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Life Disrupted by the Taliban

Fumio Sugaya

Jan. 14, 2016

Taliban insurgents have been stepping up their activities in Afghanistan, becoming a greater threat to people throughout the country.

Daisaku Higashi, a specialist in post-conflict peacebuilding and an associate professor at the University of Tokyo, joined Sho Beppu in studio. Higashi also worked as team leader for reconciliation and reintegration in the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010.

Beppu: We know that the Taliban had strongholds in the southern part of Afghanistan. That was the understanding that most people shared. But recently there was an attack in this northern strategic town of Kunduz. Why and how is Taliban spreading its influence in Afghanistan?

Higashi: Yeah, we had the assumption that Taliban is quite dominant in south and east parts of Afghanistan. So it was quite shocking for the Afghan government and the international community that Kunduz, the central city of the northern part of Afghanistan, was taken over by the Taliban. I think the aim of the Taliban is to show their strength to the entire country.

Beppu: Well, before we proceed, let’s have a quick look at the situation in Kunduz where Taliban temporarily occupied.

Fierce street-fighting left much of Kunduz in ruins. Government forces managed to retake the city, but the violence dramatically changed the daily lives of local people.

Sediqa Darwish, 15, lives with her mother and six brothers and sisters. Her goal was to study hard to become a doctor. She wanted to help people who cannot afford proper medical treatment.

But that dream has been derailed by the Taliban.

Her father was a high school principal. One day, he was shot and killed by Taliban fighters on his way home.

"When we heard he’d been killed, we were shocked, of course,” Darwish says. “We started crying, weeping, we lost our way. My father was our family’s main breadwinner."

Her siblings are still young and Sediqa, as the eldest, is the only one of them who can work to support the family.

She started to help with her mother's sewing job. It takes up all her time and she no longer goes to school.

"My dream was to become a doctor,” Darwish says. “But I’ve had to give it up, as I quit school to help my mother and feed my family."

The Taliban offensive put women's social participation in jeopardy as well.

Neda, 29, used to host a show three times a week at a local radio station. It was funded by the government to encourage women to join the workforce. But Taliban fighters stormed the building and stole the equipment.

"The radio station was everything to us, and we did so much through it,” Neda says. “But when it was destroyed, it just hit us all so hard."

Worried that the Taliban could come back, many of her female colleagues quit the station. The funding fell away, too. Now the station broadcasts only once a week.

"We want the Afghan government and the international community to build peace and security,” Neda says. “If we don’t have that, then we can't do anything."

The Taliban insurgency continues to pose a threat right across Afghanistan.

The government must now face the challenge of working even harder to protect ordinary people, and their livelihoods.

Beppu: So we just heard people saying that peace is basis of everything. Well recently, the representatives from the Afghani government, the US, China and Pakistan gathered this week in Islamabad to find a solution, to achieve peace in the country. How do you see this framework? Do you think it can be successful?

Higashi: In terms of background of the peace negotiations, there were kind of official peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban last July, hosted by Pakistan. But this process was completely shut down after the leak that Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, was actually dead two years ago. So now those key states, the United States, Afghan government, Pakistan and China, discussed how to re-approach the Taliban. But now the key challenge is that the leadership of the Taliban is quite divided. After the news that Mullah Omar was actually dead, Mullah Mansour declared he is the leader of the next Taliban leadership. But last November, Mullah Rasool declared that he should be the next leader. There is harsh fighting between this Mansour faction and the Rasool faction inside the Taliban. It was reported that representatives of Mansour and Rasool actually met in the first week of January to discuss how to unify the Taliban leadership. But they could not agree on who could be the next successor. So until there’s kind of a unified Taliban leadership, it could be quite difficult for the Taliban to start substantial negotiations with the Afghan government.

Beppu: How about the other side, the international side, Pakistan is one country who wants to deal with Taliban even though it could be split. Well, Pakistan is known to have been a supporter of the Taliban movement. But do you think there has been any sort of shift of position now, that they’re really serious to achieve peace in the country?

Higashi: Yeah I went to Pakistan to make a lot of interviews with high-ranking officials of the Pakistan government on this particular issue. I have a kind of idea that the Pakistan government now recognizes that it could be in their national interest to make some kind of political settlement between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban, so that Afghanistan can make some kind of political stability. And it could be good for the Pakistani government even to fight against the Pakistan Taliban in Pakistan. So maybe they’ve become quite serious about pushing the Taliban leadership to start negotiations with the Afghan government. But at the same time, it’s a little bit naive to believe that Pakistan has 100% control on the Afghan Taliban, especially when the Taliban leadership is quite divided.

Beppu: How about the United States. Well, we know for sure at this moment that President Obama will leave White House before all American combat troops leave Afghanistan. What role at this moment can the US play in the Afghanistan issue?

Higashi: I think the basic strategy of the Obama administration has been to make some kind of political statement in Afghanistan so that the United States can withdraw their forces by showing their face. But the time is running out because we only have one year left before Obama leaves office. And also the dilemma for the United States could be some factions of the Taliban. For example, Mullah Rasool is reported to insist that he has no idea to start negotiations with the Afghan government until there is some US forces in Afghanistan. So the remaining of the US forces may be some impediment to the situation itself. But at the same time, if the United States withdraws from Afghanistan without any political settlement, Afghanistan itself may be controlled by the Taliban. This is the kind of dilemma now that the United States is facing, I think.

Beppu: So what is needed from the international community, finally, briefly, to improve the situation at least?

Higashi: I believe that the key states, like the United States, the Afghan government, Pakistan and China, and hopefully Japan, to keep the environment that the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban have sustainable talks on a final settlement in Afghanistan. But one of the big challenges in these peace talks is whether the Taliban leadership becomes ready to accept democratic elections to choose the leadership of the Taliban, so that the Taliban itself can or should transform itself to the political party to join elections. Until the Taliban become ready for that, maybe the challenge continues in Afghanistan.