Afghan Politics: The Taliban's Democracy

The British journalist and political analyst Anatol Lieven described the scenario of a rapid takeover of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan with considerable a

Afghan Politics: The Taliban's Democracy
The British journalist and political analyst Anatol Lieven described the scenario of a rapid takeover of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan with considerable accuracy three months ago in an essay: "After the withdrawal of the Americans, the collapse of the Afghan state in the Pashtun areas could eventually occur not only very quickly, but also quite peacefully, if Pashtun soldiers and policemen simply go home while their commanders flee or make their own deals with the Taliban." Something similar had already happened, according to Lieven, who began his journalistic work as a correspondent for the Financial Times in Pakistan and Afghanistan, when the communist regime in the country collapsed in 1992 and the Mujahideen took power. And so it was when, from 1994 to 1996, the Taliban overran the Pashtun tribal settlements and deposed the Mujahideen warlords ("An Afghan Tragedy: The Pashtuns, the Taliban and the State", in: Survival. Global Politics and Strategy, Vol. 63, Issue 3, May 2021 / Taylor & Francis).

The current transfer of power to the Taliban went even faster, because the rebels promised not to prosecute security forces and government officials, and have so far probably kept their promise by and large. Lieven sees the Taliban as a genuine Pashtun movement, which has recently been able to gradually extend its influence beyond its original area of origin in the south and southeast of the country.

Tribal coalitions and fratricidal wars

The Pashtuns, who now make up around forty percent of the Afghan population, have repeatedly played a dominant role in the country's political history. It was the Durrani tribal coalitions that set the tone and put powerful dynasties at the head of various state formations - from the so–called Durrani Empire (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) to the Kingdom of Afghanistan under Mohammed Zahir Shah (1933-1973). Zahir was overthrown by his brother Daoud Khan, who ruled the Republic of Afghanistan he founded until 1978.

While the social structure of the Durrani was determined by hierarchical structures, the tribal group of the far poorer Ghilzai, from whose ranks the Taliban recruited in the nineties, shaped rather egalitarian networks of relations – Lieven also uses the term "democratic" here. The Ghilzai also differed from the Durrani in terms of religious leadership structures. For unlike the religious leaders (sayyids) on whom the Durrani kings relied to legitimize their governments and who also formed dynastic lines, the religious authorities of the Ghilzai came from simple, often poor backgrounds. Nor did they claim that certain aura of the sacred with which the Sayyids surrounded themselves, sometimes competing with each other to the point of open rivalry.

With the Ghilzai, group discipline was far more natural, which was an advantage in phases of the fight against foreign invaders as part of a jihad – as recently against the Western Alliance. From Lieven's point of view, the increase in the reputation of these village mullahs, which were previously little appreciated, is nothing less than a revolution in the history of the Pashtun tribes. Their increased status was mainly due to their cooperation with the Taliban, who, with the help of the village mullahs, are now able to assert their influence even in the most remote villages of the country – something that no other power in the history of Afghanistan has really succeeded in doing so far.

Linking two narratives

Lieven also attributes the Taliban's continued rise to power since the American invasion in 2001 to their ability to link two popular master narratives – tribal Pashtun and Islamic. Through the establishment of their, albeit short-lived, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996 to 2001), the Taliban were able to position themselves as the innovators of the centuries-old tradition of rule of the Pashtuns, which had been interrupted at that time.

Updated Date: 18 October 2021, 00:01

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