A reformed Taliban? By Pervez Hoodbhoy

AFTER capturing Kabul the Taliban want to be seen as rulers rather than just as a religious militia. Eager to secure legitimacy — internationally and among Afghans — closed door negotiations are afoot for a government inclusive of non-Taliban Afghans. Will these actually work out? And what lies ahead for young, urbanised, internet savvy Afghans seeking to live in the 21st century rather than the 7th? This choice had been denied just a while ago.

Under Mullah Omar, the earlier phase (1996-2001) of Taliban rule had single-mindedly concentrated upon rigorous enforcement of the Quranic injunction amr bil ma’roof wa nahi ‘anil munkar (promote that which is good and approved, and forbid that which is evil and disapproved). Imbibed from madressahs scattered across Pakistan, this was understood in the sense of a demand for strict religious policing.

Liberal Islamic scholars, however, say the injunction merely enjoins believers to seek piety through self-control. The Taliban under Mullah Omar disagreed emphatically with this interpretation. They carried out stoning of adulterers to death, amputation of limbs for theft, public floggings, closure of girls’ schools, extreme limits on the mobility of women, and destruction of the 2,000-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas. Similar actions do not exist in the living memory of older Afghans.

The new face suggests that amr bil ma’roof will henceforth be more liberally interpreted. Whether rank-and-file fighters will see eye to eye on this cannot presently be foreseen. But some leaders of this religious militia — one that thrived for decades on foreign aid and extortion — have become aware that economic reasons demand change.

Pakistan should welcome the Taliban’s new face but must resolutely insist upon their civilised behaviour.

This is understandable. Those accustomed to the comfort of Doha’s luxury hotels, and of their bungalows in Quetta and Peshawar, are unfit for returning to the mountain villages from where they fought against an invader. Instead they now want the good life the invader has invented. In time they, or maybe the generation that succeeds them, will send their children to regular schools instead of Pakistani or Afghan madressahs.

For this to happen, the spigot of international aid must be turned on again. Still more urgent: under Afghan soil lies a trillion dollars ready to be scooped up. But to extract these minerals, technology and organisation have to come from outside. Many countries are eager, China and Russia particularly. This implies complicated geopolitics and much wheeling and dealing.

In this new game Pakistan hopes to play a big part. While the Chinese are said to be capable of eating everything that moves, they cannot stomach an unreformed Taliban; this would create hellish indigestion within Xinjiang. Former Taliban allies, Saudi Arabia and UAE, are wary of Taliban radicalism spilling over and wrecking attempts to liberalise their countries. Much needs to be thrashed out.

That Pakistan may be accepted as a mediator is possible because the “Naya Taliban” — an evocative term first used by Dawn’s columnist Niaz Murtaza — feel ideologically comfortable with the leader of Naya Pakistan. The commonality lies in shared opposition to western dress, education, and language. Both place high value on symbols such as shalwar-kameez and turban, and both equate morality with regularity of prayers and fasting. Indeed, unable to contain his joy at the Taliban takeover of Kabul, PM Khan declared that Afghanistan had “broken the shackles of slavery”.

In creating a new dispensation, the Naya Taliban will naturally turn towards those who made their ascent possible. But here caution will kick in. Even if pragmatism presently forces them to deal with those they know to be hypocritical, the Taliban are not hypocrites themselves. They also know full well who packed off their comrades to Guantanamo Bay – from where some are yet to return.

To quote from the back cover of General Musharraf’s autobiography, written in 2006 while still in office: “We have captured 672 and handed 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars”. Memories cannot disappear easily although the freshly victorious may not dwell upon such betrayals for now.

Read: A big test for the Taliban

On the other hand, the Taliban have fully trustable allies inside Islamabad. When some days ago the white Taliban flag flew — albeit briefly — from Jamia Hafsa, this sent across an important message from Maulana Abdul Aziz and his likes to their victorious Afghan colleagues: we were with you when you were being bombed in Tora Bora. And we are with you now that you have won.

Like it or not, AfPak has become reality. Despised in Pakistan because of its American origin, this term rings true. Geographical proximity is now augmented by the ideological proximity of rulers in both countries. Taliban style thinking is bound to spread through the length and breadth of Pakistan.

Now that the Indians have been chased out of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s dream of strategic depth stands fulfilled. So have we reached nirvana? Well, almost, but not quite.

Fears that the Naya Taliban are no different from the Purana Taliban has made millions of Afghans desperate to flee. But there is opposition to accepting these refugees into Pakistan even from those who might have on their lips Iqbal’s couplet: butan-e-rang o khoon ko tor kar millat mai gum ho ja; na toorani rahay baqi na irani na afghani. (Smash the idols of blood and colour, become Muslim; be not Turani nor Irani nor Afghani, be just Muslim.)

Subcontinental pan-Islamism — that which created Pakistan — ends at the Durand Line for most Pakistanis. But the Naya Taliban could think differently; Afghan nationalism has come into its own. The cultural and ethnic continuity from ages past cannot be eliminated by fencing. Indeed, after booting out the mightiest power of all times why should the Taliban consider as sacred the arbitrary straight lines drawn by a long dead, stuffy old Englishman?

Pakistan must open its doors for fleeing Afghans; to not do so is immoral. Using its considerable influence it must also impress upon Taliban victors that the world will not accept their old-style barbarity. This is not the age when women should be confined to their homes and shoved into burqas, or where religious and ethnic minorities are persecuted and killed. For this message to get across, we might first have to get our own house in order.

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and author.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2021​

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