by Waseem Shehzad (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 8, Safar, 1443)
From Algeria to Bahrain, any time an Islamic movement outside Western political influence comes close to taking the reins of power, the NATO regimes’ default position is to make sure it fails and does not acquire effective decision-making power. Thus, the approach of Western regimes in Afghanistan is not likely to be different. There will be nuance in tactical matters to make sure the new governing system fails.
Before analyzing the policies of NATO regimes, the corporate media’s framing of its propaganda narrative about Afghanistan needs clarification. Those who do not subscribe to the Western paradigm are branded as radical or terrorist sympathizers. Without getting into debate about the Taliban’s understanding of Islam, we must examine the West’s approach to Afghanistan, based on the historical track record of Western regimes.
It needs stating that it is for the Afghans to decide what Islam means to them and how they implement it in their private and public lives. No foreign power has the right to dictate to them.
To analyze the NATO regimes’ approach, two external variables must be considered. First, NATO regimes had 20 years to cultivate local networks at the political, military and media levels to build support for Western occupation. Even though these networks could not save the NATO-established proxy regime, they are still a force to act as political and military spoilers.
The second factor is that NATO does not have military presence in countries bordering Afghanistan. Neighboring countries are interested in seeing Afghanistan become a somewhat stable country.
These factors will restrain NATO regimes from taking drastic military destabilization measures. This does not mean they will not attempt to do so but such measures will not form the major plank of NATO’s approach as was the case in Syria or Libya.
The West’s emphasis will be on destabilizing Afghanistan through economic pressure and creating political factions in the ranks of the Taliban. Economically, Western regimes will try to project Afghanistan as too unstable for investment. This will be aimed at discouraging Chinese private investment in Afghanistan’s rich mineral sector. In business and economics, perception is often critical. It will be interesting to see what type of news Western journalists and media outlets beam about Afghanistan into China.
Economic leverage against Afghanistan will be limited. For instance, Islamic Iran is already under Western sanctions and there is nothing further the West can do to disincentivize Tehran from exporting its products to Afghanistan. Thus, Iran will aim to create favorable trading conditions in Afghanistan. A new market for its domestic products will be in Tehran’s strategic interests and further weaken Western sanctions against it.
Trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan is largely localized and forms part of the informal economy. It is difficult to manage, much less control it.
As for Russia and China, it is in their interest to see a stable Afghanistan. They will invest and economically assist Afghanistan regardless of political or military considerations. Beijing and Moscow do want chaos on their borders. To prevent this, they will provide economic incentives. Massive amounts may not be involved initially. High political dividends, a relatively low-cost endeavor with high geopolitical returns, are likely to be offered.
It will take some time for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) to formulate and implement a somewhat functioning economic strategy. The economic odds are in its favor. It is favorably located to become a vital trading partner of its neighbors. Its strategic importance cannot be ignored.
Considering the failure of the NATO-installed puppet regime to provide any economic benefits to impoverished Afghans, the Taliban’s performance benchmark is not set high. If the Islamic Emirate manages to provide a relatively corruption-free environment for ordinary Afghans to earn a living, they will view the new dispensation positively. This is admitted, even if grudgingly, by the Taliban’s Western detractors as well. And their past performance gives hopes for guarded optimism.
Politically, the US-NATO-surrogates’ destabilization scheme may be more successful. During 20 years of occupation, NATO intelligence agencies have created a large cadre of agents. They may be lying low at present but can be reactivated at an opportune moment to create problems for the new government.
Similarly, natural differences of opinion in Taliban ranks will be exploited. Differences will be greatly exaggerated. This same tactic was used immediately after the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. To this day, Western propaganda keeps harping on natural differences within Iran’s political scene and projects them as the “imminent collapse” of the Islamic system. Forty-two years later, the Western propaganda narrative on Iran has not changed. Some people love to live in an echo-chamber.
The absence of a towering personality in the Taliban movement like Imam Khomeini was in Iran or Sheikh Abbassi Madani in Algeria, will make the Afghan resistance movement prone to splits. How damaging potential differences among the Taliban would be, will depend on the sophistication of its leadership. The fact that the movement defeated the US-NATO combine in an excruciating 20-year conflict, gives hope that it can manage internal differences in a mature manner.
The Taliban are not interested in initiating hostilities. The movement’s key political proposition to the Afghan society was that it can end the war cycle. Their opponents would want to be as disruptive as possible. Chaos and instability would serve the interests of Taliban’s enemies while the movement now in power wishes to rule, not fight.
At the civilizational level, many Western political elites do not want to see the Taliban succeed. The primary purpose of invading Afghanistan was to “civilize” it by eradicating the influence of Islam. If the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan establishes a reasonably functioning system, it will be a civilizational humiliation for the West’s political and philosophical paradigm.
Given the above, can the Taliban succeed in governing Afghanistan effectively? The answer is a qualified yes. The Taliban have evolved significantly since the 1990s. This fact was acknowledged even by Nick Carter, Britain’s chief of defense staff. True, this is not enough to create a functioning state system but the assertion that the Taliban will fail is rooted more in wishful thinking than ground realities.
The Taliban’s ability to govern effectively will depend on how well they integrate other socio-political and ethnic groups into the system. Governance is peculiar to each society and must be understood within existing political circumstances. Thus, for a realistic assessment of Taliban’s ability to govern, far deeper understanding of Afghan politics and society is needed. Most Western think-tanks cannot provide such understanding.
Inclusivity in the Afghan context is not the same as understood by outsiders.
For example, Taliban will not ban the possession weapons by ordinary Afghans. This is not merely because of 43 years of warfare. Possessing weapons is an Afghan tradition. Attempts to curb it would trigger resistance.
Let us also consider the concept of an “inclusive government” that the West and its mouthpieces constantly harp on. In Afghanistan’s context, it has a very different meaning than what is understood in the West.
For instance, Britain’s first past-the-post voting system, with a monarch as head of state and Church, along with the fact that one can inherit a seat in the upper chamber of parliament (House of Lords), might seem unrepresentative to Austrians. They consider proportional representation as the hallmark of inclusivity.
Even in Canada, which likes to package itself as the middle ground between European and US political systems, inclusivity of the electoral system in recent elections was questioned by the mainstream.
In Afghanistan, power sharing and influence of non-Taliban political actors cannot be measured by the number of ministers. This is the case not only in Afghanistan. Before 2002, Hizbullah in Lebanon was not part of the governing structure, yet the movement exercised immense power in the country.
Prospects of a stable Afghanistan are nowhere as bleak as the NATO regimes predict. It is unlikely to change soon, unless Russia, via its proxy-regimes in Central Asia, decides to act as a spoiler. This is unlikely in the present circumstances.