As Afghanistan embarks on an uncertainty riddled chapter, old and discredited political elites once again manipulate concerns over inclusivity in their favour.
Doing the same thing repeatedly yet expecting different results is defined as insanity. At least according to a popular quote. The Taliban’s announcement of their interim cabinet and Islamic Emirate has been controversial. The Cabinet rewarded the movement’s old guard from the 1990s. A byproduct of this was that the cabinet, though interim, was dominated by Pashtuns from Afghanistan’s southern and southeastern tribal belt. The cabinet did not include non-Taliban figures. Ethnic minorities, present in key positions, were few.
The new cabinet triggered a flurry of condemnation. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated that the interim cabinet was not ‘inclusive’. Tajikistan’s long term dictator Emomali Rahmanov claimed that ‘disastrous consequences’ would result from the lack of minority ethnicities. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, after visiting Rahmanov, also urged Kabul’s new authorities to work on creating an ‘inclusive government’. Turkish President Erdogan asserted that any deal on Kabul’s airport was conditional on the cabinet being inclusive.
Beyond the fact that according to diplomatic norms such remarks would constitute interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state, critical questions arise, even as the need for an inclusive setup is accepted theoretically. What does an inclusive government actually mean?
According to all indicators, including the formation of the ‘National Resistance Front’ (NRF) headed by Ahmad Massoud as well as the ‘Supreme Council of National Resistance of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ featuring Atta Muhammad Noor and Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, it refers to a tried, tested and failed formula in Afghanistan. It refers to the distribution of power amongst political elites, ostensibly ensuring the government’s ethnic and/or political diversity.
The large overlap between political and ethnic blocs is not accidental. A top-down approach to inclusivity was implemented (and failed) over the past two decades. Incentives for politicians to maintain their power lay not in enacting sound policy but proving to foreign patrons that they represented their respective ethnicities, even at the cost of provoking inter-ethnic discord domestically. These elites, though never elected, were accepted as necessary evils representing entire communities, even as their atrocities and corruption led directly to a Taliban resurgence.
President Ghani’s abrupt flight from Kabul triggered the fall of the Afghan capital to the Taliban on 15th August 2021. The chaotic fall of Ghani’s regime marked a long overdue nail in the coffin of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, inaugurated in 2001 of all actors by Washington DC. As Kabul’s fall unfolded, a delegation of Afghan politicians arrived in Islamabad.
The delegation’s members consisted of what were the top cadres of the post-2001 order. The delegation was led by ex-Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni. Ex-Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, ex-Vice President Karim Khalili, Ahmad Zia Massoud and Ahmad Wali Massoud: the two brothers of the famous commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, were present. Also in attendance was ex-MP Latif Pedram, whose recent tweet describing Pashtuns as a ‘terrorist majority’ violated Twitter rules and was taken down. The delegation, on a four day visit, were clear. They hoped to use Pakistan’s perceived influence over the Taliban to cajole the group, now in charge of Kabul, to grant the delegation a share of government. They emphasised Afghanistan’s ethnic multiplicity, implying that they would represent millions of their ethnic kin in government. A bold stance.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban attempted to incorporate Panjsher: the sole part of the country firmly out of their control, through negotiations. Despite the involvement of senior Taliban officials, talks failed. Ahmad Massoud, son of late commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, penned an op-ed for the Washington Post beseeching the West for support in an armed struggle against the Taliban as head of what he called the National Resistance Front, or NRF. Allies were ex-VP Amrullah Saleh, now the self-declared Acting President, and Bismillah Muhammadi, ex-Minister of Interior and Defence. Abroad, Massoud had ideological allies, most notably French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy, whose self-portrayal as a human rights advocate has for decades been scrutinised. In the op-ed Massoud attempted to strike a familiar chord to that of his father, referring to his rebels as ‘Mujahideen’, ironic in the context of using the War on Terror’s terminology to castigate the Taliban as religious fanatics. If intended at gaining material support, the op-ed failed.
The Taliban soon commenced an offensive that materialised in a straightforward week-long conquest of Panjsher. Unwilling to accept their swift defeat, leading NRF figures blamed Pakistan. Ali Nazary, the NRF’s Head of Foreign Relations, claimed on CNN that ‘a foreign country’ had launched ‘an invasion of Afghanistan’, based on a CENTCOM report that blamed Pakistan for Panjsher’s swift fall. Fake news swamped social media. Footage purported to show Pakistani drones bombing Panjsher. As it transpired, the footage, shared by Indian media, was shot in Wales, in the UK. Ahmad Zia Massoud, uncle of NRF leader Massoud, condemned the Taliban ‘and its foreign helpers’ for alleged atrocities in Panjsher. Uncle Massoud had been in Pakistan mere weeks earlier pleading for Islamabad to push the Taliban to grant his group some level of power. The irony of the newly found disdain for Pakistan was painful.
How to Manipulate ‘Inclusivity’
The NRF cites democracy, women’s rights and ‘inclusivity’ as reasons according to which it fights the Taliban. The NRF’s self-portrayal of continuity with Ghani’s regime is probably appropriate given its nature as an interest group for the Republic’s now dispossessed and discredited political elites. Its leading figure, Amrullah Saleh, is the self-declared Acting President of the now defunct Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The continuity with the Republic coupled with the NRF’s pretensions to both democracy and women’s rights, does raise eyebrows, however. The Republic, in which figures like Saleh as well as Ahmad Zia Massoud, Ahmad Wali Massoud and Bismillah Muhammadi played such pivotal roles never held an election that wasn’t marred by fraud. In fact, Saleh, as spy chief, headed an intelligence service renowned not only for its failure to confront the Taliban, but swelling the Taliban’s ranks through rampant extrajudicial raids and harrowing levels of torture.
