After entering Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan on 15 August, Taliban are tightening their grip on power and for all practical purposes their Islamic Emirate is taking all the key decisions. The collapse of Afghan army and executive branch of the state has paved ground for their total control. However, they are facing some serious problems.
One, the massive exodus of Afghan middle classes and cream of the urban population, taking place simultaneously alongside large scale evacuation operation by the US and other countries to take out their servicemen and diplomats back to their countries has kept the Kabul international airport jam packed to unmanageable proportions even after ten days. And the international news coverage of this unprecedented exodus reflects the aversion of the Afghan intelligentsia, professionals and entrepreneurs to Taliban rule.
Two, in most cases the government servants aren’t responding to Taliban’s call for coming to their work stations and resuming their work. Banks remain closed through the second week leading to a desperate situation for the population. In limited number of cases where government servants do turn up, Taliban send the women employees back to their homes.
Three, Taliban are resorting to empowering of their own commissions for tackling significant problems instead of activating government departments for handling them. It’s a stark reminder of their totalitarian rule of 1990s where the distinction between the armed militia and the state system had been dangerously blurred.
Four, operating out of their sanctuaries in Pakistan, Taliban’s internal functioning during the last two decades had remained mostly a secret. But their political and military activities in Kabul during the last ten days have brought their organisational contours in public. Far from being a monolith Taliban have various factional affiliations. For example Quetta Shura (Council) is dominated by clerics and military commanders from Kandahar, Helmand, Wrozgan, Farah and other south western provinces of Afghanistan. Like Taliban’s founder Mulla Omar and their current leader Haibatullah Akhunzada, they represent Taliban’s roots.
Then there is Haqqani network notorious for its spectacular terrorist attacks in urban centres. It’s the closest ally of Pakistani security apparatus. In September 2011 the US top military officer Admiral Mike Mullen called it a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Agency). Haqqani network has taken over Kabul and one of its scions Khalil-ur-Rehman Haqqani (ironically with five million US bounty still on his head) is indulging in high profile political and military activities that also includes coordination with US military! This obviously creates anxiety in the hearts and minds of the leaders of Quetta Shura who regard themselves the vanguard of Taliban.
During the last two decades traditional Afghan nationalism has been strengthened by a modern variety of nationalism, a product of rapid urbanisation, the rise of a new national intelligentsia, development of electronic media (the social media in particular) and the road and communication infrastructure creating close connections in different parts of the country. The Afghan youth, a demographic majority constitutes the largest social contingent of the aforementioned nationalism.
The tricolour Afghan national flag is the most powerful symbol of the fledgling nationalism. Afghan youth, waving the national flag while rooting for their national cricket team during international tournaments has become the face of new Afghanistan. On the other hand Taliban, brainwashed in Pakistani religious seminaries and representing religious extremism, represent a counterweight to this trend. That’s what makes them popular with Pakistani security state and its camp followers who are afraid of the rise of nationalism in the fifty million plus Pashtuns living on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line.
During their recent military onslaught Taliban removed the national flag from different state buildings and replaced it with Taliban’s white flag. This created widespread resentment among the people, particularly among the youth of the country. On 19 August, the Independence Day of Afghanistan sizeable crowds in Kunar, Jalalabad, Khost, Kandahar and Kabul, including men and women came out waving the national flag and chanting slogans against Taliban and Pakistan.
The gun totting Taliban resorted to brutal violence against the non-violent protesters leading to casualties in some places. This was the first public protest against Taliban four days after they captured most of Afghanistan. That the volcano of unrest erupted in Pashtun belt and also that it included educated young ladies makes the protest more significant.
A delegation of Afghan leaders of Tajik ethnic origins is staying put in Islamabad for the second week where the Pakistani handlers of Taliban are working hard to create a “broad-based government” under Taliban’s umbrella to make the Islamic Emirate palatable for international community. Former President Hamid Karzai and former Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah are negotiating with Taliban in Kabul for exploring the chances of finding space for the non Taliban Afghans.
But from the looks of it these chances do not seem very bright. Sources in Islamabad say that the Pakistani deep state is persuading Taliban to bring their Islamic Emirate under the cover of the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan for making it acceptable to international community. The 1964 Constitution was promulgated by the former King Zahir Shah for transitioning his absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy. In the proposed new arrangement the Taliban top leader would fill the place of the monarch. It is difficult to predict smooth sailing on this front due to severe complications on the path leading to a functional state system.
Interestingly, six countries are in close liaison with Taliban without formally recognising their regime. They are Pakistan, the US, UK, Russia, China and Iran. These states have diverse and even conflicting interests. For the US and UK, Taliban is their ally in the new Cold War to galvanise the Muslim population of Xinjiang and Central Asia for blocking the Chinese Road and Belt Initiative ( BRI) and for fomenting trouble for Russia in the east.
But Russia and Iran think they can outmanoeuver the US and the UK in Central Asia the way they have achieved their strategic goals in the Middle East. This is very worrying for both the Israel and Saudi Arabia. Chinese are depending on Pakistan for convincing Taliban for joining the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and open their country for Chinese investment in building the infrastructure and extraction of its huge mineral wealth.
It is not easy to predict the outcome of this intense and complicated international competition over Afghanistan. But sadly enough not much attention is being paid to the plight of Afghans who have been continuously facing wars in the last four decades and are once again at the mercy of brutal armed groups without state protection.
* Afrasiab Khattak is a former Pakistani senator and analyst of regional affairs
Updated On: 25 Aug 2021