The new generation of Afghans may not accept the Taliban way so easily
The expected event happened. The Taliban of Afghanistan have returned to power after 20 years of saber-rattling with the US and the feckless Afghan army that US had tried to put up during last two decades of “nation-building” efforts in that hapless country. What probably was not expected is the speed with which the Afghan army dissipated.
The return of the Taliban to power has been on the cards much before the real event last week. There was not much doubt that the government in Afghanistan cobbled together by US over the last two decades did not have much oxygen to run on its own without the money and military cylinders that US and Nato allies provided much of this period. Even then, the Afghan government was effective in only half of the country as the Taliban whittled away its control inch by inch.
The ouster of the Taliban occurred after indiscriminate attack on Taliban holdouts including those of al-Qaeda terrorist group. It was a success but for a brief period. The al-Qaeda and its leadership were driven from Afghanistan, but not the Taliban. The Taliban were removed from government, but not from the country. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Taliban were no foreigners. They were local, they were sons of the soil. They could easily blend among their people, regroup, and restart their fights, which they did and very successfully.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan and its people continued to be victims of this war of attrition. More than 240,000 lives were lost from 2001 to 2021, among whom over 71,000 were civilians. While the fighting continued the country became a target of a variety of policies from US and its allies, either in the name of eradicating threat of terrorism or in the name of “nation-building.” The US would end up spending more $2 trillion yet, in the end, the Taliban prevailed.
The Taliban prevailed not just because of their grit, determination, and the will to fight, but because they were more acceptable to the people than the corrupt elites who were put to power by manipulated elections.
Just look back at the history of last five decades in Afghanistan. The overthrow of King Zahir Shah in a coup by his own cousin, Daud Khan, also a military general, in 1973 installed a pro-soviet government calling himself president. But his misrule and distrust by Afghans led to his toppling six years later by a communist party leader named Taraki, declaring independence from Soviet influence but ironically keeping the treaty with the Soviets. His government was rife with troubles as insurgents rose in arms against his government compelling the Soviets to invade Afghanistan in 1979.
The 10-year struggle of the guerilla force known as the Mujahideen who were aided with military resources from a pliant Pakistan with funding by the US would finally oust the Soviets from Afghanistan, but not without substantial attrition on both sides. This Mujahideen would later morph into the current Taliban, who would later topple the fledgling post-Soviet weak government in Kabul and form their own hardcore Islamic regime.
A major reason why the Taliban was able to topple the post-Soviet government was their solidarity and strict adherence to stern rule of justice, albeit in the name of shariah. They won the Afghan people’s support slowly by imposing strict rule of law in the areas they controlled and by ensuring safety and security of the people under their control. This won the common people’s support. The simple and unostentatious living of Taliban leaders (Mullah Omar lived in a tent), and pious living of all Taliban also appealed to the common Afghan to whom Islamic values of observing religious edicts were very important. That is why, when the Taliban imposed strict shariah law in the country and meted out harsh punishment to the people who violated the laws, there were no armed struggle to resist them. They were also left alone by the international community.
In fact, had it not been due to the terrorist event of September 11, 2001 perhaps the US would have also let them alone if they had agreed to give up the suspected mastermind of the attack Osama bin Laden to the US. Their refusal brought US wrath and subsequent attack on Afghanistan leading to the Taliban rule.
But the Taliban never relented. They followed Oliver Goldsmith’s saying: “He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day.” Which they have done now. They have returned for the second time after a lapse of 20 years.
But is this Taliban different from two decades ago? Most of their leadership and composition of rank and file are 20 years younger (not necessarily older). Many of this next generation have grown up outside Afghanistan. Some even have a more comprehensive education and wider view of world affairs. Will this new Taliban be less harsh and kinder and gentler than the previous generation?
Nobody can provide the answer right now, although in their first news conference their chief spokesperson who was hitherto hidden behind camera has affirmed that they would not be vindictive, or harsh in their treatment of their opponents. They even assured the women of fair and equal treatment and their safety.
Only the future can tell how good the new Taliban will be on their words. Much will depend on their ability to stabilize their government and ability to win the heart and minds of their own people. History is witness that just as the Afghans have shown their intolerance to foreign rule and foreign occupation, they have been equally intolerant of unjust rulers.
Just as the Taliban now has a new generation, the Taliban will also have to contend with a generation that has grown without them. They may not accept a Taliban diktat easily. The Taliban know better than others that sword alone will not keep them in power for ever.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.