Authors: Amit Kumar and Aayushi Malhotra*
Abstract: The geostrategic importance of Afghanistan is crucial for the regional economy and international trade. In this essay, we address the growing difficulties the present Taliban government in Afghanistan is facing as well as the necessity of changing the current power-sharing structure in order to strengthen security, stability, and prosperity in the region. We contend that by recognizing the legitimacy dilemma, the Taliban must devise fresh strategies for gaining the support of the various ethnic groupings in order to bolster the sense of Afghan nationalism and shared identity. It has to rewire its power structure by relying on cultural relativism and pluralism, which might assist to converge the disparities among ethnic groups, tribes and non-tribes, urban areas, and rural areas into shared Afghan values and create the foundation of a robust nationhood. In turn, it would improve the Taliban’s socio-political credibility and assist it in addressing two of its most pressing concerns: domestic legitimacy and foreign legitimacy.
Security, stability, and prosperity in Afghanistan are essential for the region’s economy in particular and the expansion of the global supply chain in general. Some of the large-scale and economically significant initiatives that run through the region including China’s Belt and Road Initiatives and India’s Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline make it even more important. While the geostrategic location of Afghanistan is increasingly becoming critical for the global trade, it continues to be riddled with a plethora of terror groups that prohibit the smooth implementation of such schemes. As a result, security emerges as a major challenge, which can only be addressed by strengthening the newly constituted interim government formed by the Taliban.
Taliban, in order to establish itself as the country’s legitimate government and contribute in the growth of the nation must find new means to win over the Afghans at home and international community abroad. By doing so, the Taliban would not only make a move forward to earn the trust of its own people but also of the other nations who have been so far hesitant to recognize and accept them as a legitimate authority. Subsequently, gaining such legitimacy remains crucial for the Taliban to sustain and survive in the long run. With legitimacy will come a profusion of advantages such as unfreezing of foreign finances, lifting of several international organizations’ sanctions, ministers’ travel bans, and membership in regional and international Intergovernmental organizations. In essence, it is reasonable to say that gaining legitimacy holds a key to stability and acceptance for the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Identifying the Taliban’s Legitimacy crisis
One significant problem with current functioning of Taliban lies in its faulty power structure. Even if the Taliban has managed to reclaim control of the political landscape one more time, it continues to encounter significant opposition for its methods of operation at home and global front. Operating in isolation without gaining the trust and confidence of other ethnic groupings that constitute the Afghan demographics, Taliban’s interim government typify the case of packaging old wine in a new bottle.
According to current statistics, Pashtuns (42%), Tajiks (27%), Hazaras (9%), Uzbeks (9%), Aimak (4%), Turks (3%), and Baloch (2%) make up Afghanistan’s 41 million population. Out of this diverse ethnic pool, Pashtuns predominantly comprise Taliban’s government while the other communities remain underrepresented and marginalized. The growing political and cultural fault lines in Afghanistan today are mostly due to such underrepresentation and disengagement. Convergence of these ethnically distinctive, historically segregated, and geographically scattered populations are nonetheless strategically important for Taliban’s efforts to establish political legitimacy and present a unified front as one nation-state i.e., Afghanistan.
Lack of a singular idea of nationalism prevents the unification of Afghanistan. A bifurcation of political powerhouse i.e., Kabul and ideological powerhouse i.e., Kandahar, presents a quandary where the influence of current government seems to be inconsistent as we move from the centre towards the periphery. Local warlords, who lack the motivation to cooperate with the Kabul, hold a much greater influence in the peripheral areas. As a result, it isn’t uncommon for the locals to look up to their warlords for quick fixes for their everyday issues instead of soliciting government’s assistance. The persistent tribal-non-tribal and urban-rural differences also add up to this distress making it difficult for the peripheral population of the borderland Afghanistan to associate themselves with the urbanized Kabul and current regime of Taliban.
Rewiring of Power Structure- Anthropological Insights to Gain Legitimacy
Following the breakdown of the previous power-sharing agreement, the Taliban leadership ousted the Ghani government because the secret negotiations under the Doha accords were more favorable and appealing. It led them to acquire control of the Kabul’s Presidential Palace and form an interim government that remains at odd with the warlords and the general public of Afghanistan. To bridge this gap in governance and gain validation, there is a need for Taliban to identify a newer power sharing arrangement that is both politically and ideologically more accommodating. Granting influential warlords, a stake in the National Congress’s power structure and encouraging them to take on the responsibility of nation-building should be a priority. However, the degree to which Kabul agrees to meet their requirements will be determined by their level of loyalty towards the capital. History demonstrates that the loyalty of the borderland ethnic minorities to the establishment has always been a contested question. For instance, the case of Uyghurs of Xinjiang, China.
Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice. There are several ethnic groups whose representation in the National Congress is essential for Afghanistan’s peace and security. It includes the Tajiks who trace their roots to Tajikistan, Hazaras and Aimaks who share a deep connection with Iran, the Uzbeks who draw their ancestral legacy from Uzbekistan, the Turks who seek spiritual strength from Turkmenistan, and the Balochs who are unyielding, tenacious insurgents battling for their own territory. Current incompatibility and tussle between these groups make Afghanistan susceptible to the foreign influence and suspend the region in incessant ethnic conflicts. As these groups control the borderlands demarcating Afghanistan’s international boundaries, their involvement in the national government becomes cardinal. It also includes brining the important communal leadership like Uzbek’s frontrunner- Abdul Rashid Dostum, National Resistance Front’s leader- Ahmed Masoud, Tajik’s strongman- Atta Muhammad Nur, Hazara’s overlord- Abdul Khani Alipur from Maidan Wardak, and Ismail Khan, the lion of Herat, on board. Such a move is critical to avoid the civil wars as proposed by the Dostum’s spokesperson in Turkey while announcing the formation of a High Council of National Resistance against the Taliban. As leader, it is now on Taliban to put out a message that they embrace and not just tolerate diversity. Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness but it is the key to peace, stability and growth.
According to the socio-anthropological analysis, integration of these ethnic minorities into an idea of Afghanistan remains more important than the provocation of Pashtun nationalism as currently propagated by the Taliban regime. Their failure to include the minorities in state infrastructure creates a room for the downfall of the Taliban and reflects their inability to extend their control over the whole of Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, the Taliban has advanced in terms of material prowess and diplomatic acumen, but their archaic and oppressive tactics against women and minorities continue to jeopardize their legitimacy. To gain grounds, a new social order that mainstreams the concerns of women and minorities and reorganizes the social lives of heterogeneous ethnic populations around a common national identity need to be enforced by the Taliban.
Learning to manage the ethnic diversity is one surefire strategy that could help the Taliban to strengthen their grasp over institutions, get a firmer hold over society, and move towards securing political legitimacy. Taliban must assiduously adopt a cultural relativist perspective that encourages and promotes diversity, if they are to successfully create the impression that Afghanistan is one country that spans across Badakhshan in the east, the Pamir knot in the west, and north Qal’Aikhum to the Koh-i-Malik-Siah mountain in the south. Cultural relativism emerges from the anthropological understanding of diverse beliefs, customs, religions, languages, histories and even geographies that shape the local understanding of belongingness for a specific group of people. As a multifaceted approach, it proposes to accept the communal differences without any ethnocentrism and bias. Henceforth, remains beneficial for devising a unified national character and identity. By using it as a political instrument, the Taliban may bind the locals and outlying warlords into a single national identity of being Afghans while putting aside their distinct tribal allegiances and communal differences.
On managing the cultural diversity, India offers one of the best solutions in the region and the world. It has displayed the success of democratic constitutional provisions that provide space, reservation, and representation to the ethnic minorities in the Central and provincial Congress, jobs, and academics paving a path for their prolific engagement in nation building processes. Following the similar route, Taliban can ensure strengthening of Afghanistan’s international reputation and reducing ethnic contestations by instituting a bi-directional relationship between the state and the people. It therefore, needs to create a disposition that gives both the large as well as the small ethnic minorities, particularly those living near the borders, a voice. For Afghanistan to be stable, peaceful, and prosperous, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Turks, and Balochs should all be equitably represented in the national administration. The more diverse a society’s representation, the more stable it is. Therefore, to restore order to the current state of cultural anarchy, new socio-political classifications and policy reorientation would be a smart move. If this doesn’t happen, Afghan ethnic minorities may end up being exploited as a pawn by the surrounding foreign forces to sow unrest in the region and augment internal tensions to make it difficult for the Taliban to survive.
A way out!
Afghanistan is a complex heterogeneous society with multiple ethnic fissures running deep since decades. In addition to these internal socio-cultural challenges, volatile international borders and dominance of warlords at the borderlands are responsible for continuing political entanglements in the region that further intensify with the establishment of Taliban’s regime. Ethnically diverse geographical pockets are emerging as potential hotspots for insurgency that might confront and depose the Taliban in the near future and destabilize the region one more time. At the moment, allegiance to the local warlords and ethnic territories are more desirable for the disenchanted people than supporting the oblivious center government in Kabul. Such disorderliness necessitates a revision in the power-sharing arrangement in the current interim government of the Taliban.
In order to prevent its nemesis, Taliban must realize that ‘without the people, there is no country’ and to prevent its downfall it must identify the prevailing ethnic cracks. To establish and maintain its authority, Taliban should prioritize integrating ethnic and religious minorities into the state machinery and forming a wide, diverse, and representative government. An opportunity for the voiceless minority to be heard, a stake in the national budget, and most crucially, credibility for the government within its own borders would result from the equitable distribution of political power among the ethnic communities. Taliban should use the power of pluralism, relativism, and proportionate power sharing to strengthen the grip within and outside the state boundaries. For this to happen, inculcating a sense of nationalism by converging the ethnic, tribal and non-tribal, urban, and rural differences into common Afghan values and building the infrastructure of a strong nationhood and national identity is vital. By doing so, Taliban will address two of its most serious concerns- domestic legitimacy and international legitimacy. In chorus, it would also be able to nourish a larger Afghan vision of cultural plurality and increase Taliban’s socio-political credibility.
*Aayushi Malhotra is a doctoral candidate at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, in Pilani, India. She works in the interdisciplinary areas of Anthropology and Development Studies. She tweets at @aayushi2493