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Night Falls on Afghanistan: Again

Night Falls on Afghanistan: Again

Friday, 20 August, 2021 - 04:30
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

With President Ashraf Ghani’s hasty flight from Kabul, we are now witnessing the fall of the second of five regimes that label themselves Islamic Republic in just over two years.

The first to fall was the Islamic Republic of the Sudan and what we have left are Islamic Republics in Pakistan, Iran and Mauritania. If we include the Islamic State created in parts of Iraq and Syria a few years ago and still lingering as a bad smell, we might conclude that, despite Taliban’s latest success, the label “Islamic” is not as invulnerable as some suggest.

The difference is that in Sudan the Islamic Republic was replaced by a timid, though no less sincere, attempt at democratization while the Islamic Republic in Afghanistan signals the return of the Islamic Emirate or a more radical version of Islamism.

The question now is whether or not the Taliban will succeed in building a state in Afghanistan or will Afghanistan become another ungoverned territory in West Asia’s arch of instability?

The speed with which Ghani’s US-backed Islamic Republic fell might suggest that the Taliban enjoy a popular support base large enough to sustain the building of a new state.

However, here, as often in similar cases, appearances lay be misleading. Taliban did not win on any battlefield because, outside a few locations such as Kandahar and Lashkargah, Afghan security forces either surrendered or ran away. Like the last time when they emerged as top dog in Afghanistan, Taliban used a mixture of bribes, Samsonites full of greenbacks, promises of safety and appeal to Pushtun tribal affinities to persuade army and police chiefs to sheath their swords.

Ghani’s regime largely depended on some 20,000 private sector security men, mostly from Europe and the United States. But they, too, saw no reason to get involved when Afghan security chiefs themselves were on the run.

More importantly, perhaps, most Afghans saw no reason to fight and possibly die for Ghani’s Islamic Republic. To be sure, Ghani’s set-up was far better that whatever Taliban might have to offer. But the regime’s corruption, incompetence, tribalism and cowardice prevented the shaping of a will to resist. Today, one shaky set-up is replaced by another shaky concoction.

Afghanistan has over 18,000 villages, where 76 percent of the population live, which have never really been governed by anyone in any acceptable sense of the term, always relatively safe in their isolation. As far as the urban population is concerned numerous opinion polls over the past two decades show Taliban support hovering below 14 percent. This is why even in Pushtun majority towns and cities, no one turned up to welcome the prodigal sons. Instead, people took precaution to hide themselves as if from a spell of bad weather or a hail storm. Women dusted off their old burqas or stayed home while men started to grow longer beards.

Since the fall of monarchy in the early 1970s Afghanistan has experienced several attempts at building an alternative state structure and failed in all of them. The experiment with Muhammad Daoud Khan, the egomaniac who ended the monarchy lasted under five years.

Then was the turn of old-style Communists who wasted another five years on socio-political engineering. They were replaced by KGB men who spent their five-year spell trying to cope with the Mujahedin, armed opponents mostly backed by the US and its regional allies. The Mujahedin had their own five-year spell in which Tajik, Uzbek and Pushtun factions spent their energy fighting each other rather than building new state structures. The next five-year span went to Taliban, who entered Kabul without a fight. But they, too, never managed to build anything resembling a state. Their regime was recognized by only two countries and never admitted to the United Nations.

Medieval Islamic historians divided the emergence of a solid state in five phases. In the first phase, a force, a tribe or a mercenary army conquers a chink of territory. In the second phase the conqueror makes sure that he is the most powerful in the territory concerned. In the third phase, the winners establish their dominance beyond any possible challenge. The fourth sees the winning camp transforming itself into a governing force. That in turn, and in time, leads to the fifth and final phase in which a new state emerges with the prospect of durability.

In their first appearance on the Afghan scene, Taliban did not manage to go beyond a half-complete first phase and, in some urban areas the second one. There is no reason why Taliban should be more successful this time. Right now, they don’t seem to face a challenge by any armed group. But that would change quickly. Rival Islamist groups are already present, controlling chunks of territory. The so-called ISIS is planted in Konar and Loghar while another outfit known as Khorasan and promising to create a new caliphate covering parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran is also busy recruiting. The Taliban itself is a far from united outfit with Pakistan, Islamic Republic in Iran and, it seems even Turkey, China and Russia having their respective “contacts” in the movement.

Even in the core structure of Taliban such groups as the Haqqani network, now top dog in the movement, has a long history of deadly rivalry with various groups, including Wardak, the Quetta circles, and remnants of Abdul-Haq’s Mujahedin.

More threatening than that the Taliban may face new opposition groups emerging on the basis of ethnic identities. The Tajiks, accounting for some 32 percent of the population are unlikely to submit to a mainly Pushtun domination and may revive their old anti-Taliban alliance with Uzbeks and Hazarahs who have their own blood-stained history with Taliban.

More importantly, Taliban may face an urban people-based opposition that was often absent in Afghan politics. The experience of the past four decades, especially the past 20 years cannot be wiped out with a stroke. Millions of Afghans have had a taste, albeit furtive, of a different way of life and are unlikely to put the clock back 1,400 years as Taliban demand. Because without their cooperation nothing resembling state structures could be built, the Taliban won’t find it easy to line them up with the usual terror tactics.

In other words, Taliban are doomed to fail, leaving Afghanistan as an ungoverned land. And that is bad news for the whole world as an ungoverned land is ideal location for terrorist groups of all denominations.

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