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The situation in Afghanistan is so fluid that hazarding a guess about the emerging political dispensation is likely to be at my own peril because one does not know whether the situation will take yet another turn by the time, we finish this article gets published. However, I will try to discern a method in the madness.
Before I come to subject proper, two issues which need to be highlighted, as they will have a profound bearing on our understanding of the complex Afghan political scenario, are as follows:-
- Afghanistan has been the graveyard of every invader except Maharaja Ranjit Singh who occupied, at least a part of it. Latest being Americans and International Security Forces (ISAF)/ NATO Forces, who had to beat a hasty retreat against a force, which was actually no match to military might of the US Army.
- Transfer of power generally has been peaceful wherein bribery has been a major contributory factor. Even in the current situation, Taliban has taken over a number of cities/ surrendered as a negotiated deal.
Who is an Afghan? – Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and mostly tribal society. The Afghan constitution mentions 14 Ethnolinguistic groups. In fact, due to diversity of ethnicity during the period 1160 CE to 1747 CE, it was not called Afghanistan and the name became a state designation only during the colonial intervention of the nineteenth century.
Table-1:Ethnic groups in Afghanistan
|Pashtun||42%||Hindukush Mountains in Afghanistan and Indus River in Pakistan|
|Tajik||27%||Cities of Herat, Kabul & Mazar-e-Sharif and rural areas of Badakhshan|
|Hazara (majority Shia)||9%||Hazarajat Region of Central Afghanistan|
|Uzbek||9%||Northern regions of the country|
|Aymaq||4%||Western Areas of Badghis, Ghor and Herat Provinces|
|Baloch||2%||Balochistan Region of Afghanistan|
|Others (Pashai, Nuristani, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri, Gujjar etc||4%||Isolated regions of North Eastern Afghanistan|
Besides above mentioned ethnic diversity, there is also a sectarian divide. Although, majority of Afghans are Sunni muslims but a sizable minority of Shia exists in the Northern portion of the country where Ismailis are located and also in the Central portion which is the land of Hazaras.
The third divide is the rural Vs Urban divide, wherein Rurals folks are 71%, the urban population is 24% and the balance is nomadic.
All three divides have a major bearing on the governance structure. Here it needs to be noted that the Sunni Muslims, Rural folks and Pashtuns are generally aligned with the Taliban.
Who is Taliban?-
- Having originated from the Madrasas (Talib means student in Pashto and they originated from the Pashtun dominated Eastern and Southern Afghanistan in 1994). It is a predominantly Pashtun Islamic fundamentalist group, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. It was a period, which is dreaded even today because it pushed the country to the almost medieval age, where the rights of women and minorities were badly trampled.
- Post their getting removed from power they coalesced into an insurgency force. Having chastised by their previous experience they have also been attempting to show that they have become moderate and care for people. An interesting stratagem used by Taliban to outwit their rivals for power in Afghanistan is its propaganda to tell the govt functionaries, incl foot soldiers and law enforcers that their leaders were having dual nationality and have no stake in Afghanistan.It appears to have worked!
- For years, after its fall from power, the Taliban enjoyed support from public. The U.S.-based Non-Profit organization Asia Foundation found in 2009 that half of Afghans—mostly Pashtuns and rural Afghans—had sympathy for armed opposition groups, primarily the Taliban. Afghan support for the Taliban and allied groups stemmed in part from grievances against public institutions. However, in 2019, a response to the same survey found that only 13.4 percent of Afghans had sympathy for the Taliban. Also an overwhelming majority supported the current Afghan Constitution.
Let us now consider the situation post US and NATO FORCES (ISAF) intervention in Sep 2001! By Dec 2001 the Taliban Regime had collapsed and an interim regime under Hamid Karzai was formed. Post Bonn Agreement of Dec 2001, Afghan Constitution Commission was adopted. The constitution was finally approved by the consensus in January 2004 after the 2003 Loya Jirga. The constitution provides for an Elected President and a National Assembly, which is a Bicameral system having a Woleshi Jirga (Lower House) and a Meshrano Jirga (Upper House). The first president was Hamid Karzai who was in office from Dec 2001 to Sep 2014. He is a Pashtun from Durrani Tribe. He was replaced by Ashraf Ghani who remained the President till he fled from the country on 15 Aug 2021. His acceptability was quite suspect from the beginning itself, as his victory was challenged by Dr Abdullah Abdullah. However, it was Americans who supported his election and Dr Abdullah Abdullah was accommodated as the CEO of the country. It needs to be noted that it was a post not as per the Afghan constitution. This kind of arrangement definitely impacted the working of the government, which became a captive political pulling and pushing between the office of the President and the office of the CEO.Dr Abdullah remained in that appointment till Mar 2020. Thereafter he led the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), which led the intra-Afghan Peace Talks with the Taliban. It may also be noted that the decision making in Afghanistan had always been with the Pashtuns. Besides Karzai, Ashraf Ghani is a Ahmadzai Pashtun and even Dr Abdullah is half Pashtun, as his Father is a Pashtun and mother is a Tajik (however, his acceptability was that much less because of his mixed parentage).
