Neha Dabhade

(Secular Perspective, September 1-15, 2021)

The Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan has aroused concerns and emotive responses the world over. While the media in India is scrambling to report disturbing images of desperate Afghans hanging on to airplanes to escape the Taliban rule characterized by misogynist and violent views, there is a need to understand the regime change and what it entails for common Afghan people in historical and nuanced perspective, devoid of assumptions, fanciful imagination and Islamophobia.In a lecture titled, ‘Afghanistan: Before and After the Global War on Terror’ delivered by Prof. Achin Vanaik and organized by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Prof. Vanaik covered a wide canvas of Afghan history, its political dynamics intertwined by unique geopolitical situation to explain how Taliban came to rule Afghanistan and what it implies for the world and especially the Afghan people. The author has extensively quoted and reported below from the lecture delivered by Prof. Vanaik. Prof. Achin Vanaikis an author, social activist and a retired Professor of International Relations and Global Politics, and former Head of Department of Political Science at the University of Delhi; and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. The online session was attended by over 90 participants consisting of scholars, professors and civil society organizations.

Prof. Vanaik, as opposed to the popular understanding about Afghanistan of being a stagnant orthodox society, mapped the various initiatives under different rulers to modernize Afghanistan and establish different political institutions. He said, “In 1919, Prince Amanullah ascended the throne in Afghanistan.He tried to modernize, and had the 1923 Constitution, which set up state and provincial level Advisory Councils. He set up mixed schooling, sought to bring in some degree of land reforms, rights for the ethnic minorities, and also moved toward a conscript army rather than the old formula of having levies, if you lie in the territory of a different tribal chief or fiefdom. He even had a program for having a lower assembly and full adult suffrage, including women. But he was operating in an environment in which this was not at all easy to establish. And as such wasn’t really successful in spite of his intentions. The British kept on manoeuvring to get rid of him because they were worried of an independent Afghanistan, which had reasonably good relations with the Soviet Union.One of the reasons, for example, why Amanullah Khan was not successful in being able to bring about his modernization and egalitarian program is that unlike Turkey, which had already made the transition decades before, from a kind of tribal type society, or kind of semi-feudal, semi-capitalist empire — this had not taken place in Afghanistan, which to a great extent, was still dominated by all kinds of tribal chieftains and warlords. 

Prof. Vanaik then turned his attention to the rule of Zahir Shah. He said, “Under Shah, Afghanistan was mildly nationalist and maintained neutrality during the Second World War. But in the 1960s, there was an upsurge everywhere, of a certain degree of capitalist development, and modernisation all over the world. Kabul University was established. There was a degree of modernization and attempts by students in particular to rise up against the dynasty of Zahir Shah. In 1964, the Constitution was established which set up two houses, a House of the People, and a House of the Elders, and this Constitution, although provided some degree of liberties and elections, was nevertheless constructed in such a way as to maintain the dominance of the Royal dynasty, the Royal family, which had, control of the Cabinet. And this was something that would ensure that the ruling family would maintain dominant control. There was however, in the 1960s, a Republican movement. The two houses meant that there were opposition parties that could at least voice their opinions.”

This picture is starkly different than the image of Afghanistan which is lop-sided and frozen in time. Prof. Vanaik went on to explain,“After the Saur revolution, the PDPA (Progressive Democratic Party of Afghanistan)came power, but with a very, weak base, hardly anything outside parts of Kabul and it also established their Stalinist one-party-state, and it put forward a whole series of reforms in the name of modernization; the cancellation of debt, land reform — some 4% of landowners controlled something like 41% of the land. It declared equality of gender and abolished child marriage. As far as Bride Price, this question of exchange of women among different tribes was a longstanding characteristic of the tribal character of Afghanistan, and continued. There used to be Bride prices ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. This was reduced to a nominal $7 by the PDPA. They legalized Trade unions, but denied Trade Unions the right to strike. And of course, also set up health centres and education centers promoting co-education.

But this process of top-down reform by a one-party-state formation failed. It failed because not only did they have such a weak base, but they tried to carry out all these kinds of reforms without providing the necessary infrastructure. So that in fact, those who were supposed to benefit from these reforms could not actually benefit. There was no credit system, no system of banks. How do you enable the peasant to prosper, without seeds and fertilizers to actually carry out, on their still fairly small landholdings that have been distributed — around five acres or so. The end result was that not only had they alienated the landlords — and of course they couldn’t do it everywhere — but they also alienated, to a considerable extent, those who were supposed to be their beneficiaries. Similarly, in trying to bring about co-education in schools and elsewhere, you have to deal with the fact that Islam of a certain kind had started permeating the whole of rural of Afghanistan. And they did not have any kind of a cadre base established in these areas. And so, their attempt to do so from a top-down only alienated many of the families, rural and elsewhere.

