The Taliban launched another brazen attack in Afghanistan earlier this month, this time on a packed courthouse in Farah. The attack was classic Taliban, their indiscriminate use of automatic weapons and suicide bombs resulting in dozens of innocent civilians killed and wounded. The carnage came as no surprise to those who are familiar with how the Taliban operate and how little they actually care about the people of Afghanistan. What does come as a surprise is that some still believe they should be given a role in the future of Afghanistan.
We should never forget what the Taliban stand for and what life was like under their rule. Public executions in Ghazi stadium. Women denied basic rights such as education, employment and access to health care. People stoned, whipped and mutilated for minor infractions. Religious intolerance and the destruction of ancient Buddhist statues. Refusal to accept humanitarian aid during periods of drought and starvation. Schools used to promote violence and hatred. Ethnic cleansing. Nearly every form of sport and entertainment banned.
It has been almost a dozen years since the Taliban were ousted from power. Since that time, they have maintained an effective shadow government, hoping to retake control of the country at some point in the future. They continue to prey on villages that aren’t protected at all times by coalition or Afghan security forces, severely punishing anyone suspected of violating their strict religious code. Suicide bombers target crowded markets in order to disrupt the economy and intimidate the population. Government officials, village elders, teachers, doctors, students and aid workers have all been victims of assassination.
Some believe the “new” Taliban has tempered its fundamentalist views and is willing to accept change. They are portrayed as more rational and approachable than the hardliners that dominated the pre-9/11 ranks, and perhaps more amenable to dialogue and diplomacy. Proponents of engaging in peace talks with the Taliban are also quick to point out they weren’t the ones who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and that Al Qaeda remain the real threat.
It is true that not everyone that fights under the Taliban banner is deeply loyal to their cause. Many align themselves with the Taliban because they dislike or distrust the Karzai government. Some have chosen to fight against coalition forces because they perceive them as occupiers. Others do it simply for money or pride. The promise of a future marked by peace, stability and prosperity may be enough to convince many of these individuals to embrace reconciliation, and every effort should be made to reach out to them.
Yet those who control the organization from inside Pakistan are still fundamentally opposed to anything that supports democracy, human rights and religious tolerance. While it might be possible to convince the Taliban leadership to sever ties with Al Qaeda, it is wishful to expect they will renounce violence and commit to the key elements of the Afghanistan Constitution. Their strict, distorted interpretation of Sharia law conflicts with most everything that Afghanistan has become and hopes to be in the future. They cannot simply morph into just another political party, because their view of what is acceptable can only be achieved through violence and terror.
The massacre in Farah should serve as a reminder of who the Taliban really are and why we must proceed cautiously on the diplomatic front. While a negotiated settlement is the right approach to end the conflict, the real question is whether the Taliban leadership can or should be part of Afghanistan’s future. They continue to promote hatred and intolerance, conduct targeted assassinations, threaten young schoolchildren, and oppose basic human rights. Those things are not likely to change with the shaking of hands or the signing of a document. They would like nothing more than to see the country return to the dark days that preceded 9/11, and we owe it to the people of Afghanistan not to let that happen.
Lt. Col. Craig Wonson is a military fellow in the Yale International Security Studies program and recently served as the Future Operations Officer for Task Force Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Marine Corps or any agency of the U.S. government. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .