Updated: July 30, 2019 10:46:21 am
As US President Donald Trump showered praise on Pakistan and its Prime Minister Imran Khan for helping with the ongoing talks with the Taliban last week, far from Washington DC, in India’s financial capital, a group of Afghans visiting India on a US State department programme wondered what price the people of Afghanistan would have to pay for the “secret” deal being worked out.
The Afghan men and women drawn from a cross-section of civil society, professions and areas of expertise, were here from July 22 to 24 for a US State Department sponsored “tech camp” on the theme ‘Re-imagining Our Urban Future’.
Together with a similar group from Mumbai and Pune, they discussed problems that cities face and how to use data and data apps to address urban challenges – from public transportation to sanitation and sewage treatment, among others.
The Indian Express spoke to a few delegates in the 20-strong contingent – among them NGO workers, government officials, businessmen, members of think tanks – about the talks underway between US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban. The US consulate in Mumbai requested their names be withheld for concerns of their security back in Afghanistan.
“Everyone wants peace. It is the most important thing for every Afghan. But we do not know the price of this peace, are the conditions from the Taliban, and what commitments have they made,” said one person in the delegation.
The Afghan talks began in right earnest in 2018, after Trump announced that he wanted to withdraw US troops from the country. In Washington last week, Trump thanked Imran Khan for “helping out” with the talks. Pakistan, which brought the Taliban to the negotiating table, has described itself as a “facilitator”.
The most recent round of talks between Taliban and US Special representative Zalmay Khalilzad was held in early July in Doha, Qatar. Khalilzad has called it the “most productive of the seven rounds” so far. He was quoted by ‘The New York Times’ saying that the latest round had seen progress on two expectations from the Taliban — a commitment to talk with the Afghan government, and a ceasefire.
However, as underlined by a deadly bomb attack on Sunday targeting Amarullah Saleh, President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate for vice-president in the September 28 elections, that killed 20 and left 50 wounded, including Saleh, a former head of the Afghan spy agency NDS, security situation in the country is fast deteriorating.
“Uncertainty”, “concern” and “fear” were the words that the Afghans who were part of the delegation in Mumbai used most often as they spoke about the talks with the Taliban. They believed that the Taliban would soon be back in power in Afghanistan, and that this was the “agenda” behind the talks.
“We had peace before, when the Taliban were ruling Afghanistan. But we had no life then — no right, no jobs, nothing. Will it be different this time? We don’t know. Because of what I do, I am going to be a target if the Taliban come back,” the person said.
He said there was also confusion about how the elections and the peace agreement would fit together. He asked, “Will there be an agreement before the elections, and if so, will there be an election at all?”
A woman who works in a government department said that if the Taliban came back, she and her husband plan to leave the country. “We are just waiting,” she said. “I love my country, but I have five-year-old son. I thought if the Taliban come back, we would go abroad. I could study more, maybe get a PhD, and later see if it it is safe to return.”
The woman said she feared that if the Taliban returned to Kabul, “women cannot come out of their homes, they cannot go to university, they cannot go to work”.
A man working as a consultant said Afghans do not trust Pakistan to do the right thing by their country. “Pakistan is the main concern. Pakistan has invited in Taliban, and when the Taliban return, Pakistan will not stop interfering in different fields in Afghanistan. They have invested a lot in keeping Afghanistan destabilised,” he said, describing the Taliban as “an instrument of Pakistan.”
The man said Afghans do not want “a deal in which Taliban are handed over the government, a deal that is against national strategy, against national assets, and against the achievements of the last two decades”.
Another delegate said he feared that while high-ranking Taliban would join the government, further down the hierarchy, individual Taliban, who are fighting because they get paid for doing so, might switch to groups like the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The delegate, who belongs to a non-Pashtun community, said, “Those from minority communities are afraid a lot. Even if Khalilzad reaches a conclusion, there may be no stability in Afghanistan.” He called the peace process “an agenda” for President Trump that had to be completed before the Afghan election.
“Khalilzad’s mission to achieve this agenda,” he said.
Phil Stika, programme officer, said the US State Department is running the “tech camp” programme since 2010, working with US missions in various countries “to bring technology experts to work with local civil society groups to improve what they are doing with open source, free technology”.
Stika said this was the first on sustainable urban planning, and while many such camps had been held in India, this was the first anywhere in the world in which an Afghan delegation had participated.
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