The leaders of one of the most demonised and misunderstood groups in the world sat down in Qatar today and signed an accord which will see US and NATO troops withdraw after 18 years of war in Afghanistan. I am, of course, talking about the Taliban, which was dragged unwillingly into a war against the world superpower on 7 October 2001, less than a month after the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Since then, it is estimated that more than 100,000 innocent Afghans have been killed, and some terrorist groups, including Daesh, have flourished, causing even more carnage and destruction elsewhere. In fact, no one knows for sure the exact death toll, because it was a full eight years before the UN began started to keep a note of the casualties. The international organisation’s figures show that 34,000 Afghans have been killed, with 66,000 others wounded, since 2009.
I was a prisoner of the Taliban in Kabul on the night that the war started. I was also invited to watch the signing ceremony with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who flew to Doha to seal the landmark deal with the Taliban.
Any initiative to bring peace to Afghanistan is to be applauded but… Forgive my scepticism, but the motives of the Donald Trump administration are, I fear, driven more by opportunism in an election year — which the US President is determined will see him securing a second term in the White House — than a genuine desire to see Afghans able to live in peace.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the peace deal has arisen at the whim of President Trump. Equally, there is no doubt that the war began because of the petulance of one of Trump’s predecessors, George W Bush, who lashed out recklessly after the horrific events of 9/11. In doing so, the misguided revenge of Bush and his venal sidekick in Britain, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, sucked the US, the UK and other allies into what would become one of the longest and deadliest conflicts in modern history.
Added to my scepticism is a sense of sad exasperation about the ceremony at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, because the whole war was so unnecessary. The Taliban never wanted a war with the US. The movement’s Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, told me this himself during my 11-day captivity in Kabul. The Taliban, he explained, had offered to hand over Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden to a third party to stand trial for what took place in the US on 9/11. “He is here as our guest but we are prepared to let a third party question him and put him on trial,” he told me. “We do not want to go to war with America but nor will we stand by and allow an invasion of foreign troops in our country.” The Western media reported that the Taliban had asked to be shown the evidence that Bin Laden was responsible, and Bush had promised to provide it. He didn’t.
The Foreign Minister’s views were repeated several times in informal meetings that I had with leading members of the Taliban Shura Council in subsequent trips to the region. On every occasion it was stressed to me that the war was not of the Taliban’s making and the group wanted it to end but, at the same time, its members would not give up fighting for their country until “every last invader has gone”.
Muttawakil, who also served as secretary to the much-revered late Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, repeated the conversation to journalists. He pointed out that the Taliban government had offered to give up Bin Laden for trial long before the 9/11 attacks, but the US had shown no interest.
When I was released from the Taliban prison, I tried to pass on the details of my conversation with Muttawakil, but to no avail; the drums of war were beating too loudly and no one wanted to listen. Some even accused me of being a victim of Stockholm syndrome; a prisoner who became attached to the jailers, but this was far from the truth. Indeed, it always causes great amusement to myself and the Taliban when it is mentioned, because, quite simply, I was a prisoner from hell, but that’s a story for another time perhaps. The plain truth is that the Taliban bent over backwards in order to avoid a war.
I’m not sure how much Pompeo knows about all of this, but he made a speech in Doha telling the Taliban that it must cut ties with Al-Qaida and maintain its fight against Daesh. This was ironic, as it was the US which pushed the Taliban into the arms of Al-Qaida in the first place, out of necessity when the war began in 2001.
While in captivity, I learned very quickly that there was a degree of resentment among the Taliban towards Al-Qaida’s fighters in Afghanistan. “They came as our guests and soon tried to become our masters,” I was told by one Taliban official. And it is highly unlikely that Daesh would ever be allowed to get a foothold in Afghanistan under a Taliban government. Avoiding both groups should thus be an easy promise to keep.
The elephant in the corner at the Sheraton was the fact that the current Afghan government, which the Taliban refuses to recognise, was not represented. However, there are peace negotiations set for 10 March which will include Afghan government officials, civil society leaders and women.
In the meantime, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah have received assurances about continued US support. As yet, the Trump administration has yet to learn that it cannot run with the fox and chase with the hounds. It was actually obvious from Pompeo’s language that Washington has learned very little about the nature of the Taliban or Afghans in general. The West must accept that it cannot force its values and ideas on other nations and cultures, although it can try to understand their values.
Our views on the Taliban and its ideology are irrelevant. However, we should do everything in our power — apart from using bombs and bullets — to help the group move towards peace for the sake of everyone living in Afghanistan. Foreign meddling over the past four decades, including the Soviet invasion and occupation, has been disastrous for ordinary Afghans. If history has taught the West anything, it should be that the people of Afghanistan will not tolerate occupation. If Bush and Blair had read the history of the country before launching that first ill-fated barrage of missiles, they could have avoided a lot of unnecessary bloodshed.
I didn’t accept the Taliban’s invitation to the Doha ceremony. Instead, I told the movement that I would be happy to go to Kabul as and when a final, lasting peace is agreed in the Afghan capital. It will happen one day, I’m sure. I only hope that I’m still around to see it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.