Afghanistan - Prospects For the Future
Taliban today and tomorrow
While international and media attention remained primarily focused on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and of late on a collapsing Sri Lanka- there is another country-Afghanistan-whose future continues to look bleak. Images of children without limbs; widowed women; continuing internal violence; and an economy in shambles bear witness to the trauma of a people subjected to decades of conflict.
Nature has played its share in the devastation of Afghanistan with the latest 6.1 magnitude earthquake hitting four districts of Paktika Province and killing over 1200 people.
While the government had announced that 1 billion of the highly devalued Afghanis were being allocated for the victims, the reality was that the country's coffers-despite token inflows of international aid-were in no state to meet the continuing needs of the people.
Unlike the monolith that the Taliban were considered during the years of conflict with the American led coalition, their months in power had given indications of differing opinions within the leadership on almost all the interlinked primary concerns—foreign affairs; women's rights; the economy, security and law and order.
Devoid of expertise other than fighting, the Taliban government was making desperate efforts to bring back qualified Afghans who had fled the country and to establish its credentials as a responsible entity. They had also called on the UN Security Council to unfreeze their funds in the wake of the earthquake and for sanctions to be lifted.
The Taliban had set up a commission of "Return and Communications with Former Afghan Officials and Political Figures" and Ahmadullah Wasiq, the spokesman for the commission said that more than 100 other political figures, including women, were expected to return.
One of those who had come back wasNizamuddin Qaisari, the former police chief for Qaisar district, Faryab who demanded that he be given a share of the government since there were many of Turkish descent and the government should have a share of Turkish intellectuals and cadres and appoint them to departments and ministries. Some political leaders notably Sayed Javad Hosseini, head of the Justice and Development Party said it was necessary that the Taliban clarify their activities inside the country, and provide safety to the returnees.
The reclusive Supreme Leader of the Islamic Emirate, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, had recently emerged in Kabul to address the first Islamic clerics conference to be held 11 months after the Taliban return to power. There had been talk in the last week of June that the Taliban were planning to hold the first Loya jirga.
But the three day event at the end of June 2022, that was attended by over 3000 clerics and tribal leaders and held in the Loya jirga Hall of Kabul Polytechnic University, was not billed as a Loya Jirga but rather "the Great Conference of Ulema,". Neither women nor the media were allowed into the conference though a number of politicians and residents had asked that the Islamic Emirate invite women as well as representatives from all Afghan ethnic groups. The organisers claimed that male attendees would represent the women .
Political leaders like Sayed Ishaq Gilani, leader of the Afghan National Solidarity Movement had said that there needed to be consultation to solve the problems of the people and the necessary decisions taken. There had been an incident of gunfire on the occasion claimed by the Freedom Fighter Front and Taliban helicopters were seen hovering around the scene.
In his address, Akhundzada, hailing the Taliban victory, had spelt out what a kind of vision for a future Afghanistan. His comments emphasised that the Islamic Emirate sought good relations with the international community including the US suggesting implicitly that the Islamic Emirate should be accorded international recognition.
He said that Afghanistan's territory would not be used against any country-singing out neighbouring countries-and that the Islamic Emirate expected other countries would not interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs. But the question of an inclusive government-something that the international community had been demanding-seemed nowhere on the agenda which appeared to be tailored to consolidate the rule of the Taliban.
Abbas Stanekzai, the political deputy of the Foreign Ministry, had at a gathering titled "The Future of Afghanistan's Relations with Neighboring Countries" organized by the Afghanistan International Strategic Studies Center spoken in the same vein.
At the clerics conference while a couple of participants had mentioned the need for a plan for opening schools, Akhundzada did not directly address the issue of women's education but had emphasised that there would be a special focus on religious as well as modern studies for children. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that they would respect the decisions of those at the meeting but the final say on girls' education was up to the Supreme Leader.
This despite the fact that the Assembly of Religious Scholars in Afghanistan had issued a statement in April 2022 calling for the lifting of all restrictions on girls' education and the reopening of girls' schools. The statement said that the education of girls was a fundamental right and urged the Islamic Emirate to reopen girls' schools as soon as possible.
Subsequently the head of the religious scholars of the Islamic Emirate, Faqirullah Faiq, said that the Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, was not against reopening schools for female students above grade six-- though a social media report in June 2022 that such a decision had been taken had been dismissed by the government. The conference had been called ineffectual by former President Hamid Karzai while Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had questioned the absence of women participants. Karzai and Abdulllah Abdullah had both called for a national political dialogue.
But on his return to his hometown of Kandahar Akhundzada in an Eid message he was more direct. He vowed to enforce the Islamic system in Afghanistan and said that all procedures and policies of all ministries made during the governments of Ashraf Ghani and Karzai or during the past 20-years, that were against Sharia or the interests of the people, would be removed and a pure Islamic System brought—something that would very evidently impact on the lives of women and girls.
Taliban delegations had visited Russia, Turkey, Norway, Uzbekistan, Iran and China. Although Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, had said on "Channel One Russia" television that Moscow would make a decision on recognizing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan regardless of the opinion of the United States or any other country he had also said that .
But he had added that the first step toward recognition of the Islamic Emirate would be the formation of an inclusive political government.
The Taliban were getting this message from everywhere including India. With the honouring of the rights of women and girls central to the positions taken by the UN, western and Scandinavian countries particularly.
In May 2022 the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice had increased patrols following a decree earlier in the month forcing all Afghan women to cover from head to toe, including their faces—a practice reminiscent of the Taliban's earlier reign. Women and girl students demonstrated and protested saying that the head to toe hijab was contrary to Afghan traditions and culture. In solidarity with the women, announcers on Television appeared in full Hijab but the protests did not change the environment and women attending office including television were now wearing the hijab.
Women were fighting back to be seen in the public space as relevant players and for the first time in Herat province, business women and girls formed a permanent market called "Friday's Market" selling their handicrafts and other products. The European Union had launched the Afghan Women Leaders Forum earlier in the year to provide a platform for Afghan women from diverse backgrounds to contribute to the political dialogue.
The Taliban had dissolved the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission- a step strongly criticised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The question of the hijab had come up as part of a special session on Afghan women at the UN Human Rights Commission.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had said that the Taliban's Government of men had effectively resulted in nearly 20 million women and girls being silenced and erased from sight. He said that there had to be full gender parity including through quotas to accelerate the inclusion of women across election monitoring, security sector reform, disarmament, demobilization and justice systems.
The UN Security Council had, in May 2022 and then in July 2022 adopted resolutions calling on the Afghan government to reverse policies and practices that restricted the freedom and rights of women. Dismissing the UNSC statement the Taliban said that the Islamic Emirate was committed to ensuring the rights of women and minorities within an accepted religious and cultural framework. On the specific question of enforced hijab the Taliban said that there was nothing imposed on the Afghan people against the cultural and religious beliefs of the Islamic society. And that no verdict should be passed based on malicious and antagonist reporting of some media outlets, or propaganda by the opposition of the Islamic Emirate.
Regarding girl's education the Taliban were said to have given an undertaking in March 2022 that girls schools would be formally reopened but at the last minute reneged on it. There were many areas of Afghanistan like Balkh, for example, where girls were attending school though far outnumbered by boys. Islamic scholars at a gathering in the western province of Badghis had urged the Islamic Emirate to reopen schools for female students in grades 6-12. In many places there was a dearth of buildings, teachers and textbooks.
A spokesman for the Education Ministry had said that more than 3,000 vacancies for teachers were unoccupied in Kabul. The Ministry of Education had announced more than 7,000 vacancies for teachers and said more than 2,000 of the vacancies had been allotted for female teachers.
The Deputy Foreign Minister Stanekzai speaking at an inauguration ceremony of a trade exhibition of domestic products, had said that women were half the population and that they should be involved in all areas of life including the economy, politics, and the nation's reconstruction. As of now women were banned from working in most sectors outside health and education, and continued to require a male guardian for long-distance travel.
But on the formal stand of the government on the question of schooling and gainful employment for girls and women, the Supreme Leader Maulvi Akhundzada had yet to himself make a clear announcement-- giving rise to speculation that there were dissenting views within the Taliban -with some wanting their daughters educated and gainfully employed while others were determined to follow the traditional hard line. Heather Barr, Associate Women's Rights Director at Human Rights Watch had commented that donors, diplomats and the UN needed to act as though the restrictions on girls and women were likely to be permanent and it was past time for the international community to respond to the gender apartheid in ways more tangible than mere statements of concern.
The media in Afghanistan had also come under considerable pressure following the establishment of Taliban rule and the economic slide of the country. Photographs had appeared of media anchors selling fruits on the streets to make ends meet. Since 2021 more than 140 cases of violence against journalists have been registered. Media Watchdogs had demanded answers about the whereabouts of missing journalists.
The list included people like Ali Akbar Khairkhwa, a journalist of Subh-e-Kabul newspaper, Jamaluddin Deldar, head of the Paktia Voice radio station, as well as Omaduddin Dawran, a Pashto writer. The Ministry of Interior (MoI) said it has launched investigations denying allegations that the incidents were attributable to the Taliban.
The term "inclusive government" continued to dog the Taliban at every step of their quest for international recognition. The National Resistance Front (NRF), formed in May 2022 by exiled warlords including former Balkh province governor Atta Mohammad Noor, leader of the Hazara community Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Ahmad Wali Massoud had said that , after promising to establish an inclusive government, the Taliban had in September 2021 formed an executive comprised exclusively of Taliban members, and almost entirely from the ethnic Pashtun group. They said that if an inclusive government was not formed a civil war could occur.
