On September 7, 2021, the Taliban poured cold water on Afghans’ expectation for a broadly-based and inclusive government by announcing an almost mono-ethnic, Pashtun-dominated cabinet. Based on Afghanistan’s contentious history, the Taliban’s decision to monopolize power and bar non-Pashtuns from the corridors of power will not bode well for the country. Needless to say the majority of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, who in turn comprise around 40% – 45% of Afghanistan’s population. From an ethnic perspective, the Taliban do not represent the majority, 55% – 60%, of Afghanistan’s (non-Pashtun) population. It is also fair to say that the Taliban do not represent all Pashtuns either, but they do have more support amongst the Pashtuns than non-Pashtuns.
After the Taliban’s recent “conquest” of Afghanistan, Afghans expected that the Taliban would metamorphose from a mono-ethnic guerilla force into a mature political entity. Afghans also expected that the Taliban would form a broadly-based, and not just a Pashtun-dominated, government at the national and local (provincial and district) levels to ensure lasting peace and stability in the country. Contrary to these expectations, the Taliban are monopolizing power. Perhaps a little bit of history should serve as an eye opener.
When the Taliban were toppled in late 2001, both the U.S. and its Afghan allies dominated by the United Front (U.F.)—or more commonly known as the Northern Alliance—made two major blunders from which the Taliban can learn today. First, the U.S. and the Northern Alliance completely excluded the Taliban from the new political set-up that was put in place for Afghanistan at the Bonn Conference in 2001. The U.S., in particular, even refused to offer the Taliban a general amnesty.
The U.S. wanted to go big against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Anyone suspected of cooperation with mid- or high-ranking Taliban officials could easily end up at the Bagram or Guantanamo prison. In Afghanistan’s deeply divided society along linguistic, ethnic, tribal and clan lines, the U.S. campaign to punish al-Qaeda and the Taliban presented itself to many opportunist Afghans as a God-granted opportunity to both settle scores with old enemies and make money.
Many of those who sided with the U.S. labeled their old and new enemies as the Taliban or pro-Taliban and reported them to U.S. authorities to wipe them out. In response, the victims (in case they survived) and their relatives, in part driven by their tribal ethos of taking revenge (or badal, in Pashto), took to the battlefield and helped the Taliban rank and file swell. Had the Taliban been even granted a general amnesty to go about their lives, much unnecessary bloodshed could have been avoided since 2001.
Second, the U.F., which was dominated by non-Pashtuns and had emerged as a key player to fill the void left by the Taliban’s demise, failed its supporters politically. Afghanistan’s tightly centralized system based in Kabul and dominated by ethnic Pashtuns did not conform to the realities of the 21st century multi-ethnic, centrifugal Afghanistan. The deceased leader and commander of the U.F., Ahmad Shah Massoud (assassinated on September 9, 2001), had wanted a decentralized system for Afghanistan’s ethnically diverse population. After Massoud’s assassination, however, his successors failed to live up to his reputation and pursue his objective.
In the early to-mid 2000s, the Northern Alliance had a unique opportunity to devolve power from Kabul to Afghanistan’s different regions, which had emerged as centers of power during the preceding 23 years (1978 – 2001) of war. Decentralization would have given regions (or provinces depending on how decentralization would have happened) more powers to govern themselves according to their local needs. Had local officials been elected by popular vote, they would have been more likely to tend to the local population’s needs. Officials sent from Kabul were usually detached from local realities, and were trying to please their bosses in Kabul to save their jobs instead of working for the local people. Decentralization would also have given local officials more powers in Pashtun majority areas, the hotbed of the Taliban insurgency, to address the local population’s grievances and prevent the Taliban rank and file from swelling.
Instead at Bonn and afterward, the Northern Alliance leaders satisfied themselves with obtaining short-lived ministerships and governorships, and afterward busied themselves with collecting and accumulating lawful and unlawful wealth. By indulging in self-satisfying activities, the majority of Northern Alliance leaders would lose contact with their people and their support. No wonder when the Taliban were capturing province after province in the summer of 2021, the majority of Northern Alliance leaders decided to escape instead of putting up a fight against the Taliban.
