There is nothing on paper, only the vague outline of an agreement between American and Taliban negotiators in Qatar that could lead to U.S. troops withdrawing. There are more talks to come, and U.S. officials have said any final deal with the Islamist insurgents must include a “dialogue” among Afghans.
But as news of the tentative accord spread Tuesday, the same question was worrying many Kabul residents — middle-aged women who remembered being forced to wear burqas, day laborers who fled rural fighting, college students who have grown up wearing jeans and surfing the Net.
What if the Taliban comes back to power?
It seems unthinkable, after 17 years of elected government, burgeoning malls and apartment complexes, ubiquitous cellphones and ATMs, that this capital of 6 million could again become a cowed, deserted city patrolled by turbaned religious enforcers with whips.
But not necessarily impossible. Despite the tantalizing interlude of a cease-fire in June, when Taliban fighters mingled politely with urban residents before melting back into the hills, some experts and officials said that the Sunni militia’s puritanical beliefs have never softened and that its goal, though now obscured by diplomatic language, remains the full-fledged imposition of Islamic law and conservative religious mores.
“For Afghans who have gone through a lot with the Taliban, who remember living in a ghost city full of zombies, and for someone like me who investigated their brutality and executions, it’s hard to believe they have changed,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a close aide to President Ashraf Ghani and a former official of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Like a variety of other Afghans, Nadery expressed concern that American officials, in their eagerness to reach a settlement and bring home U.S. troops, would squander their leverage to force the Taliban to honor any pledge to share power or respect the democratic institutions and rights that have evolved since the fall of Taliban rule in 2001.
“The Taliban say they want to talk with many Afghans, not the government,” Nadery noted. “But that would undermine the state, the constitution, the structures that have been built by Afghans and their international partners over 17 years, at the sacrifice of several thousand American lives and tens of thousands of Afghan lives. Together, we will not give them that.”
Some Afghans, especially those who have been displaced or impoverished by years of war, said that restoring peace was more important than the details of a settlement. Several pointed out that Afghanistan was crime-free and safe during the five years of Taliban rule, and said they would be happy to see the group back in power if it restored security.
“I am not against them, but we need to ask them whether they are still the same as the past,” said Abdul Hamid, 45, a construction laborer and former soldier who migrated to Kabul with his family to escape fighting in his native Parwan province. “A lot has changed. People are free and women are working everywhere. If the Taliban don’t want to let them, it won’t work.”
A larger number expressed strong opposition to any Taliban comeback attempt, saying that Afghan society had changed dramatically and would no longer accept the rigid religious code the militia once enforced. Several young men said they would resist any Taliban pressure; one vividly remembered the Taliban religious police whipping his older brother for not wearing a turban.
“They cannot bully people any more. This is a democratic time, and they can’t take us 20 years back,” said Faisal Habibi, 20, an accounting student who was a toddler when the Taliban regime lost power. “If they tried to use force, people would rise up and defend their rights.”
The Taliban has not spelled out what role it wants to play in Afghan governance and society, perhaps as a bargaining ploy, but the group has never hidden its religious convictions. It has installed functional governing systems in numerous districts it controls, and has shown some signs of moderation such as allowing girls to attend school.
Haroun Mir, an analyst in Kabul, said Afghans are anxiously waiting for the insurgents to clarify their demands in the next round of talks, especially their willingness to talk to a broad array of Afghan leaders but not to the Ghani government directly.
“We don’t have any insight into their plan for a future form of government, the amendment of the constitution, and the rights of minorities and women,” Mir said. “The most worrisome question is who could guarantee the implementation of potential accords, especially after the American military withdrawal. But we have to accommodate the Taliban and make large concessions, because they are winning.”
But Raihana Azad, an outspoken member of parliament from the minority ethnic Hazara community, said she has no trust in the Taliban and believes the group would like to regain the power it once had.
“They are very dangerous, and they are playing a double game,” she said. “A lot of blood has been shed in this war, and we should not be rushing to make peace with them.”
For Shahlah Darwish, 40, the difference between life during and after Taliban rule has been like night and day. As a girl, she recalled, “we had good security but we couldn’t go to school, we couldn’t watch TV, and we had to get married very young.” Two decades later, she is a medical doctor who dresses stylishly and strolls outdoors with her face uncovered.
“If they come back,” she said with a grimace, “we wouldn’t be able to walk outside at all.”