Afghanistan and the Difficulty of Achieving National Reconciliation

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan Issues

The main question relevant to the existing situation in Afghanistan is whether achieving any form of reconciliation between the Taliban and the government in Kabul is practically possible? If the answer is positive, under what conditions, and if not, why? In reality, viewpoints on this issue differ widely. Some analysts who attach more value to ideological and ethnic characteristics of the Taliban, which are based on some sort of monopolistic ideas, believe that any form of reconciliation would be impossible because it would mean entering into a deal by two parties. This means that if two parties to a conflict are not ready to take or give concessions, no reconciliation would be possible. When it comes to Afghanistan, it is not clear what every party to the conflict is supposed to give or take. The main issue is the power and the source of its legitimacy. The Taliban and the ruling government in Kabul are both Muslims and, theoretically, can take Islam as the main source of legitimacy of their power. However, the viewpoints they follow in practice are quite different.

In addition, balanced distribution of or monopoly on power is also very important. Expecting the Taliban to actually being ready to accept balanced distribution of power and share it with others is, in fact, incompatible with ideological stances and ethnic characteristics of this radical group. The Taliban is monopolistic in ideological terms and considers its own interpretation of Islam as absolute while rejecting all other interpretations. It goes without saying that when a group believes in the correctness of a single monopolistic interpretation of Islam, and that in its strictest and most stringent form, any other interpretation of Islam would be declared deviation from the principles of true Islam and, thus, unacceptable, if not outright apostasy.

A monopolistic and absolute interpretation of Islam, however, is not the sole problem with the Taliban. This radical group also believes in a sort of ethnic monopoly too, though they do not say it out loud. The Pashtun ethnic group has been swaying power in Afghanistan for almost the past 300 years sitting on the top of the power pyramid. Therefore, apart from two short intervals under Habibullah Khan Kalakani and the period of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s rule of the country, in no other junctures of the Afghanistan’s history Pashtuns allowed other ethnic groups to stay in power. Under present circumstances, the Taliban considers itself as representative of the Pashtun people’s ethnic demands. Therefore, Taliban is in no position, either ideologically, or ethnically to accept reconciliation. However, they cannot totally ignore the existing hard realities as well. The Taliban has gradually come to grips with two important external realities:

1. Military victory in Afghan war is by no means conceivable for them; and

2. Ethnic groups other than Pashtuns will never give in to ethnic monopoly on power again.

The reality that in the current war in Afghanistan neither the Taliban are able to defeat the government and foreign forces, nor government forces and their foreign backers are able to totally eliminate the Taliban from the country’s power equations is not disputable. Therefore, when a military solution to the problem is out of the question, a political option will be naturally more attractive. This is where the difficulty exists and this is exactly where the Taliban is faced with its more formidable challenge; a challenge which has both ideological and ethnic dimensions. From an ideological viewpoint, the Taliban considers negotiation table as the “portal to apostasy.” From an ethnic standpoint, however, when engaged in any form of negotiation for national reconciliation, they would have to forget about their ethnic roots as well as their historical backdrop. At any rate, the Taliban is gradually finding the capacity and the finesse to overcome these problems. The recalcitrant realities of Afghanistan will ultimately get the Taliban to the point that the group would have to give up its claim to monopoly on power. However, this would not mean that the group would also relinquish its ideological and ethnic monopolies as well. This will be only a temporary tactic for them to weather the current difficult conditions and to finish the bumpy road which lies ahead of them. From this viewpoint, the Taliban can accept reconciliation as a first step and then make proper plans for the next stages of gaining more power. It seems that the first person who correctly realized this characteristic among the group was the former commander of the US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. He was the first to talk about giving a geographical expanse to the Taliban and came up with a plan which has been even held up by Afghanistan High Council of Peace, even after he left the country. According to this plan, the Taliban will be given the control of the ethnic Pashtun regions in east and south of Afghanistan and, in fact, they will revive their past Islamic emirate. At the same time, they will be effectively represented in the central government as well.

Therefore, the plan will temporarily allow for ideological and ethnic monopolies to take hold of a much smaller part of Afghanistan. Subsequently, the Taliban will lay down its arms and turn into a political party. This will allow the Taliban to pursue their goals in a new atmosphere even through democratic mechanisms in which they don’t believe and achieve the goals which they could not attain through military means. Investing on the majority Pashtun population in any kind of elections will put them in a promising position provided that they would be able to keep the [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party as well as Haqqani Network on their side. Otherwise, they would be facing an internal challenge in both ethnic and ideological forms.

From this viewpoint, participation of the Taliban in the Paris meeting along with the representatives of the government, the United National Front of Afghanistan, and the National Coalition of Afghanistan can be a starting point. If this trend continues, the Taliban will be gradually able to forsake its traditional view of considering any form of reconciliation tantamount to apostasy and while acceding to distribution of power, recognize other groups’ right to have a share of the political power pie. The main condition, however, is to pay due attention to Pakistan’s reckonings and expectations. The Taliban will have no power without the support of a regional power and will not be able to survive as an effective force in the absence of regional backing. It should be noted that Talibanism, as a way of thinking, is not in decline, but on the contrary, it is expanding and spreading out of Afghanistan. Talibanism and its related ideas have enough capacity to make efforts outside Afghanistan in order to Talibanize the power. Establishment of the Islamic emirate of the Taliban in Pashtun-dominant parts of Afghanistan will be the main output of a national reconciliation. Other ethnicities can be granted an autonomous state within a federal government in those parts of the country where they predominate although some analysts may argue that this would be a prelude to disintegration of Afghanistan along ethnic lines.

Key Words: Afghanistan, National Reconciliation, Taliban, Ideological and Ethnic Characteristics, Foreign Forces, Paris Meeting, Mollazehi 

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