By Arab News
By Luke Coffey
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows no sign of a peaceful conclusion. Meanwhile, the world remains focused on Israel’s war on Gaza. Sometimes it seems that policymakers have all but forgotten about Afghanistan.
After taking power more than two years ago, the Taliban have learned that resisting is much easier than governing. There is a nationwide shortage of basic medical supplies. Tens of millions of Afghans suffer from food insecurity. The economic situation remains bleak, with reports of fathers even selling off their young daughters for marriage to much older men to get money for food. Natural disasters have also taken their toll on the country. Major earthquakes in Herat in October killed almost 1,500 and left 144,000 needing humanitarian aid. The international community has not worked out a way to ensure that much-needed humanitarian aid reaches those most affected without lining the pockets of the Taliban elite in Kabul.
Meanwhile, the cycle of violence that has plagued Afghanistan for more than four decades remains unchecked. Daesh is an increasingly deadly force in the country and has been responsible for a number of mass casualty attacks. According to reports published by the UN, Al-Qaeda remains active. Smaller regional terrorist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have also taken advantage of the Taliban’s hospitality.
However, despite the tragic situation, there remains a glimmer of hope for the country’s future. This week more than 50 representatives from different anti-Taliban opposition and resistance groups gathered in Vienna for the third meeting of the so-called Vienna Process for a Democratic Afghanistan.
A smaller group first met in September 2022, the first such gathering of opposition figures on the international stage since the Taliban regained power. The first meeting of the Vienna Process was also notable because it acknowledged the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, Ahmad Massoud, as the de facto leader of this anti-Taliban opposition movement.
The NRF was formed in August 2021 in the aftermath of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul. Massoud, the son of the late Soviet and Taliban resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, escaped from the city to his family’s ancestral homeland in the Panjshir Valley. Since then, the NRF has been active across northern Afghanistan as the only credible and non-extremist armed opposition to the Taliban.
The second gathering in Vienna last April featured an even more diverse group of participants, including activists from many different backgrounds, ethnic groups and religious affiliations, as well as representatives from the Hazara, Uzbek and Sikh minorities. Almost half the participants were women.
The most recent meeting was even more noteworthy. Although the center of gravity for the conference was Massoud and the NRF, other significant groups and personalities were represented. For example, senior figures of the National Resistance Council for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Ankara Coalition, participated. This included former MP Mohammadi Muhaqeq and former vice president of Afghanistan Yunus Qanuni. The notorious Adbul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek Afghan commander and longtime Afghan powerbroker, sent a personal representative to deliver his message to the attendees. There were international observers from the US, and European and regional countries. On the final day of the meeting, they took part in the discussions.
Almost as significant as last week’s meeting in Vienna was the flurry of diplomatic activity by anti-Taliban opposition that took place in the lead-up to the event. In October, Massoud traveled to France to meet government officials and activists. He then continued on to Brussels, where he met with members of the European Parliament and held meetings with parliamentarians. Last month, he was invited as a special guest by French President Emmanuel Macron to take part in the Paris Peace Forum. At the event he was seated next to other heads of state and senior officials.
It is also worth noting that Ismail Khan, the former resistance fighter and governor of Herat, left Iran for the first time since fleeing from the Taliban in 2021, and traveled to Tajikistan. This was important because Tajikistan serves as the political home of the NRF. During Khan’s visit to Tajikistan, he held meetings with Massoud and Emomali Rahmon, the Tajikistan president. Khan’s visit demonstrates a growing alliance between northern and western Afghans in opposing the Taliban.
It remains to be seen what the future of the Vienna Process holds. With each gathering the participants grow in numbers and importance. After only three meetings, the Vienna Process has united a diverse group of Afghans on a common platform. All believe that the status quo under the Taliban is unacceptable. They emphasize that the protection of basic human rights, especially equal rights for women and minorities, are nonnegotiable. They have also agreed to “support all forms of resistance against the Taliban,” including armed opposition.
While many countries are willing to work with the Taliban as the de facto leaders of Afghanistan, few have had any level of engagement with the NRF or the Vienna Process. This is shortsighted. If there can be engagement with the Taliban, then there is no reason not to also engage with opposition groups. It is time for the international community to accept that the Vienna Process is a credible Afghan voice of opposition to the Taliban.
• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey