Do not surrender the peace in Afghanistan

As Panjshir falls, international and regional powers must realise their need to act more responsibly

Updated - September 08, 2021 12:21 pm IST

Published - September 08, 2021 12:02 am IST

TOPSHOT - Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces stand guard on a hilltop in the Astana area of Bazarak in Panjshir province on August 27, 2021, as among the pockets of resistance against the Taliban following their takeover of Afghanistan, the biggest is in the Panjshir Valley. (Photo by Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP)

TOPSHOT - Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces stand guard on a hilltop in the Astana area of Bazarak in Panjshir province on August 27, 2021, as among the pockets of resistance against the Taliban following their takeover of Afghanistan, the biggest is in the Panjshir Valley. (Photo by Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP)

The fall of Panjshir in Afghanistan has highlighted the seamy side of an unspoken international consensus since August 12, that the Afghan war has ended and the task now is to see what sort of government the Taliban form.

Acting on this consensus, international and regional powers simply watched while the Taliban attacked the Panjshir valley, where resistance forces ( picture ) had assembled under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh. Mr. Massoud and Mr. Saleh were in negotiations with the Taliban for an inclusive government, but the Taliban used the talks time to surround Panjshir and cut off supplies, electricity and communications to the valley. Then they announced that talks had broken down and began a military assault, using weaponry that the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplied to the Afghan National Army. Much of Panjshir has now fallen and Mr. Massoud and Mr. Saleh are in hiding. Fahim Dashti, the resistance front’s spokesperson and a leading civil society actor, was killed.

Responsibility redoubles

With the fall of Panjshir all but complete, international and regional actors might feel there is little to be done. On the contrary, their responsibility to protect lives is redoubled by their inaction thus far. How much longer will we watch while the young and hopeful of the past 20 years are thrown to the wolves, group by group, individual by individual?

Analysis | In Panjshir, the odds were against rebels


The resistance forces represent the more liberal elements of Afghanistan. Many of them worked in the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani administrations, including the Afghan army; others were in independent civil society organisations, including the free media. They support women’s rights to education and public participation, elections and the orderly transfer of power, even independent human rights monitoring. They are Afghan nationalists who believe that Afghanistan should have sovereign good relations with all of its neighbours without being drawn into any of their hostilities. They deserve our support, not our indifference.

The Taliban pledged at Doha that they would not take Afghanistan by force. By and large, they succeeded in simply walking in, though there were areas such as Herat, in which the Afghan army fought and lost because the U.S. did not provide air support, despite being in place to do so. At the time, events were so rapid that the lack of U.S. response might be forgiven (by some). But the war over Panjshir unfolded over two weeks, and there was time and enough to react. What we saw, instead, was the international community — in particular, the U.S., the European Union, the United Kingdom and other democracies — averting its eyes.

Need for a red line

Here is where the international community can and must draw a red line. They should announce sanctions until the Taliban resume talks with Mr. Massoud and Mr. Saleh, as well as progress in talks with Mr. Karzai and Dr. Abdullah. They can push for a United Nations monitoring force to ensure that humanitarian aid is allowed into the Panjshir valley, along with restored services, as demanded by Afghan clerics and women’s groups. They can require that Panjshir be treated as a safe zone until negotiations yield the inclusive government that the Taliban promised. They can say that they will not deal with any Taliban government that does not abide by these conditions.

News Analysis: Panjshir Valley falls to Taliban as new power struggle emerges in Afghanistan


During the novel coronavirus pandemic, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on warring parties across the world to ceasefire. That call was not forcefully repeated for Afghanistan. The UN has called an emergency meeting for humanitarian aid, on September 13. But did the Secretary-General, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, even discuss the cessation of attacks on Panjshir, or restoration of its services, when he visited the Taliban a few days ago? Or will the September 13 meeting end in a meek acceptance that the Taliban’s war gains — which only soared following U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement of full withdrawal by August 31 — can set the terms for peace?

In most other conflicts in which the international community has intervened — whether militarily or through mediation — the victors have not been allowed to set the terms for peace. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, all sides had to accept some form of decentralisation and minority protection; as did the warring parties in Sudan.

Government formation

The key now is the Taliban’s government formation. Reportedly, the group has announced the first members of a Taliban-only ‘interim’ administration , to allow for further ‘changes and reforms’, according to Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid. Since it is highly unlikely that further ‘changes and reforms’ will involve an expanded administration with non-Taliban members in any meaningful number, that will put paid to the promise of an inclusive government. Yet, an inclusive government will benefit the Taliban too: it would allow them to plead inability to give sanctuary to their erstwhile partners. Without that restraint, there will be little to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a sanctuary for al Qaeda, the Jaish-e-Mohamed, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), et al. , whose members have already arrived in Afghanistan.

There is leverage

International and regional powers can still attempt to prevent such an outcome by announcing sanctions on the Taliban until an inclusive government is formed, without which financial aid will not flow and Afghan assets will not be de-frozen. Friends of the Taliban — foremost Pakistan, but also Qatar, China, Iran, Russia and Turkey — need to impress on Taliban leaders that an inclusive government, which accommodates regional and non-Taliban political leaders, is the best and speediest route to international recognition and the stabilisation of their rule.


The international community is currently behaving as if it has next to no leverage. That is not true. Financial and humanitarian aid and recognition of a Taliban government are important not only to the Taliban but even more so to their supporters. Pakistan is looking to increased financial aid for the Afghan refugees it hosts, not to mention strategic importance as the key channel to the Taliban. China and Russia might think twice about cosying up to the Taliban if the rest of the international community sanction them. Iran has already called on the Taliban to hold elections. Qatar has invested years in bringing the Taliban to negotiate. They, too, are in a position to impose conditions, since they provide the first pillars of support for the Taliban. Regional powers, especially Afghanistan’s neighbours, have leverage too. They closed their borders against the refugee influx, but without open borders Afghan trade cannot resume.

Moreover, a hold on financial aid and assets need not, indeed must not, prevent the humanitarian aid that Afghanistan so direly needs. Donors can insist that aid will be delivered by the UN and other accredited aid agencies, and not through the Taliban.

Leaders can act

It is not only the international community that has failed Afghanistan, for the second time. It is also civil society. Apart from women’s groups, few of us, whether in the U.S., Europe, West Asia/the Middle East or Asia, petitioned our governments to act with determination to protect our civil society kin in Afghanistan. It is still not too late to urge our political leaders to hold fast on an inclusive government. As then President Karzai found, regional political leaders are key to any government stability in the country.

If it was a costly mistake to exclude the Taliban at the 2001 Bonn conference, it will be an equally costly, if not costlier mistake, to exclude the non-Taliban groups that were powerful in Afghanistan until the Taliban walk-in of a few weeks ago.

After all, the Taliban did not achieve a military victory. They are in Afghanistan again because the U.S., NATO and the Ghani government left. Surrendering the conflict does not and should not mean surrendering the peace.

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.