THE WORD “Taliban” means “students” or “seekers.” But students of what? Seekers after what? Islamic rectitude, even inflexibility. In the Taliban’s first government stint between 1996 and 2001, however, piety degenerated into barbarism – public floggings, amputations, a ban on music, repression of women, etc.
Now, in their second coming, they say they’ve changed, and they’ve given a number of placatory “assurances” – they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a terrorist base; women can work “within the framework of Sharia law” (however that is construed); there will be no discrimination against former employees of the US, who can leave anytime they want; etc.
They also promised that their new government would be “inclusive,” and it certainly is, but only of male Sunni hardliners and fellow travellers. There are no women and – to the great consternation of Iran – no Shia. Also, the new interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Public relations statements didn’t impress many Afghan women, and early o’clock they were out in the streets protesting. They are brave, but they face weaponry and, worse, extremist religious convictions. Think of it: to the Islamic right of the Taliban, and their sworn enemy on every front, lie ISIS-K (Khorasan), who caused multiple horrific deaths in their bombings last year of a maternity clinic, and a few months ago of a girls’ school, in Shia sections of Kabul. You see who was targeted.
The Taliban will naturally have anticipated some problems after their unimpeded entry into Kabul in mid-August. ISIS-K hatred was known. International disfavour and scepticism were taken for granted. But women’s demonstrations might have come as a surprise, and the rush by so many Afghans to leave the country must have been very galling. Developmentally damaging, too, since many of them are skilled workers.
Soothing promises – the UN hopefully, but unwisely, calls them “commitments” – aren’t being fulfilled; actions aren’t generally matching words. The new government is as non-inclusive as you can get. Revenge killings have begun. People are flooding into nearby countries as refugees. Shia Muslims remain inferior, even infidels. Yes, women can pursue university study (and then what?), but women’s protests have been violently broken up, and journalists covering them badly beaten.
Female participation in sport has been banned, because, we’re told, sport isn’t necessary for women; further, it leaves too much skin exposed in public. The horror. Women footballers have now fled to Pakistan. As for cricket (the women have had an international team), perhaps, if you were allowed to, you could play in a burqa and a niqab?
Would it be reasonable to conclude that the old ways are reappearing? Many of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran included, seem to think so. By contrast, Pakistan, long regarded as a Taliban supporter (which it vigorously denies), is performing its usual dance routine, to the usual Kashmir beat that India knows so well.
If past conduct does indeed return, will al-Qaeda, “assurances” notwithstanding, be permitted to set up shop again on Afghan soil? Will the US then activate its “over-the-horizon capabilities?” Where might that lead?
What of the Afghan economy, always dependent on external assistance? (I say nothing about receipts from the export of opium.) Whatever the West may say about the need for humanitarian aid, will it in fact consistently provide such aid, and in adequate amounts, if it judges the Taliban to be violating Afghans’ human rights, even if the Taliban honestly believe they are scrupulously interpreting the Qur’an? How would the aid be channelled?
And what of the new threat to US democracy from far-right US groups like the Proud Boys? Astonishingly, they’re now praising the Taliban for having expelled the “liberal” Biden from Afghanistan, and say they see the event as a template for their driving him from the presidency so that their everlasting hero (who recently called the Taliban “smart”) can resume his rightful place.
Life was so different when, 50 years ago, I paid my only visit to Afghanistan! One day a Foreign Ministry official drove me down to Jalalabad, near the Pakistan border, to have lunch with a friend of his. Over the most exquisitely spiced lamb I’ve ever eaten, our host suggested – and he was perfectly serious – that I stay in Afghanistan and get married. Afghan women (no burqa or niqab then) were very attractive, he said (I had already noticed that). Of course, he added, I would have to convert to Islam and learn Pashto, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
Who knows, I might today be a Talibani: Rajih bin Dumas al-Trinidadi (I’m keeping Tobago out of this), government minister in Kabul, fluent speaker of TT-accented Pashto, a little black man with a big white beard.
And four wives.