Aside from women’s rights and democracy, NRF leader Ahmad Massoud’s latest announcement states that Afghanistan ‘needs a truly inclusive government…composed of diverse ethnic groups.’ So too did Atta Muhammad Noor, leading figure of the Supreme Council of National Resistance, refer to his group’s intention to form an ‘inclusive’ government, in opposition to the current government, which Noor claimed had ignored other ethnicities and languages.
Both the NRF and the Supreme Council, otherwise at loggerheads, agree that the current government’s deficiency lies in its lack of inclusivity; a deficiency that can be remedied by their inclusion. The fact that the convergence between political and ethnic inclusivity exists means that both audaciously seek to cast themselves as embodying ethnic minorities. In doing so, the NRF especially weaponises a predictable narrative of Afghan history pertaining to the perception of Pashtun predominance in Afghanistan, even during the period in which the NRF’s (and the Supreme Council’s) leading cadres were kingmakers. This narrative, though withering under scrutiny, constitutes perhaps the organisation’s key pillar. By portraying past and present as a simplistic tale of Pashtun predominance, the NRF, as declared defender of minority representation, posits itself as a remedy.
This diagnosed illness and its prescribed remedy, however, implies that the Taliban represent Pashtuns, whilst the NRF and/or Supreme Council represent Tajiks, amongst others. This is self-defeating. The Taliban, at least in their self-perception, are nationalists, not ethno-nationalists; they have been content only in claiming national, not ethnic, leadership. Its younger cadres reflect a more diverse provincial and ethnic makeup as opposed to its overwhelmingly Pashtun old-guard from the tribal belt, attesting to this self-perception.
There is, however, a more crucial point. The Taliban’s lack of a democratic mandate is undoubtedly a stain in the face of its claims to national legitimacy. The same rationale, however, is curiously absent when pertaining to the NRF or the Supreme Council. Simply put: who decided that the NRF or the Supreme Council do represent Tajiks, or others? Much like the Taliban, their legitimacy (or lack thereof) was not gained at the ballot box. Unlike the Taliban, whose most assured form of grassroots support was the mass surrenders of Afghan forces brokered by tribal elders, the Supreme Council and NRF have thus far failed dismally in battle. Predictably, figures in both groups echo conspiracy theories of a Ghani-Taliban deal that paved the way for the latter’s assumption of power.
Absent in discussions on ‘inclusivity’ is contemplation on the last twenty years, despite abject failure. Principal amongst the causes of this failure was the understanding that inclusivity was achieved by installing figures at the highest levels of government, even with abysmal political and military records, solely due to their ethnicity. Characteristic of confessional systems, ethnicity since 2001 was political capital. Its beneficiaries embarked on a straightforward but two-pronged approach. To foreign patrons, politicians marketed themselves as representing millions of their ethnic kin, necessitating their power and influence. Domestically, the flames of ethnic discord were fanned to preserve their position to posit them as ethnic leaders. The two approaches were perfectly symbiotic. Values or ideology-based politics or democracy assumed barely a rudimentary shape. This is painfully apparent in observing the opposition to the Taliban’s new Emirate. Civil activists are few. Predominant are the politicians imposed from abroad due solely to their respective ethnic backgrounds and/or their willingness to war against their compatriots.
It was this corruption and the violence it accompanied that harnessed the Taliban’s resurgence. Foremost amongst those who made handsome gains through the positions doled to them were the leaders today protesting against the Taliban; a cursory Google search reveals Ahmad Wali Massoud’s dubious ownership of properties in Dubai, his brother Ahmad Zia’s smuggling of $52m into the UAE , and over $12m in cash in addition to gold bricks discovered at ex-VP Saleh’s home after the fall of Panjsher. This applies equally to figures of the newly announced Supreme Council. Noor’s control of border crossings and networks of patronage ensured his paradoxical status as one of the richest men of one of the world’s poorest countries, whereas Sayyaf never stood trial for his alleged atrocities in the 1990s Civil War.
The corruption was no coincidence. It was the direct result of an ethnically determined political system whose main architects were answerable not to constituents at home, but to their patrons abroad, who’d decided they were necessary evils to ensure ‘inclusivity’. Little surprise it was that the system underpinned by such an understanding withered away, after billions in aid, within eleven days.
Weak states scarcely find the capacity to simultaneously govern whilst representing the totality of society. A weak state has been the perennial problem of many an Afghan ruler, whether Muhammadzai king, Soviet installed communist or American installed Republican. Nevertheless, the pursuit of inclusive government in such a heterogeneous society should be prioritised, even as the flaws of its understanding thus far is acknowledged. Pressure should be exerted on the Taliban to continue making their movement responsive to the nation over which they rule, especially if they’re insistent on their rejection of a formal democracy and institutionalisation of a one-party state.
The NRF or the Supreme Council, as fronts for political elites, however, are far from the answer. Assuming the Taliban are an illness, then far from being a remedy, these elites are actually the poison. If repeating the same thing expecting different results is insanity, what would giving the leaders of newly-branded groups a second (or third) chance in government be?
Unpalatable as the current reality is, breaking the wheel of 1980s jihad era families and their claims to leadership is long overdue. In this, the Taliban have a duty and historic opportunity, albeit not without challenges. It requires trust building measures with communities across the country with whom it has had hitherto difficult relationships. Failure, however, would mean that a collection of families, whose leaders have proven capable of little else but looting from the co-ethnics they purport to represent, would continue to manipulate the need for inclusivity in their favour.