People gather with their heavy weapons to support Afghan security forces against the Taliban in Guzara district of Herat province on June 23. (Photo: AFP)
Religious freedom and democracy may not come to Afghanistan as envisaged under the Doha pact after the withdrawal of NATO and US troops from the strife-torn Central Asian nation.
The troop pullout, expected to be completed in September, will help the Taliban, the bete noir of the US-led 20-year war in Afghanistan, stage a comeback and regroup.
The fear of a return to the past with the Taliban at the helm of affairs is shared by the papal mission to Afghanistan.
“What is worrying is the future: I hope that what has been done remains, that there is no going back as is feared,” Father Giuseppe Moretti, superior of the Missio Sui Iuris, told pontifical news agency Fides.
The papal mission, established by Pope St. John Paul II in May 2002, was housed in the Italian embassy, which was the largest contributor to the US-led international coalition against the Taliban.
As part of the reconstruction process, the international community and the Catholic Church undertook much humanitarian work in Afghanistan. Some of the initiatives connected with education and women's empowerment also produced positive results.
Under Taliban rule, starting in 1996, the plight of Afghan women had grabbed international attention
A team of Indian Jesuits and members of the Catholic Relief Service, the social service wing of US bishops, were among international groups engaged in the education of children, including girls, whose movements and education the Taliban restricted.
The troop withdrawal challenges the continuation of such Catholic missions.
The Taliban, which was toppled by a US invasion for protecting 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, is likely to prove deadly in its new avatar and may delete from the rulebook all the elements that they find anti-Islamic.
The greatest tragedy will fall on the democracy and religious freedom Afghanis have become used to in the past two decades.
Under Taliban rule, starting in 1996, the plight of Afghan women had grabbed international attention. It would be unthinkable to expect Afghan women, who make up a large part of the population, to be put inside “the home or under a burqa” once again in a country known for its historically weak judiciary.
A quick ouster of the Taliban from power by US-led forces in the first few weeks of the military campaign Operation Enduring Freedom was mistakenly assumed to mean the group's permanent fall. It has turned out to be just an assumption that made the subsequent US plans ineffective.
By late 2003, the Islamic group had mounted a potent insurgency and made post-conflict management difficult for US forces.
After the 20-year occupation by the US and NATO, the Taliban stands tall, controlling 19 percent of Afghanistan’s 325 civil districts. It has staked claims to some of the other districts in the landlocked country except for 127 districts that are under the control of the government.
The full withdrawal of US coalition troops is seen as a sign of victory for the jihadist fraction, which will make a strenuous effort to regroup to stand in the way of the current Afghan government, backed by the US and other Western nations.
In a recent observation, the Council of Foreign Relations, a US think tank, said the Taliban enjoys the upper hand for the first time since 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan under the Authorisation for Use of Military Force law.
One of the main reasons for the US troops’ pullout is the heavy casualties the Taliban managed to inflict on its troops. According to the UN, more than 2,300 American soldiers were killed in the conflict, the longest ongoing war in US history, and thousands of civilians were killed and displaced.
To rein in the Taliban’s influence, the current regime is busy seeking support of regional allies and local satraps to fill the military’s logistical gaps created by the US troop withdrawal.
Besides the Taliban, the Afghan conflict has multiple parties jostling for power or its benefits. The government is not ready to give up without a fight.
When it comes to implementing the clauses of the Doha agreement, inked between the US and the Taliban, progress is marred by the refusal of parties to hold serious talks on free elections to select a new government.
Under the Doha deal, a transitional government of national unity will have to be set up for the first general election in the country.
If the warring parties will not come to the negotiation table, the country is fraught with the risks of a civil war and Afghanistan’s wish to hold the first free and fair election since 1978 will end in trouble.
India prefers a stable republican set-up so that potentially malign external interferences are reduced
Due to its strategic security location, neighboring countries like India, Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan are vying to have a say in the transition process of Afghanistan.
India prefers a stable republican set-up so that potentially malign external interferences are reduced. Iran, China and Russia also follow suit. They have pleaded with the Taliban to denounce its conservative views and reduce the allure of religious extremism. All of them want to avoid Kabul becoming a terrorist hub if religious extremism is given a free hand by the Taliban.
Pakistan, as always, has kept the world guessing about its so-called AfPak policy. However, it has lost no chance to reduce India’s inevitable presence in Afghanistan (and vice versa).
The emergence of the Taliban on the national scene will put democracy and religious freedom in peril once again in Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.