With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, the million dollar question is: how will be Afghanistan like, under the Taliban? Will Afghanistan again be run under the same conservative mindset? Or will the country be different this time from the one ruled by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001? Well, from what one has seen so far, it can be said that the new Afghanistan is going to be different from the one first ruled by the Taliban; and unlike the ‘old Taliban’, the ‘new Taliban’ will try to ensure that this time they behave in a different manner vis-à-vis governance, social order, foreign policy and economy.
There have been claims of a new Afghanistan earlier too — when the US and allied forces had dislodged the Taliban regime in October 2001 and installed the Karzai regime two months later. Hamid Karzai, the president then, made tall claims of transforming Afghanistan into a modern and enlightened society from an ultra-conservative and a socially backward one. He pledged to rebuild the country focusing on the economy, education and governance, and bringing in new police, army, bureaucracy, and judiciary. However, despite the investment of billions of dollars into the ‘new Afghanistan’ of Hamid Karazi, it fell like a house of cards when the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15. Afghanistan is again undergoing renewal — nearly two decades after the overthrow of the first Taliban regime.
With the situation in Afghanistan being normalised slowly and gradually, it is time to ponder on what challenges and opportunities will be there following the seizure of power by Taliban. Will the Taliban govern Afghanistan the way they did previously or will they be dealing with the world and their countrymen differently this time?
In his first-ever press conference as Taliban’s official spokesman, in Kabul on August 17, Zabihullah Mujahid talked about issues ranging from the mode of governance, treatment of women, relations with neighbours and the possibility of al-Qaeda again getting foothold in Afghanistan. He responded to all these questions in detail and made it clear that the Taliban would not allow their country to be used against any other country; that women would have freedom to work and educate themselves while staying within the limits of Shariah; and that the new government would focus on ‘inclusive’ instead of ‘exclusive’ Afghanistan where all the Afghans would live together peacefully and every stakeholder would be represented. It, however, remains to be seen if the Taliban keep up their word and the benign face they are showing to the world will stay after they consolidate their control over the country. Or it will turn out to be a shrewd tactic to buy time, and establish credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans and the outside world in the meantime.
One can figure out three major challenges for the newly established Taliban regime in the days to come.
The first of the challenges concerns economy, governance, rule of law and justice system. Taliban lack experience in running a state, but they appear clear-headed and have the determination and willingness to put their country on track in line with their own standards. Had that not been so, a 350,000-strong Afghan army, trained by the US and equipped with modern weapons and air force, would not have surrendered to a much smaller Taliban force, estimated at 75,000. It is their clarity and determination which is expected to help them manage the affairs of a fragile state vulnerable to violence, chaos and instability. With patience and perseverance, the Taliban leadership is highly likely to put the house in order.
Second, the challenge of legitimacy is serious for Taliban because they have occupied the country by force and there is no criterion to judge whether or not they enjoy support from the masses. Taliban are required to follow a democratic path if they want their rule to be legitimised by the world. In the interim period, they may even call a Loya Jirga to seek consent from notables and elders to their policies. In December 2001, Hamid Karzai too was elected president through Loya Jirga, to be legitimised later through a popular vote.
The third challenge facing the Taliban relates to dealing with the world, particularly with their neighbours, international players and financial institutions. Taliban leaders have requested Afghan professionals not to leave the country as they will be required to run state institutions. A general amnesty announced by the Taliban is meant to utilise the services of educated and professional Afghan citizens, including those who collaborated with the US and its allies.
Along with challenges, there are several opportunities as well for the future Taliban regime as to running their country, state and society. Despite their perceived non-professional background and ultra-conservative approach, Taliban leaders cannot afford the risk of confronting with their opponents. Utilising human resource, particularly the Afghan youths, is an opportunity which the Taliban government must be eyeing at. One does see them trying to bring all those Afghans on board who want to serve their country for a better future.
The three major opportunities that exist for the Taliban in the new Afghanistan are:
First, they can dispel the notion in some circles about their ruthless application of Shariah, particularly regarding women and minorities. Zabihullah Mujahid, their spokesman, made it clear during his Kabul presser that women would have freedom to work and seek education within the domain of Islamic laws. This fear about the Taliban needs to be eradicated by pursuing tolerant, wise and moderate approach.
The second opportunity that the emerging situation offers to the Taliban is that if they declare zero tolerance for corruption and nepotism, the bane of previous Afghan regimes, it will be welcomed by the ordinary Afghans. With their slate clean, the Taliban — with the support of honest and patriotic Afghans — can lay the foundation of the various pillars of the state, like armed forces, police, bureaucracy and judiciary, on a strong footing. Supporting education, sports and healthy activities will help eradicate frustration and anger, particularly among the youth.
The third opportunity for the Taliban is to establish working relationship with the neighbouring countries and the international community so that Afghanistan doesn’t fall back into a vicious cycle of isolation or declared a pariah state. At a later stage, the Taliban would need to pursue a democratic political process so that they could establish their legitimacy through the power of vote instead of weapons. It all depends on the unity in the rank and of file of Taliban as the threat of rifts and divisions cannot be ruled out.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2021.
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