In September 2001, I had just arrived in Pakistan’s Quetta when 9/11 happened. Crossing the Spin Boldak border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, I saw Taliban soldiers for the last time. They checked us and took my brother’s overcoat as it seemed like a military uniform — it was not. Like thousands of other Afghans fleeing the country because of the group’s draconian rules and its overt policy of subjugating ethnic and religious minorities, I was also leaving my family behind in the pursuit of survival and a better, freer future. Waiting in Pakistan for Iran’s border to open, I watched the abrupt fall of the Taliban regime following the U.S. invasion and the opening of a new political trajectory in Afghanistan’s turbulent history.
Like many refugees longing to return home one day, I was excited and began to carve out a new future for myself. The post-Taliban period provided enormous opportunities for many Afghans and altered our fate and expectations forever.
I became the first in my family to graduate from high school and university. I went on to pursue graduate studies in the United States. I returned to Afghanistan, got a job, and tried my best to be part of Afghanistan’s recovery. We in the post-Taliban generation explored and experimented in ways generations before us never imagined. We exercised democracy by voting in several elections, and campaigned for our favored ideas and candidates. Men studied alongside women in schools and universities. We formed a multi-ethnic political identity inspired and cemented by shared values of democratic governance, political pluralism, observance of human rights, freedom of thought and expression, and respect for dissenting voices. We also freely protested and challenged the government when we felt that our rights were being violated.
Of course, none of these practices were perfect: Elections were rigged, state corruption incapacitated the government’s ability to offer services to citizens, and democratic values and principles were continually attacked and targeted. But the ideals existed and many strove to fulfill them. I attribute all these, even the tiny, achievements to the fall of the Taliban.
Nineteen years after those exuberating days in Pakistan and like millions of people whose lives and expectations of life have been changed after 9/11 and fall of the Taliban, I monitor the news and developments about the Doha peace talks from my office in Afghanistan with deep anxiety. I worry that everything will fall apart and the cycle of violence, prosecution, and displacement will repeat itself. My generation is particularly worried that a few of the hard-earned achievements, and our deeply held values about freedom, will again be at risk. We see no change in the Taliban, no guarantees that they will respect our values.
As the Taliban maneuver in Doha to sell their concept of an Islamic Emirate, I am worried about the political inclusivity and representativeness of the future political arrangements in which the Taliban will be a sole or co-partner. Afghanistan has never been a perfect and inclusive land for all its citizens. From the decades-long monarchy to the republic, the communist regime and the Taliban’s rule and even now, ethnic discrimination and unfair distribution of national wealth and power persisted and fueled wars and political violence. Some Afghans have always been “more Afghan” than others, and entitled to exclusive political and economic benefits and access, while ethnic and religious minorities continue to be treated as a second- and third-class citizens. The failure of Afghan rulers to share political power has spoiled all attempts for national and state building and perpetuated destruction and violence. The post-Taliban era and the country’s current constitution, however, envision a fairer mechanism for the operation and arrangement of political power — but that dream is now on life-support.
The Taliban have not changed, nor have they expressed any desire to consider a different form of political system other than an Islamic Emirate, which, as proved in the past, does not have a place for elections and political pluralism. There is no perfect political system in the world. The most successful systems, various forms of democracies, are continually self-correcting through the rotation of power, citizen participation, and incorporating many voices, including dissenting ones, in a quest to improve. The Islamic Emirate does not have that potential.
Post-Taliban developments — the burst of communication companies, a burgeoning media industry supplemented by social media, relative political openness, and interactions with the rest of the world through educational and social exchanges — have created diverse identities that simply do not “fit” into the Islamic Emirate’s linear political equation. Although fragile, Afghan media and social media users are becoming a forceful driver for change and accountability. They publish and ask tough questions and challenge politicians about how they wield their political power. The Taliban’s Doha team does not reflect and represent the changes that Afghanistan has embraced. Women, youths, and ethnic minorities are not represented in the Taliban’s negotiating team and their spokesmen evade media questions about whether and how they intend to modify their version of an Islamic Emirate.
The women of Afghanistan suffered tremendously throughout the country’s political turbulence and even more so during the Taliban era. They are now in parliament, ministries, embassies, schools, and universities, demonstrating leadership and contributing to the country’s future. Raised in post-Taliban Afghanistan, we have learned in school, university, and through our interactions with the world to respect women not because they are vulnerable, but because they are equal. We have also learned that access to employment, education, and freedom to decide about their own their lives are women’s unalienable rights, not privileges that men give and take away whenever they wish.
A spokesman from the Taliban’s negotiating team in Doha said that “co-education is disrespect to women,” but my generation believes that women’s confinement at home and segregation from society not only violates their human rights, but also disrespects their dignity. My mom and three sisters remained uneducated because of Afghanistan’s wars and I feel that, like millions of other women in Afghanistan, they are victims of Afghanistan’s wars. Their future was taken away from them. My wife is a university student. I am not only supporting her education, but also take pride in her and all Afghan women and girls’ perseverance and dedication to learning and pursuing their dreams.
I am worried about what would happen to them, their dreams and education under the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. As an ethnic minority and non-believer of an Islamic Emirate style political system, will I have to flee the country again as I did 19 years ago? Is that history of homelessness, immigration, and prosecution going to repeat itself?
Ali Reza Sarwar is a political analyst and researcher based in Kabul. He holds a Masters in International Affairs and writes on peace, wars and political violence in Afghanistan. Tweets @Rsarwar12