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Who are the Taliban – Part 2: Will there be changes on the ground?

On the surface, several Taliban officials have indicated a willingness to moderate their position on matters such as education. But how the Taliban will govern will likely depend on the degree of resistance they face from the Afghan people.

Afghanistan is a country in permanent pursuit of equilibrium. Bound to its religion, constrained by its culture and fractured by its past, Afghanistan today is the legacy of an eternity of chaos, infighting and foreign occupation. With the Americans gone, the government in disarray and the Taliban on the rise, Afghans must once again adapt to changing circumstances. This three-part series will explore those changes and attempt to decipher the new political reality.

Part one will look at the current leadership structure of the Taliban and how the organisation is intrinsically linked to the concept of a theocratic state.

Part two will address how Taliban rule will impact the Afghani people and how the progression or regression of human rights will be linked to differing cultural sensibilities across the country.

Part three will introduce the challenges to Taliban rule, examining how Afghanistan’s history of conflict indicates the probability of continued oscillation in leadership.

From 1919 to 1929, Afghanistan was ruled by a progressive monarch known as Ghazi Amanullah Khan. Initially popular for winning the Third Anglo-Afghan war which gave Afghanistan independence from the British, Khan signalled the beginning of his reign by embarking on a series of reforms aimed to modernise the country. In 1923, he promulgated a new constitution that gave all ethnic communities equal rights and ended the long-standing practice of caste-based slavery. He also created schools for both boys and girls, established trade relations with the West, abolished strict dress codes for women and banned practices such as polygamy and child marriage.

Ghazi Amanullah Khan (Wikimedia Commons)

In response to these changes, Khan faced two major uprisings during his rule. The first, in 1924, originated in the conservative South, allegedly over a marriage dispute, and was quelled only after mass bloodshed. The second, in 1928, originated in the combative North, in response to Khan’s wife Soraya and several other women removing their veils during a Grand Assembly of Tribal Leaders. Khan’s opponents, bolstered by the unrest caused by Soraya’s demonstration, set out to overthrow the king. To gain public support, they distributed pictures of Soraya in low-cut gowns, and got 400 clerics to issue a religious fatwa against Khan for violating Islamic values. Soon after, Khan abdicated the throne and fled to Europe where he died three decades later. Subsequent national leaders took note of Khan’s missteps and whenever they proposed any significant cultural changes, they ensured that they implemented those changes in a gradual manner.

Amanullah Khan’s reign tested the limits of modernity in Afghanistan and exposed the schism between reform and culture that exists even today. While 20 years of democratic rule may have whet the appetite of progressive Afghans, the Taliban’s all but certain return to power is rooted not just in fear and violence but also in this cultural divide that permeates the country. Many Afghans espouse conservative values and either see some merit in the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law or, at least, are willing to accept some of the group’s limitations when faced with a choice between them and the corrupt Afghan Government. Currently, people living in districts controlled by the Taliban have witnessed a return to many of the policies that characterised the late 1990s and according to Ali Yawar Adili, a researcher based out of Kabul, several basic freedoms in the country are being threatened. “The Taliban are imposing many restrictions,” he says, “and people are bound by those restrictions because they know that there will be consequences if they don’t comply.”

How the Taliban will govern is unknown but will likely depend on the degree of resistance they face from the Afghan people. Many in Afghanistan, mostly the young and relatively liberal, do not accept Taliban rule, but whether they value their freedoms enough to resist it will be the true test of cultural change.

On the surface, several Taliban officials have indicated a willingness to moderate their position on matters such as education. Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the Taliban Supreme Leader’s main deputies, in an op-ed for the New York Times argues a similar point. He writes: “I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.”

Additionally, Taliban representatives in Doha told their US counterparts that they do not intend to reimpose the strict regulations that were once enforced by the group’s Ministry for the ‘Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.’ A Crisis Group report also allows for this possibility, cautiously speculating that the Taliban may recognise women’s right to education and employment while still insisting on segregating schools and workplaces. This, in turn, would mitigate pushback towards the Taliban from foreign nations and the potential withholding of key developmental aid. However, these changes, the report notes, would still be more restrictive than Afghan government policies and often falls short of human rights standards. Most importantly, it clarifies that “while such thinking may be current in some Taliban circles, it has yet to be cemented into formal Taliban policy.”

How the Taliban makes policy

According to Abdul Basit, a researcher at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, “there is no document that articulates the Taliban’s vision for Afghanistan.” The group has rejected Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution but has never articulated their own, deliberately refusing to commit to any policies “because they don’t want to be held accountable.” Instead, the Taliban govern in a reactionary manner, maintaining their core Islamic beliefs but allowing for flexibility in implementation depending on external pressures.

This is largely because the Taliban are at their core, an insurgency group that derives purpose from having a common enemy – whether that be the Mujahideen or the US forces. Dipali Mukhopadhyay, Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, elaborates on the shortcomings of having such an identity. She asserts that there is a fundamental difference between being an insurgency group or governing as a rebel group, which the Taliban do in many districts, and being a legitimate governing entity. “So far they have been agents of disruption and destruction,” she says over a phone call with, “and that’s very different from constructively creating a political order that people will accept.”

In response to this uncertainty, several experts and organisations have attempted to speculate how the Taliban makes policy. One such report from the US Institute of Peace (USIP) states, “the Taliban make and approve policies based on three core factors: security, political ramifications and regional suitability. Many policies cut across all areas of concern, meaning that a mix of military, civilian and religious actors all shape policy making within the movement.” It goes on to note that “although the Taliban leadership might like to present a more organised, hierarchical picture of governance, policymaking in practice has been at least as much bottom-up as it has been top-down.” Vanda Felab-Brown, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, concurs with this assessment, stating that “a lot of the rules vary with different commanders – there is no uniform set of rules as such.” Furthermore, given that the Taliban courts function under Islamic law which is subject to considerable interpretation, there is no justice system either that would create any form of policy standardisation.

