Time to hold Taliban accountable on terrorism and human rights

Time to hold Taliban accountable on terrorism and human rights

Time to hold Taliban accountable on terrorism and human rights
A screengrab of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Sept. 12, 2011. (Reuters)
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In Tashkent last week, the Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi reassured world leaders that his regime would never allow Afghan territory to become a safe haven for global terrorism. That commitment came to naught on Sunday, when a US drone strike on a safe house in downtown Kabul killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

Uzbekistan was playing host to two major global events — an international conference on Afghanistan and a foreign ministers’ conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. On the sidelines, Muttaqi held fruitful meetings with US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also spoke positively on Afghanistan.

From the diplomatic spotlight on Afghanistan, it was clear that the world recognized the need to engage the Taliban regime to secure its pragmatic interests on human rights and counterterrorism. In particular, the US envoy assured he would expedite the process of unfreezing half of the $7 billion of Afghan central bank reserves by the US Treasury Department to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the Afghan people.

Al-Zawahiri’s killing has unmasked the Taliban facade: The fact that the world’s No. 1 terrorist, with a $25 million bounty on his head, was living happily under the Taliban’s nose means that the world will now find it hard to engage with the group’s untrustworthy leadership through diplomatic niceties. Someone in the Taliban hierarchy was clearly sheltering the Al-Qaeda leader.

The spectacular incident, being hailed the world over, renders a mortal blow to Al-Qaeda, which emerged from the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. A decade later, Al-Zawahiri stood next to Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden to announce that they had joined forces. All hell then broke loose, starting with Al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and culminating in the heinous events of 9/11. Many nations suffered irreparable losses.

The War on Terror decimated Al-Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen, but the terrorist organization and its affiliates have managed to survive under the Taliban. This fact is confirmed by intelligence findings submitted periodically by the UN sanctions monitoring committee to the Security Council. These findings reveal that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have gained more traction across various Afghan provinces in the past year. The number of terrorists is estimated to be 10,000 or even more.

It was also reported recently that Al-Zawahiri’s “apparent increased comfort and ability to communicate has coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power of key Al-Qaeda allies within their de facto administration.”

The mounting evidence of the Taliban’s nexus with terrorism is also confirmed by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid’s response to the US drone strike before the identity of its victim was reported. He tweeted that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan “strongly condemns this attack on any pretext.” His silence since the incident provides further credence to this nexus.

The Taliban’s breach of faith on the issue of terrorism may be particularly upsetting for China, Russia and states in the immediate neighborhood and the Gulf region. They all have specific terrorism concerns but, out of goodwill, have chosen to engage the de facto Afghan rulers in the past year. Together with UN relief agencies, they have proactively tried to heal Afghans’ humanitarian woes. China and Russia have openly spoken against US sanctions on the Taliban regime. In Tashkent, China even announced a tariff waiver on 98 percent of imports from Afghanistan.

The Taliban regime has also disappointed the world by not fulfilling its promises to ensure the rights to education, work and freedom of movement of Afghan women and girls, and to include Afghan minorities in the government. Worryingly, all recent reports by the UN and other organizations suggest that the human rights situation has deteriorated drastically under Taliban rule.

The reason for this lies in the Taliban’s radical ideological roots and exclusionary tribal traditions. If not held accountable now, the Taliban regime will continue to protect terrorist leaders. Let there also be no illusion that the Taliban will be immune to global persuasion on the rights of women, girls and minorities.

What is the way forward then? Luckily, the interests of the great powers and regional states on social and security issues in Afghanistan remarkably overlap. Al-Zawahiri’s death has eroded the Taliban’s global standing. This creates an ideal opportunity for squeezing the regime and helping the Afghan people. So, what steps can be taken instantly?

First, the US’ fear of unfrozen Afghan reserves falling into terrorist hands stands proven by Al-Zawahiri’s comfortable living in the Taliban’s seat of power. Hence, there is no point in negotiating this financial row with the Taliban regime, which lacks the credibility of an honest broker. The money can instead be released to the UN agencies involved in humanitarian operations in Afghanistan.

If not held accountable now, the Taliban regime will continue to protect terrorist leaders.

Ishtiaq Ahmad

Second, the US, China and Russia — despite being at loggerheads over other global issue such as the lingering war in Ukraine and the emerging row over Taiwan — can join hands at the UN Security Council to take stringent steps to compel the Taliban to compromise on their rigid stance on women’s and minority rights. Other external stakeholders in Afghanistan, especially the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, can exert further pressure without foreclosing the option of persuasion due to reasons of geographical proximity and religious affinity.

Finally, the international community has a genuine stake in reengaging the progressive, dynamic and entrepreneurial Afghans inside the country as well as in neighboring states, the Gulf region and the West regarding the future well-being of their homeland. Ultimately, only an inclusive political setup built on the fabric of fundamental rights can pave the way for a stable and peaceful Afghanistan and prevent it from once again becoming the world’s hotbed of terrorism.

  • Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.
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