Updated: August 6, 2021 9:00:22 pm
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.
Every year, Afghanistan observes ‘Massoud Day,’ a national holiday in honour of Ahmad Shah Massoud, known to his supporters as the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud was a legendary guerrilla commander who defended his home province of Panjshir from the Soviets so successfully that the Wall Street Journal described him as “The Afghan Who Won the Cold War.” When the Taliban started their ascendence into Afghan politics in 1994, Massoud publicly denounced the group, citing his opposition to their interpretation of Islam and regressive value system. He later created and led the famed Northern Alliance, a diverse coalition against the Taliban that at one-point controlled territories housing over 30 per cent of Afghanistan’s population. The man who is believed to have said “we will never be a pawn in someone else’s game,” stood his ground when all other resistance leaders fled the country.
On September 9, 2001, two days before Al Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers, Massoud was assassinated. Later, reports emerged that he had been killed on the orders of Osama Bin Laden who wanted to curry favour with the Taliban thereby ensuring safe haven in Afghanistan after 9/11. Despite the remoteness of its location, Massoud’s funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of people. He is remembered not just for his military tactics but also for his ability to bring together ethnic groups that centuries of rulers had failed to unite. The people of Panjshir Valley continue to fight the Taliban even today.
For centuries, foreign and domestic leaders have tried to conquer Afghanistan but failed to suppress the strong will of its people. If history is any precedent, the Taliban, while likely to take power, are also likely to struggle to retain it. Given their lack of governance experience and any discernible policy there are three main challengers to Taliban rule, namely, the Afghan government and security forces, foreign nations, and other competing groups. The ability of those challengers to pose a forceful and unified opposition will subsequently determine how the Taliban preserves control and presents themselves to the public, both in terms of leadership and policy.
The Afghan Government
Democracy in Afghanistan is contingent on the Afghan government’s ability to resist the onslaught of the Taliban. Based on their performance thus far, proponents of a democratic system have reasons to be pessimistic.
According to Vanda Felab-Brown, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, “the government and security forces are not just losing to the Taliban, they are giving up to them altogether.” When the Americans began the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban controlled under 20 per cent of the country. Today, a little over two months later, they control over 54 per cent. Unsurprisingly, the collapse of organised resistance to the group has also hampered the progress of inter-Afghan peace talks. With little leverage, the Afghan government has struggled to elicit any significant concessions from them.
In January 2019, the Taliban chief negotiator, Abbas Stanekzai, said any peace agreement would require the dismantling of Afghan security forces. By July, the group instead announced that thousands of Taliban fighters would join the Afghan security forces after the withdrawal of US forces. To some, that’s an indication of moderation, to others, an indication of how little the group has to fear from existing state institutions. Falling in line with the latter, Felab-Brown believes that inter-Afghan peace talks will only meaningfully begin once the government manages to present a sustained military opposition to the Taliban.
Afghan rulers for their part seem to accept the inevitability of their position. While never openly admitting defeat, statements from key officials indicate a willingness to share power with the Taliban. After meeting with Joe Biden, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s current President, declared that he has called on the Taliban “to engage in a political process because a political settlement is the ultimate mechanism of ending the war.” Quoting Abraham Lincoln, he went on to assert that “the best way of treating an enemy is to turn him into a friend.”
Unlike Lincoln, however, Ghani has little military leverage and even less support from elements within his country. Hamid Karzai, a former President who is still politically very influential, took Ghani’s statements even further. In a thinly veiled display of contempt for his successor, Karzai stated in an interview with The Hindu that while he hopes for a continuation of democracy in Afghanistan, he also accepts that there is no way forward without the Taliban.
However, while the government may not be able to resist the group’s rise to power, it does have some mechanisms to keep them in check. The Taliban is still reliant on the government to provide basic services and Afghans who lament the corruption of government officials still depend on them for education and healthcare. According to Felab-Brown, “if there is a road to be built, the Taliban will order people to build the road. But if there is a hospital that needs to be built, equipped, and staffed, the Taliban are reliant on the government and international actors stepping in.” She asserts that while the Taliban are adept at providing swift justice and maintaining stability, they have “no technical capacity to organise social and public services themselves.” Additionally, the Taliban are still heavily dependent on foreign aid and need to stay in the good graces of the internationally backed government to ensure that those lines of funding remain open.
