It certainly involves more than watching a carefully staged press conference and then struggling to wrap one’s mind around the very far-fetched idea of the Taliban with a new and modern mindset. Nor does the other side of the equation - Washington, which struck the exit agreement with the Taliban - make things easier, given how profoundly muddled the US’s management of its departure was and the ongoing repercussions of this. Biden’s press conference last Friday shows how. He spent two-thirds of the time speaking about the details of the evacuation, describing it as one of the most difficult operations in history, which, even if true, skirts the central issue or issues.
Such details appear part of an attempt to play down the larger question, namely the consequences of the US departure as a whole. Biden went so far as to say that US passport bearers who wanted to reach the Hamid Karzai International Airport had only to wave their passport in order to pass through the checkpoint Taliban fighters had set up everywhere in the country. But he and others in his administration paid little attention to the problem of greater concern to everyone, namely the fact that control of Afghanistan has been handed over to the Taliban.
The scenes of the intelligence and logistical fiasco that riveted international public opinion all through last week were an initial symptom that will pass once Afghanistan moves to the next, more important phase. What will dominate that phase are questions surrounding the Taliban’s lack of a clear vision for the future. As the Taliban, in its second edition, scrambles to provide reassurances, it will be constantly haunted by the legacy of Taliban-1 (1996-2001), in which the movement’s extremism, warped concept of the state and crude mode of rule were on full display.
But perhaps its first test, the extent to which it fulfills its pledge to form a government “representative of all factions of the people,” will be sufficient to affirm or refute its ability to change. The chances are it will expose the extent of the credibility gap between its reconciliatory PR rhetoric and its intolerant, exclusionist creed. We might already have the answer to this in the early eruption of the battle over the flag triggered by the Taliban’s immediate obsession with replacing the national flag on government buildings with its own. Suddenly, the national flag has begun to appear everywhere, and not just in anti-Taliban protest demonstrations. Overnight, it has come to symbolise the determination to hold onto the progress the country had made in recent years.
The Taliban’s focus on this relatively petty detail, despite its symbolic value, and the immediate public reaction draws attention to greater issues related to the nature of the state. The Taliban’s 2005 Order of the Islamic Emirate, which replaced the constitution, promises to be another flashpoint if the Taliban attempt to resurrect it. Perhaps to avert this, the movement has pledged to revise the document that was tailored exclusively to Muslims of the Hanifa school and totally excluded all other Sunni schools and Muslim sects.
Another problem, overshadowed by the havoc of the US departure, concerns the “reverse military assimilation” process which has been unfolding with disconcerting speed. Normally, in the event of a political transition from one order to the next, certain concepts and arrangements are put into place to provide for the assimilation of militia and other irregular combat formations into the national army and security agencies. Iraq and Libya offer recent examples in this regard, even if these processes are still in trial or early phases.
In Afghanistan, the insurrectionist movement is incorporating the national army. Whatever reservations one may have over how the Afghan national army was built and the degree of success the Americans had in developing it as a national institution with a professional creed, it cannot be denied that a state army did exist and performed its duties on the ground.
So, when we add this reverse assimilation process to the ease with which the Taliban forces seized control of the territory and the huge amounts of US weapons and heavy military machinery they acquired, we find ourselves staring at an enormous minefield the potential impacts of which on the balance of forces and other factors are impossible to foresee. What we do know so far - and this is very little - is that the army counted among its ranks a huge number of individuals with dual loyalties who voluntarily put down their guns as the Taliban advance swept through the Afghan states. Their disappearance and, often, smooth shift of allegiance to the Taliban was a major blow to US plans and accelerated the timetable for departure.
Another major question concerns the prospect of civil war and perhaps the spectre of partition, at least in the north, which had already declared that it had nothing to do with the US-Taliban agreements. Perhaps other regions might follow suit when they see, in concrete form, the Taliban’s monopolistic approach to power. As quickly as the Taliban accelerated their march on the capital, anti-Taliban resistance committees began to spring up in the province of Panjshir under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the son of eponymous resistance leader. According to news reports, Massoud Jr has already assembled at least 6,000 fighters, mostly ethnic Tajiks, the historic enemies of the Pashtun to whom the Taliban belong.
On Sunday, the Taliban launched a massive military campaign against the northeastern province which, if it sets its mind to it, is demographically and geographically intractable and has close relations with neighbouring states. Recently, Panjshir also became the refuge of many Afghan army members who oppose the Taliban and suddenly found themselves stranded when their colleagues surrendered. The province thus contains a perfect brew for civil war and even a secessionist scenario that could forge yet another rugged path among the many, torturous paths the Afghan future might tread.
*The writer is the managing director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly