Challenges for the Taliban and the road ahead for governance and stability 

Taliban at the Presidential Palace in Kabul. | Picture: AP

The Taliban, having, secured a highchair on the power table of war-torn Afghanistan will be faced with a host of challenges. The foremost task will be to form an inclusive government. Although Pashtuns make for around 40-45% of the population in Afghanistan and the Taliban primarily draw strengths from this tribe – there are other ethnic and religious minorities with whom the Taliban must share power to represent all Afghans. 

Mushtaque Rahamat |

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Since the withdrawal of the majority of the American and NATO forces, within a couple of weeks, the Taliban captured most of the Afghanistan provinces and districts, including the Presidential Palace, with surprising speed. No one expected the Taliban to achieve this, and everyone is still trying to understand the vanishing of Afghan armed forces and the melting away of any resistance of provincial capitals. It is remarkable how the former warlord Abdul Rasheed Dostum, who had earlier fought alongside American forces against the Taliban, fled to a neighbouring country. Similarly, Ismail Khan, the lion of Herat, surrendered to the Taliban and the son of another formidable force Abdullah Shah Masood endorsed the Taliban. 

This swift sweeping of territories by the Taliban were remarkable for how bloodless these have been in most cases, although there were few reports of killings and lootings in the wake of the Taliban taking over. Taliban announced general amnesty to all those who seek not to fight and resist. There have been, remarkably, no reports of sexual harassment which are common in the aftermath of military victory in most cases, including molestation, forcible marriage or even the ill-treatment of women across Afghanistan in the areas controlled by the Taliban.

Inclusive and representative government
Taliban, having, secured a highchair on the power table will be faced with a host of challenges. The foremost task is forming an inclusive government. Although Pashtuns make for around 40-45% of the population of Afghanistan and the Taliban primarily draw strengths from this tribe – there are other ethnic and religious minorities with whom the Taliban must share power to represent all Afghans. Notably among these minorities are Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turks, Hazara, Shias and groups who do not share the same ideals of governance and belief as of Taliban.

Taliban shouldn’t discount the fact that in their previous stint in power they didn’t have full control of Afghanistan. A significant area of Afghanistan was under the control of the Northern Alliance, which was a staunch opponent of the Taliban. This time around, the Taliban must have a practical approach to the coalition formation by including and giving due space to all such distinctive groups. Afghans of today are still divided into the lines of tribal and ethnic identity and loyalty. 

Women and children
The previous Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001 gained notoriety for denying education and working rights to women. In general, women were forced to wear the Burqa and were not allowed to venture out without a male chaperon. A strict rule of the Taliban effectively denied Afghan women access to health, education, and employment. This is especially hard for widows and poor families where every member of the household has to earn a livelihood. According to the reports of UNICEF, only 16 per cent of Afghanistan’s schools are girls-only and an estimated 3.7 million children are out-of-school in Afghanistan, 60% of whom are girls. Taliban must deliver fair access to education for all Afghan girls and women. Female education is not only a moral imperative but an economic necessity. 

After the ousting of the Taliban in 2001 and being under the control of US and coalition forces, the Afghan government worked hard on the front of education. According to one survey conducted in 2019, out of roughly 9 million children in school in Afghanistan today, as many as 3.5 million – roughly 40 per cent – are girls. The Taliban has to make sure not only these girls continue their education, but it should grow in the future. They must understand that without education no society has ever progressed. They must take a cue from the Prophet Muhammad (PUBH) who mandated education for both men and women. The Prophet (PBUH) didn’t put a ceiling on the education of women.

In the last two decades, women and children were faced with poor access to medical and health facilities owing to long-term fighting, which caused population displacement and economic hardship, loss of socioeconomic status and the shortage of female health professionals. As per WHO’s report, Afghanistan has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Women and children of Afghanistan have a distinctly higher burden of illness and death. It is estimated that 40% of children are underweight and more than 50% of all deaths occur among those under age five. The higher death rate in women is mainly due to the complications of childbirth.

Engaging with the international community
Over the years, the Taliban has grown to understand the fact that the world is connected and interdependent. In order for Afghanistan to flourish and to develop and bring peace and betterment to its people, it can’t afford to be a hermit state or pariah country. Like any other nation, Afghans would like its leadership to engage with the world and vice-versa. In the last few months, the Taliban and its leaders have been visiting and meeting with its neighbouring countries – notably among them have been visits to Iran, China, Russia and Turkey. As the war ends, the new government will have a strong presence and influence of the Taliban’s ideology but that shouldn’t come in the way of international relations based on mutual respect and interest. Taliban and its leaders of late have also been busy assuring the international community about their commitment to peace and their country won’t be used against anyone for any illegal activity especially terrorism. After coming to power, they must deliver on these promises to gain trust and earn goodwill. At the moment, there is, among the international community, a sense of reservation about the Taliban’s claim, given the past experiences.

Rights of minorities
Although Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim country with more than 99% of the population being Muslim, there is a very small presence of Bahai, Christians and others. However, Afghanistan has been marked with the intra-religious struggle between Shia and Sunnis. Taliban in the past has been accused of radicalising Sunni religion and using violence against religious minority groups. The reports of civilian casualties resulting from attacks deliberately targeting Shias and their places of worship have increased markedly since 2016. The Hazara Shia population is generally the most common victim of this ethnoreligious terrorism.

