A big test for the Taliban

Published August 22, 2021
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

AFTER assuming control of Kabul, the Taliban have apparently initiated a consultation process to form a new government. They are communicating to the world that their government will be inclusive and the rights of all Afghan citizens, including women and minorities, will be protected. But the world may remain sceptical unless the Taliban act on their pledges soon.

The Taliban view of the state is well known. But the recent international efforts of politically reconciling with the Taliban have put the latter in a changed environment. It will be a great challenge for the Taliban leadership to relate their ideological vision to the real-time political imperatives of inclusiveness and diversity. Some media reports hint that the Taliban may agree to the constitution of a ruling council to govern Afghanistan, but there is little information available about the composition and modus operandi of such a council. Nor is it clear whether the proposed council will take up the country’s affairs for an interim period or serve as a formal governing body. Most importantly, how will the council be made more inclusive to ensure that all stakeholders have a fair share in power?

At present, the world is concerned about the presence of terrorist networks in Afghanistan and the likelihood of human rights violations there. As the Taliban seek to reassure the world that the rights of women will be protected, they add ‘Sharia-compliant’. When they link rights with Sharia laws, many doubt their intentions. Some analysts might argue that the Taliban can negotiate with the world on human rights, transnational terrorist networks and related issues. But the hardest part for the Taliban would be to digest democracy. Their idea of a state built on a religious order could negate the concept of democracy. Therefore, the Taliban will not accept the existing ‘man-made’ constitution and electoral system. We also don’t know if they have any alternative framework in mind which can appeal to Afghans and build a consensus on the type of state system.

Read | 'Positively different': 5 promises the Taliban have made in Afghanistan and their record on the issues

Two constitutional documents are attributed to the Taliban. The first, Dastur Emarat Islami Afghanistan, was prepared by a group of Islamic scholars when the Taliban were in power in 1998. The second is a charter titled Manshur Emarat Islami Afghanistan, which was leaked in 2020 though the Taliban never acknowledged it would be their constitution if they came to power. However, both documents oppose elections or electoral democracy because, they claim, the practice has no origin in Sharia law. Experts on Islamic jurisprudence suggest the core value of the Taliban’s constitutional view is ‘unitary authority’ which also makes them an effective war machine. Elections are needed when one has to accommodate different political and ethnic stakeholders.

Now as the Taliban control Kabul, they will have to accommodate other stakeholders.

Now as the Taliban control Kabul, they will have to accommodate other stakeholders. This will require a clear vision and new approaches to statecraft. They have started seeking advice from senior religious scholars in Pakistan and a few other Muslim countries. The Iranian model with some amendments is close to their vision. The Taliban system could have three institutions. The existing Taliban shura or advisory council may become Afghanistan’s Guardian Council and also include an assembly of experts. Parliament and executive bodies may have a similar status as in Iran to accommodate other stakeholders in the power set-up.

They can call it a ‘jirga’, making a few minor amendments. It is interesting that the Taliban’s opponents, with whom they are negotiating, are mostly the mujahideen of the 1980s, who had introduced a constitutional draft Usul Asasi Dawlat Islami Afghanistan, which was not very different from the drafts introduced by the Taliban, except for the election clause. The Taliban have replaced the phrase ‘political entity’ with ‘emirate’.

Another major challenge will be to accommodate Taliban fighters and field commanders. The Taliban will not abandon their fighting force, which is their sole source of power and legitimacy. They may have armed forces consisting of the Taliban and regular forces. The regular forces may not get a leading role and may function as a paramilitary.

However, the development of a future state structure also depends on the negotiating powers of the non-Taliban Afghan leadership. If they become content with their share in power and leave critical issues undebated, then the Taliban will introduce a system which may not be compatible with the aspirations of most Afghans.

Read | Taliban announce creation of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, will rule country through council

Pakistani religious scholars are enthusiastic about the statecraft of a Taliban-led Afghanistan, and the Taliban are also ready to listen to their advice. But the Taliban have other sources of inspiration too, ranging from Iran to the Middle East despite having theological differences with them. As the Taliban work on their constitution, they would welcome any advice which will suit their interests. But, for Pakistanis, the Taliban will become the sole source of inspiration. Religious institutions, confused youth, and the paradoxical interests of power elites will nurture the process of Talibanisation in Pakistan.

Anti-Taliban protests in parts of Afghanistan reflect the expansion of the middle class. They will present the real opposition to the Taliban. According to some estimates, the Afghan middle class may have grown from almost zero in 2001 to as much as 15 to 20 per cent of the population today. This is a big number as around five million Afghans now fall into various levels of the middle class. It remains to be seen how the middle class will interact with the Taliban. However, the Taliban have the advantage that in their immediate neighbourhood, democracies are fragile and states don’t have strong human rights records. If these states support bringing economic stability to Afghanistan, the Taliban can easily avert Western pressure and execute their model of an ‘Islamic emirate’.

Afghanistan is on the verge of a clash between modernity and conservatism and both tendencies are at their extreme. The clash can trigger a process of synthesis or fusion, but the Afghan leadership should be mindful that this transition does not take a violent turn.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2021

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