Fighting had taken place between the NRF and the government forces on different occasions. While concerned, the Taliban had not taken the threat seriously since the NRF was under-armed and under-manned compared to the Taliban who had secured large supplies of modern weaponry left behind by the US and NATO forces.
Comments about the Islamic Emirate's international legitimacy had come from Iran, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Norway,Uzbekistan and Turkey. While Taliban delegations had been welcome everywhere the final message given by their interlocutors was that an inclusive government was the first essential step if recognition was to be accorded to the Islamic Emirate.
The Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulovor had told the media that while Moscow had allowed the Taliban to man the Afghan Embassy, recognition of the Taliban regime would be possible only if there was an inclusive government and the rights of women and minorities were protected.
India had sent a delegation focusing on providing humanitarian aid; assessing the Indian aided projects etc. The Indian External Affairs spokesman when questioned had declined to state when an embassy would be opened. At a meeting of the G20 on Afghanistan Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi has said that Afghanistan required humanitarian assistance and an "inclusive government" echoing what other nations had been saying.
The United Nations Security Council had adopted a resolution to secure a formal presence in Afghanistan. The resolution, without using the word "Taliban", established a new one-year mandate for the UN political mission in Afghanistan, calling it "crucial" to peace. The resolution included references to cooperation, on the humanitarian, political and human rights fronts, including those of women, children and journalists. But nothing about recognising the regime.
The United States President had in a letter to Congress said that he would officially rescind Afghanistan's designation as a major non‑NATO ally. The Islamic Emirate had issued a statement against US President Joe Biden's Executive Order to utilise a portion of $7 billion of the Afghan central bank's assets frozen in the U.S. banking system for humanitarian relief and the balance to compensate victims of the 9/11 attack. The Taliban called the move contrary to international norms and denied any involvement in the 9/11 incident.
The Afghan economy was in doldrums with the Afghani getting rapidly devalued at one point reaching 104 Afghanis to the dollar as against 88.9 in October last year. Afghanistan was on the top of the Watchlist as the population increasingly could not meet basic needs and the economy and public services collapsed, despite the end of the conflict.
The Taliban's control of the country led international donors to immediately suspend most non humanitarian funding and freeze billions of dollars' worth of assets. Without this funding, most health clinics had closed and the economy spiraled downward.
Food insecurity was likely to worsen in 2022 as the country faced shortages of food and rapidly rising food prices . The United Nations had estimated that Afghanistan could approach near universal poverty by mid-2022, with 97% of Afghans impoverished.
Senior Taliban leaders including Anas Haqqani had listed measures to overcome poverty and illiteracy in the country at a gathering organised by the Asia International Development Research and Study Center in Kabul. He had said former governments, war, illiteracy, unemployment, climate change and population growth were the main causes of poverty. He said the Western countries and their allies had brought millions of dollars under the title of aid, but the funds were all meant for war, not to develop Afghanistan.
There was a call for investing including Afghans settled abroad and Deputy Minister of Economy Abdul Latif Nazari said that many Afghan and foreign business interests had expressed a readiness to invest because the Islamic Emirate had improved security.
The United Nations had assessed that nearly $5bn in aid was needed for Afghanistan in 2022. This figure included $4.4bn for assistance within Afghanistan, and $623m to support the millions of Afghans sheltering beyond the country's borders.
The United States had donated nearly 782 million Dollars since October 2021 channelled through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to humanitarian organisations providing shelter, healthcare, and emergency food aid, among other services.
In June 2022 the World Bank and Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) Management Committee had approved three projects totalling $793 million that will provide urgent and essential food, livelihood, and health services to the people of Afghanistan. But as with other donors the Afghan government demanded that the funds be routed in coordination with the Islamic Emirate's government—a methodology that donors balked at.
Afghanistan had reached an agreement with Iran on issues relating to the Helmand river and the government had announced that the Kamal Khan Dam would be constructed and would play an important role in water management. Iran was said to have agreed to allow Afghan traders to export fresh and dried fruits to India via the Dogarun-Chabahar route. Reports also spoke about huge consignments of coal being exported to Army controlled companies in Pakistan.
On the improved security environment being touted by Taliban authorities there was considerable skepticism with American officials, including retired Generals, stating that since the Taliban took over Islamic State had been able to function more freely.
Pakistan was particularly irked as segments of the Taliban wanted to do away with the Durrand line. Pakistan had been fencing the border and there had been clashes between the Taliban and Pakistan's troops. People living along the Durand Line in Kunar province said that the fencing erected by Pakistan's military had separated the relatives living on either side of the line affecting family, cultural and linguistic ties.