Given this complicated situation, observers retain some hope that the Afghan government can force the Taliban to accept a power-sharing agreement. This would include some sort of preservation of the existing political order, including provisions for elections and basic human rights. Ideally, it would result in the Taliban agreeing to cede power at the national level, while continuing to provide de facto governance to the provinces under their control. Essentially, in Felab-Brown’s opinion, the government (and most international observers) hope for an outcome resembling the deal in Colombia with FARC in 2016. However, she concludes that such an agreement is unlikely as “the Taliban have made it clear that they don’t want to share power with Ghani” and “any change in the balance of power would require a significant degradation of Taliban military facilities.”
Since the nineteenth century, Afghanistan has been bankrolled by a series of foreign powers from the British to the Russians to the Americans today. The US currently provides Afghan forces with $3 billion in aid annually. Moreover, international non-profits contribute strongly to the functioning of Afghan social services although exact monetary details remain unknown.
In comparison, according to the UN, the Taliban generate anywhere between $300 million and $1.6 billion annually through various criminal activities including extortion and drug trafficking. Hypothetically, if the Taliban upsets the international community either by committing massive human rights violations or by supporting terrorism, there is a good chance that the US will ramp up funding to opposing groups and non-profits will withdraw funding for basic services. Perhaps more significantly, the Taliban will also risk isolating themselves from international trade. A combination of these three factors could subsequently result in the collapse of the Afghan economy and the end of Taliban rule.
For those reasons, most experts agree that the Taliban need international legitimacy to function. Based on the group’s attempts to form relations with the governments of India, China, Russia, and the US, it would seem like they too concur with that assessment. The Taliban clearly do not want to exist as a pariah state like they did in the 1990s but it is still uncertain what they would have to do to invoke international condemnation. Realpolitik maintains that countries can and should act in their own national interests. New Delhi may not like the idea of a Taliban-led Afghanistan, but it would like the idea of an Afghanistan solely under Pakistan’s orbit even less. The US similarly might not agree with the Taliban’s stance on women’s education but is also unwilling to dedicate any more time and resources into a prolonged ground conflict.
In an interview with Indianexpress.com, Carter Malkasian, a former advisor to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “many countries have shown a willingness to deal with the Taliban as a necessity. We don’t know whether that will prove to be a good or a bad decision.” That calculus would change in the event of a terrorist attack being launched from Afghan soil. This red line over terrorism however could send the unintended message that barring interacting with terrorists, the Taliban can do what they’d like without having to worry about international interference.
This is akin to the situation with NATO in which the group provided memberships to certain countries but by excluding others, gave Russia the green light to invade them. On this point, Dipali Mukhopadhyay, Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, worries that the Taliban is capable of pushing the limits. “If they believe that they can get away with a lot as long as they do not allow, on paper, for a terrorist attack to be launched from Afghanistan, they will go for the most maximalist political position they can achieve.”
Ultimately, according to Malkasian, there are three ways in which the international community could interact with the Taliban. If the group supports extremism or interacts with terrorists, they would immediately be shunned and/or penalised, and no country would recognise them. If they continue as they are, countries will agree to do business with them but fail to formally recognise them. In the third scenario, which is contingent on significant internal reform of the Taliban, countries will recognise the group and continue to funnel resources into Afghanistan.
With this assessment in mind, the Taliban will have to decide how important international legitimacy is to them and how much they stand to lose or gain from it. On the surface, the third scenario is the optimal one, but the Taliban have historically functioned best as an insurgent group. For over two decades, they have derived their raison d’etre from being a bulwark against foreign oppression. In their mind, scenario one may cost them economically, but would provide fodder for masses by giving the Taliban an external enemy to blame for the country’s woes.
Currently, according to Felab-Brown, the biggest challenges to Taliban rule are the power brokers across Afghanistan. Although fractured and often unorganised, local militias have considerable influence over certain regions along with the military capacity to defend their territory. In an ideal situation, those militias would band together as they did, to an extent, under the Northern Alliance. But Massoud’s achievement in putting the alliance together is remarkable because of how difficult it has been to get different factions to work together in the past.
Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks along with the countless other ethnic groups that make up the country have their own ideologies, beliefs and loyalties. Moreover, over the last decade, the Taliban has shown a willingness to accommodate those groups, shifting from being an entirely Pashtun organisation to being only a predominantly Pashtun organisation. Even if this inclusion is just for show, according to Felab-Brown, the Taliban “have been remarkable in terms of how they have managed to avoid deflection”. The biggest deflection she notes has been the Islamic State and they are not influential enough to mount a meaningful resistance to the Taliban.
Collectively, the militias have made limited headway. They have attempted to come together with President Ghani to form a national unity council against the Taliban, but progress has been hampered by internal power competition. Individually, there has been considerably more headway with individual militias backed by Iran and Russia resisting the advance of the Taliban in the North. Some reports even indicate that a new Northern Alliance is being formed under the leadership of former Vice-President Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum.
However, the Taliban have been better than the government at securing the loyalty of militias according to a report from the Brookings Institute. It states that the Taliban have been intensely negotiating with powerbrokers both in Pashtun strongholds in the South but also with Tajiks and minority politicians in the North. This strategy has been effective as of now, but Malkasian thinks in the long term it could be undermined. “The Taliban have a commitment problem” he says, noting that “groups that are being included in the Taliban ranks have no reason to trust the Taliban or to believe that they will continue to be tolerant once they are in power.”
The efficacy of local militias in resisting the Taliban will depend on public support for their cause. The Taliban are accepted in some conservative parts of the country but are deeply unpopular in others. Particularly in the Northern states and provincial capitals, young and educated Afghans oppose Taliban rule.
As a result, Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the powerful Taliban ally, the Haqqani network, like many other Taliban spokesmen, has recognised the need to appeal to popular sentiment. In an op-ed for the New York Times, he states that the Taliban will have to transition from being a “military and jihadi” movement into one that is capable of civilian governance. For that, he writes, the group will have to “behave well with the general public”. Haqqani understands that if the Taliban fail to govern effectively or are plagued by internal discord, they could struggle to hold many of the territories that they’ve gained by force.
“As soon as the Taliban are forced to present a governing project and political vision” says Mukhopadhyay, “the sooner the weaknesses in the group are exposed.” Given that the Taliban already allow for differences in policies depending on the cultural values of certain regions, it is possible that implementing a unified political vision will cause fissures within the group. Returning to public opinion, if the Taliban are unpopular in certain regions, especially the big cities, and are subsequently weakened internally by that unpopularity, the public could conceivably resist their rule. According to Malkasian, “even if the Taliban capture cities like Kabul, resistance against them can still continue.” Overthrowing them, however, may not be as plausible, especially given the Taliban’s strict control over the media and access to the internet.
If the militias do successfully challenge the Taliban it could result in a prolonged civil war across the country. This would in turn destabilise the economy and potentially provide a pathway for groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda to exert control. As mentioned before, this is the most likely outcome but also the least desirable one. Afghan security forces challenging the Taliban could result in some sort of quasi democracy in which elected officials hold minor positions. Foreign intervention and public opinion could force the group to moderate some of their harshest tendencies and could enable a patchwork of different policies across the country. However, challenges from the militias in comparison can only lead to further conflict. Given the plethora of ideologies the different militias espouse, they are almost incapable of providing a uniform system of governance and according to Malkasian “are unlikely to be able to take over and play the role that the Taliban have played.” Perhaps even more concerningly, Mukhopadhyay warns that “while the militias do represent a line of defence against the Taliban, their own value systems threaten the democratic progress that has been made.”
Post-script: Each part of this series has opened with the story of a man who wanted to mould the future of Afghanistan in his own image. One was a terrorist, the other a king and the last a freedom-fighter. Like so many before them, despite their enduring legacies, all three men failed to achieve their objectives. So perhaps the question to be asked is not whether Afghanistan under the Taliban will be ruled as a flawed democracy or a brutal theocracy, but whether it is capable of being ruled at all.
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