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A realistic assessment of the circumstances in which it has to operate should have induced the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to follow a moderate course. Instead, it has sent out unmistakable signs of a preference for extremism.

A peculiar state of mind is almost certainly in play, but to ascribe the dissonance solely to this factor would be a mistake.

The Taliban’s obduracy

1) Afghanistan desperately needs financial assistance from the international community. This is not only because of the looming food crisis, which could push lakhs of people to the brink of starvation within weeks. Donors will probably provide food aid in time.

2) But the government has no money to pay salaries or get the machinery moving. Before the U.S. shut shop in mid August, it is estimated to have taken care of 80% of public expenditure in Afghanistan.

3) Several billion dollars worth of Afghan government funds have now been frozen by the U.S. Federal Reserve. Other donor countries and the International Monetary Fund have also cut off the flow of finance.

4) Russia, Iran and the Central Asian republics cannot pick up the slack; China believes in loans, not grants; and Pakistan is a near basket case.

5) The only source of revenue that the authorities in Kabul can hope to tap is customs payments and a good part of those could be siphoned off by the militias that control border check posts.

6) Western countries are not likely to recognise the Taliban regime as the legitimate government — a necessary condition for the loosening of purse strings — unless it fulfils three conditions:

  • Kabul will have to ensure that terrorist groups do not find sanctuary in Afghanistan;
  • the rights of women and minorities must be protected; and
  • the government must be inclusive.

But judging by the first steps they took after taking over, the Taliban seem untroubled by these demands or the consequences of noncompliance.

In forming a cabinet, the Taliban defiantly signalled that they were inclined to lead their country back to the despotism they had imposed during their earlier stint in power.

Hardline Pakhtoons control most ministries, other ethnicities have only token representation, and women have been excluded.

Indications about how this lot would rule soon followed.

  1. The Education Ministry ordered male teachers and students back to secondary school but made no mention of women educators or girl students.
  2. Working women were told they must stay at home until proper systems are in place to ensure their safety.
  3. There is no longer a Women’s Ministry; the Taliban have brought back the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
  4. They have banned protests that do not have their approval.
  5. Minor concessions on the demand for inclusiveness of non Pakhtoons are not likely to satisfy the world or the other ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
  6. Ministry formation has added another hindrance to the flow of funds. Many in the cabinet figure in the UN’s sanctions list and the U.S.’s terrorism list.
  7. The U.S. may even impose sanctions on other countries who provide aid to this Cabinet.

Given these apparently insurmountable hurdles, why have the Taliban displayed such obduracy?

A sensible course would have been to show compliance, obtain recognition in order to establish diplomatic ties and get the funds flowing.

Other governments would have found the rupturing of ties more difficult than withholding recognition from the outset.

A hotchpotch of militias

The general belief is that the Taliban are fanatically devoted to a premodern world view. This narrative is designed to embed in the world’s consciousness the idea that the young Talibs form the core of this enterprise and are such strong believers in whatever they have been taught that they will turn against their political leaders if there is any deviation from the world view and policies they espouse.

The story goes that any compromise by the elders or nominal superiors will drive these young Talibs to join the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).

It is time to call this bluff. Young Talibs, whether drawn from the villages or the refugee camps, are probably all true Muslims and most might have some respect for their mullahs. But they are not as unexposed to the world as the generation preceding them.

According to reports, they have had no inhibitions in posing for photographs or listening to music, activities frowned upon by the strictly conservative.

The earlier generation of Talibs might have respected Osama bin Laden for sacrificing a life of luxury to join the jihad. But that did not motivate them to join al Qaeda even though bin Laden made an oath of allegiance to their revered leader, Mullah Omar.

After all, there were no Afghans among the 19 militants associated with 9/11. If that was the case in the heyday of jihadism, there seems to be little reason to think that these young men will now drift towards the ISKP.

Are the extremists who have cornered the plum posts in the cabinet likely to make common cause with the ISKP if they are thwarted from implementing their policies?

They do subscribe to an ideology that is a mix of Pakhtoonwali (the old tribal code) and a paternalistic interpretation of the Shariah. Devotion to the cause did not prevent them from diverting aid meant for refugees to investments in the Gulf and luxury housing in Quetta.

They are certainly conservative and ruthless. But their proclamation of intent to establish a system based on their own interpretation of selected Islamic texts appears nothing more than cynical politics.

Overall, the impression sought to be created is that the Taliban movement is an extremist controlled monolith and unstoppable. Actually, the Taliban are a hotchpotch of militias, which are constantly repositioning themselves in relation to one another.

Designations such as Defence Minister have little meaning when the army no longer exists, and Mullah Yaqoob has full control only over the men raised from his locality.

Other militias coopted to serve with his men could drift away over time. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has gained possession of the intelligence dossiers in his Interior Ministry, and who has the power to appoint governors, might be the only real winner here. Resistance to his appointment might have been a factor that led Inter Services Intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed to intervene directly in Afghan’s ministry formation.

Haqqani’s ascendancy certainly advances Pakistan’s agenda. But the road ahead is fraught in Afghanistan where fault lines run every which way. Pakistan knows that it faces a tough task inside the territory of its western neighbour. Meanwhile, it seems intent on garnering what benefits it can. In prompting its protégés to be intransigent, Pakistan can present itself before the world as the only entity capable of controlling the crazies.


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