Oct 2021


In this double spread, M J Akbar assesses the bleak outlook for human – particularly female and minority – rights under a regime highly regulated by the ideals of Sharia, and warns that, rather than Islamabad maintaining influence in Kabul, Afghanistan could Talibanise Pakistan

No emirate for young women

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, two remarkable young women, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, played the finals of the US Open tennis championship. Both were born after the terrorist demolition of New York’s twin towers traumatised America and wounded the world. On September 11th, 6,728 miles away in Kabul, many thousands of their sports-sisters, also born after 9/11, were in abject fear of their lives for no greater a sin than their desire to play football or cricket.

The stars of New York can look forward to well-deserved fame and millions of dollars in prize money. But their sisters in Kabul have diminished into lost phantoms, their lives ruptured, their dreams strangled, their existence forgotten, as obscurantist ideologues spurred by regressive religiosity and brutal gender oppression seized power in Afghanistan in mid-August. The Taliban, once again armed and trained by Pakistan, were also abetted by Western powers who had lost the plot. America was the principal negotiator in this Faustian bargain, but the stench of this deal spread to many other capitals.

It is difficult to get the correct answer if you ask the wrong question. There is much scratching of heads in the international community over the conundrum: have the Taliban changed? We might be closer to clarity in the year of the fog if we ask a different question: has Afghanistan changed in two decades?

We can junk self-serving chatter about a new Taliban into that huge receptacle familiarly known as the dustbin of history. An ideological movement cannot alter its foundational doctrine without weakening its structure and inviting self-destruction. Tactical variables can at best be marginal and temporary. Corruption of core beliefs and values becomes fodder for those ready to punish deviation. If Afghan women are not relegated to the prison-walls of a tightly veiled existence, Taliban leaders will be accused by their own followers of having succumbed to the West. The Taliban alliance is an umbrella held together by the spine and spindles of a purist mindset. No intellectual writes an alternative thesis, for everything has already been written; there is no Lenin after Marx, let alone a Trotsky after Lenin. The one query permissible is whether those who have been given power by the Almighty have lived up to their version of the faith. The world errs if it believes that the Taliban can be adjusted into the framework of a negotiable instruments environment that infuses regular diplomacy.

Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the guardian of Islamism, has made this abundantly clear: ‘In future, all matters of governance and life will be regulated by the laws of the Holy Sharia.’ Not just governance, but the whole of life, although his interpretation of the Sharia is quite different from the sense accepted by most Muslims. This might not be imposed in one swoop, but it is critical to the very survival of the Taliban.

The 18th century Swiss essayist Jacques Mallet du Pan has been forgotten, but his observation that every revolution, like Saturn, devours its children, has not. In the case of the Taliban, the opposite is true; the children, such as the older al-Qaeda and the younger Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), are waiting to pounce upon their fathers at the first sign of weakness. We heard the first, dramatic alarm bell when an anonymous suicide mission on August 26 killed nearly 200 Afghans and 13 American soldiers at Kabul airport. That was a warning, not the start of an offensive. The thinking heads of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Taliban have doubtless admonished hotheads, pointing out that such killing is now counterproductive. But if terrorists were rational, they would not be terrorists.

There are collateral questions. America is in touch with the Taliban either directly or through interlocutors. Has Washington demanded information about the perpetrators of this attack on US troops? If yes, has Kabul cooperated?


Has Afghanistan changed in two decades?

If Afghan women are not relegated to the prison-walls of a tightly veiled existence, Taliban leaders will be accused by their own followers of having succumbed to the West

The Taliban do not deny nationalism, but they place ideology far above geography. Their vision of religion as a force for liberation rests on the trellis of a historical framework which begins with the decline of Muslim empires in the 18th century and laments the fall at the end of World War I, when every contemporary Muslim state, apart from Afghanistan, lay prostrate before the West. New enemies have since been added to an explosive list. Afghanistan too, in this logic, abandoned true faith and succumbed to the lure of Western ideas in search of ‘modernity’. The Taliban believe that the ‘liberation’ of Muslims from both Western and Eastern colonisation is possible only through jihad. Just in case anything got lost in translation, on September 9, acting Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund reiterated that the Taliban would establish Islamic rule, bring security to Afghans as well as Muslims around the world, ending all unrest, killing and humiliation. The operative phrase is ‘around the world’.

It was in this sense that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan asserted that the Taliban had broken the chains of American slavery. In an interview with CNN 25 years ago, Osama bin Laden had explained the vision and strategy of this jihad. The Americans, he predicted, would be easier to defeat than the Russians, because they could be bled far more easily.

The difference between Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada and Mohammad Ashraf Ghani or Hamid Karzai is ideology, not politics. Did Mullah Akhundzada send his 23-year-old son Abdur Rahman on a suicide mission in 2017 merely to become supremo of a Taliban government, or in the service of what he believed was a higher cause?Politicians can win or lose Afghanistan; but only God can assure Paradise.


The Talibanisation of Pakistan

Oxford University is pretty bad news for Pakistan, and much worse for Afghanistan. Two prime ministers of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan, went up to Oxford. Both sponsored, armed, financed and cheered the Taliban as they moved from sanctuary in Pakistan to power in Kabul. Benazir Bhutto, architect of the 1996 invasion, described the Taliban as her children. Imran Khan has not yet clarified what his blood relationship with the Taliban is, but an affectionate clarification could come any time.

Perhaps US President Joe Biden has decided that he can live with Imran Khan’s inflammatory analysis of the blood, tears and wealth that America has sacrificed in Afghanistan. But Islamabad’s security-crats should know that it is always premature to proclaim the defeat of America. The American state is more resilient than a US administration and will assert itself to protect and pursue its interests. American foreign policy will not be trapped in this bungled quagmire forever.

Twenty years ago, Pakistan anxiously tried to save the Taliban from American retaliation with the usual rigmarole about historic causes. Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state, cut through the nonsense with a terse sentence: ‘History starts from today.’ Did two decades of history self-erase in mid-August? Has Osama bin Laden won?

MOTHER FIGURE: Benazir Bhutto, architect of the 1996 invasion, described the Taliban as her ‘children’

In retrospect, it is reasonable to conjecture that America and its allies lost their will and their way after the misadventure of Iraq. War requires moral force behind the weaponry to succeed. The war in Afghanistan was based on justice; the invasion of Iraq was justified by prevarication which eventually prolonged the fighting, raised costs, punctured morale, and induced the war-weariness that had such fatal consequences in Afghanistan.

Events in the foreseeable future will be shaped largely by three factors: the resilience of the Afghan people, particularly in Kabul and Herat; the plans of surrogate terrorist groups energised by America’s retreat; and decisions taken by Tehran, acting in its own interests, and Moscow as the guardian of Central Asia.

In the immediate aftermath of their army’s collapse, Afghan citizens of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif were left bewildered and helpless. But civil society in Afghanistan is very different from what it was in 2001. A new middle class has tasted freedoms beyond the imagination of any previous generation. It knows the Taliban script, and will be watching the world even if the West chooses to avert its eyes.

Too much perhaps was expected of the Panjshir resistance, which had no time for preparation. The brief skirmishes were more evidence of the depth of Pakistan’s investment in the Taliban’s success and survival. The resistance could not be sustained as Pakistani drones and aircraft apparently struck from the skies. In 1966, Pakistani Brigadier Sultan Amir Tarar, working under the pseudonym Colonel Imam, led the Taliban to Kabul. We do not know who the present incarnation is, but revelation can only be a matter of time. The sharpest reaction to Pakistan’s undisguised intervention came from Iran, not America or NATO.

