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Taliban haven’t changed, resistance by Afghans to grow, says ex-US security official Lisa Curtis

One year after the Taliban takeover, US national security expert Lisa Curtis tells ThePrint that the US shouldn't engage with them until they adhere to the commitments made.

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New Delhi: Afghans will gradually push back against the Taliban, and this will strengthen the national resistance movement against the regime, according to Lisa Curtis, a former US National Security Council (NSC) official with extensive experience in South Asia.

In an exclusive interview with ThePrint on the completion of one year of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, Curtis blamed the radical insurgent group’s re-emergence on the US’ “abrupt and chaotic” withdrawal from the besieged country last August.

Curtis, who has earlier worked in the CIA as a senior analyst for South Asia, US State Department, and on Capitol Hill, is currently Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington-based think-tank.

Afghanistan found itself facing a grave security crisis last year as the US-led NATO, which arrived in the country in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11 for its “war on terrorism”, exited the country in a much-criticised move following talks with the Taliban.  

As the Taliban marched into Kabul on 15 August 2021, hundreds of people crowded airports in a bid to flee the country, haunted by memories of the group’s previous stint in power (1996-2001), which was marked by repression and brutality.

While the Taliban assumed power with the promise of being more moderate than the last time, Curtis said the past year has shown that the group hasn’t changed much — it not only continues to shelter terrorists but also denies rights to Afghan women and girls, she added.

“The elimination of (al-Qaeda chief) Ayman al-Zawahiri on 31 July was a major counterterrorism win for the US and it shows that the US does have the capabilities to take terrorists off the battlefield when it chooses to do so,” Curtis said, referring to al-Zawahiri’s killing in a US drone strike in Kabul. “So, in a way, it vindicates President Biden and his claims that over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations can be effective.” 

But, Curtis said, it doesn’t justify the disastrous exit of the US a year ago.  

“The world watched as the Afghans clung to planes since they were leaving. It was an abrupt withdrawal, very chaotic, very little preparation and I think that has left a stain on Biden’s foreign policy as well as the US more generally,” she added. 

With the coming in of the Taliban, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, leaving it in the lurch. Immediately after taking over, the Taliban shut down the main airport in Kabul in an effort to prevent Afghans from leaving the country. A blast outside the airport the same month killed around 180 Afghans and 13 US military personnel. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

“What’s worse is that, a year later, we see the Taliban have not changed. They are still repressing women, not allowing girls to go to high school. They are not allowing the women to hold most jobs, they can’t travel out of their homes without a male companion,” Curtis said.

In addition, she added, it’s clear that the Taliban has not broken its ties with al-Qaeda. 

“We know this because al-Zawahiri was sheltering in a home owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani. So, we can see that the Taliban has not changed. It is quite a terrible situation for the Afghan people.”

Sirajuddin Haqqani is Afghanistan’s acting interior minister and the head of the dreaded Haqqani Network, which was designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States in 2012. Haqqani is still on US FBI’s ‘Most Wanted‘ list carrying a $10 million bounty on his head.

In her interview, Curtis called for the reinstatement of travel bans on the Taliban, and engaging Afghanistan’s National Resistance Front (NRF) — particularly the movement’s leaders who are currently in Tajikistan — in a dialogue.

Also Read: India shouldn’t retain ties with Afghanistan’s previous rulers, says Taliban leader Shaheen

Resistance movement

Curtis, who has served as deputy assistant to the US president and NSC senior director for South and Central Asia from 2017 to 2021 under three successive national security advisers, said that, going forward, it will become harder for the Taliban to rule Afghanistan as Afghans are now slowly beginning to give up and will begin to accelerate the resistance movement under the NRF.

“I don’t think the Afghan people will accept the increasingly harsh treatment that’s been meted out by the Taliban leadership, including the Haqqanis. I think what you will see is more people gravitating towards resistance,” she said. 

