By Chayanika Saxena*
The “I-told-you-so” moment seemed to have finally arrived as the Taliban were able to capture the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. Far away from what has for long been understood as its traditional space, Taliban managed to not only venture out, but they could do so rather successfully by occupying a city of 300,000 people in the wee hours of one Monday morning late September.
This taking of Kunduz City (and subsequently of many other districts in the neighboring provinces) by the Taliban is worrying for a variety of reasons. One, the factors that could have been exploited to weaken the Taliban, the fissures within this movement-cum-organization, can be said to be disappearing. Although it will be too rash to claim that they have been done and dusted with, but the coordinated attack on Kunduz indicates that it will be imprudent to live in a world of make believe, wishing that the rumors of intra-factional rivalries within Taliban come true.
Besides indicating the growing cohesion within the Taliban, the capture of Kunduz city has revealed many chinks in Afghanistan’s political armor. At the political level, ever since the calls for elections were made, the political atmosphere of the country has been highly charged, and as the fundamentals of physics tell us, high charge is often an invitation to volatility. Yes, there was a sense of euphoria surrounding the conduct of democratic elections in the face of a withdrawing international support, but this euphoria was rather short-lived as it was soon overpowered by the enigma that Afghanistan’s politics is. Thus, what followed the moment this political race was declared open is what can be said to be a hallmark of South Asian politics: chaos and drama.
The formation of the National Unity Government (NUG), at the eve of whose first year anniversary the Taliban decided to go ahead with its massive show of strength, has been all but mired in controversies.
Its establishment being brokered by the Americans, the current government in Afghanistan is led by a President and a Chief Executive Officer. Certainly there is a difference in the quantum of power that these posts come along with, but the variation is in degrees and not kind, creating a stiff competition for power and control between them.
The president of Afghanistan, Mohammed Ashraf Ghani, is a Ghilzai Pashtun. Much like the (almost) whole of the political history of Afghanistan, the current president is the contemporary embodiment of its historical patterns in which the Pashtuns had been the bearers of political power. In fact, to many in the country, the transfer of reins from a Popalzai Pashto (Karzai) to a Ghilzai Pashto has been a continuation of the Pashtun domination of the political institutions of Afghanistan. It is undeniable that Ghani is not a traditional heir to the seat of political power, but his professional experience, academic qualifications and a relatively clean reputation notwithstanding, his nomination to the position of president was seen as a tacit acceptance of the Pashto political dominance and the need to keep the ‘majority’ community placated.
Abdullah Abdullah, the CEO, is on the other hand depicted as the representative of the second largest majority, Tajiks, even as his familial lineage is distributed over both the ‘majority’ communities. Having won the first face-off in the presidential elections of 2014, the second and the conclusive round in this process however, had him finish second behind Ashraf Ghani. This change in verdict which was attributed to reasons varying from outright fraud to a genuine change-of-heart left the people of Afghanistan puzzled and even frustrated; their happiness at having participated in the democratic process was all but eroded.
As the supporters of the Abdullah and Ghani -led camps continue to engage in a duel for power, a sense of befuddlement that is gripping the country has provided Taliban an opportunity to exploit. Having encountered some setbacks to its organizational capacity with the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death and the struggle for power that happened within its ranks, the Taliban rankled by the speculations of its potential fall unleashed itself on the major political centers of the country. A string of explosions in Kabul, the seizing of districts in Helmand, the taking-down of Kunduz are some of the ways in which Taliban decided to strike back.
Apart from freezing the center, the battle between the two camps – Ghani and Abdullah – highlights the continuous significance of ethnicity in ordering political actions and reactions in Afghanistan. Much like the ‘caste’ factor in India, the electoral manipulation of ethnic affiliations in Afghanistan is prominent although their channelization still remains less effective and constructive. In fact, instead of cohering around parties to form interest and pressure groups, there is a constant effort at wresting power by the smallest possible group to the smallest possible levels. Political parties are not banned in Afghanistan; however, party-backed candidates are not permitted to fight in the elections to Wolesi Jirga; even the current president is not a member of any one political party.
Compounding the problems are the differences in opinion of the Executive with the legislative branch, in particular the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the National Assembly), that has resulted in a frustratingly slow pace of appointing members to the key positions in the government and administration in the country.
Added to it is the administrative and judicial inefficiency, which in part has been a result of a very laggard process of appointment as also because of rampant corruption that continues at all the levels within the state apparatuses.
A combination of these factors has allowed the Taliban to use the seething popular disaffection with the central government to their own advantage. The existence of the ‘shadow government’ of the Taliban is in great measure a result of the rising frustration with the deteriorating condition of the economy and politics of the country. In fact, the Taliban has begun expanding outside its traditional spatial and ethnic base to incorporate its non-traditional allies into its fold. If reports are to be believed, then the ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras (to name a few) have been joining the Taliban, with the attack on Kunduz — which is a multi-ethnic city — being indicative of it.
Center’s lack of unity and inefficiency has also trickled down to the level of provinces where the governance and administration experience the same impediments to their free and fair operation. To begin with, much like the center, the writ of the government at the provincial level does not run much farther beyond their respective capitals. In this light, the fall of Kunduz city to Taliban is bound to raise questions about the effectiveness of the provincial governments which could not even manage to keep their forts safe.
Caught in the crossfire at the center, which appoints the governors to the provinces, about nine provinces are yet to see their governors being officiated; Kunduz, which borders Tajikistan, is not one of them. The governor of Kunduz, Mohammad Omar Safi, was appointed in December 2014. However, at the time when his provincial capital fell to the Taliban, not only was he not in the city, but many reports cited him having ‘fled’ to Europe.
Beginning the day of attack, which was a Monday and continuing until Wednesday night, there was no trace of the governor. However, as soon as the Afghan National Army (ANA) could retake Kunduz city, the governor resurfaced in the media terming all the allegations against him as false. In fact, he went to the extent of quoting his ‘foreign trip’ as Ghani-approved —so much for obeying the central command! As this article is being written, Omar Safi stands stripped off his position with Hamdullah Danishi being placed as governor of the province.
The lack of effective governmental control within the perimeters of the city — all that the provincial government gets to control anyway (de-facto); the storming of the police pickets at 3 in the morning; the little resistance mounted against the marauding Taliban by the local police in the name of protecting civilian life from collateral damage allowed these ‘white flag bearers’ to loot the city, to unleash their terror on people and hold bases within the homes of common city dwellers.
While Kunduz city stands retaken today, it would not be imaginary to think of the Talibs as still residing within the city, waiting or perhaps, plotting another such assault. The neighboring provinces of Badakhshan, Faryab and Sar-e-Pol too have come under Taliban’s assault, with the southern part of Afghanistan ceasing to be on the boil.
As much as Taliban was driven out of the city, it was also for their lack of intent and interest to hold on to Kunduz that resulted in their relatively easy departure, but they are far from being gone. The Taliban of today recognizes that its base among a youthful, educated Afghanistan residing in its cities is very limited; their ‘shock-and-awe’ strategy was just a way of telling the government of Afghanistan that they still can call the shots.
*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies. She can be reached at [email protected]