“The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract (1762)
August 1, 2020
The Taliban’s leader – in too many words – essentially signaled that the insurgent group will not rest until a Wahhabi-style theocracy is established in Kabul, a message not well received by Afghan government officials. The exchange could be a preview of deeper ideological and propaganda battles to come, as both sides compete to shape the minds and win the souls of the Afghan people.
Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in a July 28 statement agreeing to the temporary Eid Al-Adhan ceasefire, at least three times states that the Taliban plan to establish a “pure Islamic government.” This was met with swift rebuke from Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh.
“In the verbose message of the Taliban leader only one thing is easy to understand i.e. 3 days of no killing. Everything else written on behalf of this Quetta based shadowy figure is nothing but asking people to surrender to a mideveal way of life or face bloodshed after 3 days,” Saleh said in a tweet on July 29.
Both sides want to set the conditions around the intra-Afghan talks – assuming they one day actually occur. Both want leverage. They went to strengthen their best alternative to a negotiated agreement by making advances on the battlefield and within public discourse. This is what the pre-talks messaging campaign is about.
The Taliban leader’s message is cryptic, however, because it is difficult to tell whether he is trying to persuade the people of Afghanistan or if he is simply setting expectations for the inevitable dark caliphate to come.
When the Taliban seized power in the 1990s many Afghans gave them the benefit of doubt because the newcomers vowed to establish order in a civil war-plagued country. It was a sort of twisted Hobbesian social contract: agree to hand over certain rights in exchange for stability.
It raises the theoretical question as to whether rulers need some level of acquiescence if not support on the part of the ruled, or if they can seize and maintain power solely due to raw force and monopoly over the instruments of violence.
The Taliban in the past, despite their ideological purity, did recognize the value of gaining some level of legitimacy along the lines of Pashtun tradition. Mullah Omar wrapped himself in a sacred Pashtun cloak once (reportedly) worn by the Prophet Mohammed, while taking the title “Commander of the Faithful.”
Yet this ritual also held deep tribal symbolism because the cloak linked Omar with Ahmed Shah Durrani who first brought it to Afghanistan, showing the Taliban trying to sanction their rule via the royal bloodline.
This time around there is more involved than tribal tradition, however, because of one key stakeholder segment: Afghan women.
According to the 2019 Asia Foundation survey, more than 75 percent of Afghans believe women should be able to work outside the home and nearly 90% say they should have the right to vote. During Taliban rule, they weren’t allowed to leave the house for any reason without permission.
87 percent of Afghans believe in gender equality when it comes to education, including 84 percent of those polled in rural areas, according to the survey.
Even more interesting is that a wide majority of Afghans say they would not vote for a president who accepted a peace deal with the Taliban that jeopardized women’s education (66%) and women’s ability to work outside the home (65%).
Nobody in their right mind believes that the Taliban will embrace women’s rights if and when they take power. That said, the dynamics in Afghanistan are significantly different than they were right before the Taliban took over in the 1990s. Human Rights Watch actually documented that women were abused just as horribly under the mujahideen government – in fact, they topped the Taliban in the category of rape.
But this propaganda battle, overall, will not be so easy for Kabul to win, given the rampant corruption that has plagued the government for years. The same Asia Foundation survey revealed that 97 percent of Afghans say corruption is a problem in Afghanistan as a whole and 91% said it was a problem in their daily lives.
Afghan Analysts Network Thomas Rutting once said during the Karzai administration that between the anvil of the corrupt government and the hammer of the Taliban “there are no viable political alternatives for Pashtuns.” And today, not much has changed.
In short, the Western-style “democratic” government in Kabul is no clear solution to the threat of the Taliban. If the Ghani administration is what goes for democracy these days, perhaps many Afghans would rather opt out under certain perceived conditions.
Indeed, it will be quite interesting to see how much Afghans will be willing to surrender for stability this time around.