Taliban takeover and questions of legitimacy

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By Salman Bashir

GAINS on the ground by the Taliban surpassed all international and regional efforts for a negotiated solution. The US and NATO forces have been withdrawn, except for the few thousand troops overseeing evacuations of citizens. The American presence already feels like a thing of the past. Over the horizon efforts by the US by bombarding Taliban positions and in support of Kabul forces for all these long years had no effect. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Kabul fell on Sunday.  

The question of withholding the legitimacy of a Taliban government remains in the forefront, and was in the recent past used as a lever against the Taliban.  Western countries having suffered a huge military setback in Afghanistan continue to take a partisan view by supporting a discredited order– which will have tremendous reputational costs for them. 

It is evident that the principal impediment to a negotiated solution was the Ghani government, which spared no effort to ignite a civil war by mobilizing the war lords and armed militias. Instead of focusing on arriving at a settlement through talks, the Ghani government lost ground militarily and politically. Within hours of the fall of Kabul, Ghani had fled the country, illustrating that there had been no agenda other than personal survival and political opportunism with no relevance to the interests of the ordinary Afghans. 

The fact is that the Ghani government had a chequered past in terms of its own democratic legitimacy.  The notion that it stood for a democratic order is academic at best. Legitimacy in the first place has to be conferred internally by the people. In the case of Afghanistan, the traditional method and operating norm is that of the Loya Jirga or Grand Assembly. Outsiders have no locus standi in determining legitimacy. The immediate neighbours of Afghanistan would likely recognize anyone who effectively controls the country and its seat of power, Kabul.  That seems to be the case always, irrespective of contrary views in the West. As far as Pakistan is concerned, the basic principle has been that it recognized any government in Kabul, even during the years of Soviet occupation. 

So of course, Pakistan recognized the Ghani government and bent over backwards to maintain goodwill and cooperation while it lasted. But one may ask what other options any of the immediate neighbours ever had.  The question of legitimacy becomes irrelevant in the immediate sense.

A U.S. Marine escorts evacuees to the Evacuate Control Center at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo taken on August 19, 2021 and released on August 20, 2021. (Photo courtesy by Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/Reuters.)

Taliban Chief Representative Mullah Baradar in his speech at a recent meeting in Doha said, “We do not want a monopoly of power, but an inclusive Afghan central Islamic system in which every stratum of the nation has the opportunity to serve on the basis of merit and be free from any corruption. All citizens will be equal before the law… We are fully committed to international principles, human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression and all rights of citizens in the light of Islamic principles and the highest interests of the country and the people…we are committed to the progress of negotiations and peace talks and in good faith.” 

Since taking control of Afghanistan, Taliban have given repeated assurances that the rights of women will be protected, and that they will be able to continue their work and education. Though this remains to be seen, it is probable that the Taliban, who have a strict honour code, will respect what they have agreed to or said.  

It is time that international support moves towards achievable goals and that partisan attitudes on legitimacy be dispensed, within the greater interests of durable peace in Afghanistan.  (*Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.
Twitter: @Salman_B_PK)