By Laila Bushra*
The Taliban’s first stint in power from 1996–2001 was an unqualified tragedy for Afghanistan and the rest of the world. It saw thousands of people dead, widespread destruction, and graphic scenes of violence before the ushering in of the first ‘forever’ war of this century. Will their return bring more tragedy or is it a mere farce?
In the 1990s, the Taliban had to fight rival warlords and militias for over two years before they could capture Kabul. The struggle ultimately succeeded only with logistical and military support from Pakistan. This time, ironically, the prolonged US occupation and ‘nation-building’ attempts eliminated any armed groups who could effectively resist the Taliban. Government employees, like the rest of the country, had long been preparing for US withdrawal by routinely defecting to the prospective rulers.
Afghanistan is no longer a war-ravaged country dependent on opium revenues and Saudi financiers. Two decades of US investment in infrastructure and civilian institution-building and the delivery of war materials via Pakistan have created a booming cross-border informal economy, which is often mislabelled as ‘corruption’. Most participants in this sector are already paying protection rents to the Taliban, as are workers and other small entrepreneurs. This broader economic base can give the regime more international autonomy, but also constrain its domestic coalitions and policies. After extensive negotiating experience, the Taliban will be more savvy when engaging with other regional powers.
The biggest unknown about the second Taliban regime is whether it will continue the human rights violations that defined the first regime. There were severe restrictions on women, persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, public lashings, amputations, beheadings and destruction of Buddhist monuments.
On the one hand, these policies may no longer be viable given the broad coalitions the regime now needs. On the other hand, it was those public statements of their Islamic credentials that made the Taliban stand out and earned them the respect of radical organisations in the Middle East. It is too soon to tell, and one can only hope for the sake of the Afghan people that the Taliban will find another way to make their mark.
The United States, left with no good options, decided to cease propping up a failed regime. In the 2010 profile of US General Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone that led to his firing, his chief of operations Major General William Mayville had correctly predicted that the Afghan war was ‘going to end in an argument’. That argument has unfolded on television channels, podcasts, newspaper pages and in Congressional hearings in the United States.
While the US argument is expected, the jubilations in Pakistan have been premature. Last time, the Taliban’s international isolation, military weakness and economic dependence on opium trafficking through the Afghanistan–Pakistan border gave Pakistan considerable influence, especially in the conduct of formal and informal international affairs. Foreign journalists invited to interview Osama bin Laden had to get their visas from Islamabad and local journalists close to the Pakistan military got special access to the rising star of global terrorism.
Those factors no longer being relevant, Pakistan cannot use Afghanistan to train militants for experiments in low intensity warfare and is unlikely to enjoy significant leeway over the regime. If anything, the influence will now travel in the other direction, possibly resurrecting the long-standing conflict over the Durand Line as a legitimate border. That should cause Islamabad considerable concern.
Pakistan chose to participate in the war on terror by handing over some al-Qaeda leaders to the United States and enabling the Afghan Taliban to regroup within its territory and wait it out. The strategy worked against the United States but created fertile conditions for the Pakistani Taliban, known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to emerge and launch an insurgency that caused hundreds of thousands of casualties. The TTP eliminated senior leadership of the Pashtun nationalist party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and its eventual neutralisation has entrenched the military in Pakistan’s border areas.
Since then, the region has witnessed a new ethnic-nationalist movement, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which accuses the military of direct cooperation with the TTP. An Islamic order in Afghanistan will embolden deep-rooted Taliban networks and other Islamist groups across Pakistan, which the government will have to contend with sooner or later in addition to the PTM.
So, tragedy or farce? The situation is farcical for both the United States and Pakistan in terms of whatever strategic or geopolitical objectives they had hoped to achieve. Equally farcical are romanticised narratives about the anti-imperialist struggle of the Afghan people. The last defeat of an imperial power plunged Afghanistan into years of bloodshed and devastation, followed by another occupation and even more violence. How tragic the next phase turns out to be is now up to the Afghan people themselves. They can organize to effectively resist the most oppressive Taliban policies, as well as the radical militias, either local or foreign, who have already started targeting minorities, foreigners, and public places. Or they can defer to both, as in the 1990s, signalling the start of another tragedy.
*About the author: Laila Bushra is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum