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Resistance in Whispers: a Deal for Peace in Afghanistan, and a Fight by the Forgotten

In battle, there should be two brothers:

one to be martyred, one to wind the shroud of the other.

“Girls are dying from rape, stoning, and in different ways,” Zarifa Adiba, 20, told me over the phone from her dorm room in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “They have been struggling and fighting to be known as human in this country for years after the Taliban[’s] collapse.” Adiba, now a student at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, grew up in the midst of the War in Afghanistan. 

Throughout it all, Afghani women like Adiba have tried to find their own form of refuge from the war and violence. For some, like Rahila Moska, a 16-year-old from Helmand province, the landays—a cynical, two-lined Afghan poem—served as an escape: she would spend hours on the phone, writing and reciting love poems with a poetry group she attended remotely after her parents pulled her out of school. 

For centuries, landay poems like Moska’s have allowed the women of Afghanistan to play a secret game of telephone. In a whisper, they have passed the sardonic couplets from one to another as a means of anonymously expressing their suffering in a society where their voices are often restricted. As in any game of telephone, the whispers have evolved and changed over time as they have travelled across society.

While the war in Afghanistan has raged on for the past 40 years, the landay has continued to carry out its duty, compressing the turmoil and terror of these decades into two terse lines. 

Compact with sarcasm and bitterness, the landay has come to represent the unquantifiable suffering of the Afghan people.

***

May God destroy the White House and kill the man

who sent U.S. cruise missiles to burn my homeland.

Following the September 11th attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan to dismantle the Taliban government providing refuge to al-Qaeda. After successfully removing the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, the United States has been battling Taliban insurgency forces, with massive casualties and little to no progress being made on either side. 

Given the thousands of American deaths, the lack of meaningful progress in the war, and the death of Osama bin Laden, many Americans find little reason for a continued presence in Afghanistan. In the September Democratic Party Debate, mainstream candidates came out in support of troop withdrawal: Elizabeth Warren promised to disengage even without any peace deal and other candidates, including Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, raised proposals to bring all the troops home by the end of their first term.

Although continued engagement does not seem to have much clear benefit, leaving poses its own risk. If the U.S. were to precipitously withdraw, Afghanistan could once again become a platform for large-scale international terrorist attacks as it was for 9/11. Leaving Afghanistan without ensuring that the Taliban doesn’t continue sponsoring terrorism would allow al-Qaeda and similar groups to thrive, recreating the exact issue that the U.S. used to justify its initial intervention. 

With politicians across the spectrum calling for disengagement, the United States and the Taliban finally sat down for peace talks led by Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad this past year in Doha, Qatar.

However, with the possibility of a ceasefire just on the horizon, President Donald Trump unexpectedly canceled the peace talks on September 7th. Despite the past nine months of measured and cautious deliberations and a secret Camp David meeting with the Taliban scheduled later in the month, the peace process was brought to a sudden and complete halt.

***

My Nabi was shot down by a drone.

May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.

In an interview with The Politic, Intizar Khadim, a political analyst in Kabul, spoke about the challenges of the United States leaving Afghanistan.

“In 2001, President Bush highlighted the objectives behind the invasion into Afghanistan. First was human rights, second was development, and third was dealing with terrorism,” he said. “None of these objectives have been achieved by American forces.”

Dr. Benjamin Hopkins from George Washington University had similar qualms. “What are the American war aims?” he charged. “I don’t think America has defined those since 2001. It is really difficult to successfully conclude a war when you don’t know what you’re fighting for.” 

But then again, perhaps the American objectives in Afghanistan have changed in the past 18 years. 

The United States initial involvement in Afghanistan was centered around developing Afghan society and dismantling the Taliban government. Today, the American government primarily supports the development of a democratic framework and works to deter the growth of the Taliban. 

“I don’t think the U.S. will pull out of Afghanistan, neither now nor in the foreseeable future. The baseline scenario I see is that the minimum the United States would have is a residual force of say, 5,000 troops in order to ensure the viability of the Kabul government,” Dr. Hopkins said. He echoes the feelings of those who believe America is too deeply involved in the conflict to realistically expect total disengagement in the near future.

Moreover, the effect of an American withdrawal on Afghanistan still demands consideration. In the 1980s, in a situation similar to the current U.S. involvement, the USSR fought insurgency militias in support of an unpopular Afghani government. In the aftermath of the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan immediately plunged into a turbulent civil war. 

In the case of an American withdrawal, direct and unhinged warfare between the Taliban and the Afghan government could bring about a similar massacre of both sides, with the Afghan people placed directly in the crossfire.

***

O darling, you’re American in my eyes.

You are guilty; I apologize.

During their failed talks, the Trump administration and Special Envoy Khalilzad attempted to mold a deal that would allow for a withdrawal while addressing the corresponding risks. However, even before the talks were canceled this September, they were plagued by criticism.

In an interview with The Politic, Barakatullah Rahmati of the Afghanistan Embassy said, “Any peace deal needs reliable implementing partners, and the people who are supposed to benefit should be part of the negotiations. In the discussion between the U.S. and the Taliban, these two elements were missing.” 

Due to Taliban demands, neither the Afghan government—the implementing partner—nor the Afghan people had any say in the process. 

In reference to this lack of representation, Adiba said, “not only I but almost all Afghans have lost something in the war. If the Taliban want peace, they need to come and talk to all the citizens they have been killing.”

