Afghanistan in the twilight zone | By M Ziauddin

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Afghanistan in the twilight zone


AS of now Kabul is without a government; mean while peace seems to have broken out in that war-torn country after about 40 years.

To be sure, Afghanistan today is in a kind of a twilight zone as the victorious Taliban is using the time and space provided by the peace pause in putting together a government acceptable to both the majority of Afghans and the world at large.

A tough task. More so because there is no tradition in that country of forming such a government and that too by the Taliban.

What has so far emerged casts Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, in the top Afghan government spot as the supreme leader. Day-to-day governance will probably reside with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who would head a ‘Shura’ of 12 members.

If that’s the case, there would be certain similarities between the institutional role of Akhundzada and Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran.

At talks between Taliban and Afghan leaders in Doha in September 2020, Mullah Baradar had claimed to want “a free, independent, united and developed country” with “an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood”.

The group has already said that women’s rights would be guaranteed “within the limits of Islam”, and that free media would be protected.

Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, had declared that the Taliban desire peaceful relations with the international community and said the Taliban did not want to live in isolation.

With their conquest complete, several of the movement’s other leaders are expected also to step out from the shadows.

Men like Sirajuddin Haqqani, scion of the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, as well as Mullah Yaqoob, son of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Omar, have had little public profile and are thought to have been hiding in Pakistan.

Now they may move operations back to their homeland and take senior roles. Government ministries will have to be carved up.

“Do the Taliban have mid-senior management ready to step in and immediately run the functions of government? Or will ministry staff be asked to remain at work, for now? Those aren’t ‘major players’ but they will be critical to what happens next,” says Andrew Watkins of Crisis Group, a think-tank.

The Taliban have had two decades to dream of what they will do when they restored their emirate. In the coming days the world will find out. As yet, there is no international recognition of the Taliban.

The West faces a dilemma: it does not want to prop up the Taliban government financially, but some governments also hope to use aid as leverage to elicit reasonable behaviour from the new rulers.

Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, which has long supported the group, welcomed their victory.

“They have broken the chains of mental slavery in Afghanistan,” he said. Pakistan’s Climate Minister tweeted that “people are rejoicing all across Afghanistan”.

And their conquest was hailed by the country’s largest religious political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F).

Others are less enthused. “We don’t want anybody to bilaterally recognize the Taliban,” said Boris Johnson, Britain’s Prime Minister.

“We want a united position among all the like-minded, as far as we can get one, so that we do whatever we can to prevent Afghanistan lapsing back into a breeding ground for terror.”

Yet even Mr. Johnson hinted that recognition might come if the Taliban were to meet “conditions” around terrorism, human rights “and many other things”.

The London Economist Weekly [04 September], editorial advised the US to engage with the Taliban, but very cautiously: “The Taliban regime is broke.

Foreign aid, most of which has been suspended, accounted for three-quarters of the government’s budget and almost half of GDP.

The government’s foreign reserves are sitting in frozen accounts in the West, and America’s blessing is needed to get access to IMF loans.

But to the extent that Western help is wanted, it should be dished out in small doses, tied to specific concessions.

The main goals should be to allow access for aid agencies and to keep schools, clinics and borders open (for women and girls as well as men). The more reasonable the Taliban are, the more money the West should hand over.

But everything should be reversible, especially if there is any hint that the new regime is abetting terrorism.”

It had looked like everything was set for the Taliban to announce the new government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after last Friday’s afternoon prayers.

But then, according to Pepe Escobar writing in Asia Times (Why the Taliban still can’t form a government, published on 03 Sept) internal dissent had prevailed.

“That was compounded by the adverse optics of a ragtag “resistance” in the Panjshir Valley that is still not subdued. The “resistance” is de facto led by a CIA asset, former Vice President Amrullah Saleh.

As the negotiations for government formation seemed to advance, a frontal clash has developed between the Taliban political office in Doha and the Haqqani Network regarding the distribution of key government posts.

“Add to it the role of Mullah Yakoob, son of Mullah Omar, and the head of the powerful Taliban Military Commission overseeing a massive network of field commanders, among which he’s extremely well-respected.”

Recently Yakoob is said to have had let it leak that those “living in luxury in Doha” cannot dictate terms to those involved in fighting on the ground.

As if this was not contentious enough, Yakoob also has serious problems with the Haqqanis – who are now in charge of a key post: security of Kabul via the so far ultra-diplomatic Khalil Haqqani.

This could be a planted story by the Western media to sow seeds of dissension among the Taliban groups.

Taliban amount to a complex collection of tribal and regional warlords, but the dissent is said to illustrate the abyss between what could roughly be explained as more Afghan nationalist-centred and more Pakistani-centred factions.

In the latter case, the key protagonists are said to be the Haqqanis, who the West accuse of operating very close to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

In Afghanistan, everything is about tribe, kin and clan. The Pashtuns are a vast tribe with myriad subtribes that all adhere to the common Pashtunwali, a code of conduct that blends self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, revenge and tolerance.

The Dari-speaking Tajiks, on the other hand, are non-tribal and form the majority of urban residents of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.

It is assumed that after peacefully resolving its internal Pashtun squabbles, a Taliban-led government would try to conquer Tajik hearts and minds among the nation’s traders, bureaucrats and educated clergy.

Dari, derived from Persian, has long been the language of government administration, high culture and foreign relations in Afghanistan.

Now it will all be switched to Pashto again. This is another significant schism the new government will have to bridge.

— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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