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Taliban comeback?

Masood Saifullah
April 16, 2014

Experts believe only a very small number of Afghans support Taliban ideology. If the insurgent group wants to truly integrate into Afghan society, it should change its politics.

Afghanistan Taliban in Herat
Image: ARIF KARIMI/AFP/Getty Images

Jawed Rahimi was a high school student when the Taliban ruled more than 90 percent of Afghanistan. He was the victim of physical violence at the hand of the Islamists. "I was beaten three or four times just because I had grown longer hair or because I had cut my beard short," says the 32-year-old resident of the western Ghor province.

Nonetheless, Rahimi believes the Taliban should still be given a chance if they renounce violence, accept the Afghan constitution, grant women rights and represent themselves as a more moderate Islamic group.

Afghanistan expert Kate Clark believes the Taliban, in many ways, behave much worse as a fighting force in opposition than they did while in power. "They were an organized, largely disciplined force, although one which sometimes resorted to very serious war crimes. In opposition, they target and kill civilians every day and believe they have the right to do so," the member of Afghanistan Analyst Network, a Kabul-based research group, told DW.

Taliban fighters seen near Kabul Thursday, Oct. 3, 1996
The Taliban had control over most of Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001Image: AP

Eroding support

The violence, according to university professor and women's right activist Humaira Haqmal, is the reason there is more hatred towards the Taliban among Afghans.

After the fall of the Soviet-backed communist government in 1992, Afghanistan experienced a civil war. Foot soldiers of the Afghan mujahedeen are believed to have killed men and women because of their ethnicity, raped women and looted homes, forcing millions of to flee their country.

It was then that the Taliban movement transformed into a politico-religious group. Led by the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban were favored over the mujahedeen for their promises of peace and security. The group ruled more than 90 percent of the country for around a decade before they were toppled by the Northern Alliance with the support of US special forces after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader who masterminded the September 11 attacks.

According to Haqmal, the Taliban failed the Afghan nation's hopes both while in power and as an insurgent group. The high turnout at this year's presidential elections was proof, she told DW, that most Afghans rejected Taliban ideology. The fact that there was such a high turnout, despite attacks and threats of attacks by the Islamists, "shows Afghan people's hatred towards the Taliban," the Kabul University political science professor told DW.

The Taliban had denounced the April 5 presidential elections and made their threats loud and clear.

The threats did not stop some former armed apposition group members from participating in the democratic process. One of the eight presidential hopefuls is Qutbuddin Hilal, an independent candidate and a former member of Hezb-i-Islami, another armed Afghan opposition group. Though he did now allow himself to be deterred by threats of violence, preliminary polling results released by the Afghanistan Elections Commission (IEC) indicate that Hilal has only won 2.65 percent of the counted votes.

Flash-Galerie Afghanistan 10 Jahre Intervention Tora Bora
The Northern Alliance helped US forces topple the Taliban governmentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Haqmal said it was only fair to let the Taliban participate in the elections and give Afghans the chance to elect or reject them.

But there are many who believe the elections have come too soon. Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a former foreign minister under the Taliban, said the elections were "abnormal and untimely." He said Afghanistan should have held peace talks, amended the constitution and got rid of all foreign forces before holding elections.

It is believed that there is still some sort of support for the Taliban among a small number of Afghans. According to Clark, much of the support the group received grew early in the 2000s due to "very poor predatory government or bad behavior by foreign forces." She believes this backing is falling now and that "the majority of Afghan people are not interested in the Taliban coming back as a government."

"I think Afghanistan is changing year by year and it is changing in ways that make it more and more unlikely for the Taliban to come to power."

Right time for peace

Since the fall of the Taliban regime, the Afghan government has been calling on the group to lay down their weapons and join the Afghan peace process. Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been criticized for his "soft" position on the Taliban and for referring to members of the militant group as "brothers." But Muttawakil claims the Afghan government lacks the will for peace.

"If the will to conduct negotiations is there, the means of negotiations will present themselves […] not enough has been done from the Afghan government's side. Only empty promises have been made so far," explains the former Taliban spokesperson for leader Mullah Omar.

Now, it is up to the insurgents whether or not they want to negotiate peace. "On paper, this would be a good time to the Taliban to open negotiations. They could hold their heads high saying the foreign troops are leaving this year. We have defeated them," Clark said.

While peace talks seem far from yielding any results, Clark emphasized that the Afghan state "should continue to make itself as strong as possible," so as to inhibit the risk of armed insurgent groups gaining popularity. Historically, such groups only cause trouble and take territory "when the state is too weak, too internally divided, too corrupted or too predatory."

Afghanistan Wahlen Präsidentschaftskandidat Qutbuddin Helal
Afghan presidential candidate, Qutbuddin HelalImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"So I would be saying at the moment rather than looking at the Taliban, look at the government," she concluded.

The Taliban regime was overthrown by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The group - backed by Pakistan - had been in control over most parts of Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001 and imposed a very strict version of Islam and Sharia law, severely punishing those in breach of it. Under the rule of the Islamists, women were banned from going to schools, public executions were common and a safe heaven was provided for members of al Qaeda, their now deceased leader Osama bin Laden.

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