Taliban’s revival in Afghanistan: Lessons for Pakistan

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By Asif Durrani

Emergence of Taliban as a phenomenon in mid-nineties has changed the basic character of the Afghan society from a tribal-feudal to religio-sectarian in a neighbourhood already witnessing changes due to the Iranian revolution. Interestingly, emergence of Taliban is not a result of class struggle or fits into the chemistry of religious war within the society. It is not a Catholic vs Protestant struggle of renaissance period or a product of struggle within the Durrani dynasty of Sado-zai and Mohammad-zai clans vying for power.

Taliban are a byproduct of ongoing power struggle in the Afghan society which after withdrawal of the Soviets fell into a civil war trap with warlords switching sides as and when an opportunity presented itself to suit the convenience of a warlord. Even before the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, various Mujahideen groups were struggling against each other rushing to bring territories under their control. And ruthlessness was the hallmark of these Mujahideen groups which should better be renamed as warlords. It now transpires that their struggle was not for the ideology or people; it was a pure power struggle in which ethnicities played a major role. It was reminiscent of 18th century power struggle in Afghanistan where you were either victor or vanquished.

There is hardly any difference between the Taliban and “others” in Afghanistan; both are ultraconservatives; ruthless in bludgeoning their opponents to submission; depend largely on drug money, and violate human rights, especially women’s rights, with impunity. This has not happened after 9/11 but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan created a culture of impunity amongst the Mujahideen groups which were struggling to create a niche for their groups by capturing territory. This rat race damaged the centuries old tribal structure which hinged on traditions and Pashtunwali, a tribal code of conduct based on hospitality, revenge and honour (ghairat). Now the competing Afghan groups follow the dictum of “power by hook or crook”. Hence the chaos even after American-led NATO intervention.

The experiment of introducing democracy in Afghanistan after 9/11 produced a hotchpotch system which is neither democratic nor tribal. At best, the existing system has created oligarchies on the basis of ethnicities causing permanent tension in the society where the powerful could go scot-free; where institutions are run on the basis of personal loyalties and ethnicities rather than merit. The American watch dog Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has in many of its reports pointed to the alarming trend of ethnic biases in the Afghan security forces, including police. Therefore, security forces as a vital instrument of the state to guarantee security for the people and a tool in the hand of a government to establish its writ failed to come up to the expectations of the people. Good governance was the first casualty of American-led democratic experiment in Afghanistan.

Secondly, both Americans or Afghans failed to promote a political culture in the country to run the affairs of the state. On paper, there may be over 70 political parties in the country but the candidates cannot contest elections on their party tickets. Afghan parliament (Woolasi Jirga) elections are held on non-party basis which adds to the chaos when important issues are brought for consideration. Each member in the parliament bargains for himself rather than representing a political party. Consequently, the political process in the country which would have gradually given stability to the country failed to take off.

More importantly, the ethnic biases have discouraged the emergence of national political parties. This has encouraged narrow nationalistic tendencies all across thus making the country ungovernable. Tribal loyalties to the government depend on what largesse government can offer. Tribes take no time in switching sides when their interests coincide or clash with the sitting government. This situation was visible from the beginning but the Americans could not appreciate it or could not persuade their Afghan partners to address.

The ethnic divide in Afghanistan widened as soon as Taliban government fell after the American attack on Afghanistan. Tajik dominated erstwhile Panjshiri group dominated the Karzai government from the beginning. At one point, there were three thousand generals in the armed forces, ministries of Defence and Interior, overwhelmingly Tajiks. Afghans intelligence service, NDS, was manned by Tajiks and ex-communists. The largest ethnic group, Pashtuns, was deliberately ignored due representation in all departments of the government, especially national security institutions. Neglect of Pashtuns was capitalized upon by the Taliban who reconsolidated their ranks and started their activities by 2004 from the rural areas of the country. By 2006, NATO supplies by trucks from Kabul to Kandahar were paying toll tax to the Taliban. Common Afghans preferred Taliban over government, which dispensed with speedy justice and guaranteed the security of a common Afghan.

In the absence of a stable monarchy and failure of Afghan leaders since 9/11 to provide stability in the country, the only alternate left to address the issue of stability are the Taliban, a fact recognized by the American officials and analysts.

Hopefully, the government of Pakistan would not allow repeat of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s dreaded rejuvenation. The lesson for Pakistan is that while Taliban may be suitable for Afghanistan because of the structure of Afghan society it certainly does not go well with the Pakistani culture and society. Having suffered for the past four decades because of brotherly Afghanistan it is time now to bring normalcy to our own society.

(The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to UAE and former deputy high commission to Britain.)