Monday, 02 October 2023 07:39

Make Sense of the Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan

September 18, 2023 23:22 EDT
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Afghanistan under the Taliban’s leadership is a place of incredible confusion and ambivalence. Economic growth stagnates, rival leaders jostle for power, rebellions break out repeatedly, the Taliban crush them ruthlessly even as they pay lip service to the international community while silencing women and minorities, and foreign relations rapidly deteriorate as mistrust mounts.

Restoring some semblance of normalcy in the Taliban’s Afghanistan has been incredibly difficult. Policy around economic activity shifts on the whims of elder militant leaders. Some days, entire sectors, like women’s beauty salons, are told to close. On other days, crops are simply not allowed to leave the country, killing exports. Operating on this shifting ground has created new risks in Afghanistan’s economy. Business planning has become impossible because the Taliban make economic policy on a whim.

Land seizures by the Taliban are the most egregious example of a toxic economic environment. The Taliban’s Ministry of Justice is seizing agricultural or housing land en masse and redistributing it to Taliban leaders. These seizures force many Afghans off their land and deprive them of their livelihoods. Furthermore, these warlords are probably the least productive members of society. The land grab is making Taliban leaders rent-seeking parasitical landlords who live off the blood, sweat and toil of ordinary Afghans.

Just as the Taliban are deciding who are the winners in Afghanistan’s economy, they are also anointing the winners in society. The Taliban have deemed Pashtun men as the undisputed top dogs in Afghanistan. Fanatical Islamist policies that interpret the Koran literally deny women education, bar them from jobs, prevent them from traveling alone and reduce them to second-class members of society.

Even when women are given rights by the Taliban leadership — often to appease international organizations or foreign governments — ground-level Taliban members unleash violence and intimidation to ensure that women do not exercise their rights. Fearing for their safety, women are increasingly excluding themselves from normal social activities and living in hiding.

Ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks have also found themselves on the losing side of the new Taliban-led state that dispenses patronage overwhelmingly to Pashtuns. The Taliban are seizing ancestral Hazara and Tajik lands. There is a distinct punitive military character to the land seizures. Taliban leaders do not feel the need to negotiate with their historical ethnic rivals. Instead, they are following medieval tactics and using extreme military force and human rights abuses to take away land from those they consider their enemies.

The Taliban have proved that they are neither competent nor cohesive. They are now targeting Pakistan to win domestic legitimacy. Simply put, the Taliban are using their insurgent tactics to take back their ancestral ethnic Pashtun lands in Pakistan and create Pashtunistan, a new state that reclaims the historic lands of the Pashtuns.

This shift in the Taliban’s paradigm has caught Pakistan napping. Ironically, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) once backed the Taliban. This dreaded military intelligence wanted strategic depth against India and aimed to use Pashtun jihadis in Kashmir. Now that the Taliban are in charge, they do not feel beholden to the ISI. They have turned their guns on Pakistan itself. Alarmingly, Taliban forces have already clashed with Pakistani troops.

Some senior leaders in the Taliban do not want relations with Pakistan to deteriorate. They are resorting to both direct talks and shuttle diplomacy. Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, the ISI chief, visited Kabul recently to smooth ruffled feathers. In a very public appearance, he told journalists not to worry and that “everything would be okay.” However, Hameed might be putting on a brave face because the more ethnonationalist members of the Taliban fanatically believe in the creation of Pashtunistan.

Just as the Taliban seek to redraw the borders of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan to benefit the Pashtun people, Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups have carved out their own centers of power for self-preservation. Militant rebellions have broken out. Mawlawi Mehdi Mujahid, a Hazara leader, and the National Resistance Front, composed chiefly of Tajiks, have rebelled. So far, the Taliban have been successful at quashing these rebellions. They deploy overwhelming force to quash the rebellion and maintain control over rebel territories. However, rebellions still keep erupting to challenge the Taliban.

Such rebellions will continue. During the Afghan Civil War, Abdul Rashid Dostum created a proto-state for ethnic Uzbek Afghans. With the Taliban repeatedly threatening the lives and livelihoods of ethnic minorities, they are bound to create Dostum-style enclaves for survival. At some point, multiple rebellions might erupt simultaneously and threaten Taliban rule.

The views expressed in this article/podcast are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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