This flexibility in governance is best represented in the Taliban’s educational policy for girls. In her 2003 bestselling novel, Norwegian author Åsne Seierstad, paints a horrific picture of the lives of Afghani women under the oppressive rule of the Taliban. While she alludes to certain institutional constructs that formulate behaviour (students being taught math in terms of bullets, guns and infidels for example,) more interesting was her portrayal of complex community structures in which ideals rooted in patriarchy and misogyny took precedence in even the more seemingly liberal of households. While the eponymous bookseller Sultan Khan is undoubtedly the antagonist of the novel, his wives and children are all portrayed as active participants in a constant cycle of oppression that blurs the lines between victims and perpetrators. In Seierstad’s account, women are seen as a distinct and more often than not, lesser entity in Afghanistan regardless of who occupies the echelons of power. Sexism then is a byproduct of culture not politics, with rules created in accordance with local customs. In Afghanistan, districts that are culturally more progressive tend to have provisions for the education of girls, either through non-profits or state institutions, even when those districts are controlled by the Taliban.

To understand the cultural differences in Afghanistan, one must understand its myriad of different ethnicities and how each of them settled, suffered, and prospered over the course of the country’s history. That itself is a monumental task, but in short, the areas dominated by the Taliban, ones which espouse a more rigid and conservative culture, also tend to be those in which there is a strong Pashtun majority. South and East Afghanistan for example has long been a Taliban stronghold, largely due to its shared border with Pakistan and the largely nomadic lifestyle of the Pashtun tribes occupying the area. It is also worth noting that the Taliban is a Pashtun group and has favoured its own ethnic kin at the expense of other groups. Conversely, the Tajik areas of the country – mainly in the North have long opposed the Taliban. The Tajiks benefited from proximity to the Persian Empire and by extension, advanced Persian culture. As a result, 14 of Afghanistan’s 20 largest cities are in Tajik dominated areas and they tend to be socially more liberal than other parts of the country. Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmens and Aimaks make up a smaller percentage of the Afghan population and are neither as pro-Taliban as the Southern Pashtuns or as anti-Taliban as the Northern Tajiks. How public opinion varies according to these regional and cultural differences is the key determinant of how they would be governed under the Taliban.

How public opinion is reacting to Taliban’s policies

Taking the example of girl’s education, the first thing to note is how the landscape has changed since 2001. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, “since 2002, in cities under Afghan government control, millions of girls have gone to school.”

Afghan girls at school (Wikimedia Commons)

Patricia Gossman, an Associate Director at the Human Rights Watch, and one of the authors of that report put those figures into context during a phone conversation with “Education was the poster child for the intervention,” she states, “however, the gains were unevenly distributed, with urban areas tending to benefit far more than rural parts of the country.” Furthermore, “since 2014, corruption within the Ministry of Education, biases in supporting girl’s schools, entrenched conservatism and rising insecurity made it very hard for girls to go to school.” So, in urban areas, and areas free from conflict, more girls have been enrolled in schools over the last two decades, causing a mindset shift amongst many communities. According to Gossman, “this is especially because younger members of the family, the brothers and so on, persuade the reluctant fathers and grandfathers to accept change.” In rural areas and Taliban strongholds, the shift is less pronounced but still significant.

The Human Rights Watch report highlights these differences, noting that in areas like Kunduz and Logar (in the North and East respectively,) schools for girls are allowed to operate whereas in certain districts within the Helmand province in the South, girl’s schools do not exist at all. This, according to a Taliban spokesman interviewed for the report, reflects regional differences. He says, “we have to take into account local norms. We cannot impose from the top. We are working to change peoples’ minds.… The Kunduz province is different from Helmand—we cannot establish the same rules and guidelines for all of Afghanistan. It has to be done in a case-by-case manner until the whole country is under our control.”

There is some truth to that statement, but by and large, Afghan’s are willing to allow women greater freedoms today than they have been in the recent past. According to a 2019 survey by the Asia Foundation, while 99 per cent of Afghans still favour women dressing conservatively, 86 per cent also believe that women should have access to education. However, that statistic requires some clarification because while there is acceptance for basic education, only 38 per cent of men think that women should have the same educational opportunities as they do. That pattern is true in Taliban controlled areas as well. Typically, according to the USIP report cited earlier, under the Taliban, girls are “allowed to go to school until the sixth grade when the community advocates for it; when they don’t, girl’s schools are closed.”

Adili, the researcher based in Kabul, disagrees with this conceptualisation though. He states that “this urban-rural divide is a myth” as women in rural areas “want their children to have access to education, healthcare and freedom of movement” much like women in urban areas do, they just often don’t have the means to advocate for it. Gossman reinforces Adili’s claim, pointing out that even in progressive districts, with the Taliban, “there isn’t much negotiation on human rights issues, you kind of just accept it.”

Currently, areas under Taliban control are not as strictly governed as they were in the 1990s although it is ambiguous whether that is because the group are, for whatever reason, more moderate now, or whether they are waiting to seize power entirely before reimposing the draconian policies of the past. For some people however, all these questions are irrelevant altogether. According to Mukhopadhyay for one, “the differences in regional governance are just at the margins, in the sense that the overall goal of the Taliban is still to establish an Emirate and to marginalise everyone else at the expense of that Emirate.”

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