Today, the tables have turned and the fortunes have reversed. Now instead of the U.F., the Taliban are back in power. So far the Taliban’s unilateral and one-sided actions have discouraged many Afghans. For instance, the Taliban’s announcement of a mono-ethnic cabinet, composed of more than 90% ethnic Pashtuns, will certainly not help bring the fragile situation in Afghanistan under control. There are no Shias, no Hazaras, and no women in the Taliban’s Pashtun male-dominated cabinet.
To further monopolize power, the Taliban have reintroduced the 1964 monarchy-era constitution, which is a step back from the 2004 Constitution. The 1964 constitution had given vast powers to the King, Zahir Shah, who was not responsible to the nation, much like the Taliban’s own so-called Amir-ul-Momineen Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, whom Afghans have yet to get a glimpse of. How can Akhundzada be responsible to the nation, when Afghans do not even know whether he is dead or alive?
In addition, according to media reports, despite declaring a general amnesty, the Taliban continue to conduct door-to-door searches for their opponents and their family members. There are also alarming reports coming from Hazarajat that the Taliban have been evicting and forcibly displacing ethnic Hazaras. The evacuated homes and lands are claimed by ethnic Pashtuns, including Pashtun nomads (Kuchis). Additionally, the Taliban have once again banned girls from secondary education, have asked barbers in Helmand not to trim beards, and are specifically looking for female judges. Such ill-thought actions on the Taliban’s part do not heal Afghans’ wounds from the last 43 years of conflict. They simply sow the seeds of future conflicts.
For centuries taking revenge for a loss or insult inflicted on one has been a pillar of life amongst the Pashtuns. This practice is also not alien to other ethnic groups. One reason why the Taliban remained determined to fight for 20 years was to avenge the losses and insults, real or imaginary, inflicted upon them, their family and their tribe. If the Taliban now do not demonstrate foresightedness, and instead inflict losses and insults on their opponents, especially by going after women, they (as former victims, real or imaginary) should know better that their actions will lead to a new cycle of vicious violence instigated by the victims’ desire to take revenge.
The Taliban have too much on their plate right now. They have to get the collapsing economy on its two feet; tackle the security challenge posed by Islamic State Khorasan Province, which can attract dissidents that are unhappy with the Taliban; and undertake the reconstruction of Afghanistan. All of these objectives could only be achieved in cooperation with all ethnic and linguistic groups. Attempts at monopolizing power and oppression will only sow the seeds of future discord, chaos, and revenge.
The best course of action to restore lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan is for the Taliban to do the following two things. First, at the national level, the Taliban need to form a broadly-based government, which can adequately represent the entire country. Being broadly-based does not necessarily mean that members of the Karzai and Ghani administrations should be included in the government. As long as the government is inclusive enough with members from all (major) ethnic groups, it will have the confidence of the majority of Afghans.
Second, since Afghanistan has always had a weak central government and strong geographical regions such as Herat in the west, Qandahar in the southwest, and Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, power should be devolved from Kabul to regions (or provinces) for local governance to function efficiently. One reason why the collapse of the Ghani government did not trigger widespread chaos was because of the central government’s historical weakness and lack of presence outside major cities. As such, the Taliban’s attempt to strengthen Kabul at the expense of other provinces will likely also fail. Officials and solutions imposed from Kabul have not been welcomed outside Kabul, and have spoiled the relationship between Kabul and the provinces.
Today the Taliban are at a crossroads of history, and they have a choice to make. They can either broaden the base of their government to bestow legitimacy upon it by including non-Pashtuns in it and by devolving power from Kabul to local administrations, or they can continue to try to rule with an iron fist from Kabul, which will ultimately backfire before the Taliban can find enough time to correct course.
Arwin Rahi is a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.