With the fleeing of Ashraf Ghani and total melting away of the Afghan National Army a power vacuum has come and that is resulting in a dangerous state where gun-totting Taliban are running the state, as per the whims and fancies of each of those Talibs as per their understanding of the Islamic laws.
As of 16 August 2021, an unofficial Coordination Council, comprising of Hamid Karzai, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was in the process of coordinating the transfer of the state institutions of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Simultaneously, a Taliban delegation was in talks in Qatar with the representatives of the titular President Ashraf Ghani to secure his formal resignation as head of the State.
Notwithstanding, the conciliatory statements by the various Taliban Spokesmen about the amnesty to Govt Officials and Women getting permitted to work albeit under Sharia law, in rural areas many cases are coming up which are reminiscent of the conduct of Taliban of Yore and finally the declaration of Emirate of Afghanistan is leaving common people quite confused about the state, which may come up in future.
Transition of power is also unlikely to be as smooth as it was initially thought. First shot in this connection has already been fired by the Vice President Amrullah Saleh, a Tajik by ethnicity who is from Panjshir. He has gone back to Panjshir Valley and has declared that as per the Afghan constitution, he was the caretaker President due to Ashraf Ghani having fled from the country. He has announced the formation of an Anti-Taliban Front, along with Ahmed Massoud son of legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud and Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, yet another Tajik. This development clearly brings out the societal fault lines in the Afghan Society which will have a bearing on the future governance structure of the country. In this regard Ahmed Massoud’s recent interview to the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center is quite significant, wherein he said that he was open to negotiations with the militants.But he and other Afghans were not willing to “give in to the will of terrorism which would pose a grave threat not just to Afghanistan but to the region and the wider world. The current protests in various parts of the country by common Afghan citizens also clearly flag that transfer of power will not be that smooth.
One thing is quite clear that with the Taliban in power, it will be a governance structure, in which there will be no place for democracy. Towards this end, the name of the state has already been changed and though not officially promulgated but now it is being referred, as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan instead of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. That raises a question as to how the Afghan Constitution of 2004, which is the fountainhead of the government formation will fit into the Emirate Model?In this regard a decision taken by the Stake Holders’ conference at Qatar on 13th Aug is significant. It was announced that all participants had reaffirmed that they will not recognize any govt in Afghanistan that is imposed through mil force. Interestingly, in this decision, even China was included. Thus, definitely, there would be an impasse and it will need tremendous amount of sagacity to find a way out.
Be as it may, but the next government will be Taliban dominated, though influences of various powers will decide the shape of the govt. For quite some time Taliban has been making efforts to change its image to gain certain political legitimacy. In this connection, they opened an office at Doha in June 2013 and their leadership was based in Qatar. Certain legitimacy did come to them when the US directly talked to them and went for a peace accord in Feb 2020. It was strange as well as sad to note that the US acquiesced to their demand to keep the Afghan National Government out of the peace talks, as the Taliban refused to join talks with the Afghan Government’s participation in the talks. Probably, Zhalmay Khalizad (he is a US citizen of Afghan origin) the Chief US negotiator, who is believed to be close to Pakistan influenced the US decision. Recently on 28 July, China hosted the Taliban delegation, and it was yet another stamp of legitimacy. It is expected that China is likely to engage the Taliban, perhaps in return for economic concessions, access to Afghanistan’s considerable mineral wealth, newer options for the CPEC, and of course, an assurance to cut off support to ETIM in XinJiang. Even Russia is singing paeons in their praise, mainly because of US sanctions against her and also her sensitivity of a hostile regime trying to make inroads in Central Asia which she considers as her soft underbelly. Recently Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan, spilled the beans in an interview to Ekho Moskvy that Russia had been establishing contacts with the Taliban movement for the last seven years. Turkey may also follow suit because of her recent efforts to assume the leadership of the Islamic World. Iran, also surprisingly, is supporting Taliban. Probably because of their antipathy towards US but may review her decision in due course of time, mainly because of the treatment of Shias in the Sunni dominated Taliban dispensation. Iran has traditionally been a supporter of the Northern Alliance and as Northern Alliance under Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massuod takes definite shape the stance of Iran may change. Pakistan is always ready to support Taliban as they feel that such a regime change will help her to get that proverbial strategic depth and a regime that would not be favourable to India. She also looks for terrorism from Afghanistan to spill over in Kashmir. However, it has been an experience that a stable Afghanistan would always have tense relations with Pakistan because of the disputed Durand line. Thus, their desire to have a strategic depth in Afghanistan may prove to be illusive and on the contrary Taliban may use Pakistan as their strategic depth.
