By Parag Dass
On 15 August, the Taliban completed its unilateral siege of Afghanistan and re-established its Islamic Emirate of yore – albeit with promises of a more moderate regime that seems unlikely to be followed upon. The main opponents to their advance, the Afghan government and military, have either fled the country or surrendered. What is the Taliban’s role in Afghan nation building? How do the involved countries square with the new chiefs in town?
True Nationalists – The Ghani Regime or the Taliban?
Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s life as a US-trained academic and former World Bank Economist who wrote a book titled ‘Fixing Failed States’ did not really sit well with Afghanistan. His irredentist claims of nationalism, particularly on the basis of Pashtun ethnic identity (as is evident from his distribution of national identity cards that trumped ethnic markers, his isolation of non-Pashtun political leaders, and his preference for Pashtun associates), were always questionable. This was made certain as he fled from his homeland when the chips fell, with accusations of embezzlement of aid money tucked in his suitcase. His nostalgia for the first President credited for Afghanistan’s ‘democratic’ awakening, Mohammed Daoud Khan, carries heaping biases of a pro-modernism agenda, affinity for a “strong Marxist-style central government”, and an authoritarian attitude most likely fuelled by a paternalistic, intellectual view on political affairs. Afghan people might have even bought this style of leadership in their desperate war-torn state, if it was not for rampant corruption and a revival of ethnic tensions that his regime exacerbated. Instead, there was a marginal electoral victory alongside a political deadlock with his rival and later his Chief Executive Officer (a position corresponding to Prime Minister) Abdullah Abdullah. This, of course, was amidst claims of electoral fraud.
The Taliban, however, saw through Ghani’s grandstanding. Their advocacy of the sharia called for an individual’s devotion to God. Their roots from the mujahideen afforded a self-perception as crusaders against the atheist Soviets. Their belonging to the Afghan rural hinterland allowed them to envelop the population in guerilla warfare and the ideology that drove it. Their irredentism and devotion to their spiritual cause seems more honest than the packaged nationalism Ghani presents. Their grassroots approach seems more authentically attached to the people as compared to the top-down, corrupt, war-profiteering regime that Ghani came to personify. The peacetime afforded, even through heavy repression of liberties, seems to have been the need of the hour.
The Monster Unleashed
The Taliban comprises a leadership that fought against the Soviets as part of the mujahideen in the ‘80s, trained and armed by the CIA. The cold war proxy war in Afghanistan was framed along religious lines. The mujahideen, and among them the seeds of the Taliban, viewed their fight as a crusade against the atheist invaders – the Soviets. The war of attrition that followed saw the Soviets bow out after eight long years. These years saw a rampant radicalisation of the mujahideen as identities turned more zero-sum. In this scenario, the zero-sum identities took a religious guise. The more atheist the opposing side was perceived to be, the more Islamic the mujahideen needed to become. Thus rigidity overtook rationality and survived beyond the war. The infighting that ensued within the mujahideen continued the conflict as it pertained to the Taliban – among the power-hungry war criminals that dotted the supposedly pious mujahideen, the Taliban were viewed as preferable and were welcomed by the people as they came to power in 1996. Before long, the Taliban were plunged into yet another conflict – the American ‘War on Terror’. Not only did this war oust their regime in 2001, but also drove them into the rural parts where the Afghan and American infantry did not have the upper hand. Instead, impersonal drone warfare came about in yet another war of attrition. One can only imagine the radicalisation that followed. The wheel turns, yet nothing is ever new.
The Taliban functions as an organisation with relative centralisation of power with a designated head held together by the presence of influential Mullahs and warlords. The political organ is headed by the group’s moderate and conservative elements simultaneously – some like warlord Mohammad Yaqoob and chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar favour moderate policies and negotiation over absolutist control. However, more radical leaders likely dominate them – Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, a religious cleric who issued Talibani fatwas even during previous leadership, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terrorist group with ties to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Al Qaeda. Given the diversity of intention within the Taliban and a centralised,to the extreme extent of affording nothing to be private, approach towards governance, the group lends itself to chaotic decision-making. Something ordered by the elites may not be carried out by more radical elements present on ground. However, given the steep hierarchy headed by Godmen, Talibani leaders can easily and effectively monitor ground realities should they really want to. This organisational reality is likely weaponised by the negotiating elites – something promised by the leadership may not necessarily represent the situation on ground, and the responsibility for contract violations may often be deemed to be the responsibility of elements lower down the rung.
The Taliban is arguably the most repressive regime ever encountered in the age of democratic domination, now politically and diplomatically more attuned to the way of the world. In its 1996-2001 stint, public lashings and executions for minor violations of the most rigid interpretations of the sharia were commonplace. Despite promises of equality and an end to violence in the deal it struck with Trump, it still conducts door-to-door searches for dissidents, threatening to torture and punish the families of those who do not turn themselves in. It also failed to follow through on the ceasefire regulation with the Afghan government and pushed forth a unilateral military conquest even before the US had completely withdrawn. Thus, the horror of women like Zarifa Ghafari, the first woman to be a mayor in Afghanistan, who live in fear of death for exercising their right to equality is sadly a highly likely prophecy.
The Outsiders Within
The regimes most affected by the fallout from Afghanistan are arguably Pakistan and the US, to say nothing of NATO, Iran, Russia, Central Asia, India, or China.
