It is Emirate vs Islamic Republic in Afghanistan (Column: Spy’s Eye)

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The return of Islamic Emirate in Kabul on August 15 this year, and what is happening in Afghanistan since then, must draw attention to December 1996 when with the full support of Pakistan, Taliban had first captured Kabul, established the Afghan Emirate under Mullah Omar and issued a five-point directive ordering strict enforcement of Islamic laws, creation of ‘religious police’, women to stay at home, closure of all video and private media, and even led people to pray on the highways.

Mullah Omar was a close relative of Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda had a large base in Afghanistan. In the wake of 9/11, the US cracked down on Afghanistan overthrew the Taliban government and got an elected Loya Jirga – the rough equivalent of a Constituent Assembly – to establish a transitional set up under Hamid Karzai in 2001 to work for political freedom of Afghans based on Islam, democracy and social rights.

A Constitution of Afghanistan approved by the Loya Jirga in 2004 provided for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to be run by an elected President, and declared that ‘sovereignty belongs to the people who exercise it through their elected representatives’.

Elections were also to be held separately for the two Houses of Parliament. The Islamic Republic even had a Supreme Court whose members were to be appointed by the President with the approval of the lower House. Loya Jirga had brought together representatives of groups, regions and ethnicities on a single platform, and what is remarkable for a traditional society, included women as elected representatives as well.

In the Presidential elections of 2004 and 2009, Hamid Karzai emerged victorious and in the subsequent polls in 2014 and 2019, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani was elected President of Afghanistan.

But something was not working for the Afghan democracy and the principal reason was that the elections were not transparent – most of the members of Parliament were warlords and illiterate people who reached the House on the strength of their capacity to use violence and influence.

Media laws enacted in 2005 emphasised the importance of independent media and supported their activities to register freedom of thought and expression, but here again this freedom could not take roots as expected because democracy itself had not made progress – in spite of a promising Constitution – due to sectarian divisions, weak rule of law that failed to check violence and prevalence of corruption.

Afghanistan seemed to prove the point that democracy and national unity required a strong government that could establish the rule of law to provide security to people against any form of violence and prevent rise of ethnicity and religion – based political interests.

To make matters worse, Afghan people living in poverty succumbed to the wishes and plans of the rich and powerful, and in the process even took to the path of violence at their behest instead of asserting their political rights.

Clash of personal interests resulted in Abdullah Abdullah not accepting the victory of Ashraf Ghani in 2014 elections and in 2019 – when Ghani won again – forcing a sharing of power in the name of National Unity government. The unstable conflict-ridden government could not promote democratic norms, allowing the Taliban to have its way to power through recourse to militancy.

The sense of identity in Afghanistan is derived from tribes such as Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras, but what gradually emerged as the overpowering distinction was one of religion and sects. Shia-Sunni divide was a historical legacy and so was the split of Sunnis between the radicals – who were totally against the US-led West and in favour of revival of Islam of the period of the four ‘Companions’ of Prophet or the ‘Pious Caliphs’ – and the body of Islamists who advocated that an Islamic Republic, though rooted in Sharia, was capable of existing in ‘competition not conflict’ with the Western democracy.

The overriding imprint of radical Islam on Afghanistan strengthened through the years of the US-led ‘war on terror’ is traceable to the Jehad launched by the leading Ulema of the times – Al Tijani in Algeria, Abdul Wahab in Arabia and Wahab’s follower Shah Waliullah in India – against the Western encroachment on ‘Muslim land’, in the middle of the 19th century.

The epicentre of the Jehad on the Indian subcontinent was in Swat valley of what is now called the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. This Jehad failed against the superior British power, but left the entire NWFP-Afghanistan belt highly radicalised, putting Pashtuns in the leadership of Islamic ‘revivalists’.

The clarion call of the Ulema was that Muslim rulers had deviated from the pristine Islam of the ‘golden period’ of the first 50 years after the Prophet, and that the Muslim world must go back to it to check its political decline.

The protagonists of the failed Jehad formed the Darul Uloom Deoband in 1868 to pursue the non-political mission of running madrasas all over the subcontinent to promote puritan Islam. Years later, in Pakistan the products of Deobandi madrasas – called Taliban – were mobilised and despatched to post-Soviet Afghanistan in 1993 by the government of Benazir Bhutto, for the political task of controlling a turbulent situation there created by the violent conflict between the ‘nationalist’ warlords of Northern Alliance on one hand, and the Pak-supported Islamic forces like Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba on the other.

Taliban with their commitment to radical Islam unleashed the force of Jehad to vanquish others, and with the total backing of Pakistan, established the Afghan Emirate in Kabul in 1996. Pakistan also got its close allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE to recognise the new regime – these were the only three countries to do so.

Radical Islam considers the US-led West as its prime enemy, opposes ‘clients’ of the US in the Muslim world and goes after the Shias because of the historical memory of the ‘Kharijite revolt’ against Caliph Ali in which Sunnism was born.

