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Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Should we worry about the Afghan deal?

The US, its allies and the Taliban may finally reach a deal in Afghanistan, but what would that mean for the rest of the region, asks Salah Nasrawi

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 29 Sep 2020
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It all started with the temporary marriage between the United States and Islamist extremists to fight the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan some 40 years ago, but jihadism ended with devastating consequences for the world as a whole.

As the US concludes an agreement with the Taliban to scale down its troops in Afghanistan and pushes its allies in the Kabul government to engage in peace talks with the radical group, history may be repeating itself.

The engagement, which avowedly aims at putting an end to two decades of war in Afghanistan, is raising serious questions as to whether it could develop into a flirtation similar to that which produced the international jihadi movement in the 1980s and thereafter. 

Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban movement kicked off the US-brokered “intra-Afghan” talks in the Qatari capital Doha on 12 September following the completion of a prisoner swap brokered by Washington.

Unsurprisingly, US officials described the first round of the talks as “historic,” while pro-Trump administration media heralded it as a significant step forward in efforts to end decades of war in Afghanistan.

However, it would be premature to judge the negotiations, now in their third week, despite the optimism being drummed up by their American sponsors, as an eventual peace settlement in Afghanistan remains far from guaranteed.

As the two teams have only started to address the agenda and framework of the negotiations, they have not yet engaged with the most contentious issues separating the two sides.

Among these major issues is the nature of the Afghan state, its relations to Islam, ethnic diversity and the country’s political system, all issues which have been the core of the conflict in Afghanistan for decades. 

In his opening remarks, Taliban deputy leader and head of its negotiating team mullah Abdul-Ghani Baradar declared that the group, which had earlier ruled Afghanistan under a repressive theocracy, wanted “an Islamic system” and “not to sacrifice Islam for personal interests.”

Details about the Taliban’s proposals that surfaced later showed that the movement had pushed hard to define an Islamic agenda, including on women’s rights, according to their hardline interpretation of Islam.

One of the key stumbling blocks that has emerged has been the Taliban team’s insistence on describing the two decades of war in Afghanistan as “jihad,” interpreted to mean a holy war by radical groups.

Moreover, the Taliban team has rejected a call for an immediate cease-fire, which the Afghan government wants during the transitional process in order to end one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts in the world.

While the process in Doha presents a challenge to the Afghans whether or not it will bring forward a tangible political vision for their war-torn nation, it has also raised fears abroad that the efforts could jeopardise successes seen so far in Afghanistan and in the global war on terror.

Nowhere has such concern been growing more than in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countires and in the rest of the region, where many worry that the Taliban is still a menace which needs to be fought if successes seen in containing radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism are to be maintained.

In the Arab world, for example, combating extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) group, Al-Qaeda and other local terrorist factions has been at the top of government agendas across the region.

More importantly, Islamic reform has become a powerful political, social and cultural movement challenging the status quo inherited from decades of religious fundamentalism and political stagnation and has been placed firmly on the region’s modernisation agenda.  

A look at the outcome of the 2011 Arab uprisings shows that the old trajectory of Political Islam, radicalism and extremism influenced by the jihad in Afghanistan has been slowing down since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Perhaps most significantly, the period after the Arab Spring uprisings has seen greater commitment from both governments and civil society in the region to islah, or reform, the modernisation of religious discourse, and the acceptance of religious tolerance and diversity.

In view of the shakeup of the old status quo triggered by the Arab Spring revolutions, attempts by Islamist political groups to enforce their agendas or infiltrate state and societal structures are no longer going uncontested.

In many parts of the Arab world, secularism is rising, and millions are walking away from Political Islam while the traditional religious worldview is waning.

In Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s most sacred places where a strict interpretation of Islam has prevailed for decades, the government has introduced liberal reforms in areas where life was once severely curtailed by heavy-handed religious police.

For the first time since the conservative kingdom was established, the authorities are now turning a blind eye to shops remaining open during prayers times, a grave offence in the past.

In a further sign of a shift away from conservatism, the kingdom has also abolished flogging as a punishment under Islamic Sharia Law.

Saudi women are now allowed to drive cars after a decades-old driving ban was scrapped. The dress code which obliged women to wear head scarves has also been eased. Women are now permitted to go to stadiums to watch sports and concerts and to go to cinemas, reopened after many years of closure.

Along the high streets of major cities in Saudi Arabia and on restaurant terraces, men and women can now be seen socialising together and attending noisy parties in public parks.

As recently as last month, the transitional government in Sudan also agreed to separate religion from the state, ending 30 years of Islamic rule in the African Arab nation.

The move is part of a wider effort to shift Sudan away from traditional Islamic Sharia Law, the basis of law in the country for decades.

In August, the Justice Ministry ended a ban on alcohol and the punishment of apostasy and put an end to the use of traditional corporal punishments, signalling the transitional government’s willingness to turn away from the Sharia code.

All these breakthroughs would not have been possible without a reverse course in the so-called Islamic revival forced by the world’s counter-offensive against the jihadists, including the Taliban and its associated networks of terrorists in Afghanistan.  

As evidenced by the outcome of the international war on terrorism, these significant successes remain fragile, however, and the threat of violent radicalism continues to pose a danger to the world with possible lethal effects.

Moreover, the new individual and collective movements for Islamic reform that many hope will push for modernity, secularism, liberalism and democracy in Muslim and Arab societies could risk a setback.

While it is hard to argue that efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan are anything but a good thing for the beleaguered nation, the talks are a contentious issue both in the United States and within Afghanistan itself.

Critics note that their proponents’ arguments for a comprehensive political settlement in Afghanistan remain characterised by either overconfidence or a lack of knowledge about the nature of the Taliban and what it stands for.

While it remains to be seen whether the Taliban can be persuaded to end the violence and support a constitutional democracy in Afghanistan, the Doha process is expected to cast its shadow over the rest of the region, where many countries are still grappling with extremism.

Several key factors are expected to play out and impact the region.

If the United States starts to pull out its troops in May as planned, Afghanistan could return to being a safe haven for international terrorists that could proliferate across the region, the original reason for rise of world jihadism in the 1980s and 1990s. 

There could also be a new revival of Political Islam, which could pose a major setback for endeavours seeking to counter religious fundamentalism by reforming Islam. 

One major regional implication of a new love affair between the US and the jihadists and possible clandestine deals with the Taliban is that it could undermine the war against terror and become fodder for terrorist groups like IS and Al-Qaeda to make a comeback.

What is in store after the Afghan deal could even be another game-changer for the Middle East, including more international polarisation and power deals reminiscent of the Cold War intrigues that accompanied the Afghan saga of the 1980s.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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