Rethinking Afghanistan and beyond

Şafak Göktürk writes: The Taliban cannot be threatened by military reprisals or isolation. They are immune to both. But they will be vulnerable if they cannot govern. No degree of atrocity on their part will make up for that deficit. With an already feeble economy in tatters, a young urban population conscious of better life and freedom, and a landscape hardly welcoming a prolonged domination by the Pashtuns, the Taliban will feel the heat.

Şafak Göktürk

I am aware there is a growing fatigue over the multiplicity of articles of late on Afghanistan. I shall thus not be repetitive on aspects of the still unfolding events there which require little further description. I shall instead venture to divulge what the present may hold for the future if we accepted the facts for what they are.

The chaotic and heart-wrenching scenes at Kabul Airport following the swift seizure by the Taliban of the whole country in mid-August are in fact emblematic of almost everything that went terribly wrong. These images reflected not only the desperation of the Afghans facing the prospect of a dreadful future, but the impulse of the Biden administration to extricate itself, as quickly as possible, from a quagmire the U.S. both stumbled into and rendered more hazardous.

Suddenly, it became crystal clear how the entire military, political and economic involvement of the U.S. in Afghanistan was detached from the actual well-being of the Afghan people. The U.S. President had already put it loud and clear on July 8 when he bluntly described the entire Afghanistan mission in terms limited to military anti-terrorism objectives, thereby painting over every political and economic undertaking -from the 2001 Bonn Conference on- by NATO and the wider international community designed to assist the Afghans in enhancing their quality of life and governing capacity. Maybe he meant “we don’t care how they manage so long as the terrorists are kept at bay”. Either way, it was a resounding failure.

That excruciating final episode of the Afghanistan experiment is now behind us. Both the U.S. President and the Secretary of State have since testified to the futility of any grander undertaking than fighting terrorists. These declarations are in fact a euphemism for admitting the shallowness of their appreciation of the social dynamics beyond their own circumstance. Fine. And, this is also where we can identify the silver lining. It lines ever more brightly the cloud of the U.S. -and more generally Western- perplexity over almost every major event that transpired in the Middle East in the post-war era.  

Because theirs is essentially an operational approach. If their treasury chest, military strength and intelligence capacity allow them to draw a scheme to dominate over a spiraling challenge, they go for it. There may be nothing wrong about that, technically speaking. The problem is whether that is the right tool to employ. The problem grows further when they look for native moorings to incorporate in their endeavor.  If the incumbent dictatorial regime also feels threatened by the same challenge, they bolster it.  If, however the regime itself is the problem, they look for readily available detractors or else install a few. Yet, seldom do they align themselves with the popular aspirations for dignified life beyond lip-service and a few cents. Their material -and geopolitical- interests seem to be just too overwhelming for that.

But there is a deeper cause for their dearth of genuine interest. The West’s template for the Middle Eastern societies, in all their variations, still does not warrant them to be involved earnestly and in a sustained manner in the peoples’ want for freedom and better bread in this geography.  The dominant mindset in the West simply remains unconvinced, on religious and cultural grounds, that these people are sufficiently qualified for democratic governance. The current autocratic, hierarchical, tribal, religious or sectarian features of these societies are seen as proof corroborating their marked difference from the Christian and democratic West. The mental wall in the West is truly a formidable one.

And, they have enthusiastic partners in the Middle East for this kind of wall masonry. Those with vested interests in the lethargic status quo and a whole array of Islamists and Salafists think precisely in the same way. They either preach concepts like democratic governance, individual rights and freedoms, but only after hollowing their content, or reject them outright as alien to Sharia rule.

This is not a static relationship between the two sides of the mental wall.  Whatever the West does in pursuit of its interests is portrayed, in the East, as the greed of an alien civilization. In the West, the increased repression by jittery regimes and the further radicalization of religiously motivated governments and groups -with obvious ramifications for security- are seen as proof, for the “Islamic” East’s irreconcilable nature. This heightened state of ill-perception sets in motion a mutually reinforcing dynamic which results in -but not limited to- massive terror attacks and military interventions. And, these breed a cycle of violence on an even more heightened level, which makes it difficult for the wider public on both sides to see the events in a more cool-headed light.

Whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, true progress towards peace and stability will thus have to begin with the dismantling of this high wall. This is no easy task as the division has very longstanding historical underpinnings, but should be achievable in this age of recognized universal standards for all, if we are sincere about that.

No religion is preordained by a specific type of statehood or legal system.  It is the respective historical, social and political contexts in which the three Abrahamic religions emerged and flourished that determined, in the process, each religion’s articulated role in pursuit of rule and order.  Judaism is intertwined with the survival, glory and exile history of a people in the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean and therefore acquired a national character. Christianity was born into the space of the expanding Roman Empire, and when it eventually spread and overwhelmed its oppressors, it aligned with the already firmly established political and legal order. Islam emerged on the outer fringes of two mighty -yet declining- Empires, the Byzantine and the Sassanid, in a polity with no comparable state or political system, and when it spread with lightening speed, the religion’s ethos could not interact with, but envelop the established orders.  

