An invitation to visit Afghanistan does not come every day, but it is an important journalism assignment since it offers opportunities and professional experience for any political journalist.
This journey began by my taking a flight from Cairo to Dubai and then on to Kabul, possibly the only flight from any Arab country to Afghanistan, to attend the Eighth Herat Strategic Dialogue (HSD-VIII) Meeting at the invitation of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. This took place on 18-19 October in the city of Herat in northwest Afghanistan and was attended by a large number of politicians, diplomats, researchers, academics, think-tank staff, and activists in the fields of development and civil society from around the world.
Herat, also known as “the Pearl of Khorasan”, has a Sunni Muslim majority who follow the Hanafi doctrine and some Shias since it is in a region adjacent to Iran. It is an underdeveloped city with obvious signs of poverty and a lack of infrastructure. Local people seemed anxious at the mere sight of the armoured vehicles transporting the conference-goers from their hotel to an ancient fortress in the heart of the city where the dialogue took place.
Despite the ongoing violence in Afghanistan, Herat is rarely targeted by bombings, and many local people work in carpet-making. They are very kind and hospitable despite their difficult lives.
The conference itself listened to working papers and discussions from many of the participants who had come from Afghanistan, the US, India, Turkey, Iran, and the EU. It included representatives of the Taliban and others interested in Afghan affairs. The sessions discussed political, security and living conditions in the country, as well as future challenges and how to lay the foundations for a more secure state where peace would prevail based on a civil constitution guaranteeing a decent life for 34 million Afghans.
Unfortunately, this may be a tall order due to the difficult conditions in this country, which has been exploited by those inside and outside it to serve their own interests at the expense of a people who seldom even dream of a safe homeland. Afghanistan is living through conditions that are a far cry from the aspirations for salvation rehearsed at the conference, and these reflect the recent history of the country.
After the Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989, the country lived through some very difficult periods, marked by several civil wars. In April 1992, the Peshawar Accords were signed by the seven parties that were members of the Islamic Alliance of the Afghan Mujahideen, also known as the Seven Party Mujahideen Alliance, or the Peshawar Seven, the Shia Unity Party, and the Islamic Mohseni Movement named after the late Afghan Shia Ayatollah Asif Mohseni. They agreed on forming an interim government in Afghanistan headed by Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, who had been educated at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He was followed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, also an Al-Azhar scholar.
However, the Islamic Party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which was pro-Pakistan, rejected the accords even though it had signed them and attacked Kabul. The accords then collapsed. Rabbani remained as president. The rival groups met again in March 1993 in Islamabad in Pakistan after fierce battles in Kabul. There they signed the Islamabad Accords, co-signed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which made Rabbani president for 18 months while Hekmatyar served as prime minister with a ceasefire taking place.
However, the accords were never implemented due to fighting between the two camps. In January 1994, a coup was attempted against Rabbani by an alliance led by Hekmatyar and including Abdul-Rashid Dostom and the Shia Unity Party, but this was foiled by another leading figure of the time, Ahmed Shah Masoud. Rabbani’s term was renewed for another year in July 1994, but later in November a new group, the Taliban, emerged on the scene.
Within two years, the Taliban had taken control of most of Afghanistan, including Kabul in 1996. They became the rulers of Afghanistan, removing Rabbani and Hekmatyar from power after they had signed a power-sharing agreement. The Taliban was then in power until US forces attacked Afghanistan on 7 October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. NATO forces in partnership with the Afghan Northern Alliance led by Masoud toppled the Taliban, and a new era began in the country after Hamed Karzai was elected president.
Development projects were launched one after another with foreign assistance, and the first democratic peaceful transfer of power took place in 2014 when Karzai handed over the reins of government to the new president, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
Security forces cordoning streets in Kabul
DIALOGUE TODAY: Dialogue on the future of Afghanistan must include the Taliban, as has been seen in the ongoing meetings between the administration of US President Donald Trump and the Taliban. Trump decided to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan due to the high cost of military operations there and their failure to end the influence of either the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.
