In countries with diverse races, religions, languages, and ethnicities, an autocracy led by a specific category usually ends up turning into a short-lived organized repression, regardless of the kinds of exclusion or oppression practiced against other categories.
At present, the whole world has its eyes set on Afghanistan. Judging by the statements of a Taliban spokesman, the country is headed toward a strict Taliban-controlled centralized system of governance, with symbolic representation of other ethnicities and races here and there.
Such a system will not hold up for many reasons.
Afghani provinces have been accustomed to a certain degree of decentralization long before the two-decade US and international military presence even. Another factor to be considered is Afghanistan’s mountainous geography, with mountains forming natural borders between provinces and ethnicities. Moreover, a new generation of Afghans grew up in the last two decades without knowing the Taliban and got a taste of freedom, diversity, and civilian life, in a stark contrast with the principles of primitive life that the Taliban heralds for Afghans and their future.
The conflict between “Pashtun Centralization” as a headline for the Taliban’s control (despite the movement not being representative of all Pashtuns) and the relative diversity in Afghanistan at all levels will somehow become the core of the political, or perhaps, military conflict in the short term.
In their statements, Taliban spokesmen call for joining hands and promise forgiveness, tolerance, not seeking revenge from former government symbols, and allowing women to work and get an education. In parallel, the movement also establishes ideological frameworks and restrictions that reflect everything the Taliban believes in regarding governance under the banner of the sharia. Try as it may to portray it otherwise, the Taliban’s interpretation of the sharia and its implementation does not convince a large portion of Afghans from all Muslim ethnicities.
In the last couple of days, budding signs of armed resistance emerged in the Panjshir Valley, famous for its independency and ability to repel attacks by even the most well-trained and well-equipped military forces, as was the case in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and later when the Taliban first ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. Ahmad Massoud, the son of the historical commander and Afghani hero Ahmad Shah Massoud who was murdered by al-Qaeda two days before the infamous 9/11 attacks, says this emerging resistance movement is heterogenous.
Indeed, the apple does not fall too far from the tree. A charismatic figure educated at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in Britain and at King’s College, London, where he earned a degree in war studies before returning home a few years ago to help build an “Afghanistan for all,” Ahmad has rallied around him a group of Afghani Army soldiers, officers, and commanders. His most prominent supporters are Minister of Defense Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, Vice President Amrullah Saleh, and other figures from the Ashraf Ghani government. This rallying around Massoud stems from two main reasons: the first is that the Taliban’s takeover was illegitimate, and the second is that since the Army did not show any resistance as a result of the decisions taken by the fleeing President Ashraf Ghani, the time has come for military resistance to prove the Taliban’s illegitimacy.
This emerging resistance combines the desire for military action should it be inescapable to challenge the Taliban’s control and potential attempts to raid the region, according to Ahmad Massoud; and the desire for negotiation, so long as negotiation is done according to certain principles that the Taliban should abide by and reflect in its political behavior. In particular, these principles refuse: strict Taliban centralization, the exclusion from power of any race, ethnicity, or religion, the oppressive methods used by the Taliban in its first years, and the sheltering of any terrorist group in Afghanistan.
For its part, the Taliban, as the victorious force, sees the issue as a simple equation: either the complete surrender of the region, or military action. However, the Taliban realizes that any military invasion will not be sure to achieve its main objective (the region’s surrender); and should it fail, the Taliban fears the roots of armed resistance might extend to other provinces. This explains its decision to surround the region by hordes of fighters while maintaining negotiations and showing relative willingness to make some yet-undetermined concessions. As such, the Taliban’s political dilemma in the Panjshir Valley will be key indicator of just how much has changed in its leaders’ beliefs and ideas.
Should a settlement be reached eventually by which the region is peacefully brought under the Taliban’s control, there will still be the dilemma of actual amnesty for symbols of the previous government, the participation of technical cadres in the coming administration, and most importantly, the definitive abandonment of vindictiveness. The question marks around these issues will remain until the Taliban establishes its yet-unrevealed new political regime.
Practically, the Taliban’s next government will also have to face the problem of US and Western military presence tasked with evacuating all western diplomats and Afghans wishing to leave the country fearing for their lives (estimated at about 50,000 or more). Current indicators suggest this evacuation will require the extension of the 31 August deadline set by President Biden for the completion of US troops withdrawal. Meanwhile, the Taliban insists that no extension is likely, regardless of the status of those left behind.
Nonetheless, contacts are surely under way between the two sides. The Taliban will probably squarely reject any Washington-requested extension, as part of the negotiation process. Eventually, it might accept to extend the evacuation for two weeks, or perhaps one month.
The upside of this delay in US and Western withdrawal is that it will give the Taliban and political or military figures from the previous government more time for negotiations and contacts. The downside is that it will delay the formation of a government that represents the great Afghani diversity (or most of it, at least), according to the Taliban’s promises. The prolonged lack of an executive administration that meets specific standards will likely cause political, economic, security troubles and a big vacuum that might be tempting for violent armed groups of all ideologies as a playground for operations that shake the relative stability in Afghani provinces.
Soon enough, these operations will extend to become cross-border activities, pushing states to denounce the Taliban as “a source of threat that must be fought by all means.” Thus, the Taliban’s seamless victory would become the movement’s nightmare.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the Egyptian daily El Watan.