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Taliban return: What do Afghanis think?

Three generations discuss the future of Afghanistan amid Taliban return. One of them who is a soldier says ''the country will go back to civil war like in the '90s.''

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Seated on a rug in their Kabul living room, three generations of men from the same family sip tea as they discuss the political changes sweeping Afghanistan.

The eldest among them fought the Taliban, the middle one grew up under the shadow of their brutal regime and the youngest has never known them. Now, all three fear the arc of history will place the hardline Islamists back in power.

On Saturday, the US and the Taliban signed a deal that would see US troops begin to quit Afghanistan in return for security guarantees from the insurgents. While the US has heralded the deal as a vital step towards peace, many Afghans are deeply sceptical about what comes next.

“This is not the right time for the Americans to leave,” said family patriarch Abdul Salam, 68, a former mujahideen fighter who battled the Taliban in the 1990s.

“Everything will be reversed and the country will go back to civil war like in the ’90s. No one will be able to control it”, he added, as he displayed a photo of himself standing alongside iconic anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The US-Taliban deal will see thousands of American troops leave Afghanistan provided the insurgents stick to key pledges, such as opening talks with the Afghan government and not letting the country become a jihadist safe haven.

But many assume the Taliban will leverage the dwindling American presence and Washington’s political disengagement to fight for greater gains across Afghanistan, and eventually exert broad influence in Kabul.

Read more: History of Taliban: Rise, fall and resurgence

While raising his family in the capital in the 1990s, Salam heard the Taliban were torturing people from his home region of Panjshir, one of the few parts of Afghanistan that never fully fell to the insurgents. He decided to join the fight and moved his family to the mountainous region.

“There were no Taliban in my province,” he said, as he proudly showed pictures of comrades who lost their lives fighting the insurgents. But food in the besieged province was so scarce that the family faced starvation — eating grass at one point — and fled in 1999 to neighbouring Pakistan.

Two years later, Al-Qaeda, sheltered by the Taliban, conducted the September 11 attacks on America, prompting a US-led invasion and the collapse of the religious fundamentalists’ regime.

Banned from school

US and Taliban representatives negotiated the deal for more than a year in Doha. Even while sitting across the same table, both sides’ forces continued to target each other.

Salam’s son, Barakat Shirzad, 40, was a young man when the Taliban were in power. He remembers well the women in his family being forced to wear burqas and the fighting preventing him and his siblings from going to school.

In 2016, his cousin was blown up in a Taliban attack in the southern province of Helmand, and his brother fled Afghanistan’s soaring violence.

“We are not happy about the news” of the deal, Shirzad, who is unemployed, said as he sat with his relatives on floor cushions in a middle-class neighbourhood in north Kabul.

“If they come back… they will easily seize power in a couple of years. Since the Taliban were overthrown, they have not changed, they have got worse.”

Vanishing freedoms

No one really knows what Afghanistan will look like under the deal. An optimistic scenario is that the insurgents will finally enter meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and build a consensus for peace.

A darker view is that Afghan leaders, beset by corruption and with scant ability to coalesce on any issue, will bicker during talks with the militants and provide an opening for the well-organised Taliban to exploit.

Compounding woes, Afghanistan is in the grips of a new political crisis amid contested presidential election results. In the capital, a younger generation of Afghans worries the relative freedoms they have known compared to their elders will soon vanish.

Read more: Pakistan plays its role in Afghan Peace: US, Taliban sign deal for troop withdrawal

While the Taliban paid lip service to various rights during negotiations — especially women’s rights — these were always framed in the context of “Islamic values” that are open to broad interpretation, and reports are rife of horrific abuses in parts of Afghanistan that the militants still control.

Born in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Salam’s grandson Kamaluddin, 17, said that while he has never seen the insurgents, he has been following recent news developments closely.

“If they make a comeback, everything that has been achieved in the last 18 years will be reversed,” he said.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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