A Letter From Kabul – By Jean-François Cautain

Cet article a d’abord été publié par Le Temps le 23 avril 2023. Il est reproduit ici avec l’aimable autorisation de l’auteur. This article was first published in Le Temps on 23 April 2023. We have published it here with the author’s kind permission. Below is the English version of the letter prepared by the author.

Children walking along a sidewalk in the city.
Children walking outside the Kabul Zoo in April 2023. Photo Credits: Jean-François Cautain.

I am writing from Kabul where I have been living for these past 11 months. I consider myself a friend of Afghanistan, a country full of contrasts that I know since 1986; all in all, I have lived here for a little over 12 years. My return to Afghanistan was motivated by the desire, which I share with my wife who runs a medical NGO in Kabul, to help the Afghan population that is once again hostage to a modern “Great Game”, bringing violence and misery.

I was in Afghanistan when the Taliban first took Kabul in September 1996 after four years of armed conflict between various Afghan warlords that vied for supremacy after the departure of the Soviets in 1989. Heading a rural rehabilitation programme, I worked for 3 years under the first Taliban regime. I was again present during the early years of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005, working for the European Union. I remember the enthusiasm of the Afghan people. But I also remember the doubts that very quickly emerged about the viability of the project to “build a new Afghanistan”. Today, I am extremely concerned about the isolation of Afghanistan on the international scene. It will lead to more suffering for the Afghan people and pose an increased risk to regional and international security. In isolating Afghanistan, we are repeating mistakes made during the first Islamic Emirate, between 1996 – 2001, with the same well known dire consequences. Today, we, the international community and the Afghans, must collectively learn from past mistakes.

I do not consider myself an “expert” on Afghanistan, but the historical perspective I have on the country and the fact that I am currently living in Kabul mean that I probably have a different point of view to many of those currently being expressed from Europe and the United States. The confrontation with Afghan poverty that I experience daily is no stranger to this discrepancy that I perceive between my vision of the situation and most of the analyses and positions expressed outside Afghanistan’s borders.

On 15 August 2021, 20 years of foreign military presence in Afghanistan came to an end. The US-led intervention raised great hopes in the early years. Unfortunately, this turned into a fiasco. The international community and Afghanistan must analyse the many causes such as: the original sin of denying the defeated Taliban a seat in the first meeting aimed at the stability and reconstruction of the country (Bonn Conference 2001); too much aid leading to massive corruption, especially of certain political elites; a confusion of objectives between military operations aimed at eradicating terrorism and the (re)construction of a state. We are just at the beginning of this necessary self-criticism from which we will have to draw lessons, but it is currently put on the backburner, or even forgotten, because of the recent developments in the country.

The West Refused the Taliban’s Extended Hand to the International Community

Since the Taliban took power, we have witnessed a widening schism between the West and the new masters of Afghanistan. Both sides are clearly responsible for the current situation. At first, the Taliban displayed moderation when reaching out to the international community. They spoke of general amnesty, freedom of work for women, education for all, and the fight against terrorism. The West refused to seize this extended hand. On the contrary, thanks to its dominant position on the international scene and taking advantage of the disarray caused by the return of the Taliban and the chaotic evacuation scenes at Kabul airport, the West responded by imposing conditions on the recognition of the Taliban government, the halt of development aid (40% of GNP), the freezing of the Central Bank of Afghanistan’s assets and the de facto extension of sanctions on financial transactions to the whole country. These decisions brought the Afghan economy to its knees in a few weeks, precipitating this already poor country (48% of the population lived below the poverty line before the arrival of the Taliban – despite billions of dollars and euros poured into the country over 20 years) into an unprecedented economic crisis with unprecedented humanitarian consequences. Today 28.3 million Afghans out of a population of around 40 million depend on humanitarian aid for their survival. And the poverty rate has reached 97%, according to the United Nations.

The Taliban also bear a great responsibility for this stalemate with decisions compromising the political and societal gains made over the past 20 years. The failure of their initial diplomatic approach with the West opened the door to the return of coercive policies that are unacceptable to the international community and to a large majority of Afghans. Today, it is widely known that girls cannot study in secondary schools and universities, women cannot work in UN agencies and NGOs, and cannot go to parks and hammams. Political life is also minimal, with very few opportunities for dissenting voices to be heard and the media often having to self-censor.

For The Taliban, The War With The West Has Not Ended, The Battleground Has Changed

There is a total lack of trust between the West and the Taliban. Western countries blame the Taliban for not respecting the Doha agreement by taking power by force. Western countries also accuse the Taliban of having failed to keep their words by taking unacceptable decisions drastically reducing human rights, especially those of women and girls. This sad reality leads many educated Afghan families to leave the country for the sake of their daughters’ future. For their part, many Taliban feel that the West is not sincere when it talks about peace in Afghanistan. They suspect the West, and especially the United States, of working to overthrow their government. They point to the refusal to recognise their government, the sanctions, the freezing of the Central Bank’s assets and the military drones’ flying over the country, daily, for months. For them, the war with the West is not over, but has taken another form.

