To Afghans and most of their key allies, the way the Doha office of the Taliban was opened seemed as if the forces of terrorism were being rewarded at the expense of the democratic gains made in Afghanistan
June 18, 2013 was a day of starkly contradictory events in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai and visiting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced the fifth and last tranche of the security transition, with NATO forces handing over the complete ownership and leadership of all military operations across Afghanistan to their Afghan counterparts. Ordinary Afghans welcomed this development as a major step forward in their quest to consolidate Afghanistan’s democratic gains.
On the same day, it was also expected that an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-executed peace initiative would be launched with the opening of a temporary venue in Doha, Qatar, facilitating peace talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and Taliban representatives. It took the Afghan government almost two years to reach this critical point and to form a national consensus on the principles that would govern the peace process. Many consultations were also held with regional and international stakeholders, including the United States and Pakistan, which as two members of the “Core Group” agreed on the governing principles, clearly articulated in the Peace Process Roadmap to 2015.
The “Core Group” members agreed that in order for the peace process to succeed with sustainable outcomes, the Taliban must accept the Afghan Constitution and respect the democratic gains of the Afghan people, including the constitutionally-protected rights of women. They must also cut ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, while verifiably renouncing violence. And it has been emphasised time and again that any external interference intended to influence the peace talks would jeopardise and stall the process.
As Afghanistan’s leading strategic partner, the United States provided the Afghan government with specific guarantees against any possible violation of the above basic principles. The name of the venue in Doha was agreed to be the “Political Bureau of the Afghan Taliban”, nothing more than a political address to be later relocated inside Afghanistan. But much to the dismay of the Afghan people and government, as they were still cheering the last phase of the security transition, Al Jazeera enthusiastically began broadcasting an elaborate inaugural ceremony for the “Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in Doha as its top news story.
Qatar’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali bin Fahad Al-Hajri, and Taliban representatives unveiled the plaque that bore that name — under which the Taliban had committed unspeakable atrocities against the Afghan people, systematically destroying their cultural heritage and economically isolating their country from the rest of the world. And a white flag — under which the Taliban and al-Qaeda had masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 American citizens — was hoisted on a tall pole outside the venue in an area of Doha that houses most diplomatic missions.
The premeditated event that unfolded before the eyes of the international community betrayed not only the ongoing sacrifices of the Afghan people, but also those of their regional and international allies and friends for the institutionalisation of peace and democracy in Afghanistan. The Afghan people were shocked by, and continue to express their outrage against, the way the event was organised and took place. To Afghans and most of their key allies, it seemed as if the forces of terrorism were being rewarded at the expense of the democratic gains made in Afghanistan, a remote possibility that no one could have logically predicted would happen.
But it unashamedly did, inviting a strong international reaction in support of Afghanistan’s peace conditions. The people and government of Afghanistan are particularly thankful to India and Russia for their immediate, principled reactions against the blatant violation of their peace conditions. The government of India has rightly cautioned against creating “equivalence between an internationally recognised government of Afghanistan and insurgent groups”, which would legitimise insurgent groups or “convey the impression of two competing state authorities for Afghanistan”. Similar statements of support from Canada, China, Iran, Germany, Italy, and others have called on the Taliban to accept the Afghan Constitution, cut ties with terrorist networks, and cease violence against civilians, all while cautioning against any imposed measures on the Afghan-led peace process.
In Afghanistan, the unexpected Doha events have unprecedentedly unified the Afghan people in support of their elected government’s efforts to reject any peace deal that infringes on their sovereignty and the democratic achievements of the past 12 years. The Afghan people have not been losing their children day after day, year after year, just to return to the same foreign-installed “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” that violated the very basic human rights of Afghan women, and that harboured al-Qaeda, which first terrorised the Afghan people and then masterminded the tragedy of 9/11.
Afghans remain astounded at the way radicalism has been allowed to triumph over their new democracy. But they hold the moral high ground, and are firmly determined to consolidate the strategic gains of the past decade against the terrorism that continues to find a home and institutional support in Pakistan. Now is the time for the international community to recommit to standing by the Afghan people and helping them realise their democratic aspirations for an Afghanistan free from the dark forces of extremism and terrorism.
Afghans deserve moral and material support and respect for their decade-long sacrifices to institutionalise peace and democracy in their country. Failure to deliver on these basic expectations would surely take Afghanistan back to the 1990s, a scenario few want to repeat. The only way forward is to help sustainable peace take root in Afghanistan, and to protect it from any previously tried and failed shortcuts that cost both democracy and liberty.
(The writer is Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, and formerly served as his country’s Deputy National Security Adviser.)