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Friday, May 14, 2021

May 14, 2021

Terrorism is escalating in Afghanistan. Explosions recently killed more than 80 people and left hundreds injured in a Kabul school. Most of the victims were young people, including children and adolescents. The attack came at a time of particular concern in the country, when security experts and human rights organizations argue that the withdrawal of American troops will increase violence rates and terrorist activities.

The American government recently formalized the decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, ending the biggest war in the country's history. The decision received several criticisms both because of the way it was made - through direct negotiations between the American government and Taliban terrorists - and because of the moment - in a context of escalating terrorist violence in the country. In general, what is pointed out is that with the decrease of foreign troops, terrorist militias will gain greater firepower and will act more intensely in the search for power in Afghanistan. What is being ignored, however, is the fact that the increase in terrorist activities has already begun, even before the departure of the American military, which indicates that the presence of these soldiers may not necessarily mean an inhibition of terrorism.

The recent attack on a women's school in Kabul shocked the world by showing the country's high levels of violence. Most of the victims were young girls who attended school - something forbidden for the fundamentalists who carry out these attacks. The attack happened in a district of Kabul where the majority of the population belongs to the Hazara ethnic group, a people strongly persecuted by the Taliban and other terrorist groups due to their adherence to the Shiite strand of Islam - condemned by the terrorists, who are mostly Sunnis or Wahhabis.

However, despite the shock with the brutality of the attack, this was not an isolated case, but just another episode of the great increase in terrorist violence in the country. On Monday, a bus exploded in Kabul leaving 11 dead and about 30 injured. Again, most of the victims were young women and children. In both cases, the government accused the Taliban of being responsible for the attacks, which the group strongly denies.

On Sunday, the Taliban had announced a temporary ceasefire in respect for the Islamic religious calendar, which is currently celebrating the last days of Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims. Government officials are suspicious of the ceasefire and believe that the Taliban just announced the measure as a way to evade responsibility for the attacks.

Regardless of the authenticity of the ceasefire, the Taliban is evidently trying to "clean up" its public image by adopting a softer speech. The group's leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, spoke last weekend promising to form an inclusive Islamist system in Afghanistan immediately after the withdrawal of American troops. In this new system, there will supposedly be space for representation for all ethnicities and Islamic strands that coexist in the country, so that all Afghan citizens will have their rights respected and interests heard. These are his words: “Following the end of occupation, we shall have an Afghan-inclusive Islamic system in which all people shall feel a sense of representation, and none shall have their rights violated (...) This land is the shared home of all Afghans. We must unite upon Islamic injunctions and protect ourselves from all discord and prejudice (...) Our homeland will be in dire need of reconstruction and self-sufficiency following independence”.

As we can see, the Taliban's new public discourse points to a national reconstruction plan, based on a system of widespread popular representation, as a political alternative future for Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American troops. These are curious words when we think that the Taliban is a terrorist group involved in numerous attacks and violations of human rights, however, it is a tactic that makes sense from a strategic point of view, considering that the group has assumed great diplomatic importance since it negotiated with the US. Indeed, Washington has elevated the Taliban's status to that of an active diplomatic force, and now its behavior takes on a more respectable public tone.

Around the world, analysts write about the case speculating on what the Taliban will be like after the Americans leave, but they do so by taking absolute opposition between the US and the Taliban as a dogma, considering the presence of Americans the reason why the Taliban has not yet completely taken over the country. This narrative is unrealistic. The American stance towards the Taliban has been increasingly lenient and passive. Even with thousands of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, Washington has not prevented the Taliban from occupying the strategic areas it currently occupies, which allow the group to surround the country's main cities, competing with the government for the de facto control. The very fact of having agreed to negotiate with the Taliban already shows that the US is increasingly willing to tolerate the activities of terrorists, so the departure of American troops cannot be treated as a sudden tragedy - much less as a victory for the Taliban. What is happening now is just the continuation of a long trajectory of mutual acceptance between Washington and the Taliban. Both are no longer enemies. And the Afghan government becomes just a decorative figure in that relationship.

There is still one factor that needs to be considered: the real dimension of the American withdrawal. The US will withdraw its official combat troops, but it will certainly keep the secret facilities of special forces and intelligence agencies intact. There is a marked difference between the actual number of American soldiers in Afghanistan and the number officially reported. Certainly, Washington will fulfill its agreement, but only publicly, maintaining the necessary forces to preserve its interests in the country. This is certainly known by the Taliban - and the government. So, if the American presence is really so important to neutralize the Taliban threat, then this problem will certainly be solved by the special forces that will remain in the country.

It is possible that the Taliban is not really responsible for the recent attacks. ISIS is a possible perpetrator. Last year, ISIS killed dozens of people in Afghanistan in several brutal attacks as a reprisal for Taliban-US negotiations. The possibility of the Taliban coexisting politically with the institutional government in a peace agreement recognized and mediated by Washington seems unacceptable to ISIS, which may be resuming activities in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it is also possible that the Taliban is committing the attacks and violating its public commitments. Despite gaining political space, the group remains a terrorist organization marked by a history of severe crimes.

It seems risky to say right now who is behind the attacks or whether coexistence between Taliban and the government, as dreamed by Washington, can really work. However, the myth that the withdrawal of American troops will have any relevant role in this process needs to be overcome.

By Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.


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