Afghanistan after Doha deal

The new system would be governed by a political order that was clearly Islamic, instead of western democracy

Shahid Javed Burki November 01, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The deal the Afghan Taliban and the Americans signed in Doha, the capital of Qatar, was supposed to move Afghanistan a step or two closer to evolving a system of governance that would meet the needs of its diverse population. The agreement was based on several assumptions. The Americans would pull out of the country and leave Afghan affairs to the Afghans. The Taliban would become a part of the system with the government in Kabul giving up the political structure under which the country has operated for almost two decades. The new system would not necessarily adopt western-style democratic governance. Instead, the country would be governed by a political order that was clearly Islamic. What was meant to be Islamic would be determined through negotiations among different segments of the Afghan society. The Taliban seemed to have accepted that women’s rights would be protected.

This was a tall order but it was clear from the start that the two sides that signed the deal had only one objective: the Americans and the Taliban wanted foreign troops out of the country. The Taliban were persuaded that they had the local following and military strength to make Afghanistan an Islamic state. It is interesting that the Taliban signed the agreement as representatives of a political entity called the Islamic Emirate.

Which way Afghanistan will go matters a great deal for Pakistan. How would the emergence of an Islamic state with which it shared a long border affect Pakistan? How would Pakistan be impacted if Afghanistan’s Pakhtun population succeeds in imposing its beliefs on other ethnic groups? There are twice as many Pakhtuns in Pakistan as in Afghanistan. How would an extremist Sunni state deal with the Shi’ite Iran, another Pakistani neighbour? I will try and find answers to these questions in the weeks and months ahead. For the moment, I will concern myself with the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

Negotiations are continuing between representatives of the Afghanistan government in Kabul and the Taliban in Doha. These discussions were supposed to follow the script written jointly by the Taliban and the United States that was signed on February 29, 2020. The Kabul government headed by President Ashraf Ghani was excluded from the deliberations since the Taliban had refused to accept that those who governed from Kabul were representing the people. The Kabul government was considered by them to be the handmaiden of Washington and not representative of the people of the country. However, the Taliban agreed that they would talk to the Kabul authorities once some 5,000 prisoners held by the government were released. The release took time. Only when that was completed the Taliban sat down with the government in Kabul to work out a constitutional government in which they would be included. In the meantime, it was expected that the insurgency would not continue to mount attacks on the government. That has not happened.

What is especially worrying is the emergence of leaders in several parts of the troubled country who are enforcing on the local population their version of Islamic rule. Their focus is on the place of women in a Muslim society such as the one they would like to see develop in Afghanistan. An example of this line of thinking is the cleric Mawlawi Mujib Rehman Ansari, 36, who claims to be a descendant of a revered 11th century Muslim Sufi saint, Abdullah Ansari of Herat. The saint’s tomb is near the cleric’s mosque who has significant following in the area. According to one assessment, “in his slice of Herat, Mawlawi Ansari has resurrected perhaps the most despised relic of the Taliban rule during the late 1990s: the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice which brutally enforced Sharia law. In the mullah’s neighbourhood of Gozargah, his enforcers wear white tunics adorned with crossed swords logo of his religious movement. They intercept couples in cars, on motorcycles and on the street, questioning them separately and sometimes demanding a marriage certificate.”

Ansari blamed what he saw as laxity in the Afghan society that needed to be addressed. “If the government did its job properly, we would be its servants. But it doesn’t, so we have the responsibility to stand on our feet. There is no justice in the Afghanistan system, so we must provide justice. People want Islamic government with Sharia law.” When told that many women in the Herat area despise his harsh tactics, he told journalists that “only impure and immoral women felt threatened. Women of virtue and chastity obey his strictures and cover their bodies and hair.”

Leaders such as Ansari were questioned by the members of the educated segment of the Afghan society. According to Tariq Nabi, a prominent Islamic scholar, Ansari and those like him have created a worrisome parallel government based on the ultraconservative Wahabi interpretation of Islam. He said that other extremist scholars have imposed similar versions of Shariah law in other parts of the country. Abdul Majid Samim, another Islamic scholar, said many Afghans embraced Ansari and other extremist clerics because they condemned the government that was in power in Kabul and its American backers. Under pressure by hardline clerics, the government seemed to be accommodating their demands. Recently, the government-run Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs revived its dormant Office for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice though officials responsible for the move insisted that it was not meant to support Ansari’s checkpoints.

There were other problems that needed to be dealt with in the post Doha-agreement period. One was the continuing assaults by the Taliban on government forces. One of the worst incidents occurred in the Helmand province that lasted for 10 days in October. The attack caused serious casualties and forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes and left scores hospitalised. The US responded by bombing areas where the Taliban held sway.

The Taliban responded aggressively to the US action. “All contents of the US-Islamic Emirate accord are unambiguous, but the other side has violated its commitments on numerous occasions, engaging in provocative actions and bombing non-combat zones,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said in a statement issued on October 17. “All responsibility shall fall squarely on the American side.” Earlier the Taliban had expressed satisfaction at the decision that seems to have been taken by US President Donald Trump that he would like to see all American troops leave Afghanistan. Only then American soldiers would be able to spend their Christmas holidays with their families. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to the Doha talks, tweeted on October 17 that both sides had agreed on a “reset” that would reduce violence. But the Afghan government delegation was troubled by these developments. “We still want to act responsibly and find a way to end the war through negotiations, but as the violence rises, public pressure is mounting and people are starting to question why we are even at the table,” said delegate Nader Nadery. Afghanistan is not going the way it was supposed to travel when the Doha deal was done.


Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2020.

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