The question is whether the Taliban would stay as a monolith and owe allegiance to the incumbent Ameer-ul Momineen, Mullah Haibtullah Akhundzada, or there will be other contenders to the coveted office. Mullah Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob, is considered as a leading contender. Western commentators speculate that Yaqoob may stage a coup against the current Taliban order in the coming year/years. He is the head of the military commission and controls the Taliban’s finances since 2015. The Taliban’s revenues have jumped from $200 million to $1.6 billion, in which revenues from narcotics and minerals fetch $400 million each. With the expansion of the Taliban’s geographical reach, the revenue has also increased.55 It is now estimated that the Taliban hold sway over 50 per cent of territory, while contest another 20 per cent.
According to the Australian journalist, Lynne O’Donnell, who has been extensively covering Afghanistan: “Yaqoob has recently extended his control of Taliban military operations in Afghanistan from 15 provinces in 2015 to 28 provinces by early 2020. He is believed to have extended this control to all of Afghanistan and has taken control of the Taliban’s “Afghanistan affairs” portfolio. Yaqoob has the support of powerful figures in the Taliban leadership structure, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund (known as Mullah Baradar), based in Doha. Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban with Mullah Omar, was the main interlocutor with the United States and signed the February 29, 2020 agreement. Likely to return to the senior leadership, is Mullah Tayyib Agha, chief of staff to (late) Mullah Omar and head of the Doha political operation from 2009 until 2015. As Yaqoob consolidates his power in coming months, he is likely to face opposition from the Ishakzai tribe and aligned tribes. Gul Agha Ishakzai controlled Taliban finances for Mullah Omar, and was instrumental in the rise to Supreme Leader of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was tribally aligned with the Ishakzai. Yaqoob can assume the loyalty of his own Hotak tribe, and aligned tribes.
It is not only the tussle between the Hotaks and Ishakzais in the current Taliban hierarchy which may become problematic in the near future but the overall traditional tribal setup whereby Durranis (with Popalzais and Barakzais dominating the scene in the Greater Kandahar region) and Khiljis would be up in arms if the Taliban leadership undermines their share in the future governance. Similarly, Noorzais could create problems for any government if their elders (Masharan) are not given due representation in the government.
Individually, the Taliban are deeply-rooted in their tribal societies but, in their self-identification, the balance between being Pashtun and being Muslim has changed, as is the case with many Afghans. Therefore, the Taliban will have to take into account the ground realities at the socio-political level that has qualitatively changed whereby the people expect their voices to be heard on political or religious matters. This also includes women who are more vocal now than in the past.
State of democracy and Human Rights in Afghanistan?
After the US-led coalition toppled the Taliban, a political order was established under President Hamid Karzai. His nomination to lead the country in the interim setup was controversial. The former minister in the King Zahir Shah government, Prof Abdul Sattar Sirat, a Tajik and brother-inlaw of former Speaker Younas Qanuni, was the favourite nominee of the Bonn conference participants. He initially won 11 votes to Karzai’s three, to lead an interim government. Prof Sirat enjoyed the blessings of the former King Zahir Shah but had to step aside in favour of Hamid Karzai because of his ethnicity. It is no longer a secret that the Americans had already decided to make Mr Karzai the future leader of Afghanistan.
Surprisingly, being the champion of democracy and human rights, the US dictated its terms on the future setup of Afghanistan and even nominated presidential candidates; Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. Ironically, contribution of these gentlemen to Afghanistan’s struggle against the Soviet invasion or afterwards, has been minimal. The US was opposed to reconciliation with the Taliban in the first decade of its occupation of Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to reassemble and put up fierce resistance. In doing so they had the support of the local populace. One reason offered by the Afghan watchers is that the order put up in the country under the supervision of the US-led coalition suffered from incompetence, nepotism and corruption.
The question arises that why Americans agreed to enter into negotiations with the Taliban while it vehemently opposed any rapprochement with the religious militia for almost 18 years? On the prima facie, the US, much to their regret, realised that by para-trooping Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani, they were betting on the wrong horses. Except that both were ethnic Pashtuns, they could not bring about formidable change in the country in terms of socio-economic justice or reconciliation in the tribal society. This was already severely bruised ever since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the ensuing civil war, once the Red Army left the country. Even their Pashtun ethnicity did not work to their advantage. They failed to consolidate their power amongst the Pashtun tribes or bring about political stability across the ethnic and religious divide.
Another factor that has become a significant challenge for reconciliation in the country is the unbridled influence of the warlords belonging to major ethnic groups. The US aligned with the warlords to topple the Taliban but subsequently became their captive in running the affairs of the state. Warlords in Afghanistan are well-entrenched and may continue to call the shots due to insecurities surrounding the country. In the absence of socioeconomic justice and the rule of law, ordinary Afghans have no choice but to owe allegiance to the warlords. These warlords only respect the power of the gun; at least this is the experience of the past four decades, if not more.
The Taliban may be notorious for ruthlessness, but even their detractors have credited the militia for establishing peace and the rule of law in the country. The Taliban may not have offered the best rule, but they had succeeded in controlling the warlords. If anything, to make the Taliban acceptable would be their doggedness to establish the rule of law in the country in the shortest possible time. Even though one may have apprehensions about the antiquated methods, they may employ to bring normalcy to the war-ravaged country, yet some of the steps taken were undeniably effective. In a leaked cable, former UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, told the French Charge d’Affaires in 2008 that the myriad problems faced by Afghanistan suggested that the best solution for the country would be installing an “acceptable dictatorship” in Afghanistan.
When analysing President Donald Trump’s decision to sign a peace agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, one can discern the rationale of the American decision-making process that accepted the Taliban’s reality and reconciled to sign a peace deal. Although not acknowledged yet, it was also an admittance of the mistake that western-style democracy may not work in conditions like Afghanistan. Hence, former British Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles’ remarks that “installing an acceptable dictatorship” sounds prophetic and conform to Afghanistan’s existing reality. It appears that Afghanistan is gradually moving towards “acceptable dictatorship” to which the Americans also seem to have reconciled.
This is the third part of a report published by Islamabad Policy and Research Institute (IPRI).
The writer is the former ambassador to Iran and UAE.