Brothers to the South
For Pakistan, the Taliban has been a means to an end ever since the Cold War balancing act of Zia-ul-Haq. General Zia-ul-Haq saw the anti-communist resistance of the ‘70s and ‘80s as an opportunity to simultaneously support a pro-Pakistani client state in Afghanistan and swindle the US into increasing military aid to Pakistan, lifting sanctions following its nuclear programme, and forgetting his regime’s abysmal human rights record. He also viewed a united Moscow and Kabul as a threat of a revived ‘Pashtunistan’, a territorial dispute Pakistan inherited from British India. Carrot and stick accounted for, Zia-ul-Haq gladly supported hosting the resistance against the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in Peshawar. The Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency, practically possessed power of attorney over American investment towards the mujahideen. It also made sure the majority of it went to the anti-American Hizb-i-Islami party under “Butcher of Kabul” Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a man who assisted Osama bin Laden and Ayan al-Zawahiri from escaping Tora Bora caves in 2001 and was rejected from military academy for being too Islamist. Hekmatyar, over time, has matured to more moderate motivations – but the same cannot be said for his old Talibani allies. As a consequence, a lot of the infighting amongst the mujahideen has been blamed upon Pakistan – the biggest war-profiteer in Afghanistan. “Father of the Taliban” Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the former ISI chief credited with crafting this doublecross, was scathingly prescient when he said:
“When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. Then there will be another sentence, the ISI, with the help of America, defeated America!”
Today, Pakistani foreign policy seems to have tied itself into a knot. A Taliban in power is unlikely to defer authority to the Pakistani state, as is observed from its unilateral demand to resume visa-free travel as refugees pile up at Pakistan’s borders. Given that the Americans, now having withdrawn militarily, are not going to reconcile with the Talibani regime either, Pakistan is likely going to be left with the task of reining in the Taliban amidst ceaseless international pressure. Pakistan is indeed the Dr. Frankenstein to the Talibani monster, since the latter begrudges the former in being insufficiently Islamic. The rise of the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan (TTP) is evidence to the matter, whose popularity and power leverage is likely to be emboldened following a return of the Talibani regime in Kabul. Pakistan’s hope for making Afghanistan a satellite state is set to horribly backfire, now that the Taliban sees economic prospects with China – the latter of which has Pakistan caught in a debt trap now likely to further worsen. Moreover, the absence of war in Afghanistan drives out American involvement – as does Pakistan’s pilfering of donations and a reliable military presence to combat the Taliban. With ceaseless domestic radicalisation, insurgency in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan, and Kashmir to the East, the higher ranks of the Pakistani military-political nexus would surely not look favourably towards another war front to the north. The situation right now suggests a Pakistani regime in dire straits. Is it now time to add Pakistan to the list of governments that Gul’s ISI of the history books managed to ‘defeat’?
As for the US, the lesson to take away remains that of yet another imperialist fiasco. As anthropologist Anila Daulatzai elucidates, images of Afghan women smiling without a veil (depicted to be from pre-Taliban times) isolate gendered oppression in Afghanistan to be strictly about free women on the streets. Such a depiction allows for a gender essentialism in viewing the war, justifying the 2001 invasion as an act of care. In reality, issues of continual mourning, malnutrition, starvation, and homelessness are more pressing concerns for women in Afghanistan today. These issues have been made worse since the ‘War on Terror’, yet the preferred white feminist narrative dominates American circles. Not only is this narrative divorced from Afghan women’s cultural reality, but is also severely culturally and historically restrictive. Any and all gendered violence is blamed upon the image of the rural, radically conservative Talib, even though women have suffered at the hands of a variety of actors over nearly half a century of ceaseless war.
As a result, bureaucratic mechanisms are set in place which force a repackaging of Afghan cultural memory. This is vividly observed in the accounts of Afghan women reliant on American food aid. Widows are forced to recount the trauma of their widowhood every month in order to establish their eligibility for aid. They have to account for the deaths of their family members specifically at the hands of the Taliban to qualify for sufficient aid – even if the cause of their widowhood is the Soviet war, curable disease, or heroin abuse. Widows are even made to compete amongst themselves and do menial work to claim scarce humanitarian ‘care’. Many women succumb to fictionalised narratives of trauma to qualify for such aid.
This structural violence shows how the American presence in Afghanistan relies specifically on the adversarial dynamic that exists between them and the Taliban – every Afghan is perceived as a potential Talibani militant, every Muslim woman as a damsel in distress at the hands of the Taliban, and every white soldier as the harbinger of democracy, equality, and peace. Academic of political violence Sahar Ghumkhor is searing in her criticism:
“Recent reports of war crimes by the Australian and British armies which showed Afghanistan had become a killing field, as white men so desired, gesture to the continued power of white innocence, white redemption and its global reach. Western violence, to borrow from cultural anthropologist Talal Asad, is presented as unintentional and rational, despite its murderous trail, and its overarching intent is always just. War criminals remain heroes.”
From General Pinochet to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, the US has operated its foreign policy with rampant militarisation or “CIA-backed destabilisation”. As a consequence of this prioritisation, it has fallen short on honest economic and humanitarian engagement in war-torn countries. With Afghanistan, the same trend has followed. As Jeffrey Sachs points out, of the $946 billion spent in Afghanistan, 86% went towards US military establishments. Another 9% were given to Afghan security forces and 3% were spent on combating drug trafficking. Less than 2%, a scanty $21 billion, were spent on welfare programmes.
The United States needs to stop playing knight in shining armour with the countries it supposedly aims to redeem, and step up its developmental advantages in the aid of poverty-stricken states. In the least, it needs to separate its governmental motivations from the worst of its imperialist tendencies or those of its military-industrial complex. Otherwise, it may as well step back gracefully in acceptance of the fact that China does it better.