The Taliban May Feign Restraint, But The Killer Reality Is Clear, By Patrick Cockburn
In 2001 the Taliban detonated the gigantic 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan to show his defiance to the world and his contempt for all religious beliefs as well as his own fanatical version of Sunni Islam.
Another motive was to demonstrate the power of the Taliban over the Shiite minority in Afghanistan, mostly members of the Hazara ethnic group of 4 million people, at whose heart were the statues before their destruction.
Last week, the Taliban blew up another statue in Bamiyan, this time of a martyred Hazara leader who had been assassinated in 1995, shortly before capturing Kabul for the first time. His name was Abdul Ali Mazari and he died when he and his top advisers were invited to a peace meeting with a Taliban leader. Upon arrival, Mazari was kidnapped, tortured, executed, and his body thrown from a helicopter.
His mutilated remains were later handed over to his Shiite Hazara followers, who took them for forty days through snow-capped mountains in Hazara territory to a funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Sanctified by his life and the manner of his death in the eyes of the Hazara, he was later declared an official martyr for Afghanistan’s National Unity by President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country last week.
The rapid destruction of the Mazari statue in Bamiyan last Wednesday is a sinister guide to the future behavior of the Taliban once they believe their current show of restraint is no longer necessary to impress the outside world. In May this year, the visceral hatred of Shiites as heretics by the Taliban or the local Isis chapter was horribly displayed when 85 Hazara Shiite schoolgirls were killed by a bomb as they left their school in Kabul.
The next few months will tell, once Afghanistan is no longer topping the news agenda, to what extent Kabul’s new Taliban rulers will renew the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities outside of the Pashtun community to which almost all Taliban belong.
However, although the Pashtuns are the largest community, they are still only 42% of the 38 million people in Afghanistan. A determining feature of the country’s political landscape is that all communities are minorities, creating different centers of power, whose relationships will decide the future of the country.
A militarized party like the Taliban based on the Pashtun community in the south of the country may seize power by physical force for a time, but it is unlikely to hold it permanently or peacefully unless some authority is delegated to the Uzbeks. , Tajiks and Hazara, as well as cities such as Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.
It was Mazari, the assassinated Shiite Hazara leader, who advocated for a federal Afghanistan with the different regions of the country enjoying wide autonomy. His fate at the time and the immediate explosion of his statue a quarter of a century later indicate that the Taliban are no more interested now in his solution to Afghanistan’s permanent civil war than they were when they killed him.
“I don’t think the Taliban can unite the country,” an Afghan friend told me this week. “Afghans only come together to fight obvious enemies like the Russians or the Americans. The last time [before the overthrow of the Taliban by the US-backed invasion of 2001], the Taliban demanded that everyone speak the Pashto language. “
My Afghan friend wondered if the incoming Taliban leaders would have the sophistication to rule a country as diverse as Afghanistan with its mosaic of cultures, languages, communal identities, and political interests. He reminded Taliban leaders before 2001 that they could not read or write and initially hired someone to write their signature on official documents. “Later they had their signatures inscribed on a ring that they would press on an ink pad and then on a document,” he said.
For now, the Taliban are keen to give the impression that they have tempered their old fanatical and murderous ways. Their victory has come faster and more complete than they expected because the high-profile American withdrawal convinced Afghans that the defeat of the government was inevitable, and this belief became self-fulfilling.
Switching sides early to the likely winner has always been a feature of the war in Afghanistan, as it was in medieval England during the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, Shakespeare’s history plays on that period provide a good guide to the rapidly changing betrayals and loyalties of current Afghan politics.
The Taliban’s dominance is more fragile than it might seem in the long run, but for the moment they have the momentum of victory behind them. Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbors will want to see what they do with their new power.
Some members of the fallen regime already speak of armed resistance, such as First Vice President Amrullah Saleh. Another is Ahmad Massoud, the son of the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by Al Qaeda suicide bombers in 2001.
Like his father, Ahmad says he will fight from the great natural fortress of the Panjshir valley north of Kabul, which the Taliban have yet to take. The valley floor used to be littered with the remains of burned Soviet tanks from the battles of the 1980s. But the precedent can be misleading because the Taliban are stronger than ever and opposition to them has yet to rally.
Even when it does, it will require foreign sponsors in the form of money and weapons, and no foreign state is likely to provide these while they are still assessing the nature of the new regime in Kabul.
The United States and its Western allies say a crucial test for them will be the extent to which the Taliban avoid harboring terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, as they did before 9/11. The Taliban will be very interested in not doing so because they want international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Unlike 20 years ago, they don’t need anything from al-Qaeda, like money and fanatical recruits willing to die on the battlefield.
Foreign media coverage has focused on the threat to Afghan interpreters who were with foreign forces and the reduction of women to an inferior status within Afghan society.
However, the deciding factor in deciding whether the 40-year Afghan civil war will continue or come to an end will be decided by the degree to which the Taliban will seek to monopolize power or share it with the other Afghan communities.