For the Taliban, why the Afghanistan of 2021 is different from 1996
Ever since it took over Kabul on August 15, the Taliban has been discovering that the Afghanistan of 2021 is different from the country it governed, with an iron grip, for almost five years from 1996.
For one, in the 1990s, it would have been unthinkable to have women out on the streets of Kabul and other cities to protest against the Taliban’s rule, shouting slogans against Pakistan, and taking on armed fighters who weren’t averse to firing warning shots. And all this while videos were shot on mobile phones and uploaded on social media, to spread like wildfire around the world. The Taliban’s response on Thursday was typical – a shutdown of mobile and internet services in cities and areas where more protests were expected.
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In its response to such developments and the constitution of its so-called interim cabinet — dominated by Pashtuns, members of the old guard such as the head Mohammad Hasan Akhund, and terrorist commanders such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mohammad Yaqoob – the Taliban has given enough signals to the world that the group hasn’t really changed. But even if the group hasn’t changed, Afghanistan may well have.
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It remains to be seen whether the very public and large protests witnessed in several Afghan cities this week have the potential to become a larger movement, given the fact that there are no real leaders within Afghanistan for the protestors to coalesce around. In addition, though there is opposition to the Taliban’s tactics of fear and repression, especially among the post-9/11 generation that grew up in relative freedom in urban centres, the Taliban also enjoys support in many rural areas. Afghan citizens had grown tired of the unchecked corruption that marked the regimes of presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, and the fallout of the US-led war on terror, especially the numerous casualties of drone and air strikes and human rights abuses.
The opposition to its authority from the educated younger generation that has tasted the benefits of two decades of limited democracy and growth isn’t the only challenge the Taliban faces.
Even as the Taliban today has greater international linkages than it did in 1996, key global actors appears to be veering round to the position that future engagement with the new setup in Kabul will – as United States (US) secretary of state Antony Blinken put it on Wednesday – depend on actions that the Taliban takes on the ground.
About 17 of the 33 members of the Taliban’s interim cabinet are under United Nations (UN) sanctions, and if an upcoming meeting of the UN Security Council decides not to extend exemptions to a travel ban, leaders such as deputy chief Abdul Ghani Baradar and foreign minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi won’t even be able to travel out of Afghanistan. While Russia and China have shown willingness to embrace the Taliban setup in Kabul, key Western players such as the US and European Union members have given no indication that the new regime will be accorded any recognition.
As Blinken put it in his remarks at a ministerial meeting on Afghanistan on Wednesday, the US intends to hold the Taliban accountable to a commitment to preventing terror groups from using Afghan soil as a base for external operations, and maintain robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region to neutralise any threats.
The third key difference is the heterogeneity within the group. There are factors that indicate the Taliban is no longer the nearly monolithic entity that was tightly controlled by its founder, Mullah Omar. The Haqqani Network holds key positions in the current setup, while other positions have gone to leaders from Kandahar, the traditional stronghold of the Taliban.
That there are divisions between leaders in the political office based in Doha and commanders on the ground in Afghanistan became obvious in the delays witnessed in forming a government. Even here, the process took shape only after Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed arrived in Kabul last week. At the same time, there are some factions that are opposed to Pakistan’s dominant role in influencing and shaping outcomes in Afghanistan, as Indian interlocutors have learnt since they opened channels of communication with some Taliban leaders last year.
As one unnamed Western diplomat recently told Reuters: “They [the Taliban] are not monolithic, and they are not monolithic within their own divisions.”
And finally, none of the 33 members of the Taliban’s interim setup have demonstrated any ability to tackle the serious governance, security and economic issues that Afghanistan is grappling with today. There are already reports of food shortages after international assistance began drying up and virtually no Western country is keen on routing aid directly to the Taliban, though there is growing realisation within the international community of the need to step in quickly with assistance.
The Taliban’s insistence on implementing Sharia law and keeping women out of governance, and lack of public acknowledgement regarding the severing of ties with terror groups such as al-Qaeda, will only make it more difficult for the group to gain legitimacy or any sort of recognition. The Taliban may have won but the challenges of 2021 are distinct from those it faced in 1996.
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