A Taliban prescription for a legal and governance system for Afghanistan also lacks clarity. Can the Taliban come to terms with some form of a republican system of government? Or is it insistent on having a hardline Islamic emirate akin to the one that existed in the 1990s? Does the Taliban view representative government as permissible or even legitimate? Can a parliament exist? What should its powers be? Will it have the capacity to legislate? Can women exercise the right to vote, let alone serve in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government? And what will Mullah Omar’s status be? Can the so-called commander of the faithful play second fiddle to an elected president or prime minister?
The Taliban has stated that it has a national reconciliation plan ready for Afghanistan. But up to this point, there is no indication that it has conducted an internal dialogue and achieved consensus. It’s not even clear whether it has the capacity and competency to produce such a coherent vision for the country. If and once direct talks with its Afghan counterparts begin, they will need to know the Taliban’s 'red lines' and its demands for changes to the present constitution, even if they are untenable.
An important forum in which these issues can be aired out indirectly is the conference of religious scholars proposed by the AHPC and Pakistani government in their joint statement. Neither the Taliban nor the participating religious scholars should have veto power over the future of Afghanistan. But this forum, should it take place, provides an opportunity to press the Taliban—and give its leadership the necessary cover—to make the necessary compromises on representative government and women’s rights.
The Taliban cannot be the sole definer of Afghanistan’s future. But as part of a political settlement—which is so crucial for peace and stability in the country and region—the Taliban would undoubtedly have some say in how Afghanistan would be governed. To dilute the Taliban’s conservative influence, intra-Afghan peace talks must be broad-based with ample weight given to relatively progressive forces within the country, including women. And Afghan women—whether they’re part of civil society or parliament—must coalesce as a bloc and press for their fundamental rights.
Afghanistan’s greatest challenge is to avert a civil war by producing an amended governance framework that incorporates the Taliban but does not sacrifice the fundamental rights of Afghans, especially Afghan women. It is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. And any optimism that one may have will certainly dwindle in the months ahead if no progress is made while 2014 nears.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at @ArifCRafiq.