Such a situation of confrontation between the West and the Taliban cannot and must not last.

At a time when Western opinions are rightly outraged by the restrictions imposed on Afghan women and girls, one must also accept that the Taliban are proud to have liberated their country from an occupation led by the world’s greatest military power. As a result, many do not understand why they have been ostracised for over 20 months. They feel that they should be “treated as equals” within the international community – which is more or less what some countries in the region are doing. It is also important to realise, even if it is difficult to accept in some Western chancelleries, that this feeling of “liberation” is shared by a very significant percentage of the Afghan population, especially in rural areas, even if they are not all unconditional supporters of the Taliban regime. Having driven the British out of Afghanistan in the 19th century, the Soviets in the 20th century, and now NATO in the 21st century, is part of the collective psyche of Afghans and makes many of them proud.

Bird's-eye view on a city with mountains in the background.
View over Kabul from Wazir Akbar Khan Hill in October 2022. Photo credits: Jean-François Cautain.

Yet, despite this incredibly complicated and terribly polarized context, it is imperative to continue and strengthen a direct dialogue between Western countries and the Taliban. Many Western partners regularly meet to discuss Afghanistan, but without Afghan representation. As one of my Afghan contacts said to me recently, it is like doctors meeting around a consultation table to discuss a patient’s case without the patient being present.

Regular And In-Person Meetings Are Crucial

It is only through frequent face-to-face meetings – I do not believe in e-diplomacy – driven by a constructive spirit of understanding on both sides, that progress can be made for the Afghan people. Increasing interaction with the Taliban does not mean recognising their government, but rather creating spaces for discussion to dispel misunderstandings, pass on messages and build relationships that go beyond mere posturing. It means putting the human element and pragmatism back into a relationship that is essentially conflictual today, opposing great international principles against “Afghan” values.

Dialogue must start by talking about subjects where there is a possible convergence of interests between the Western countries and the Taliban. Why not the fight against international terrorism and the fight against opium production, two scourges that affect both Afghanistan and Western countries? The Taliban, who until now have never had any agenda other than a national one, are fighting the Islamic State, which remains a real threat in many countries. They also eliminated poppy cultivation in 2001 and have been tackling it again this year. Keeping in mind the common goal of the wellbeing of the Afghan people, positive signals must also be sent from both sides. For example, on education on the one hand, on sanctions and/or asset freezes on the other. This sustained dialogue needs to start even if it will surely be essentially transactional at first. This will probably not be satisfactory for both parties: the first steps will be modest, but it will have the merit of unblocking a stalemate situation whose victims are primarily Afghan women and girls and the Afghan population in general.

There Are Topics With Converging Interests Between The West and Taliban

It is also urgent to give oxygen to the local economy to allow Afghans to have their minds free of the daily, haunting, and exclusive constraint of feeding their families. Humanitarian aid is essential and must continue to be delivered whatever the obstacles. But even more humanitarian aid will never be a substitute for a revitalised economy. The obstacles on the Afghan economy are largely in the hands of Western countries. The latter could use the lifting of sanctions on financial transactions and the gradual restitution of the assets of the Central Bank of Afghanistan as positive vectors in a dialogue with the Taliban. Only then can the Afghan people regain their voice and influence the future of their country.

The road to an Afghanistan at peace with itself, and in tune with the international community, will be long and complicated. It can only be achieved through a sincere and sustained dialogue between all parties, both within the country and outside its borders. The conference organised by the UN Secretary General in early May in Doha will be a test of the willingness of the different parties to find the path to a long-term peaceful solution. It is the responsibility of the Taliban, other members of Afghan society and Western countries to take the first step in this direction, for the greater benefit of Afghans.

Jean-François Cautain is a former senior official of the EU. He was ambassador to Cambodia and recently to Pakistan. He worked in Afghanistan as a humanitarian worker during several periods between 1986 and 1999 and for the EU between 2001 and 2005. He is a member of UAI’s Taks Team on Afghanistan. He currently lives in Kabul.

The content is the author’s responsibility alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of United Against Inhumanity or any of its other members.

Jean-François Cautain est un haut-fonctionnaire de l’Union Européenne à la retraite. Il a été ambassadeur européen au Cambodge et plus récemment au Pakistan. Il a travaillé en Afghanistan en tant qu’humanitaire à plusieurs reprises entre 1986 et 1999, et puis pour l’Union Européenne entre 2001 et 2005. Il est membre du groupe de travail sur l’Afghanistan de UAI. Il vit actuellement à Kaboul.

Le contenu de cet article est la responsabilité de l’auteur à lui seul, et ne reflète pas forcément la position de United Against Inhumanity ni d’autres membres de notre groupe.

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