Afghanistan: You need to know it if you want to help it

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Over the past century, Afghanistan has experienced war, violence and bloodshed on repeat. There is a pattern of a few years of peace followed by many years of conflict. Although most of these conflicts were labelled as ideological or patriotic, the bitter truth is that they were mainly ethnic power struggles. For instance, after the victory of the mujahedin (mainly of Tajik ethnicity) against the Soviet Union, the bloody Kabul Wars broke out with far more casualties than the mujahedin’s war against the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Taliban emerged as a Pashtun ethnic force. Despite their ideological appearance, their goal was to seize power for the Pashtuns. Even among the Pashtuns there are ancient grudges and conflicts between different tribes, like Durrani and Ghilzai. One needs to consider these ethnic conflicts to understand power dynamics in Afghanistan.

The 2001 invasion and the dream of peace

After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the establishment of democracy, Afghans started to taste peace and rebuild their country. The following 14 years, the government included representatives of all ethnic groups. Then Ashraf Ghani grabbed power in a fraudulent election with direct mediation of the US Secretary of State. Especially in the second period of his corrupt administration, Ashraf Ghani openly tried to cut off other ethnic groups from government with various excuses. He cleansed the Afghan army of experienced generals of non-Pashtun ethnic groups to keep the military power inside the Pashtun circle. Ghani ignored the ethnic quotas that were respected in Karzai’s administrations, removing people of other ethnicities from key positions. Ghani promoted Ghilzai people instead, the Pashtun tribe he himself belongs to. Finally, in a very dark plot, Ghani delivered power to the Taliban who are also mostly Ghilzai.

Access to education also for women and disadvantaged minorities

Despite all difficulties, the last two decades in Afghanistan were a golden age of growth and prosperity in the presence and with the support of the international community. For the first time, all Afghan citizens, men and women of any ethnic group or religion found equal rights and obligations before the law. Education and opportunities for Afghanistan’s disadvantaged women and minority groups emerged. Although the corruption and inefficiency of government leaders provided fertile ground for the distrust of the international community, the people of Afghanistan tried to use this opportunity at most. Kabul became one of the liveliest cities in the world, where educational classes and centers started at four in the morning and people were eager to learn. Even elderly people and women with their infants took university entrance exams, hoping for a better future.

With the Taliban now in power that fragile hope has quickly faded. But they are a reality that cannot be ignored. A mono-ethnic government in a country of multiple ethnicities and realities is a recipe for disaster which paves the way for endless conflicts. The Taliban have clearly broken their promises to include all ethnic groups as they released their line-up for government. This monopoly and the formation of an all-Pashtun government with the support of Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia sounds a serious alarm for regional and global security and stability. The Taliban’s behaviour shows that they have not changed and cannot be trusted.

Human rights and EU monitoring

The silence of the international community disappoints other Afghans who respect and made sacrifices for human rights and democracy. The people of Afghanistan hope that the world will not support or recognise an authoritarian, dictatorial, mono-ethnic government that does not believe in women’s rights. Recognition of the Taliban is an insult to the values that Afghans and the international community have sacrificed for over the past twenty years. The people of Afghanistan expect the European Union to be loyal to their core values of democracy, human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech and equality. They must put political pressure on Pakistan and Taliban leaders to respect these fundamental human rights. The EU should monitor the situation in Afghanistan directly and independently. If the Taliban violate their promises and their responsibilities, they have to be punished. The silence of the EU, United Nations and others will allow the Taliban to continue their brutality.

In Afghanistan, many people worked with EU member states, including Italy. Now their lives are at risk. The EU must do all it can to save their lives through diplomacy, persuading the Taliban to allow their evacuation. Countless women and human rights activists fled the country because of the Taliban’s brutality, many of whom are now wandering in Iran and Pakistan without access to their most basic rights. Processing their asylum applications at European embassies in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries can be of great help to these vulnerable individuals.

I am an Afghan in exile myself. Since I decided to run for a seat on Herat’s provincial council back in 2009, my life has been at risk. The Taliban do not accept women like me who play a role in public life. On behalf of all the women and men who have made sacrifices and who won’t be heard: please, don’t give up on a better future for Afghanistan.

Fatema Jafari was a Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance in 2019-20 and formerly a Councilwoman in Afghanistan.

This post was published in an earlier version in the newspaper La Repubblica on 13 September 2021, in English and Italian.