The Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan. US and NATO have left after being defeated. The Afghan National Army has collapsed, though there is some resistance in Panjsher.
Regional and world powers are adjusting to these facts for a new geopolitical setting in Afghanistan. But what is new about these facts? Violent changes with outsiders supporting different parties has always been the history of Afghanistan.
This cycle of violence with a few years of relative peace, is the story of Afghanistan. This small essay attempts to see a probability of that historic cycle of violence ending, and Afghans moving out of it towards a peaceful, democratic, modern state.
In the pre-1979 era, there were periods of relative peace between violent eruptions. However, since 1979, there is a continuous violence. The current lull in active violent resistance, many suspect will be brief. Most Afghan studies and policies, both Afghan and foreign are educated by the pre-1979 history re-enforced by the post-1979 developments and are unable to see the changes that have come in Afghan society.
Afghanistan is seen through the prism of violent change, Religion, intolerance and thus a cycle of violence. Both Afghans and foreign interested powers are weighing options accordingly. While elements of that history persists, there is a new element of non-violent popular resistance.
Factors of Taliban Opposition
Having some weak roots in the past, the last 20 years have seen emergence of a new educated middle class, a political culture of debate, demonstrations, protests, and protesting with slogans and speeches rather than guns.
Next, there is a National Resistance Front (NRF) in the mountains of Panjsher, with pockets of support in rest of the country. The NRF is planning to launch operations in March and April, once the snow melts. Meanwhile it is recruiting men new and from the ANDSF and searching for foreign backers.
There are differences within the Taliban too. There are many foreign militant groups, aligned closely with the Taliban, who want to go home and fight there. They expect Taliban support, not just permission. However, most Taliban leadership believes, if these groups are permitted to go home, that will put the Afghan Taliban in jeopardy.
Then there is Islamic State, which is currently opposed by almost all foreign powers, but some states may consider it useful if it sees it more threatening to an opposite power.
Most Afghans and foreign Afghan watchers believe that the absence of, or a weak armed resistance means no resistance. Looking at foreign commentary on the current situation in Afghanistan, the focus is on the humanitarian crisis and human rights, with the latter gradually taking a back seat.
Foreign Interests and Motivations
The US is out of Afghanistan, and is maintaining a policy to disentangle as much as possible from foreign, especially middle eastern armed conflicts. However, it is viewing the developing situation from its conflict with China and Russia. US policy is to use its economic strength to influence the Taliban.
The US is debating the option of continuing sanctions or engage with the Taliban by helping them with the humanitarian. Their true motivation is keeping the Taliban away from China, fighting ISIS, and to overtly improve human rights.
US policy will depend on how Taliban builds relations with China and Russia. China is cautious about helping the Taliban because there is talk about Uyghur militants enjoying safety with the Taliban. Additionally, China is observing US overtures to Taliban.
The same goes for Russia. Pakistan Iran, India, Central Asian States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will play their roles in the shadow of the world powers.
This is Not Afghanistan from 1996
There are subtle changes happening in Afghan society that many aren’t noticing. Taliban took Afghanistan in 1996. Warlords ruled the country, with Gulbadin Hekmatyar bombing Kabul from outside the city. The only resistance the Taliban faced after taking Kabul in 1996 was violent.
There were no women or other demonstrators on the streets of Kabul and other cities. There was no articulation of any other choice for a way forward. No one argued for political engagement, which is different than supporting them and their ideas for Afghanistan.
Today, we see a large number of young educated Afghans, within the country as well as outside, strongly articulating for a constitution, laying down the rights and responsibilities of people and the state. In 1996, when the Taliban said no female education, that was that. This is not the case this time. While primary school girls are going to school, older ones are also going to school in some of the provinces. This reflects a changed Afghanistan, not changed Taliban.
The Taliban themselves are unclear about how to proceed and deal with this new resistance. Also, there were no political parties having different views than the Taliban. This time, these parties are peacefully and quietly working. Though like most of the developing countries, there is name calling, accusations, as well as serious debate and articulation of diverse opinions too. Afghanistan has moved a lot on the political and social index.
What Can be Done
There is still much talk of an intra Afghan dialogue, whether through a Loya Jirga or sitting around a table and an inclusive government. Dialogue is not only achieved through formal methods, there is also informal dialogues. It is argued, that a non-formal intra Afghan dialogue is going on. The various articulations on the media, the demonstrations on the streets, the many Afghan individuals and organizations actively helping those in need of food or shelter as well as education including for girls and Taliban responses to them; whether beating them, pressurizing them or tolerating them are all part of a process of political dialogue.
This process provides the route to ending the cycle of violence. These societal groups don’t need much material support from foreigners and thus are relatively free from foreign interests.
The United Nations can be crucial in this process. Afghan independent voices need to look towards to the UN for Humanitarian aid, rather than individual states, whether it is the US, China, EU, or Arabs. The global civil society needs to establish strong relations with Afghans and help those in need. Increased role of the UN role can help in weakening the geopolitical rivalries playing out in Afghanistan, via humanitarian aid or otherwise.
Whether the cycle of violence will continue or end depends mainly on Afghans. The movement forward is not either or between the two scenarios, rather both may play out. The new Afghanistan will impact the cycle of violence, and foreign conflicts. In such a situation the role and burden on those working towards a peaceful, modern Afghanistan increases manifold.