By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
With the Afghan war coming to an end, US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops by September 11 – ending an even 20 years of futile American involvement – has potentially cleared the way for the Taliban to establish their firm control over the country.
While the US has only delayed by five months what always looked inevitable, the Taliban can still establish their control either through the sheer use of force, as they did in the 1990s, or through a regionally mediated political settlement brokered by Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran.
Either way, the Taliban are all set to return as the dominant political and military force, controlling the country’s political, social, and ideological orientations. Make no mistake, the militant group continues its drive to establish an Islamic emirate and has little to no space for the principles of western democracy.
A recently published article on the Taliban’s official website said that “Afghans want an Islamic System in Afghanistan,” arguing that “the foreign-sponsored artificial state building and the western democracy which was imported with help of B52 bombers has failed miserably in Afghanistan because the nation is not standing behind such ideas and have rejected it every time.”
The only way out of this condition “is the implementation of an Islamic system as per the aspirations of the common Afghans. Afghans consider the Kabul administration as slaves and protectors of foreign interests, who can neither defend the religious nor the national values of the Afghan people.”
While the Taliban had never publicly committed themselves to establishing “western democracy” despite feeble protestations of moderation during talks in Doha in 2020, it is interesting to note how the group has started to appropriate its criticism of the Kabul administration to justify its own concepts of “Islamic emirates.”
In those Doha talks, the Taliban pledged to “prevent any group or individual from using Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies” and promised to sever ties with terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda. Whether indeed the mullahs live up to that pledge is one of the central questions troubling the Biden administration in Washington, DC.
The fact that information trashing democracy is being produced and shared across Afghanistan at a time when the US forces are ready to pack up speaks volumes about the Taliban’s plan to launch an ideologically motivated political battle vis-à-vis the regime in Kabul.
In fact, this battle has already been launched to a significant extent. An April 18 report published by the group on its website boasts that hundreds of Kabul employees have already joined: “Over the course of the month of March 2021, the efforts of Preaching, Guidance and Recruitment Commission of Islamic Emirate in all provinces of the country resulted in 1,062 personnel working in various posts of the Kabul based administration left the corrupt regime and joined up with the Islamic Emirate.”
While there is no denying that such information has an element of propaganda, there is equally no denying that this fits well into the information campaign and psychological warfare the group has been waging to expand its political base. The fact that it has intensified with no sugar-coating within days of the US decision to withdraw illustrates the group’s concerted drive to create a sort of legitimacy for its further expansion in coming months and years to create the emirate.
But this “Islamic emirate,” contrary to the group’s various pronouncements with regards to their commitment to women’s rights and education, is unlikely to include constitutional guarantees for the protection of fundamental human rights. Afghanistan’s women, according to repeated surveys, have no illusions about their return.
The rule in areas under their control gives us a glimpse into what would be an emirate” of limited rights only, rights that would exit in subordination to the larger good of the “Islamic society.”
According to a 2020 report of Human Rights Watch: “Although the Taliban officially state that they no longer oppose girls’ education, very few Taliban officials actually permit girls to attend school past puberty. Others do not permit girls’ schools at all. The inconsistencies have left residents [of Taliban-controlled areas] wary.”
In the Taliban-controlled areas, extensive moral policing is conducted to maintain a certain kind of Islamic moral and social order. According to HRW: “Social controls embodied in ‘morality’ officials—known as “vice and virtue” police when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s—continue to operate in districts under Taliban control. These officials patrol communities to monitor residents’ adherence to Taliban-prescribed social codes regarding dress and public deportment, beard length, men’s attendance at Friday prayers, and use of smartphones or other technological devices.
And, as the Taliban expand their reach, the restrictions they impose have become harsher: “As the Taliban have consolidated control over areas that were previously contested, their restrictions have tightened, not eased. This raises serious concerns that as government influence wanes, the Taliban will be less willing to heed community demands about the protection of rights, as well as in any peace negotiations.”
There is, as such, limited hope for Afghanistan’s return to a political system where the Taliban wouldn’t be the only dominant force.
What adds to this grim sense of the future is that Afghanistan’s major neighbors – Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran – do not appear to have any problem with a Taliban-dominated polity. For Russia, China and Pakistan, it is imperative to avoid another era of infighting and civil war between the Taliban and Kabul to prevent yet another spillover of conflict into Pakistan, the Caucasus, and even Xinjiang.
China’s response to the US’s withdrawal decision again shows how they remain deeply sensitive to how the Afghan endgame is unfolding and what consequences it could have for them at a time when they are looking to expand their Belt & Road Initiative project into Iran, a development that holds crucial implications for Afghanistan’s integration into the BRI as well.
For Pakistan, the collapse of western-backed government could send yet another wave of refugees, an inflow of millions of people that its badly shattered economy and internal political upheavals can ill-afford and whose ethnic minorities clash with Afghanistan’s, adding to the 1.5 million already there, with another 2.5 million in Iran. In all, 7 million of Afghanistan’s 38 million population – 18 percent – have already fled the country. Millions more are likely to, as Asia Sentinel reported on April 12.
For the Taliban, the US withdrawal is good news, not only because it is most likely to come without a political settlement with Kabul, but also because subsequent efforts to mediate a political settlement will be a lot more sensitive to their particular political and ideological interests than has been the case thus far.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel on South Asian affairs