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OP-ED: The phenomenon of the Taliban

  • Published at 03:39 am September 14th, 2021
taliban afghanistan
A Taliban soldier stands in a park in Herat, Afghanistan REUTERS

Will Afghanistan remain relevant?

An expression innocently suggestive of academia, derived from the word for “student” in the Pashto tongue spoken by the majority of the citizens of Afghanistan, is today the crown jewel of the global lexicon which, in the aftermath of the catastrophic events of recent weeks, projects and illuminates with renewed vigour the phenomenon it represents on the conscience and fabric of civil society.

The Taliban, angry young men inflamed by theology and eager to correct the perceived injustices wrought by 45 years of social and political turmoil emerged, Robin Hood-like, in 1994 from the region around the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. 

Blooded in the nine-year war against the Slavic hordes, and fighting shoulder to shoulder with the various elements of the Mujahideen, a catch-all term representing en bloc the proxy and beneficiary of American military largesse, they were the faction to ultimately emerge victorious while fighting a civil war for control of the country in the vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal and subsequent collapse of the republican government. 

It is the astounding success of their march to absolute power in 1996, and the manner in which it is replicated today, that makes one pause to ponder on this anachronism of the modern era.

Under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the brigade of largely Pashtun students (talib) educated in the madrassas clutched the message ordained by scripture and fortified by the Kalashnikov as they radiated out from their stronghold. The movement spread, messianic and powered by a groundswell of popular support, wresting power from the Mujahideen warlords and eventually culminating in the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996.

The shadow cast by the towering figure of the one-eyed Mullah, whose image till recently was available to the world by way of a mere solitary grainy photograph, loomed large over the first emirate. Consumption eventually claimed the reclusive warlord, now in exile and hiding, two years after the Northern Alliance sped its way to total victory in Kabul, borne aloft on American ordnance activated yet again in the never-ending “pursuit of democracy.”

The Taliban leaves no stone unturned in the quest to secure absolute power. A nation-wide hunt is underway to identify and take action against those who had “collaborated” with the Americans and the governments they had propped up over two shaky decades. At a more sinister level, the young and battle-hardened storm-troopers, now hungry for the spoils of victory, go house to house in search of juvenile girls and unmarried (or rather “unclaimed”) young women to make their own as a part of an accumulating personal booty. 

A country which teetered on the brink of modernity has sunk rapidly into the morass of a stone-age and biblical medievalism possibly unsurpassed by any other nation. Social media bursts with images of punishment meted out to enemies of the state, whether it is the summary execution or stoning of women who dared to transgress boundaries imposed by tradition and scripture or the hanging of an unfortunate suspended from a hovering helicopter.

The clamour of a constant refrain of two trillion dollars poured with little or no return into the bottomless pit that was Afghanistan refuses to subside. Riddled with corruption and governed on the principle of notional fealty to one’s family, sub-clan, clan and tribe, that the lion’s share of this river of revenue was siphoned off by politicians, warlords, and regional potentates appears a foregone conclusion. 

However, a decently substantial amount should have trickled down, because the reality is that the Afghan army, comprising 300,000 clothed, fed, and armed soldiers trained under the careful eye of the Americans, was paid regularly till a few short months ago. 

But what boggles the mind is the speed and alacrity with which an apparently trained and disciplined force capitulated wholesale in the face of columns of fervid fighters consisting of a fraction of their numbers and wielding but a fraction of their firepower. 

What prompted trained officers to surrender their entire brigades and ordnance by formal deed? How did the Afghan people permit a huge country with a population of 38 million to be overrun by a small army of 75,000? Therefore, is the concept of Afghanistan today a chimera, a mockery in the face of a society which experienced nationhood with all its pitfalls over 175 years of modern history?

The International Security Assistance Force, otherwise known as the American occupation, is now a fading memory, much reviled by an indignant world as they withdrew, or rather scrambled pell-mell from the wasteland of Afghanistan. But, dear reader, what is incontrovertible is that over 20 years, Afghan society enjoyed resurgence through education, social media, and participation of women in the economy in a manner reminiscent of the heady seventies. 

Can the clock be turned back so completely? Fire-breathing veterans of the battlefield who are now constrained to take up the reins of sober government proclaim their goal to be “a genuine Islamic system for Afghanistan in line with the cultural sensitivities and tradition of the country.” 

Once the bloodlust subsides, can the proclamation be harmonized with the dynamics of modern Afghan society? Or do the internal dynamics of the Taliban prohibit anything other than a steady regression to a way of life that never was?

Will Afghanistan remain relevant? In the immediate future, yes, but tragically for all the wrong reasons. For the mineral-rich nation squats on a trillion dollars of lithium, that precious element which powers the hand-held idiot box of every second teeny bopper and yours truly. Mining concessions need to be secured post-haste, along with the conduit to transport the ore through the pelf and bribery represented by the patchwork of tribes. 

The predators circle, waiting to swoop. What happens eventually to the ill-starred people of a proud country is incidental.

Sumit Basu is a freelance contributor  based in India.