THE images of thousands of people desperate to leave the country flooding the Kabul airport and some of them clinging to the wings of a moving US air force plane are reminiscent of the US withdrawal from Saigon about half a century ago. The Taliban’s swift takeover of the Afghan capital caught everyone by surprise. Yet more shocking was the meltdown of the Afghan government forces.
It took just seven days for the insurgents to sweep all major cities, many of which fell without a fight. Yet no one expected the Taliban forces taking over the capital without any resistance. The Kabul government simply collapsed with the president and his key ministers fleeing the country.
Yet another superpower has been humiliated in Afghanistan. The war was lost a long time ago but lies and deception covered the fiasco. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed in the war that cost close to a stunning trillion dollars.
But it was a shameful flight at the end. The US embassy in Kabul has been closed down and the diplomatic staff shifted to the airport for evacuation. The Taliban flag is now hoisted above the presidential palace. It all happened within days. The 300,000-strong Afghan army raised and trained by the US and equipped with the most modern weaponry could not withstand the insurgents’ onslaught. There was no will to fight for an already lost cause.
With the fall of Kabul, history has come full circle. Two decades after it was ousted by the American forces, the conservative Islamic movement is back in power. It may be the end of the US war yet the Afghan crisis is far from over. The new dispensation has yet to take shape but the spectre of the return of repressive authoritarian rule is worrying both for the Afghans and the international community. Will Taliban-II be different from the past?
There is certainly some indication of moderation in the recent pronouncements from the Taliban leadership. But how real the change will be is not yet clear. Their contradictory declarations raise questions about their pledge to establish a pluralistic and inclusive political order. The restoration of the ‘Islamic emirate’ appears to negate the concept of pluralism.
Indeed, the political dynamic in Afghanistan has completely changed after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and the exit of the Afghan government. The Taliban now have political control over the state rendering the Doha intra-Afghan talks redundant. Yet they need to initiate a new reconciliation process in order to establish an inclusive system of government.
It may be easy for the insurgents to take political control of the state but it will be extremely difficult to run a government in a divided country torn by decades of war and foreign occupation. Moreover, the social and political landscape in Afghanistan has hugely changed over the years since the previous Taliban rule. The fast-changing regional geopolitics too require a change in outlook. The restoration of the old-style harsh and obscurantist authoritarian rule cannot bring stability to the strife-torn country. This will also not be acceptable to the international community.
Indeed, the present Taliban leadership with its greater international exposure appears more pragmatic. Over the years, the group has earned international legitimacy. Yet the new dispensation would be required to alleviate the concerns over human rights issues, particularly equal rights for women to work and their access to education, in order to get recognition by the outside world.
In a statement, the UN Security Council has called for the “establishment, through inclusive negotiations, of a new government that is united, inclusive and representative — including with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women”. The world body has also underlined the adherence to “Afghanistan’s international obligations”.
There has certainly been some positive move from the Taliban leadership to calm down the fear of reprisal. A general amnesty has been announced and government employees including women have been asked to return to work. They have also been assured that there would be no restriction on female education. These declarations are quite reassuring. But there are still apprehensions about the implementation of these solemn pledges.
Notwithstanding this moderation in the stance of the top leadership based in Doha there is still the question of whether the outlook of the Taliban commanders on the ground has also changed. Many of them may be less amenable to change and would be more inclined to continue the hard-line approach particularly on social and women rights issues.
For example in Herat, a local mullah associated with the Taliban reportedly stopped girls from entering the university campus. Such incidents have also been reported in some other areas. Similarly, there have been many cases of revenge attacks on people associated with the former administration despite the general amnesty announced by the Taliban leadership.
A Taliban commander being interviewed by a female anchor on a local Afghan TV channel may have been good optics, but it remains to be seen how much freedom of expression will be allowed under a new Islamic dispensation. It nevertheless indicates a refreshing change from the previous Taliban administration’s ban on TV and even photography.
Surely, the Taliban will be dealing with a new generation of Afghan men and women who are better educated and aware of what’s happening around the world. It will be hard for the conservative movement to reverse the course of social change and take Afghanistan two decades back. The Taliban must also understand that they cannot rule Afghanistan isolated in the world. One of the poorest countries on earth, Afghanistan needs international support to survive.
In order to earn international legitimacy, the Taliban need to fulfil the obligations underlined by the UN Security Council. It remains to be seen whether the group is able to establish a truly inclusive government with representation from all sections of Afghan society. Taliban-II need to break from the past in order to be accepted by the world.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2021