In Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C., the future of Afghanistan regularly features as the theme of intense discussions at the U.S. Department of State and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). As the 2014 deadline for withdrawal of international forces gets closer and Washington reaches out to the "reconcilable Taliban" for a process of reintegration, many accomplished Afghan professionals do not share America's enthusiasm and optimism.
Fearful individual and collective voices that cynically question the rationale of compromise with Taliban, who have been previously involved in the killing of American troops and innocent Afghan civilians, have been worryingly overshadowed by reports about opening up an office for Taliban in Qatar. The future of many brilliant Afghan change-makers and their remarkable progressive initiatives remains absolutely murky in the post-2014 Afghanistan where the Taliban, who have still not officially endorsed Afghanistan's constitution and civil rights provisions, will probably control the nation in transition.
This was precisely, if not exclusively, Nilofar Sakhi's concern. An articulate Afghan defender of women's rights, Ms. Sakhi looked into the eyes of Marc Grossman, Washington's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, during a crowded event on Tuesday, April 10, on "Prospects for Peace in Afghanistan" at the USIP to find a satisfactory answer to her doubts.
"There is an extreme level of pessimism among the (Afghan) people about the reconciliation process," she informed, "At this point, the people consider the reconciliation as a "deal" between the United States and the Taliban."
She pointed out that Washington had not only ignored the reservations of women's rights and empowerment groups while reaching out to the Taliban but it had equally snubbed the elected Afghan government. Hence, a lot of Afghans do not see the process either as "fully transparent" or broadly accommodating of all stakeholders.
During their rule, the Taliban imposed strict restrictions on women's education and movement. Afghan rights activists fear that the same barbarian practices will be repeated once the Taliban gain control of Kabul through negotiations with the international community.
"Afghanistan is not a failed cause," Sakhi acknowledged while referring to the achievements made by educated, entrepreneurial Afghans during the past one decade but emphasized the need to ensure the consistency and consolidation of these successful accomplishments.
Sakhi, who heads the non-governmental Women's Activities and Social Services Association (WASSA), was asked whether the Taliban had moderated their views over the years toward women. She said no evidence was available to indicate that the Taliban had undergone positive transformation during this period.
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has lately emerged as a staunch advocate of negotiation with Taliban and an immediate withdrawal of the American forces from Afghanistan, provided an apologetic explanation for Taliban's rigid views on women.
"For years, the Taliban have been locked up by the Pakistanis in safe houses [maintained by the army and the intelligence services]," said Rashid, who recently released his book Pakistan on the Brink and spoke as one of the panelists, "This is why the Qatar office is significant."
Rashid says the office in Qatar will provide the Taliban a window of opportunity to interact with educated, entrepreneurial Afghan women who will broaden Taliban's world vision through constant meetings and discussions with them.
Mr. Rashid's theory reflects a more abysmal picture for the future of Afghanistan. Does it mean that all educated Afghan will now have to reach out to the triumphant Taliban (in their office in Qatar) to attain an approval certificate of for their work?
Marc Grossman defends the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban. Since the Afghans have not been talking among themselves, he says, the U.S has taken the initiative to encourage them to talk to each other.
By making the Taliban the focus of reconciliation, the message that goes out to the liberal, democratic and moderate Afghans is, unfortunately, that of official recognition of Taliban as the genuine representative of Afghanistan. This also legitimizes Taliban's past brutalities and emboldens them to persecute their political opponents and supporters of the West soon after coming into power.
The way forward entails more challenges.
The year of withdrawal of international forces in Afghanistan coincides with an election year there. Besides the security transition, the country will have to go through an economic revival as well. Stability or instability in Afghanistan largely hinges upon the interference of its neighboring countries, Pakistan and Iran. India's growing influence and investment will also determine Pakistan's policy and behavior in Afghanistan.
After decades of war, Afghanistan is still a country with capable people who should be trusted to govern themselves without the interference of the neighboring states or their proxies. These ambitious Afghans, not the Taliban, who are essentially an extension of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), should be given a chance to come forward and assume responsibility.
Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France, rightly argued, "Don't expect Jeffersonian democracy from us. We are caught up in the middle of extremists and a weak democracy."
While the Taliban (mis)ruled Afghanistan with absolute tyranny, President Karzai, on the other hand, disappointed the world by sanctioning absolute corruption and nepotism in his administration. Therefore, the new generation of the Afghans who want to rebuild their country should work to uphold the principles of justice, equality and good governance as they prepare to manage their country in the midst of an incoming controversial reconciliation process which is still validly detested by many influential local stakeholders.