Developments in Afghanistan suggest that the existing Afghan dispensation would not be able to continue for long and the Taliban are all set to return to the corridors of power.
The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies have started pulling out their remaining troops from Afghanistan in order to complete the withdrawal by September this year. As the foreign troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, the insurgent Taliban have stepped up their attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), resulting in widespread bloodshed. On the other hand, intra-Afghan dialogue with the President Ashraf Ghani-led legitimate regime and the Taliban as key parties has restarted to find a solution to the conflict in the post US-NATO withdrawal. Once the US-NATO forces complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan, it would definitely create a huge power vacuum in the war-ravaged country and analysts around the world foresee the ANSF not holding their own in the face of swashbuckling attacks from the Taliban.
The future of Afghanistan after the complete withdrawal of the US-NATO forces from the country would largely depend upon intra-Afghan talks, especially between the Taliban and the government of President Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban would like to capture power by force of arms, whereas anti-Taliban groups, including President Ghani and his Northern Alliance allies, would try their utmost to prevent the Taliban from capturing power again as they did in September 1996. The Taliban remained in power in Afghanistan till October 2001, when the US-led International coalition forces ousted them, which forced them to launch an insurgent movement. Whether single-handedly or as part of a broad-based interim government, the Taliban would most probably return to the corridors of power in Afghanistan. In the situation, the most important question for Afghans and the world would be how they behave once they are back in power.
When the Taliban regime was in power, they faced the biggest criticism over gross human rights violation, particularly women rights. Importantly, the Taliban, on many occasions in the recent past, have promised to respect women rights “as allowed by Shariah.”
Irrespective of the battlefield activities of the Taliban over the last two decades, some flexibility has been observed in the otherwise obstinate and recalcitrant attitude of the militia leadership. For instance, when former US President Donald Trump engaged with the Taliban in peace negotiations, they had described him as “serious and sincere” in ending the conflict in Afghanistan. The praise for an American leader from the Taliban has indeed been rare.
According to estimates of different intelligence agencies and the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Taliban have been in control of around 40 percent to 70 percent of Afghan territory. It is something surprising as over 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel could not establish their writ in even half of the country. Once the US troops withdraw, the ANSF, which remains intact due to crucial and critical support, particularly the airpower of the US forces in Afghanistan, may develop deep cracks. Remember, the Taliban fundamentally have been a militant organisation, which mutated into a quasi-political force. If the militia dominates the country, the ANSF could no longer claim to be the national military. Seeing the Taliban coming to power, many personnel of the ANSF would join forces with them. It would be especially the case with the Pashtun members of the ANSF. However, the Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen and Hazara ethnic group members, who are part of the ANSF, would like to abandon the national forces, as Taliban dominance would be in no way acceptable to them or possibly detrimental to their interests and even survival.
As a strategy, the Taliban may tacitly agree not to revoke the Afghan Constitution but they would like to introduce changes in it and make it compatible with their interpretation of Shariah. Possibly, once in power single-handedly, the Taliban may attempt to completely throw away the existing Afghan Constitution and replace it with one of their own. Much would depend on what manner the Taliban return to power and how much stakes the militia would be able to appropriate for itself. If the Taliban return to power through becoming part of the country’s political system and by winning elections, then they would act relatively responsibly. However, at the same time it is also possible that once the group returns to power through winning elections, it may further embolden them, sensing that they are not only militantly dominant but also have the political support of people. However, if the Taliban return to power through a certain formula agreed upon between the US-West and the group as well as other Afghan stakeholders, the group would attempt to dominate the system.
The question that to what extent the Taliban would mend their old ways of violently rather inhumanly treating Afghans, especially women, once they return to power is quite important. It is generally feared by Afghans that the Taliban would resort to their old modus operandi once back in power. However, cognizant of the apprehensions of Afghans and the world, in particular human rights groups, the Taliban have been vowing to change their old ways once back in the saddle. Nevertheless, Afghans and the world have apprehensions that the group leaders have been vowing to mend their old ways merely to placate incisive criticism from various quarters. There is a lot of substance in the fears of Afghans and the world regarding the Afghan Taliban returning to power and resorting to violence, because the group, as explained, is fundamentally a militia.
There are also many examples around the world that militant organizations mutated into political organizations. However, for it there needs to be clarity of purpose among the rank and file of the militant group. In the case of the Afghan Taliban, there is only one clear objective, that is to recapture power and to compel the foreign forces to withdraw from the country. While the latter objective is being achieved, the former is still to be attained. But the purpose could only be meaningfully realized if the Taliban looked beyond the objectives. If the Taliban like to rule Afghanistan as a political force, they would have to come up with a comprehensive policy and governance plan, otherwise mere capturing of power or getting a share in power would aggravate and exacerbate the conflict in Afghanistan.