Resistance gradually building up to seizure of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan may be symbolic, but is enough to cause alarm for the new rulers and in some ways, their external supporters and mentors in Pakistan.
Symbols matter when it comes to expression of public sentiment and the Afghan flag became the rallying point. Within four days of the Taliban taking control of Kabul, many Afghans observed their traditional New Year on the day of Nowroz by flying their colourful national flag, removing the Taliban flag that is white with Quranic inscriptions.
While these protests in the cities found their way into the media, those in the countryside have gone unrecorded, which is a further cause for the new rulers who moved from the rural areas to the cities for political and military power in the recent weeks.
People took to the streets in Asadabad, Jalalabad as well as Kabul, with several deaths reported from Asadabad as the Taliban apparently fired into a crowd. Moreover, Amnesty International reminded that the Taliban had “massacred” members of the Hazara community in Ghazni in July.
“Thousands continued to defy warnings and beatings to seek evacuation via the capital’s airport, a small and scattered opposition emerged in the form of protests and a potential armed rebellion, and the country’s dire economic situation prompted warnings of a humanitarian crisis,” NBC said in its report on August 19, 2021.
A report by Yuliya Talmazan and Mushtaq Yusufzai said: “When people heard about this incident, they staged a demonstration against the Taliban and warned them not to play with Afghanistan’s national symbols. Three people were killed and three others injured in the altercation.”
Striking images have shown a bloodied woman and child, apparently beaten by Taliban fighters outside the Kabul airport despite the group’s earlier assurances of “safe passage.”
The militants also cracked down on a protest in the eastern city of Jalalabad on Wednesday, leaving at least three people dead, according to a local resident, after residents tried to install the Afghan flag in place of the white Taliban banner.
Prominent Pakistani daily Dawn (August 21, 2021) warned in its editorial: “The Afghan Taliban’s honeymoon period may not last long. There are many who suspect the group’s intentions despite their reassurances. The fact is that the Taliban can talk all they want about inclusivity, but whether or not they will abide by their promises will become evident over the next few days and weeks.”
It further warned that “if reports emerge of Taliban excesses against the Hazara community and other ethnic, linguistic and confessional groups, whatever goodwill the Taliban may have earned over the past few days will disappear quickly. There are also reports of the Taliban going door to door to hunt down those who worked for the erstwhile Afghan dispensation. This flies in the face of the amnesty the Taliban had declared.”
Although the Taliban assertions and assurances do not include democracy and media freedom, the newspaper defended the Afghan people’s “fundamental right” to “hold peaceful protests and assemblies”. Analysts see this as a signal to the authorities in Islamabad and the provinces where the media has been under sustained attack.
These demonstrations by the Afghans marked the first protest while chaos and uncertainty prevailed in Kabul and other power centres. Howsoever dispersed and lacking in ballast, they marked the assertion of Afghan identity that Islamabad has been keen to see overwhelmed by the Taliban and their move to impose Sharia rule.
For, beneath the ill-concealed triumph and support to the Taliban, Pakistan wants this faith-based political culture numbing the Pakhtun identity of the Afghans that prevents a resolution of the border. Successive Kabul regimes have rejected the Afghan-Pakistan border that was determined during the British era and is called the Durand Line.
Over the last four decades and more, the Afghans have witnessed their benign monarchy and democracy destroyed. Their traditional system of decision-making by the Jirga and the role of the Maliks has also been destroyed. Now, after two decades of a relatively moderate democratic system has been obliterated with the return of the Taliban, the people are left with symbols to live for and if things worsen in the coming weeks, die for.
Typical of the popular protest last week was women, their lives and liberty threatened by the Taliban rulers, marked on the tarmac of the airport at Kabul and singing in unison, “Sar Zameen-e-Mae”, a song written by Dawood Sarkhosh, himself a refugee. The sense of the song is that being refugees in one’s homeland is not acceptable.
thus, the sense of nationalism in Afghanistan as it seeks to dig in in the face of the new rulers having a sordid record appears more broad-based. This is not the Afghanistan that the Taliban ruled in the 1990s. Twenty years of freedom has changed much and the Taliban cannot put the clock back.
Indeed, a false move at repression that was evident in the firing upon protesting people could trigger massive popular resistance. Brute force may spill blood, but it could prove counter-productive in the long run. After all, the Taliban strength is only 75,000, and they are still struggling to settle down internally, leave alone with the world community outside that does not trust them. They can’t rule over 30 million Afghans against their will. There is a big difference between getting power and retaining it.