Washington’s priorities have shifted, and Afghanistan is a burden that the US no longer wants to carry. Trump told his supporters before his election as US president that the US would not be the world’s policeman at its own expense, and therefore the US decided to hold a dialogue with the Taliban. This was not the first time a dialogue had been proposed, as Karzai had suggested the idea while he was in power supported by the then Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf.
Today’s ongoing dialogue between the US and the Taliban addresses several key issues, including the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the future of the Afghan government, the ceasefire and prisoner exchanges, stabilising security conditions, and eventual peace in Afghanistan. But will the US dialogue with the Taliban succeed? And will the Afghan people accept the Taliban in power in return for an end to the violence in their country? I posed these questions to Taliban representative at the HSD-VIII Moatassim Aga Khan, a former aide to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the group’s former financial officer.
“We want Afghanistan to be an Islamic emirate,” he declared. “We want to return to power, which is what we have been telling the Americans in the talks. We tell them that this will guarantee the safe withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan after their defeat.” He stressed the need to end the violence in the country, in which some 500,000 Taliban members had been killed or injured.
Aga Khan also revealed that the US was demanding the disengagement of other groups, such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS), and the Muslim Brotherhood in Afghanistan, adding that the Taliban was fighting the IS group in the country. IS leaders such as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi had gone to Libya, he said, and were now fighting under the IS banner in Libya, Iraq and Syria.
He said the Taliban were fighting IS in Afghanistan because the group “was a product of US funding”. Pakistani Taliban funded by the Afghan government were aiming to destabilise Pakistan, he claimed, and there was a Taliban office in Qatar where 50 leaders of the group were located. “We trust Doha and receive great support from Qatar, so the dialogue with the US is successful,” he said. “The talks with the US take place in Pakistan, attended by the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is of Afghan origin and is well aware of the strength of the Taliban.”
He added that the Taliban were confident that they would return to power and adopt an Islamic constitution for Afghanistan. The dialogue with the US would only succeed if there was a truce to suspend the violence followed by a permanent treaty. He said that there were no members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Taliban ranks. Speaking of the group’s source of funds, he said they came from Muslim zakat (alms) and charitable contributions from around the world but would not give more details.
He said there were no Egyptians in the ranks of the Afghan Taliban, adding that any that there had been had now left for Al-Qaeda, IS and other groups.
EGYPTIAN-AFGHAN RELATIONS: Egypt fully supports Afghanistan in its aims of achieving stability and ending violence and terrorism.
The two countries have had extensive relations since they signed a friendship agreement in May 1928. In 2013, the grandson of Egypt’s former king Farouk, Mohamed Ali, married the Afghan princess Nawal, the granddaughter of Afghanistan’s former king Zahir Shah.
The Egyptian Embassy in Kabul plays a key role in promoting bilateral relations on all levels. Ambassador Hani Salah, Egypt’s ambassador to Kabul, said the embassy was in continuous dialogue with Afghan officials to develop relations in all fields and ways to lend Egyptian expertise in agriculture, textiles, minerals development, and cultural-heritage restoration. Egypt also grants academic scholarships to Afghan students to attend Egyptian universities covering some 1,200 students.
Egypt offers training to the Afghan military and police forces, as well as to staff at the Afghan Foreign Ministry and ministry of religious endowments. It participates in programmes on the correct interpretation of Islam, with dozens of Al-Azhar teachers going to Afghanistan to teach the correct principles of Islam. Egypt has also established an Al-Azhar school in Kabul attended by 900 students of all ages. Seven Afghan universities teach Arabic, including Kabul University and Rabbani University.
There is ongoing coordination between the Egyptian and Afghan ministries of education, information, and religious endowments, and Egypt will soon establish an Afghan Dar Al-Ifta (Religious Edict Foundation) and a Quran radio station. These projects were discussed during a visit to Egypt by the Afghan ministers of religious endowments and labour recently.
To mark the 91st anniversary of Egyptian-Afghan relations, the Egyptian Embassy in Kabul hosted several events, including a seminar on the 19th-century Islamic thinker Jamaluddin Al-Afghani due to his influence on intellectual discourse in Egypt, Afghanistan, and the wider Arab world.