The war in Afghanistan was based on justice; the invasion of Iraq was justified by prevarication

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticised Pakistan’s flagrant military incursions in an interview to WION, the international television news channel. From a different platform, former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was equally critical. Iran has never hesitated to criticise American intervention as counter-productive adventurism, but this does not mean that it accepts the status quo in Kabul. In another signal, on September 7th, the Shia Ulema Council of Afghanistan demanded the implementation of Jafari jurisprudence for its community, which is quite different from Mullah Akhundzada’s interpretation of Sharia. There are no Shia Hazaras in the cabinet.

It is not in Iran’s interest to let Pakistan fill the vacuum left by American retreat.

Real-life chess has just begun, and the Russians are famously adept at this game. On September 9th, Bakhtiyar Khakimov, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), announced that Afghanistan would not be invited to the SCO meet on September 16-17 as an Observer State, since its government could not be considered legitimate.

Simultaneously, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN said that the Taliban movement was not legitimate by international standards and that its government did not reflect the interests of all Afghan ethnic and political groups.

The seismic tremors are being measured by those in the direct line of fire. Muhammadu Buhari, president of Nigeria, did not hide his anxiety when he said: ‘Though some believe the war on terror winds down with the US departure from Afghanistan, the threat it was supposed to address burns fiercely on my continent. Africa is the new frontline of global militancy.’ He is watching the advance of Al Shabaab and Nusrat al Islam across the belt of Africa: Somalia, Mozambique, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and, of course, Nigeria.

Biden claimed that America could not be the world’s policeman, but surely it is the duty of an American president to be America’s policeman? 9/11 occurred in America, not in the rest of the world. America ensured stability in Afghanistan with less than 3,000 troops, because it was never about numbers and always about presence, and the threat of American reprisal. Once that threat was diluted, America’s power collapsed. From guardian, America became an evacuee.

Ryan Crocker, Barack Obama’s ambassador in Kabul, has described Biden’s unconditional withdrawal as a disaster and a boost to militant Islam. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, has already expressed the thought that America might have to return to Afghanistan. This will not happen on Biden’s watch, but two years pass quickly. Ken McCallum, director general of Britain’s MI5, told BBC Radio 4 on September 10 that he had no doubt that the Taliban’s victory had ‘heartened and emboldened extremists… the big concern flowing from Afghanistan, alongside the immediate inspirational effect, is the risk that terrorists reconstitute and once again pose us more in the way of well-developed sophisticated plots of the sort that we faced in 9/11 and the years thereafter’.

The Taliban and their mentors in Pakistan’s ISI know that another 9/11 would hardly be the best way forward, but has that message got through to their surrogates like ISIS-K, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba? The Taliban will be tempted to repeat the fiction often used by Pakistan that terrorists are lone wolves outside anyone’s control, but that kind of subterfuge is wearing thin. Pakistan never admitted that Osama bin Laden was hiding in plain sight of a cantonment; today it denies that Ayman al-Zawahiri, current leader of al-Qaeda, and his deputies are safe on its soil.

The Taliban are an acknowledged force for permanent war, but can they run a government? War unites a leadership; power tends to fracture it. There was intense wrangling for ministerial posts, finally resolved by ISI chief General Faiz Hameed before the Taliban government was announced. Thirty of the 33 cabinet posts have been taken by Pashtuns. Akhundzada does not have the stature of Mullah Omar and became leader only because his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed by an American air strike when he was travelling through Baluchistan. The man to watch is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has been both part of the movement and slightly apart from it. Haqqani, now interior minister, believes that he contributed more to the long war against NATO than the clerics of the Quetta Shura now sitting in high office. At a meeting with tribal leaders in the first week of September, Haqqani praised the suicide bombers who had made victory possible against America. He has not disbanded his network.

Pakistan’s strategy of strategic depth to its west rests on its belief that it will always control Kabul. The worry this time is not that Islamabad will influence Kabul but that Afghanistan will Talibanise Pakistan. When an arsonist gets hold of the fire brigade, everything can go up in flames.

MJ Akbar is an MP and the author of, most recently, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle Against Jinnah’s Islam

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