In this backdrop of attempts of modernization, the so called “war of terror” thwarted all such attempts and plunged Afghanistan in a never-ending spiral of violence and corrupt puppet governments which were hugely unpopular amongst common people. Prof. Vanaik explained, “Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, the United States government came out with three public declarations. They said one, “we are engaged in a global war on terror”. Second that this war will last 8-10 years — of course, this then became many, many years later. And third, very important, we will make no distinction between the perpetrators and the countries that housed them. And why did they say this? They said this because what happened in 2001 was actually an international crime against humanity. But if you accept that this is a criminal act, then you’re only entitled to go after the criminals. And this is something that they could have done; an international criminal tribunal with the support of other countries.But anyway, they said it was a global war on terror, because if you stick here, it’s a war, then you’re entitled to anything you want to win that war. You can make attacks anywhere. By declaring that there was no difference between the countries that house them and the actual perpetrators was something that is, of course, morally and juridically, utterly unacceptablebut they did this deliberately to transform a conflict between themselves and a non-state network, into a conflict between themselves and governments, which of course suited their foreign policy perspectives for trying to expand their domination. Because the US wanted to go into Central Asia from the very beginning, from the 1970s onwards, to have a foothold, to push and to contain Russia and so on. And that’s all there in the archives of US papers under Reagan and Carter.”

Prof. Vanaik went on to explain that subsequently after almost two decades, the Americans were faced with three choices in Afghanistan, “Do we continue supporting these corrupt puppet regimes, which has alienated so much of the public through their corruption? Do we wait and see, or do we again pull out? The estimated refugees and debts, again, we know that there’s 4 million internally displaced, 2.7 million or so externally, again, Pakistan and Iran having the bulk of it. So, what now? And the third choice was of course that we start preparing to pull out.We know the final decision that took place, they tried to have arrangements of various kinds, but the fact that the Taliban was able to sweep in like they did, is an indication that they had more support than the American puppet regimes. That support came from all sorts of reasons, the whole tiredness with the regime, and yes, this Taliban has learned some lessons from the past.

There are fears that Taliban at helm in Afghanistan implies threat to the security of India and other countries given Taliban’s radical Islamic views. It is argued that it will lead to more heightened terrorism. In this regard, Prof. Vanaik made an important distinction between Taliban and the ISIS or Al-Qaida. “Taliban is more a form of Afghani nationalism, which wasn’t really interested, like Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State or other forces, in exporting their particular version of radical Islam. It is much more preoccupied with Afghanistan. And therefore, they distanced themselves.”

The uppermost question in everyone’s mind is what is Taliban like when it has ceased control of Afghanistan the second time? Is it the same as before? Prof. Vanaik gives a very nuanced answer to this. He states, “It’s different from the past, but it still wants control. When you hear about them removing women TV announcers; it doesn’t mean that they may not have TV Announcers that are women, but there’ll be their TV announcers. They’re going after those who worked with the previous puppet regimes and the Americans. Not so much because of their radical Islamist teachings, but because of revenge, but they want control. They want control over the press. They want control of their accounts over the media and so on. As for the schools and universities, we have some indication that they may well let women study in university, but segregate them, women-teachers, and women separated from men. You have a much significant proportion of the Afghan population, which is modern and young, and does not want to go by the older values of various kinds.”

Lastly, Prof. Vanaik hinted at what should b the response of Indian civil society and Indian state. He cautioned, “The central issue should be the question of the people of Afghanistan and how we can help them. Yes, we must oppose imperialism and we must oppose Talibanisation. Yes, we want to promote humanitarian aid and full refugee support. Humanitarian aid can be of two kinds: It can be unconditional Humanitarian Aid. You have problems with healthcare. You have problems with food, you have all these crises, please go in no matter what. The other kind of aid, economic aid, would be more conditional. Yes, we will give you much more money for this year, but let the refugees out. But it is not the same thing as economic sanctions. There is no question of endorsing economic sanctions. Everywhere economic sanctions hurt the ordinary people and the public, much more than they hurt, the better off elites that govern, and have their own sources of finance. No to Economic Sanctions, yes to political, diplomatic, and cultural pressures but no question of military pressures.”

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