The Taliban should be cautiously welcomed at the negotiating table but with a view on moderating the group.

Afghanistan has been mired in violent conflict my entire life. Yet, more than anything else, Afghans still yearn for peace. While ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the US offer hope that one day all Afghans will live in harmony under a unified Afghanistan, I remain wary that the Taliban have not changed.

As a teenage boy, I witnessed the Taliban, with their Toyota pickups, Kalashnikovs, and literal interpretation of Islam, overrun Kabul. The day that happened is still seared into my brain: September 27, 1996.

Early that morning, I dressed in my father’s peraan tunban to see what the disturbance was in Ariana Square, only to be met by a tide of shaken people briskly walking the opposite direction. Many were weeping, others wailing into the air, but every face I saw had gone pale with horror, as everyone fled back to their homes.

When I made it to the square ten minutes later, I was jarred by the dead bodies of the former President of Afghanistan, Dr Najeebullah, and his brother, hanging by their necks. 

Dr Najeebullah was the last President of Afghanistan (1987–1992) before the Taliban seized Kabul. When the Taliban took control in 1996, ex-President Najeebullah, for his safety, had been living in the United Nations headquarters in Kabul. But none of that mattered anymore, because now wads of money and cigarettes had been stuffed in the dead ex-President and his brother’s noses, mouths, and ears.

The Kabulis who had remained at Ariana Square that day displayed mixed reactions, as I froze in shock. 

Some collapsed to the ground; others threw their arms up and fulminated; still, others covered their mouths and eyes in horror, while the Taliban stood by cheering at the bent and dangling feet of the bodies they had strung up and so brutally left to rot under the rising sun.

This first encounter with the Taliban finally sent me stumbling homeward—broken, horrified, and confused as the rest of the city’s residents.

By the time I entered high school, the Taliban had decreed that only boys could attend. To get to school every day, I had to walk through Ariana Square, forced to recall the bodies I had seen hanging there. 

I constantly worried that one day I or someone from my family would be strung up by some of the hundreds of black-cloaked, black-turbaned, bearded and aggressively sanctimonious Taliban who now stood watch at my school, often chiding us in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. Those years saw the Taliban recruiting more of their ranks across Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. 

The Ariana Hotel across from my school became the Taliban’s base. Currently, it is the Kabul headquarters of the CIA.

One morning, the Taliban kidnapped my father for the high crime of owning a Russian car, a GAZ Volga. In the eyes of the Taliban, my father's beaten-up, grey 1987 Volga resembled a government vehicle. 

My father was beaten for an entire day, then returned home to us, bruised and shaken, only after his torturers discovered he had never worked for any government. His car was just a car. My family, who had been educated for years in Kabul’s universities, lost their jobs, and my sisters were banned from attending school.

Fearing for our lives and livelihoods, my family and I fled to Pakistan, alongside 2.7 million other Afghans. Once there, I survived Islamabad by sweeping sidewalks, cleaning shops, or doing other menial chores to help feed my family. 

Fortunately, I became one of the few Afghan refugees in Islamabad who found a way to pursue an education, as well as the next opportunity to pursue higher education in the United States. But I have often wondered about the fate of the millions of other young Afghans in the same situation who did not enjoy my same good fortune of education.

Today, the Taliban are involved in peace talks with the United States, in Doha, at the behest of the Trump administration. My belief—my worry—is that the Taliban will never change. 

Just five years of government rule by the Taliban regime has caused Afghanistan so much cultural and social damage, not to mention the decades-lingering mass bloodshed due to their violent murders, lynchings, and bombings that still occur to this day.

The Taliban must now realise that Afghanistan has changed a lot since then. They must also understand that, as a people, we will not fall backwards again. As a person who still carries memories of the earliest Taliban atrocities, most certainly neither will I. 

Sixty-two percent of Afghans are under 25 years of age. This significant portion of our population was born during or after the Taliban government and has been exposed to a modernising world of democracy, civil society, and the rule of law. In this world, we must all move forward.

The Taliban and its acts should neither be forgiven nor forgotten. 

They should be reckoned with as a relic of the past. At the peace table, we must not compromise 18 years of achievements earned via so much sacrifice by Afghans and our international partners from the West. 

If the Taliban want to come to the table for the sake of the country and its people, they must be willing to open their closed minds. They must understand that more important than imposing a strict Sharia law is to live in peace with the rest of us under a unified Afghanistan. They must respect both individual and secular rights, especially for women.

Peace should not be sought for the political gains of an individual, the political elite, or a religious order at the cost of the freedom of others. If true peace is to come, it must not compromise the rights and freedoms of any individual.

If you want to come and sit at the table of peace, Taliban, you are most welcome. Keep in mind, however, that, though some may be willing to forgive you, or try to forget you for Afghanistan’s brighter future, your terrible atrocities remain fresh in most people’s minds. If no apology or recompense comes at the negotiating table, you will have no place alongside the rest of us at the greater table called Afghanistan.

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