In the Cold War era, another Islamic stream had emerged with an implicit endorsement from the US-led West – in the form of Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt and Jamaat-e-Islami in South and South East Asia – to oppose the Soviet-friendly regimes of Hafiz Assad, President Nasser, India and Indonesia.

These fundamentalist bodies were looked upon by the West as practitioners of ‘moderate’ Islam who subscribed to an Islamic Republic believing in the ‘sovereignty of Allah’ and supremacy of Shariat, but who politically positioned themselves on the side of the West against the world of Communism.

Pakistan remained an ally of the US even after it supported the Taliban Emirate that had allowed Afghanistan to be used as the run up to 9/11 and played a duplicitous role in the ‘war on terror’ that the US launched in Afghanistan subsequently.

In spite of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan openly declaring that it was a mistake of Pakistan to support the US in that ‘war’ and endorsing the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan, Pentagon, keeping up its old relationship with the Pakistan army, trusted Pakistan in the role of a mediator between the US and Taliban to seek an agreement that would facilitate the withdrawal of American troops from the messy Afghan battle ground.

The US also pinned its hope on its old ‘ally’ in the matter of ensuring that the Taliban did not break its Doha promise of not allowing any terror activity to be planned against America from the Afghan soil. The Emirate, meanwhile, is beginning to enforce its radical agenda once again.

The big question in Afghanistan from the American viewpoint is whether the Taliban Emirate would be willing to climb down to become an Islamic Republic of the type that existed under Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, accommodating women in positions of political power and allowed functioning of independent media.

Although the US is facing a recalcitrant Taliban out to impose socio-religious restrictions of the Emirate, it is not taking adequate notice of Pakistan’s collusion with the Taliban that was meant to provide ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan in Afghanistan – primarily against India.

Americans also do not see through the geopolitical strategy of Pakistan of building its larger image as the land that accommodated all shades of Islamic spectrum within Ummah. US President Joe Biden seems to be underestimating the strategic significance of Wahabis aligning with Marxist China – an upshot of Sino-Pak axis – on account of their shared ideological and political animosity towards the US-led West.

This is widening the hold of China in its quest for emerging as the second superpower. It can be presumed that the huge ‘give and take’ between China and Pakistan included ceding of territory in PoK to China for CPEC and an assurance of endorsement of Chinese moves in Xinjiang.

All of this has exposed India to new security threats, even as the US gave the impression of enjoying a certain degree of ‘comfort of distance’ as far as Afghanistan was concerned.

India is handling the totality of this situation quite well. The policy of building up military strength to deal with any Chinese aggressiveness on LAC and punish Pakistan for any further mischief from across LoC, is firmly in place.

On Afghanistan, regional cooperation with Central Asian Republics (CARs) adjoining that country as also with Iran, set off at the apex level by the hugely successful conference of NSAs convened by NSA Ajit Doval in Delhi on November 10, is working for India’s national interests and building international pressure on the Kabul Emirate for democratising its rule in Afghanistan.

Russia attended the Delhi meet even though China and Pakistan had predictably kept away. Though CARs are Muslim predominant countries, they favour a nationalist rather than a fundamentalist rule and are in sync with the Russian approach to Afghanistan that disapproved of ‘radicalisation’ – this creates a much-needed convergence of policy between Russia and India.

India has taken care to ensure that Indo-Russian relationship does not come in the way of India’s strategic partnership with the US. Russia’s relationship with China in the context of US-China antagonism is something that can be kept under observation by India.

Finally, India has done well to consistently highlight the threat of terrorism traceable to Pakistan’s track record of harbouring Islamic extremists of all kinds and give the call of unity of the democratic world against this global menace, from all international fora.

Coming back to Afghanistan, the challenge there is to get the Taliban to yield to an inclusive set up including women and minorities and abandon the politics of violence.

Also, India is rightly leading the voice for economic and other civic assistance to the people of Afghanistan – India’s development aid to Afghanistan had already made a deep impression on them and strengthened people-to-people friendship between the two countries.

The selective authorisation for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by the US is a right step as it builds the case for a pro-people dispensation. The fact, however, remains that the conflict in Afghanistan is between the idea of an Emirate and an acceptable form of Islamic Republic – the latter promising to have some democratic content even if it did not put minorities on the same footing as the Muslims.

It is likely that the Taliban Emirate would not change its revivalist extremism and commitment to Jehad as an instrument of political advancement. India would have to watch out against the added threat of Islamic terror from the Pak-Afghan belt.

In the new emerging geopolitics, India and the US – the two largest democracies – will have to jointly defend the democratic order against the global threat from the Marxist dictatorships and the world of radical Islam.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in a farsighted move actively joined Quad that counters China’s aggressive designs in the Indo-Pacific on one hand, and promotes convergence among leading democratic powers on global commons on the other.

(The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal)

20211226-090002

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