Whose Islam? The New Battle for Afghanistan

Finding common ground on the role of Islam is the most decisive task in the peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

By Borhan Osman

Mr. Osman is a senior consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

KABUL, Afghanistan — As the major warring parties in Afghanistan sit down for peace talks in Doha, Qatar, an old, unresolved debate is emerging as the central question: What should be the role of Islam in Afghanistan? A humid seaside resort on the Persian Gulf, where the delegates are gathered, has become the unlikely venue for a search for answers acceptable to most Afghans.

The Taliban, who fought for decades to establish an Islamic political system, struck a deal with the United States in February that calls for American troop withdrawals conditioned on the Taliban engaging in peace talks and promising not to allow the country to be used by transnational terrorists.

They started the peace talks on Sept. 12, aware of the difficulty of persuading other Afghans and the international community to accept their understanding of Islam. The Taliban also seem to have reached a conclusion internally that their 1990s model of government is not tenable today.

When the Taliban seized territory across Afghanistan in the 1990s, the group founded a new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” but they consulted almost none of the country’s diverse political and religious groups. The result was a style of government which enforced at gunpoint the norms and lifestyles of rural southern Afghanistan on the entire country. Imposing an extremely austere lifestyle on Afghans, banning women from work and education and ignoring the pleas of the international community, turned the Taliban into an international pariah.


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