Taliban and its cohorts must ensure the rights of the minorities, including the religious and ethnic groups not only according to Islamic law (in Islam religious minority rights are protected) but also conforming to international laws and treaties. Of late, the Taliban captured territories and areas which traditionally have been populated by the ethnic and religious minorities without much struggle and there have been no reports of atrocities from those areas. So far so good, but the real test lies when the Taliban comes to power.

Economic development
Afghanistan today is a much-changed country than it was in 2001. Although there have been improvements in life expectancy, income, and literacy since then, but Afghanistan is still a poor, landlocked country which is highly dependent on foreign aid. With USD 507.10 per capita GDP, Afghanistan is among the poorest countries in the world. Most of the population still do not have access to clean water, electricity, medical care, employment and food and housing. Afghanistan is marred by very weak infrastructure, corruption, a weak or at times no governance at all. 

According to the Afghan government’s estimates, 42 per cent of Afghanistan’s total population lives below the poverty line. Also, 20 per cent of people living just above the poverty line are highly vulnerable to falling into poverty.

The new incumbents have their task cut out: to launch an inclusive and rapid economic development. The vicious cycle of decade’s long fight must end and give respite to ordinary Afghans who have been the biggest losers of these years of unrest. Millions have been displaced inside the country and millions took refuge in other countries. 

The toppling of the Taliban government in 2001 was a chance to rebuild Afghanistan but it failed miserably. The situation to rebuild Afghanistan has presented itself again. The Taliban must grab this opportunity to rebuild Afghanistan. It is situated, at a crossroad geographically and can use its location for economic advantage. Afghanistan can be a gateway and transit for Central Asian countries to access warm water through Pakistan. Pakistan, of late, has actively been marketing its Gwadar port which is being built with the support of China. Besides, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has got potential for Afghanistan too. Central Asian countries have since long been interested in exporting natural gas to Pakistan and India through Afghanistan. But were withheld because of instability and fighting in Afghanistan. Its other neighbour Iran and China present one of the biggest markets and economic superpowers. An economic prudent policy may yield more than the desired result in the short and medium-term.

According to the report published by Ahmad Shah Katawazwai in The Diplomat (February 01, 2020) Afghanistan has vast reserves of gold, platinum, silver, copper, iron, chromite, lithium, uranium, and aluminium. The country’s high-quality emeralds, rubies, sapphires, turquoise, and lapis lazuli have long charmed the gemstone market. The United States Geological Survey (USGS), through its extensive scientific research of minerals, concluded that Afghanistan may hold 60 million metric tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements (REEs) such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, and veins of aluminium, gold, silver, zinc, mercury, and lithium. According to Pentagon officials, their initial analysis at one location in Ghazni province showed the potential for lithium deposits as large as those of Bolivia, which has the world’s largest known lithium reserves. The USGS estimates the Khanneshin deposits in Helmand province will yield 1.1.-1.4 million metric tons of REEs. Some reports estimate Afghanistan REE resources are among the largest on earth.

Taliban have proved themselves on the battlefield. We are yet to see how they perform in the field of economics.

Terror and non-state actors
Afghanistan since the last couple of decades has been the hotbed of terror activities of various denominations. Its form, definition and size have kept on changing from anti-Soviets to Mujahedeen to Al Qaeda to ISIS. The world is a changed place, the rise of China and the shrinking of Europe and the USA from the world stage have changed geopolitics dynamics. Therefore, this has increased the appetite for any terror and acts of violence by the non-stage actors against any community and country. The theory of pre-emptive strikes has pushed the world to the danger of unintended and unwanted war with unknown consequences. 

Afghanistan having emerged from four decades of war, it can, no longer, afford to get embroiled in any kind of conflict either internally, externally with or without its consent and accord. Earlier, Afghanistan gave protection to Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his band of bloodthirsty zealots, which brought no good to Afghanistan except thousands of dead bodies, widows and orphans and leaving thousands injured. The stubbornness of the Taliban at that time cost Afghanistan a lot and they were pushed into war and poverty. 

This time around, the Taliban must make sure not to allow any terror activities to take place against anyone within the country or outside its border. 

Lately, the Taliban has committed itself to not allow Al Qaeda, ISIS or any other terror organization to operate from the soil of Afghanistan.

The world will wait & see and hope there is no repeat of 2001.

From armed struggle to unarmed living
According to one estimate, the Taliban has some 80,000 fighters in its ranks. This number may be much higher if all its sympathisers and part-time fighters are also taken into account. For decades, these fighters have not experienced life without rifles hung from their shoulders. They do not know what ordinary life looks like. The majority of these fighters would have been kids in 2001. In the armed struggle, life has different meanings, and daily affairs of life are conducted much different from that of civilian life. For this reason, the Taliban will have the biggest challenge to channelize this energy, urge and habits of its battle-hardened fighter to lead a life without a rifle, to adjust to the humdrum of daily boring life. Some of these, certainly, will be conscripted in the army, employed in police and civil defence but a large number will find no use of their fighting skill in civil life. This may lead, if not handled properly, to despondency, discontentment and could ignite a rebellion.

According to one Pew research, 27% of American war veterans say re-entry into civilian life was difficult for them—a proportion that swells to 44% among veterans who served in the ten years since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. There will be no surprise if similar numbers of decommissioned Taliban fighters have the same difficulty and some of them relapse into another armed struggle but this time against their own people. This is a real challenge hitherto unmet by any of the fighter groups in Afghanistan.