The Egyptian embassy is also working with Afghan officials to address the sometimes very difficult transport conditions in Afghanistan due to the difficult security situation there, including by four-wheel armoured vehicles. Embassy staff remain focused on their important diplomatic mission in Afghan society, however.
Salah, a veteran diplomat, is at the helm of the Egyptian mission in Kabul. Consular official Walid Al-Sherif is a hard-working mission member, along with young diplomat Ahmed Hamam, dedicated to his job despite difficult security and living conditions.
Afghani officials Sima Samar and Sraya Dalil
AFGHAN WOMEN: One of the key successes of the Herat Dialogue was the significant attendance of Afghan women, making major contributions during the HSD-VIII discussions.
Women delegates gave an overview of the history of Afghan women and their suffering during the years of Taliban rule due to marginalisation, exclusion from education and healthcare, being subjected to terrorism, and the destruction of all aspects of life taking place in Afghanistan. Several women spoke courageously about their rejection of the Taliban returning to power in the country under any name, and they urged the international community to halt the destruction of Afghanistan.
Mariam Safi, an Afghan political expert living in London, discussed the suffering of Afghan women and the destruction of the country’s humanitarian character. She also talked about the killings carried out by the Taliban targeting women and young people and stressed that Afghan women were determined to realise their dream of a homeland that would be safe and free and guarantee a normal life for women.
In my conversations with Afghan women in Herat, I saw their strong desire for more education to prove themselves and allow greater participation in serving their country. Many Afghan women have kind and beautiful faces that hide their fear and anxiety over an uncertain future.
I was excited to meet Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Nahed Israr at the Herat Conference, a well-spoken woman in her early 30s who could be seen as a model Afghan woman of her time. She began by talking about her affinity for Egypt due to stories she had been told by her mother who had studied in the country. She said she would love to have the opportunity to visit Egypt one day.
Israr talked about Afghan President Ghani’s belief in women and young people and their ability to bring about change in the country, which was why women now occupy senior positions in the government, including four female ministers in the cabinet and other senior positions in all sectors of the state. She said that she believed the terrorism in Afghanistan would one day end and that the Taliban would not regain power because there was a greater awareness among the people in rejecting what she called “religious fascism” and aspiring to freedom and democracy.
Many humanitarian and civil-society groups and organisations had worked on building and developing Afghan capacities, especially among women who play a key role in changing and advancing society, she said. She was confident that domestic and foreign initiatives to assist Afghanistan to recover would succeed and that the country would begin a new era of security, safety and development.
Abdel-Rahman interviewing Taliban’s Aga Khan
SECURITY AND THE ECONOMY: Security and the economy are two sides of the same coin, since without security no country can enjoy an environment conducive for investment and a strong economy.
Arriving in Kabul, visitors truly appreciate what it means to have a stable and safe country, without terrorists routinely murdering the innocent, as unfortunately still takes place in Afghanistan. During my ride in an armoured vehicle in Herat, I saw streets packed with security barriers and barbed wire everywhere, as if the city were a military barracks. Poverty was everywhere, displayed in the excruciating economic conditions the Afghans suffer from. Their faces were marked by the fear of bombs, despite the deployment of the security forces in large numbers on the streets.
It was impossible for a foreigner to walk in the streets, because at all times it was necessary to be surrounded by a security detail. Beggars were a common sight, with small children darting from car to car and women completely covered from head to toe, including their eyes. The traffic in Kabul was utter chaos, with the city jammed with cars until nightfall, when everyone stays indoors and listens for the sounds of explosions, since the bombings usually happen at night.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s most recent presidential elections were held on 28 September this year, the fourth since the overthrow of Taliban rule at the beginning of the millennium. They took place despite the difficult security conditions, Taliban threats against the voters if they went to the polls, and attacks during and after the polling, which was sparsely attended. The preliminary results of the presidential race, contested by incumbent President Ghani and State Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, were expected on 19 October. Abdullah then declared himself the winner.
Many people in Afghanistan seemed indifferent about the process and had little confidence in the results. Everyone, however, seemed well aware of the importance of the US in what was happening, believing Washington to be the kingmaker.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.