World must show its support for Afghan opposition

05-12-2022 09:30 AM
Luke Coffey

A major international conference called the Herat Security Dialogue took place last week in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This event brought together policymakers and commentators from around the world to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and the region. The keynote speaker was the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, Ahmad Massoud.

The conference was notable for two reasons. Firstly, it was unofficially a continuation of the gathering of Afghan opposition leaders that took place in Vienna in October. The fact that most of the participants of the Vienna meeting met again so soon in Dushanbe shows that the different factions opposing the Taliban are starting to align and coordinate their actions. Massoud is emerging as the de facto leader of a broad coalition of anti-Taliban opposition groups.

Secondly, and perhaps most tellingly, the charge d’affaires of the US Mission to Afghanistan (currently based in Doha, Qatar), Karen Decker, attended the conference. She also remained in the audience during Massoud’s speech. At a minimum, this level of official US government participation shows that Washington believes it is time to start listening to, or even tacitly engaging with, members of the anti-Taliban opposition.

The Herat Security Dialogue came at a time when the situation in Afghanistan was becoming dire. At the same time as the conference in Dushanbe was happening, just 250 kilometers to the south in Samangan Province, Afghanistan, an explosion ripped through a school, leaving 17 people dead and 26 more wounded. No group has claimed responsibility for this latest attack. However, all signs are pointing to Daesh.

The Taliban promised stability and security. However, since coming to power last year, they have failed to end the cycle of violence that has plagued Afghanistan for more than 40 years. In the past year, there have been several high-profile mass-casualty attacks carried out against civilian targets across the country. Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups are now operating openly in Afghanistan. In July, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed by a US drone strike while living in the heart of Kabul.

The lack of security across the country is due to a combination of Taliban incompetence and fragmentation. The Taliban leadership is divided. The group has also realized that it is far easier to lead an insurgency from the shadows than it is to govern a country. It is not only the internal security situation that is a concern. In the past year, there have also been border skirmishes between the Taliban and Pakistani security forces and the Taliban and Uzbek security forces.

But it is not just the security situation that is a concern for Afghans. Afghanistan is ill-prepared for the coming winter. Medical provisions remain low. A representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross recently summed it up the best: “Afghan families face a terrible dilemma: Food or heat. Most can actually afford neither.”

The situation for women and minority groups in Afghanistan is even worse. The Hazaras, a Shiite minority group with a long track record of being persecuted in the country, has been the target of attacks from both the Taliban and Daesh. Meanwhile, young girls are still not allowed into classrooms, even though the Taliban promised otherwise.

While many in the international community were naively hoping that the “new” Taliban was different from the old one, this has not proven to be the case. In fact, the Taliban in charge today seem to be just as brutal as their predecessors of the 1990s. The only difference today is that most members of the international community are too ashamed to acknowledge this, so they simply turn a blind eye to the situation.

Since the Taliban’s return to power last year, the National Resistance Front has been the one credible group willing to take up arms in opposition. It has been fighting the Taliban against all odds and without any international support. It is time for this to change. For starters, the next meeting of the various Afghan opposition groups should be in London, Paris or Washington.

Tajikistan is in a geopolitically precarious situation. Big powers like Russia and China are constantly applying pressure on Dushanbe. The Taliban has placed Ansarullah, a Tajik extremist group with the stated goal of overthrowing the Tajik government, in charge of patrolling the Afghan border with Tajikistan. There have been major clashes between Tajikistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan over a border dispute in recent weeks. So, if Tajikistan can find the political will to host such a gathering of Afghanistan opposition figures, then it is only laziness, meekness or geopolitical negligence that is preventing the US from doing so.

As the Taliban continues to fragment, it is likely that Afghanistan will descend into a civil war just like the one it experienced in the 1990s, with different centers of power controlling different parts of the country. Like with the Northern Alliance of the 1990s, the international community must start paying attention to the National Resistance Front.

While the international community does not have many good policy options in Afghanistan because of the Biden administration’s actions, it needs to consider how to support the National Resistance Front at this perilous time.

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