In peace, there must be no revenge in Afghanistan
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, recently wrote an op-ed, “What We, the Taliban, Want,” supporting peace in Afghanistan and exalting the efforts of his group to negotiate it. In his piece, he repeatedly mentioned what is universally considered the “holy grail” of Taliban objectives since 2001: The complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan as a key condition for peace.
Yet his piece makes no mention of how his group will treat the thousands of Afghans who have worked for foreign troops in many capacities such as battlefield interpreters, and who will be left in the lurch once their protectors depart. If he is as sincere as he claims about peace, the Taliban — and in particular the Haqqani Network, one of the most savage and brutal terrorist organizations in the region if not the world — must agree not to exact the same revenge on these Afghan employees they have throughout the conflict.
The militaries of the United States and the 37 other countries currently in Afghanistan have employed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians in a myriad of capacities. Afghan construction workers help build foreign military bases. Afghan cafeteria workers cook and serve food to foreign troops. Afghan janitors clean foreign military facilities. And some Afghans fight with foreign forces in combat as interpreters, translators and cultural advisers.
Although some of these Afghans may support the foreign forces’ cause and dislike the Taliban, many of these Afghans have taken such jobs simply to earn a living and support their families in a country at war with a dearth of economic opportunity. Interpreters take a uniquely elevated risk — actively participating in battlefield operations where they are as likely to be killed and maimed as foreign troops — but all Afghans who have worked for foreign countries have risked retribution by the Taliban.
And the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network, have taken revenge at every turn in recent years. They have devoted their intelligence-gathering resources to facilitate the intimidation and murder of Afghans working for foreign forces. It is ironic that Mr. Haqqani extols the virtues of a future Afghan system consistent with local culture and Islam when his forces have deliberately violated those values throughout the war.
In places such as Paktia — one of a few provinces in which the insurgency is controlled by the Haqqani faction — they have taken the uniquely ruthless step of murdering the family members of their adversaries. And perhaps more concerningly, his track record makes it difficult to have confidence that the departure of foreign forces will somehow make their Afghans employees safer.
Regardless of any future political solution between the incumbent Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban, history has shown that locals who’ve cooperated with or worked for withdrawing foreign troops are seldom treated well after such a withdrawal. In fact, torture, murder and persecution are by far the most common outcome in such scenarios, especially where there is little disincentive to prevent acts of vengeance.
This is particularly true of complex peace agreements such as this one, to which Taliban leaders have expended significant internal political capital to convince their rank-and-file fighters to adhere. From their perspective, Taliban fighters already have sacrificed some of their objectives to achieve peace, such that second- and third-tier issues outside the scope of the agreement are subject to those fighters’ whims once any withdrawal is complete.
Promises to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan, for example, are so anathema to the Taliban’s traditional policy platform that even the most basic implementation leaves little room for Taliban commanders to restrain their troops from taking revenge against their once-legitimate enemies.
As a former Afghan interpreter and former U.S. military members who’ve worked with Afghan interpreters, we’ve experienced the savagery of the Haqqanis toward their countrymen firsthand. Our organization, No One Left Behind, has worked diligently to help those they’ve targeted. We’ve supported over 8,000 Iraqi and Afghan former interpreters and family members who resettled in the United States due to threats of retribution.
Their stories are rife not just with threats but attempts on their lives. Some have lost family members to murder by the Taliban. And more of them waiting for visas in Afghanistan are at risk of murder as the U.S. visa approval process grinds at a slow pace.
Peace in Afghanistan is a worthy cause and hundreds of thousands of Afghans have sacrificed to achieve it. But if safety guarantees for Afghans working for foreign forces are not part of the letter of an agreement to withdraw, they must be considered part of the spirit of any deal. The countries who have employed Afghans must ensure their safety, preferably by resettling them, but at least with public commitment to exacting consequences on the Taliban for taking retribution.
And the Taliban, including the Haqqanis, must commit to stop their brutal tactics against Afghan civilians and their families. Without these assurances, there can be no peace for many of those who deserve it most.
Phil Caruso is a member of the board of directors of No One Left Behind, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Afghan and Iraqi interpreters for the U.S. government, and an Afghanistan veteran.
Mariah Smith is a member of the board of directors of No One Left Behind and a U.S. Army veteran.
Janis Shenwari is a co-founder of No One Left Behind and served as an Afghan interpreter with U.S. forces in Afghanistan for eight years, after which he resettled in the United States. He is credited with saving the lives of five U.S. soldiers in combat.