Afghanistan was at the center of global attention for two decades, but now it is left only to the Afghan people, both within the country and among the diaspora, to find solutions to their problems and the country’s many crises. But in the nearly two years since the Taliban re-established their rule over Afghanistan, the lack of unity among opposition groups has been a major obstacle in their efforts to resist the Taliban.
The Taliban’s opposition have different agendas and often engage in infighting, weakening their overall effectiveness. This disunity has allowed the Taliban to exploit divisions and expand their grip on Afghanistan. As the Taliban continue to consolidate power, it is more important than ever for anti-Taliban leaders to come together and find a way forward that prioritizes peace, stability, and human rights for all Afghans.
The situation in Afghanistan has remained dire since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. All domestic military and political opposition has been crushed, including nonviolent protests organized and led by women. Former political figures who left the country have not been able to lead effectively while in exile. They have had trouble mobilizing support within Afghanistan, and they have been unable to win over a sizable portion of the political groups while in exile. The opposition groups they lead have been extremely fragmented, ethnically divided, and politically ineffective. As a result, many Afghans living in Afghanistan now feel abandoned and without hope for a better future.
To unite the anti-Taliban forces, Wolfgang Petritsch, president of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (ÖIIP), initiated the Vienna Conference on Afghanistan. The first Vienna Conference on Afghanistan took place in September 2022, followed by a second round last month, which took place on April 24–26 at the Bruno Kreisky Forum in Vienna. The conference aimed to provide a political platform for the National Resistance Front (NRF), among other political and military opponents of the Taliban.
After the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, the NRF emerged as a military resistance organization. The leader of the NRF is Ahmad Massoud, the son of the former warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud; the elder Massoud gained notoriety for his involvement in the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. According to Petritsch, the primary objective of the anti-Taliban forces in Vienna is to advocate for a political resolution in Afghanistan.
A neutral country within the European Union, Austria has long been a hub for international negotiations. It is best suited to hosting political discussions on Afghanistan. Given its neutrality, it can facilitate discussions without taking sides or pushing its own agenda. This makes it an ideal location for sensitive talks, such as those related to conflict resolution and peacekeeping efforts. As Petritsch said at the press conference on April 26, “We want to help the Afghans who feel betrayed by the international community, Europe, and the United States.” Unlike Norway, which invited the Taliban delegation to Oslo in January 2022, Petritsch promised that Austria would not invite the Taliban as long as human rights abuses continue under the regime.
The conference offered participants a forum to discuss Afghanistan’s future with democratic forces and anti-Taliban opposition. However, a more thorough examination and background investigation of the participants reveals a worrying contradiction. The participants included individuals with a history of corruption, abuse of authority, violation of human rights, participation in the brutal Afghan civil war, and total disregard in the past for the principles they claim now to uphold. The presence at the conference of such dubious individuals, who had 20 years of opportunity to serve their nation, casts doubt on their commitment to thwarting the Taliban and calls into question whether they have sincere motivations in their desire to support a peaceful political dialogue.
The NRF has strategically manipulated the production of a narrative, claiming that it is the only opposition against the Taliban. This perception was revealed during the discussion not only at the Vienna Conference but also during the author’s meeting with the organizers of Massoud’s visit to the Austrian Parliament on April 27.
The NRF was portrayed at the Vienna Conference as the sole anti-Taliban opposition group, but this is not true. Rather, it is important to acknowledge that numerous voices in the Afghan diaspora have long stood against the Taliban’s oppressive regime. These individuals, who have tirelessly advocated for democracy, human rights, and peace, were notably absent from the conference. By actively excluding them and other critical voices, such as women-led organizations and human rights defenders, who also stand against the Taliban, not only was the diversity of Afghan perspectives missed but the dominance of controversial figures with questionable backgrounds was also perpetuated.
Ahmad Massoud, former Justice Minister Fazel Ahmad Manawi, and former member of the Afghan Parliament Hazrat Ali were among the conference attendees who belonged to organizations like Shura-e Nazar and Jamiat-e Islami of Afghanistan. At the conference there was also a representative of infamous Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Junbish party. These parties, along with the notorious extremist group Hezb-i Islami (which did not attend the conference), were allegedly complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s, according to Human Rights Watch. In addition, many of the delegation members who accompanied Massoud have faced serious allegations of corruption for abusing their senior positions within the previous Afghan Republic government.
The Neglected Role of Civil Society
At the Vienna Conference on Afghanistan, one of the most glaring omissions was the lack of meaningful representation from civil society organizations. Despite dedicating the last day of the second round of talks to civil society and external actors, the presence of these actors was minimal, and their perspectives carried significantly less weight in the discussions.
Civil society plays a vital role in advocating for human rights, women’s empowerment, and social justice in Afghanistan. However, the minimal or nonexistent representation of civil society actors in discussions about the country’s future undermines any adherence to the principles of inclusivity and participatory democracy. By marginalizing the role of civil society, the conference organizers missed a crucial opportunity to engage with grassroots movements, which have been at the forefront of driving progressive change in Afghanistan. To achieve a genuine democratic transition in Afghanistan and counter the Taliban’s influence, it is imperative to include and empower a broad spectrum of anti-Taliban voices, both within Afghanistan and in the diaspora; this is particularly true in the case of civil society actors.
For the next round of talks, expected to take place in autumn this year, the organizers should scrutinize the backgrounds and records of conference participants to ensure that those accused of corruption, human rights violations, and misogynistic behavior are barred from attending. Granting legitimacy to figures associated with corruption and human rights abuses creates a huge risk of delegitimizing the real anti-Taliban voices in the diaspora and hindering efforts to establish a unified opposition front based on the principles of democracy, justice, and human rights. The organizers should also amplify the voices of civil society and ensure diversity at the conference. A more inclusive opposition front would reflect the aspirations and values of the Afghan people.