As Taliban Seize Power, a ‘Legitimacy’ Trade-Off Unfolds Behind the Scenes
The latest comments by Ahmad Wali Massoud and Joe Biden provide a glimpse into the ongoing developments.
Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August, the world’s attention has been focused on:
the evacuation of most diplomatic missions and foreigners from the Afghan capital;
the conduct of Taliban cadres in major cities, especially towards women;
demonstrations against the Taliban in Jalalabad, Khost and Asadabad — the capitals of Pashtun-majority provinces in eastern Afghanistan — leading to loss of life because of Taliban firing;
Amrullah Saleh, Vice-President of the collapsed Republic declaring himself as caretaker President and vowing to carry on the struggle against the Taliban;
The appeal of the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Ahmad, to the American, British and French people to urge their governments to help the Panjsheris, who are ready to launch an armed resistance against the Taliban, and,
Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson’s press conference, where he sought to assure the Afghan people and the international community of the group’s commitment to form a fair and inclusive Islamic government that would respect rights, but according to the Sharia.
But amidst all these developments, the real game is unfolding behind the scenes in Islamabad, Kandahar, Kabul, and possibly also in Quetta and Peshawar; in the latter two cities, some of the top Taliban leaders normally reside.
A Deep Churn
The leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, including the Tajik leaders Yunus Qanuni, Ahmad Wali Massoud and Ahmed Zia Massoud, and Hazara leaders Karim Khaleeli and Muhammad Mohaqiq, are in Islamabad. Mullah Baradar has reached Kandahar. Former president Hamid Karzai, chairman of the High Council of National Reconciliation Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and the chief of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are in Kabul. The current whereabouts of the rest of the Taliban leaders critical to the negotiating process — Mullah Haibatullah, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob and Sirajuddin Haqqani — are not publicly known. However, Haibatullah and Yakub normally reside in Quetta, while Haqqani is based in Peshawar, though he moves across the Durand Line into the adjoining areas of Afghanistan, too.
Details of the negotiating process have not been revealed but fascinating glimpses through the cryptic comments of United States President Joe Biden and Ahmad Wali Massoud have emerged over the past 24 hours. They indicate that the Western powers are seeking to use the carrot of “international legitimacy” of the incoming regime to virtually deny the Taliban the victory it has achieved through its stunning and unexpectedly swift military advance.
Pakistan Has a Role to Play in the Negotiations
International legitimacy, in effect, implies that the flow of funds from Western governments and international funding institutions would continue. Its denial would mean that the incoming government would find it almost impossible to sustain even the current infrastructure of Afghanistan, both human and physical, unless alternate funds flow from China.
The US and major Western powers are putting enormous pressure on Pakistan to midwife the process of pulling the carpet from under the Taliban’s feet. Both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have spoken to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in the past few days. What else could they have asked of Pakistan but to moderate the Taliban?
In exchange for international legitimacy, the Taliban are being asked to participate in an inclusive Islamic government. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson, used the words “inclusive Islamic government” at his Kabul press conference a few days ago. The question is what the nature and constituents of such a government would be.
What is being put forward to them was indicated cryptically by Ahmed Wali Massoud. In an interview, Ahmed Wali said the talks in Islamabad aimed at creating stability in Afghanistan. What he then added was extraordinary. He said, “So, the Taliban is just one of the groups but there are other groups.” He went on to add, “How exactly we can bring all the groups of Afghanistan based on the ethnicity [ethnic composition] of Afghanistan not on the political parties.”
The implication of these words is that the Taliban leaders are being urged to make an inclusive Islamic government by overlooking their political identity and only going by the ethnic background of their leaders.
This would essentially mean creating a governance set-up, even if temporary, wherein the political symbols of the Taliban, such as the name 'Islamic Emirate' and their flag, are overlooked. Instead, perhaps the term “Islamic Afghanistan” is used and the present Afghan flag continues to be the country’s flag, and members of the government, both the Taliban and others, participate as members of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups and not as per their political parties or backgrounds.
But Is the Taliban Willing to Compromise?
For two decades, the Taliban cadres have struggled for the Emirate. Now, the Western powers and representatives of the losing side are asking them to give it all up and focus only on their ethnic identities and come within the banner of Islam, without defining what kind of Islam. This is also borne out by what Biden commented in an interview on 19 August. When asked if the Taliban had changed, he said, “They are going [through a] sort of an existential crisis about do they want to be recognised by the international community as a legitimate government”. An “existential crisis” in this context would mean nothing short of the Taliban abandoning their political nature and accepting the nebulous term “Islamic”. Biden’s very next words indicate how difficult this quest of the West is. Biden said, “I’m not sure they do”. Thus, Biden knows that it would be very difficult for the Taliban to give up their full political and religious identity in exchange for international legitimacy.
Obviously, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for many important Taliban leaders not to incorporate their full principles and symbols in the incoming governance structure. They would also be aware that they would have to carry their field commanders and their cadres with them.
At least one Taliban leader, though not in the top leadership, has publicly said that the incoming system cannot be based on democracy. Thus, there are limits to how flexible the Taliban can be, even if some of their top leaders are open to being flexible.
Where do Russia and China Stand?
The absence of a central authority in Afghanistan cannot continue for long. This urgency, too, is being used by the West to pressure the Taliban and Pakistan. What is not clear is the stand China is taking on the issues under negotiation. It is inconceivable that the Pakistanis would not seek to take them on board on the compromises they are seeking to work out under Western pressure.
Lastly, in his comments, Wali Massoud dismissed Amrullah Saleh’s claim of being the acting President as untenable, as the entire previous regime had collapsed with former president Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country. He was, however, circumspect on his nephew joining Amrullah Saleh. He said that if a good government was formed, he would have no reason to resist it. But if the incoming government is not so, then millions of Afghans would oppose it.
It would not be easy for any effective resistance to be mounted against the Taliban if it refuses to take the bait of international legitimacy. Certainly, neither China nor Russia would turn its back on even an out-and-out Taliban government. There is too much at stake for them in geopolitical terms.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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