There are already pockets of resistance, she said, referring to the NRF, which is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of ‘Lion of Panjshir’ Ahmad Shah Massoud — revered in Afghanistan for his battle against the Taliban until his assassination in 2001 — and former Afghanistan vice-president Amrullah Saleh.

The NRF regularly engages in fighting with the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley.

According to Curtis, both Massoud and Saleh are currently living in Tajikistan.

“I think you’ll see more and more people resisting what the Taliban is trying to do. You can’t hold down people, take away their rights, not provide them the benefits and services and expect them not to rise up and not to resist such kind of rule,” she told ThePrint.

But she said the coming together of the NRF with “different opposition forces” like the erstwhile Northern Alliance — a coalition of several militia groups who fought the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 under Massoud and supported the American forces — looks “difficult” at the moment.

“Right now, there are a lot of divisions among the Afghans that have fled the country. So, it really depends if there can be some cohesion and unity among the different factions,” she told ThePrint. “Northern Alliance was a group of different factions that came together for one purpose. We don’t have that right now. We have the National Resistance Front but there hasn’t been coming together of different opposition forces.”

Although the US isn’t currently providing any real assistance to the NRF, it should engage them in discussions, she said.

“The US can’t all of a sudden ignore these people. It has engaged with them for the last 20 years. The US Embassy should engage the leaders of the resistance movement who are based in Tajikistan, just gather information. They are players in Afghanistan,” she said. 

Also Read: India finally holds talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban govt, 9 months after leaving Kabul

‘Reinstate travel ban on Taliban’

Curtis, who’s an expert on counterterrorism strategy in South and Central Asia, said that the UN Security Council (UNSC) should reinstate its travel ban on the Taliban.  

The travel ban was revoked in 2019 in order to let the Taliban leadership travel to Doha for peace talks with the erstwhile Donald Trump administration, which culminated in an agreement in February 2020 that paved the way for NATO’s withdrawal

On 20 August, the UNSC will be taking up the issue of extending the travel ban waiver. Said Curtis: “It is wrong for Muttaki (Taliban acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi) and other Taliban leaders to be able to travel overseas to attend international conferences like the conference in Uzbekistan”.

In July, the government of Uzbekistan hosted a special conference on Afghanistan to discuss its future under Taliban rule. The conference was attended by over 30 countries. In that conference the Taliban sought investments from the international community.

“How can they be allowed to travel around, gain legitimacy while they have these horrible restrictions on women and girls which no other country in the world has? It’s outrageous,” she said.

Peace talks, for which the travel ban was first lifted, are “dead, and there’s no reason that the Taliban needs to travel outside of Afghanistan”, she added.

“In fact, it comes up for consideration on 20 August, so there’s an opportunity for the US to demonstrate that it is not going to continue to put up with Taliban’s repression of women and its lies on terrorism now that we know that they are sheltering the al-Qaeda,” she said. 

According to Curtis, any kind of engagement with the Taliban by the US or other world powers “should be conditioned on how they are treating their own people and what they are doing to ensure that the country will not emerge as a terrorist safe haven”. 

“Until we see specific steps on that front, I don’t think there should be any engagement or investment in Afghanistan,” she said. 

India’s engagement with the Taliban

On India’s engagement with the Taliban, Curtis said New Delhi has made its own decision to reopen its embassy in Kabul but the US shouldn’t because it needs to uphold the values of democracy and human rights.

“That is India’s choice but I think for the US, it stands for democracy [and] human rights. [In particular] the Biden administration has trumpeted that as part of its foreign policy. If that’s the case, then they should be standing up for the women and girls of Afghanistan, which means not engaging, not investing. The US should play its leadership role,” she added.

“But the bottom line,” she said, “is that the US is not as influential in Afghanistan”.

“This is a fact. So, we are also going to have to look to the UN, European partners, and other countries that share the US’ values on democracy and human rights and look to those partners to use them also to influence the Taliban.”

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

 Also Read: Hard-nosed, practical—why India has revived relations with Kabul, and why Taliban is welcoming


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