Others have argued that setting aside American diplomats on the world stage has given the Taliban a sense of unprecedented legitimacy. With a Taliban spokesperson boasting that various foreign ministers are now vying to meet with the group, Rahmati contends that it is reasonable to say that the Qatar peace talks have set a dangerous precedent for unwarranted recognition of the Taliban through direct and advertised dialogue. 

With the contents of the deal kept largely under wraps, few had read the specific intricacies of the agreement prior to its cancellation. Of the few people who had seen the agreement, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sign the deal, citing it as too risky. 

This could possibly be because the Taliban had named themselves as the “Islamic Emirate” on the final draft, which could amount to recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. There is also the possibility that following a U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban would betray the agreement and continue fighting, deriving an advantage from the absence of U.S. troops. Any possible American withdrawal that doesn’t ensure peace would effectively betray the Afghan people and America’s alliance with the Afghan government. 

***

May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.

They’ve made Afghan women widows and whores.

When President Trump canceled the peace talks this September, he dashed months of negotiations and cautious hopes. When considering his motives, the possibility that the final deal was substandard may be a viable explanation. There’s also the president’s own reasoning that the Taliban’s recent attack, which resulted in the deaths of 11 civilians and an American soldier, demonstrates that they don’t want to “negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.” 

Adiba had her own take on Trump’s reasoning. “It’s very obvious that the [United States] will keep playing their dirty politics. Trump doesn’t care who is dying and who is losing their loved ones,” she said.

Many academics and politicians have speculated as to why the talks came to such an abrupt end. In an interview with The Politic, Dr. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi of James Madison University said, “I think Donald Trump kind of wants to meet with the Talibs himself. Maybe that is what this is all about.” Another possible explanation for the talks’ failure could be Trump’s negotiating methods. By pulling out of the talks, the President could be attempting to push the Taliban into a more desperate position, forcing them to give in to more demands before engaging in talks again.

Looking past the cancellation, even if the peace deal had been successfully implemented, it remains only a single step toward solving the crisis in Afghanistan. 

***

I dream I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

In the face of presidential elections this year, Afghanistan’s fledgling democratic government prepares for one of the biggest tests in its 18-year history. Since the deposition of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate government in 2001, Afghanistan’s government has been slowly working towards establishing a stable democracy.

“Afghanistan is a democratic country. We are holding elections because we believe that the people have the right to select their leader,” said Rahmati.

Khadim, however, as a non-governmental political analyst, doesn’t entirely agree: “We don’t hold elections for the sake of elections. We hold elections for strengthening the foundation of democracy, which is not happening. We want peace, not elections for the time being if peace is the problem right now.”

In considering the Taliban’s promised response to this year’s elections, former President Hamid Karzai recently warned of the potential dangers, saying it would be “like asking a heart patient to run a marathon.” His lack of faith isn’t entirely unwarranted: Looking at Afghanistan’s previous elections, there has been a pattern of internal division and disagreement. 

The 2009 reelection of Hamid Karzai was characterized by low voter turnout and accusations of fraud. American pressure brought about an additional run-off vote which was eventually canceled due to an opposition boycott. More recently, in the 2014 election of Ashraf Ghani, disagreement and more accusations of fraud resulted in months of deadlock and eventually brought about the creation of the new Chief Executive position for the losing candidate. 

Concerning the upcoming election, Adiba offered the perspective of the Afghan people: “There is a lot of corruption, and all the candidates for presidency are against each other. Whoever is going to win, the others won’t let them build the country.”

If previous elections serve as any indication, the democratic foundation in Afghanistan is yet to be developed. The upcoming election looms with a forecast of increasing divisions and a risk to potential peace, not only with the Taliban but within the Afghan government as well.

***

Embrace me in a suicide vest

but don’t say I won’t give you a kiss.

As he talked on the phone, Intizar Khadim gave me some insight into his take on Afghanistan’s situation and future. “Afghanistan is a country where international forces cannot stay for long—they cannot stay with guns, but they can stay with pens. The future is that neither the Taliban nor America will defeat each other, and after five, ten, or fifty years, they will sit at a table. My hope is that the Taliban will integrate into Afghan society and that it happens sooner rather than later.”

As Afghanistan stands at a moment where peace talks become a possibility again, the people still bear the brunt of each tilt and change. “We often think of politics as policies and structures and institutions, but it’s really about the people,” said Dr. Hanifi. “There’s this idea of numbers—whether it’s how many dead or how many billions of dollars a day. The unquantifiable suffering of the Afghan people is where I want the numbers to start speaking to. And really, fundamentally, the voicelessness of the Afghan people.” 

For women, who are too often forced to be voiceless members of Afghan society, the prospect of the Taliban joining the Afghan government was yet another possible cause for suffering. 

Adiba said: “As a woman, I was worried and afraid of thinking… [about] what [would happen] if the Taliban becomes part of the government, because during the peace talks we were getting these signals that that’s what they want… The identity I have risked my life for and made for myself—I was afraid to lose it. My friends too were afraid of losing their identity.” 

To provide women with an outlet for their fears and experiences amidst their voicelessness, Sahira Sharif, an Afghan MP from Khost province, founded a social group in Kabul to share landays. This social group has expanded to include “cells” in eight provinces, although the women often must meet in secret. 

“Most Pashtun women are not allowed to express their emotions in society, not even in poems. But the spirit to raise their voice is always alive in them,” Sharif said.     

As the peace talks have once again reached a standstill, the same Afghan people remain behind the frontlines, drone strikes, and bombed weddings. And as Khadim predicts, they will continue to remain there, vulnerable, oppressed, and silenced, until both sides are inevitably willing to compromise on a deal that brings lasting peace to Afghanistan. 

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.

To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.