Although not democratic, but Taliban also have a governance structure. The Taliban leadership council is called the Rahbari Shura and is better known as the Quetta Shura, named after the city in Pakistan where Mullah Omar and top aides were believed to have taken refuge after the defeat of the Taliban by U.S. Forces and ISAF. The council makes decisions for all “political and military affairs of the Emirate,” according to the UN monitor. It is currently led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. He is supported by deputies, namely: Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob (son of Mulla Omar); Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar; and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also acting head of the Haqqani Network, a militant group in Afghanistan’s southeast and Pakistan’s northwest with close ties to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant Khorasan Province and Pakistan’s ISI. In addition to these, few more influential leaders are there and they are; Abdul Hakim Haqqani, the top negotiator; Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the key diplomat and Zabihullah Mujahed, main Spokesman. The leadership council oversees various commissions, similar to the ministries in place prior to the Taliban’s overthrow, and administrative organs through which the Taliban operates a shadow government. The commissions focus on areas including economics, education, health, and outreach. The military commission appoints shadow governors and battlefield commanders for each of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. The political commission, headed by Baradar, led negotiations with the United States and is based in Doha, Qatar. The disturbing part is that it is believed that Akhundzada is close to Ayman al-Zawahiri and therefore Taliban regime is likely to revive Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is now being speculated that in final analysis, Akhundzada will be the spiritual leader, Mulla Baradar will be the President, Mulla Yakoob will be heading the military and Sirajuddin Haqqani will handle the border issues with Pakistan.
It can be be concluded that the situation in Afghanistan is quite fluid and formation of a new Taliban led government may not happen as easily as it was thought (it has already been said that the govt formation may get delayed up to 31 Aug 2021), because there are a number of political forces working within the country and also within the Taliban leadership to impact the formation of the new govt. It needs to be appreciated that twenty years of freedom of expression, gender equality and assured rights for civil liberties are certain things which public will not allow easily to slip from their hands. In today’s world where digital media plays an important role in ensuring awareness and connectivity, it will be a very difficult task for Taliban to go back to their original brutal and fundamentalist ways. The protests, world over by the overseas Afghanis have already started generating awareness about the resistance which the Taliban are facing within Afghanistan. Currently the Taliban are trying to show that they have changed, however, many of their actions on ground where their old brutal and discriminatory ways are confirming that their basic character has not changed. Probably their official statements are only a smoke screen to get legitimacy from the comity of nations. If they want world to believe them, they will have to walk the talk and also, they will have to assure the masses that not only the changes have happened at the leadership level but also the message has gone down to the rank and file. Signs of resistance from ethnic minorities, and people has already started. Efforts are being made to regroup the remnants of the Afghan National Army by Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud into an Anti- Taliban Force. It can easily be concluded that we haven’t heard the last on Afghan Saga. Peace in the troubled country is likely remain as elusive, as it has been for over four decades.
As far as India is concerned the statement of Suhel Shaheen,has been reassuring that India could continue the infrastructure work she had initiated. But recent ban on import/ export from India indicates the wide gap between what they say and what they do. There is indeed a groundswell for India in the people of Afghanistan and that India should continue to provide support to the people of Afghanistan, without hurrying up to recognize Taliban-led govt. India also needs to keep a strict vigil on the likely spillover of the insurgency into Kashmir. In the interim, India needs to engage with other powers of the world in her capacity of the President of the UNSC for the month of Aug to create an enabling environment so that Taliban are not allowed to hijack the Afghan constitution and they are forced to create an environment wherein the human rights of every section of the Afghan society are restored once again. A special effort India needs to make to wean away Russia and Iran from the Taliban. In this endeavour of her, US will have to come in support, because as mentioned earlier the response of Russia and Iran is substantially due to their respective strained relations with the US. Finally, India will have to keep an eye on the evolving situation and wait for the situation to stabilize.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.