At a Pashtun Jirga in Bannu in March 2022 participants criticized the fencing along the Durand Line and said the crossings along the Durand Line should remain open so that people of both sides of the line could cross freely without presenting documents.
Analysts said that the airstrikes and ground operations conducted by the Pakistan forces alongside the (Durand Line) in Khost and Kunar were an obvious violation and interference in Afghan airspace and territory. In February 2022, at a conference, the commander of the border forces, Shir Mohammad Sharif, said tensions over the Durand Line were not serious, but that the Islamic Emirate would not officially recognize the Durand Line—setting the stage for more violence.
Pakistan, which had harboured and supported the Taliban over decades, was particularly concerned about the failure of the Taliban to hand over any of the leaders of the Tehreek e Taliban operating from Afghanistan. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – which the United Nations said had about 10,000 fighters in Afghanistan – had stepped up its assaults on Pakistan's military outposts from its Afghan bases.
A delegation from Pakistan led by Lt General Faiz Hameed, former director of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had visited Kabul and the media reported that he had held talks with representatives of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
For the Taliban the real threat was seen to be from the Islamic State -Khorasan based largely in Nangarhar. It remained the most extreme and violent of all the jihadist militant groups in Afghanistan and was blamed for many of the recent incidents of internal violence in Afghanistan. The bloodiest of them were :
- an explosion at the Sharif Haji Bakhshi Mosque in the Qala-e-Murodbek area of Shakar Dara District in Kabul Province that killed the Mosque Imam also
- 100 people killed when three powerful bombs detonated outside the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School in Kabul city
- Five members of the Afghan Directorate of Protection Service were killed when they were escorting a United Nations (UN) envoy on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway
- The group had also undertaken targeted attacks against prominent persons from the Kabul region. Some of the prominent persons killed in the region in the current year include:
- Ahmad Fawad Amiri, a government employee at the Presidential Palace, in the Khawja Musafir area of Paghman District in Kabul Province.
- A Government employee, Baryalai Tokhi, was killed in an attack by unidentified gunmen in the Rishkhor area of Kabul city.
- Mohammad Ismail Sahak, head of the administrative office of the National Statistics and Information Authority, in the Qala Wazir area of Paghman District in Kabul Province.
- Three women including an employee of the Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Technology, an employee of the Ministry of Education and an employee of the Ministry of Information and Culture, killed in an explosion that targeted their bus in the Dahane-Bagh area in Kabul city.
- Mubashir Muslimyar, a lecturer at Kabul University, killed in an improvised explosive device blast in Kabul city.
During the decades of fighting NATO and the US led coalition, the Taliban had reportedly benefited financially from the production of narcotics in provinces like Helmand. After their return to power reports suggested that there had been an explosion in the production of opium. The Supreme Leader had in April 2022 issued a decree that cultivation of poppy was strictly prohibited across the country and in case of any violation the crop would be destroyed immediately and the violator treated according to the Sharia law. It had had little effect as farmers complained that if they did not cultivate poppy, they would not earn enough as wheat did not provide a good income.
There is little possibility that any internal opposition to the Taliban would coalesce in a movement strong enough to overthrow the regime. Rand Corporation had proposed three options to the American Administration:-
· a policy of engagement with the Taliban regime to advance US interests to the degree that the Taliban show some willingness to engage constructively in return
· isolation, a policy that would seek to punish and weaken the Taliban regime and change its behavior
· a policy of opposition to remove the Islamic Emirate from power, an approach not feasible under current conditions… and even if it were feasible and would succeed, the US would find itself once again supporting a dependent government in Kabul against local resistance with no better prospects of ultimate success than its last such effort.
Given that the past decades in Afghanistan were determined by the US led coalition and the Taliban with the latter emerging victorious, there is little likelihood that the Islamic Emirate would change its colours. Its actions would be directed at ensuring its own perpetuation and internal discussions like on the question of girls education diffused through some well designed safety valves. But it is highly unlikely that the Taliban would dilute the Pushtun character of the regime. It is unlikely that the NRF would pose a real threat to the regime since another civil war would not be something that Europe, NATO, America or any of Afghanistan's neighbours would want. There would be a concerted effort to decimate the Islamic State if it becomes an intolerable threat. The attempt to bring back Afghan experts and technologists would continue as part of the overarching need for international recognition. There would also be an appreciation that with the USA and Europe locked in opposition to Russia over Ukraine there would be little interest in getting involved in Afghanistan in a regime overthrow game plan.
The Taliban are here to stay. What could be a cause of worry is if the elder generation slowly fades away leaving leaders who have only tasted battle and for whom compromise and concessions may be anathema. The first signs would emerge possible with the restoration of strict Sharia that Akhundzada has promised. It is Pakistan that would need to be particularly wary given that the old dream of Pakhtunistan has never died away.