sight of the exclusionary talks in Qatar.

– Feature image credit: Vox