Averting a catastrophe in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is still without even a provisional constitution. The partial adoption of 1964 Constitution of the King Zahir Shah era was mentioned only once by the minister for Judiciary but there was no follow up on that due to lack of consensus

Afrasiab Khattak

After the collapse of state system in Afghanistan and its occupation by Taliban a grave humanitarian crises has overtaken the country like a tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of people have been leaving the country to save their lives as the Taliban are targeting individuals working in security department and in some other institutions of the previous government. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Taliban have closed doors to women employees in bulk. Even those government servants who haven’t been thrown out of their jobs aren’t getting their salaries. Banks aren’t functioning so millions of people don’t have access to the money in their bank accounts. Taliban’s effort for revival of the delivery of basic services is not fully successful because of their rigid stand towards the former government employees.

The recent fighting in different parts of the country has left a huge number of people displaced and without means of survival. With the harsh winter of the country around the corner, millions of people are faced with challenge of bringing food to their tables and protecting themselves from severe cold in the mountainous country. The only way to avert the impending catastrophe is to launch a determined and clearly mandated UN-led and monitored humanitarian assistance on war footings. This has to be the top and urgent priority if the international community is serious in averting the catastrophe.

Afghans have age old sociocultural relations with their three Central Asian neighbours in the north but they do not have much active people to people relations with them due to the closed borders policy of the former Soviet Union. Even after the independence of the Central Asian republics in 1991 the governments there haven’t been liberal in opening their borders for large scale people to people exchanges. So Pakistan and Iran have remained the main destinations for Afghan refugees, traders, students and tourists during the last many decades. But unfortunately both Pakistan and Iran have adopted a very callous policy towards common Afghans during the latest political and military crises in Afghanistan. Both the countries have strictly closed their borders for Afghans. Afghan patients aren’t allowed to enter Pakistan for treatment and Afghan students are also stranded due to visa restrictions. The unfriendly policy of immediate neighbours has increased the sufferings of common Afghans.

It’s a government of the mullas (priests), by the mullas and for the mullas. But these mullas are totally clueless about modern governance

The aforementioned bleak scenario is further compounded by the clear domination of extremists and hardliners in the Taliban regime which has severely undermined the efforts of the revival of the state system in the country and also the recognition of Taliban regime by international community. Quite contrary to the claims of their Pakistani patrons about a “changed Taliban”, the recently formed non-inclusive government of Taliban dominated by hardliners has rigidly stuck to its position of total exclusion of women from state employment, education, and sociocultural life. Some of the prominent women activists, who were forced to flee the country, have rightly called it gender apartheid. Important ethnic groups like Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and others have no or negligible representation in the Taliban regime. The biggest hurdle on the path of revival of state system and forming an inclusive government is the extremely rigid ideological position taken by the hardliners who refuse to adopt at least some international standards for making their state and government system acceptable to international community and also to the Afghan people. These hardliners regard suicide bombing to be the main factor in their “victory” in the two decades long war and according to them it was inspired by the aim of imposing “pure Sharia”. It is pertinent to remember that a son of the current Taliban Amir (supreme leader) Haibatullah Akhunzada had also taken part in a suicide attack. Appointments of some of the unqualified ministers are justified on the basis of the fact that their sons were suicide bombers.

The so called moderates, led by Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar argue that Taliban have to give some respect to Doha deal with the US which has given them legitimacy as a major side in the conflict. They are also wary of the Haqqani Network’s control over the capital Kabul. Although Haqqani Network is now formally part of Taliban but it has maintained its close and direct relations with the Pakistani security state. The clash between the two narratives in the Taliban leadership is not just theoretical. It turned into a physical clash in the first week of September during a meeting to discuss the formation of the new government in the presidential palace when the two sides physically attacked each other.

People with their belongings rush to pass to Pakistan from the Afghanistan border in Spin Boldak on 25 September 2021. Thousands of Afghans trying to escape the misery at home have flocked to their country's southern border with Pakistan, but their attempts to get across have been stopped by the Taliban

But the hardliners carried the day and Mulla Baradar, one of the many deputy prime ministers, remains sidelined by and large. The gulf between the two factions remains intact. The country is still without even a provisional constitution. The partial adoption of 1964 Constitution of the King Zahir Shah era was mentioned only once by the minister for Judiciary but there was no follow up on that due to lack of consensus. Like their military control over Afghanistan in 1990s when Taliban didn’t frame a constitution or proper state system, militia isn’t making distinction once again between itself and the state.

Taliban Amir Haibatullah Akhunzada and the newly appointed interior minister Siraj Haqqani (who heads the Haqqani Network) refrain from making public appearance for security reasons. They feel particularly threatened by the US drones that still hover in the skies of Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. IS-K has continued its attacks mostly in eastern Afghanistan. But its most recent suicide attack on 7 October that targeted a Shia mosque in the northern city of Kunduz was the largest attack during the last eight weeks of Taliban rule with hundreds of casualties. The continued large scale bloodshed has belied the claim that Taliban rule has brought peace to Afghanistan.

But the most important challenge to Taliban’s rule in coming weeks and months will be from the lack of any strategy for governance. They have closed their doors for technocrats and bureaucrats. It’s a government of the mullas (priests), by the mullas and for the mullas. But these mullas are totally clueless about modern governance. There are also external dimensions of the challenges. Pakistan is, for all practical purposes, treating Afghanistan under Taliban as its protectorate. But there are three critical questions about this relationship. First, will the master-client relationship between Pakistan and Taliban not undermine Taliban’s credibility in the eyes of common Afghans who regard them as Pakistani puppets? Secondly, can Pakistan continue to lord over Afghanistan given its own severe internal economic and political crises? Thirdly, can Pakistan manage the pulls and pressures between US and China that can destabilise both Pakistan and Afghanistan? We wouldn’t have to wait long for finding answers to these questions as things are moving quite fast.

* Afrasiab Khattak is a former Pakistani Senator and analyst of regional affairs