I am no futurologist. But I see more instability and turmoil in Afghanistan — sadly its people have had little peace or security in the last forty-five years. I can think of two reasons. First is the unrepentant and intransigent behaviour of the Taliban. Second is the effect of changes in the social landscape of the country since 2001. We cannot also ignore the significance of a fractious social structure: tribal and ethnic diversity; clan and kinship connections; patriarchal and patrilineal families (men dominate women); and the value of honour and blood-feuds. Needless to add, the grip of these elements is no longer as strong as it was twenty years ago, thanks to changes in literacy, education, economic opportunities to both men and women, access to new technologies, increased freedom of speech and association, and exposure to the changing world through TV and the social media.
I am not amazed at the “second coming” of the Taliban: the regimes led by Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani failed to win the hearts and souls of a large part of the Afghan population. Their alliances with the regional strongmen, reliance on tribal identities, massive corruption in various forms, and the presence of foreigners as patrons and protectors of the regimes did not go well with people in general. All these factors allowed the Taliban to revive their strength with local support outside the big cities, their access to arms and money, and their determination to win. The speed with which the Taliban took over the country has exposed the fragile hold of the American-supported regimes in Afghanistan. The civil and military establishment of Pakistan may have also played a role on the side of the Taliban, considering their relationship in the past and the seemingly rising influence of India in the affairs of Afghanistan in the last twenty years.
Contrary to its early pronouncements, the Taliban government has taken some disquieting steps already. The reports from Kabul about the restrictions placed on women to work and on girls to go back to school are alarming. (The government has replaced the plaque for the “Ministry of Women’s Affairs” by the “Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice”.) The Taliban keep emphasising the role of the Sharia, as they interpret it, in the Islamic Emirate. Their interpretation of the Sharia does not recognise equal rights and liberties of citizens, particularly of women and minorities, and it includes some inhumane punishments for transgressions of the Islamic law. The Taliban’s medieval code of ethics for individual behaviour and relationships is based on a vision that has little relevance to the values most people find necessary for a happy (fulfilling) life and a stable society.
Are the Taliban ready to alter their view of a pious society and make compromises? There are signs of division in the ranks on this issue and about the distribution of power and positions. In the meantime, the Taliban are facing two interconnected challenges. Their government needs legitimacy and international recognition. More importantly. it desperately needs financial resources to revert the collapsing economy. The consequences of economic collapse are clear to see. (China and Pakistan cannot provide the necessary resources or help to alleviate the pain.) America and the European Union have the leverage: they control the funds and goods. If the Taliban remain intransigent, and the outsiders do not recognise them and deny them the resources, how can the Taliban address the problems of food shortages, hunger, high inflation, internal dislocation of people, and the flight of others from the country? Arms and opium won’t do the work! Wouldn’t there be unpleasant consequences for the Taliban? I think there will be.
For one thing, much has changed in Afghanistan in the last twenty years. People’s aspirations have changed with freedoms and education, especially of women, mobility, and economic opportunities. The Afghan youth specially expect more and not less. If the Taliban insist on imposing a Calvinist theocracy, or a puritanical regime, and the economic conditions deteriorate, there is every likelihood of resistance and violence. The marginalised regional (tribal) strongmen, especially in the northern and western parts of the country, could galvanise the opposition to fight the Taliban. The resistance could spread and gain strength with the help of outsiders. Also, the more ideologically extreme jihadists, IS(K) and others, are likely to take advantage and join another civil war. The neighbours, especially Pakistan, could also be drawn into the conflict.
This scenario is not a fantasy if the Taliban do not change their present course. I find a silver lining though. The economic and political pressures on the Taliban government may force it to make compromises this time since its survival depends on it. Haven’t they learnt from their mistakes the last time? Of the outsiders, Pakistan has perhaps the most stake in a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. (The Afghan governments in the last twenty years were far from friendly to Pakistan.) Its rulers will have to persuade the Taliban that the course they insist on treading is in no one’s interest. How much leverage does Pakistan have is another question? The evidence so far is not promising. My guess is that the Americans and the European Union have a better card in their hands, given the economic catastrophe facing the Taliban and their need for international recognition. The outsiders (America and the European Union) know that there are pockets of opposition to the Taliban inside Afghanistan and the deteriorating conditions of everyday life can turn into a bloody civil war that the Taliban will have to fight. That will put the people of Afghanistan into a hellish state once again.
Since I am by nature an optimist, I think the Taliban government will be forced to relax its rigid posture on the Sharia and adopt a pragmatic (tolerant) framework for governance to allow the Afghan men and women enough space to make personal choices. That is the only plausible way to achieve stability and prosperity. My optimism is based on the instinct of the Taliban to survive in the face of almost unbearable economic and political pressures both inside and outside the country. But who says that human beings are always rational? The time of testing for the Taliban is here again. They have a clear choice: don’t repent or change and fight to the end or make compromises and survive. The first course leads to hell and the second can bring stability and prosperity in Afghanistan.