On August 15 this year, India’s Independence Day, an unspeakable event occurred in Afghanistan, taking the world by storm. The Taliban, which had been advancing through the country, marched into the capital Kabul and took charge. President Ashraf Ghani left the country.
The global media was full of images of Afghans rushing to Kabul airport, desperate to leave the country. The Taliban closed the border with neighbouring countries. Within a month, girls were refused attendance at schools, and women were turned away from workplaces. The ministry of women’s affairs was replaced with a ministry of vice and virtue, to enforce the Taliban’s rigid interpretation of Islam.
Between 2004 and 2016 I visited Afghanistan a dozen times, working with UN agencies and international and national civil society organisations (CSOs). In 2004 Kabul was in ruins, bombed out by continued insurgencies and attacks, the last being the 2001 raid by the United States and its allies, in retaliation for the strike by Al-Qaeda operatives against America -- on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
While Afghanistan was the base for Al-Qaeda, the attackers were not Afghans. The then US President, George W. Bush, vowed to “win the war against terrorism”, later zeroing in on Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
The Taliban retreated, and the reconstruction of Afghanistan began. In 2004, an assembly of 502 Afghan delegates adopted a constitution, creating a strong presidential system intended to unite the country’s various ethnic groups. This was seen as a positive step towards democracy. “Afghans have seized the opportunity provided by the United States and its international partners to lay the foundation for democratic institutions and provide a framework for national elections,” declared US special ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. It was a first for the country.
Since then, I witnessed a country beleaguered by war and conflict move towards a nation state, a modern state. I also saw dissent and disarray. The ideal democracy that the West wanted to create in Afghanistan was a centrist and top-down model that didn’t fit the political, economic, social, or religious reality of the Afghan people.
Democracy and its components -- good governance, the rule of law, anti-corruption measures, credible and transparent elections, a vibrant civil society, an independent media, and the inclusion of women and the minorities in the development process -- was a first for Afghans.
These were systems that worked well in the developed countries of the North, based on logical and rational thinking, with a huge safety net for their citizens.
From 2002, Afghans who fled during the Soviet occupation from 1986-96 and then the Taliban regime (1996-2001), came back to their country in droves, mostly from Iran and Pakistan. They were somewhat educated and had the requisite skills needed to build a modern Afghan state. Consultants, of Afghan origin and otherwise, poured in from all over the globe.
I was one of them.
In some ways it was a glorious period. The media flourished, CSOs began to sprout, small and medium sized businesses came into their own and women -- from schools to Parliament -- were mainstreamed into Afghan society. Afghans, passionate about their country, wanted to build a modern Afghanistan. Western donors poured money into Afghanistan to build the nation, in every sector.
By 2006, the Taliban, who had retreated in 2002, resurfaced in the south of the country and slowly began gaining ground. In 2016, in my last trip, there were serious threats of violence and insecurity, even in Kabul. I was conducting a training course on trafficking and migration with Afghan journalists, as illegal immigration was growing.
Afghans were leaving as the economy was in a downturn. Unemployment rates were high and job prospects, especially in rural areas, were grim. My friends in Kabul told me stories of the Taliban recruiting illiterate young boys and men and who needed to make a living but couldn’t find work.
Today, the staff of the international and national CSOs, bureaucrats, parliamentarians and the activists who I worked with are the targets of Taliban rage because they were part of institutions that the Taliban consider un-Islamic. They are demanding that the Taliban include women and minorities in the government and asking the international community to support them.
However, in the last two decades, the democratically voted governments have not been inclusive. Afghanistan is a mostly tribal and multi-ethnic society, with 15 ethnic groups, in which Pashtuns have historically been dominant; it has a long history of ethic and tribal rivalry and warlords. Like traditional cultures, they have indigenous systems of justice and resist the courts and laws of the modern state.
The Taliban don’t want democratic institutions, inclusiveness, or women in public life. Their worldview doesn’t allow for this. Their interpretation of what is un-Islamic is firm and rigid, contrary to the concepts of democracy and democratic institutions. The Western model of democracy adopted by Afghanistan and the resistance and rise of the Taliban could be seen as a battle of tradition over modernity. Dissenting voices can be raised against the Taliban in and outside Afghanistan, especially related to women and minorities. But they might just be falling on deaf ears and may not change the hearts and minds of the Taliban.
The Taliban may fall and fail as they have no experience in managing a country. Their assets are frozen, and the country is in deep debt. Humanitarian aid will only go so far. It may be time to lie low and watch the Taliban self-destruct.