This is the contextual origin of the Sharia. This is why the whole corpus of Islamic jurisprudence has been predicated on four tenets: The Qur’an, the Sunnah (the Hadith, compiling the sayings and actions of the Prophet, as well as practices prevailing at his time which he did not object), ijma and qiyas. Ijma -or the consensus of Muslim scholars- and qiyas -deducing juridical principles from the Holy Texts through reasoning by analogy- attests to the constant effort to validate rules where no obvious connection between the ethos and the practice exists. 

(There is in fact one more procedure for finding legal answers, that of “ijtihad” -mental reasoning of the jurist. This was restricted from the 12th century on, as it actually competed with the work in the framework of ijma. This was a time when the Abbasid Caliphate was facing growing challenges to the integrity of its empire, and stricter rules to beef up centralized control impacted also on the scope of scholarly debate). 

Then, there is this “traditional” Islamic society thing. Every religious conduct both contributes to and is influenced by the established practices in a given community. There is nothing peculiar or exceptional about it for Muslim majority societies. But, for some reason in the West, whereas the evolution of their societies is understood, and rightly so, on the basis of the whole gamut of social, economic, political, geographic, historical and other factors with also religion playing its ubiquitous role, when it comes to Muslim ones, almost all factors are conditioned on religious tenets.  Apparently, the early Muslim conquests have left a more abiding trace on the West’s psyche than that of its owners.

Today, one has to take notice how varied the application of Sharia in the states it is imposed is. For, the defining feature of all these examples is not one solid or universally accepted norm, but rather the necessity to frame an established “traditional” or “national” power with religious sanctification, and only in a way tailored to its specific needs. Rule of law -and everything it entails- is portrayed by such regimes and by Islamists as anathema to the religion, simply because its basis is not the power holder who feigns to act on God’s behalf, but the rights and obligations of every individual, whether in power or not. Western Europeans will have to remember their own long struggle for their rights against the established order of the church and the state. It is not the peculiarity of Islam, but the historical role all religions played in the perpetuation of imposed power, which froze societies, until it was questioned.

Fast forward to Kabul-2021. Afghanistan, seemingly suspending outside chronology, is in fact not even the place it was twenty years ago. It is changing fast, yet maybe not according to the text-book of phased social evolution. Today, it is characterized by intersecting and overlapping layers of social groups all spread over the diverse ethnic makeup of that vast country. The Taliban, currently the most effective agent of power that emerged from within the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns (yet still constituting only less than half of the population) found themselves basking in quick victory only by default. Scooping by political pundits is already under way to understand the true intentions of the Taliban, as their spokesmen hint a less brow-raising performance on their part this time. Whether their caution is genuine or tactical is a bit beside the point. For it already betrays the Taliban’s own concern that things in and outside the country have drastically changed in these twenty odd years. Statistical data indicate rapid urbanization during this period in which Kabul’s population alone has quintupled. Urbanization, whether at the pace of the economic growth’s absorption capacity or faster, weakens, if does not totally obscure, rural and tribal links. In the conditions of Afghanistan, it had an even more profound effect. Coupled with the enormous advantage of the ever-growing internet communication, these Afghans, particularly those who grew up in this period, know much better where they stand in the wider world. Islamist narrative will find decidedly less identification with lifestyles no longer preserved under tribalism and rural culture which had long remained unexposed to economic and social progress.

Under these circumstances women loom large. The progress of a society is most accurately measured by the status of its women.  For not only do women represent the fifty percent of every nation, the state of their empowerment also reflects the degree of self-fulfillment of the other half. The more advantage men take of the absence of a level playing field with women, the less chance will they have to develop fully their social and cognitive capacity. Pushing someone down to claim relative higher ground for yourself in effect compromises your own attention to set higher targets. Equally, depriving yourself of the stimulus fair competition will provide limits your chances to make the grade. This is one reason why mediocracy is rampant in societies where women are less fortunate.  But people are averse to let go even unwarranted advantages.  Equal rights for women remain the ultimate venue also for men to live up to their full potential.

It flows from this perennial malaise that the women’s subdued social status represents the most conspicuous feature of theocratic build-up and rule. Enforcing women’s diminished status is thus the Islamists’ first line of defense. They see their social and political survival incumbent on keeping women as their dependent extensions and with lesser recognizable personality. This is why women become prime targets of heightened patriarchal abuse and violence under these circumstances.

In Kabul, the women have been at the vanguard resisting Taliban. It is hardly surprising. They feel the brunt of the impending brutal zealotry. The Afghan women’s struggle should be enthusiastically upheld without losing sight that it is only the more cross-cutting part of the overall fight for freedom.  

As we have witnessed in Iraq, the American model for transforming the government into a representative system was flawed from the start. The U.S. chose to proceed by recognizing the ethnic and sectarian divisions as its point of departure, and only then to try to reconcile each group’s claim over power sharing. This was actually the repeat of the post-war Lebanese model, which itself has long been in shambles. The product, as we have seen, was not pretty. This is not to say that these differences are unimportant, but safeguarding identities requires a broader common denominator in diverse societies. For Afghanistan, the Loya Jirga (originally a traditional Pashtun assembly of tribal leaders) was called to duty to constitute the new transitional government in 2002. The Loya Jirga, by its nature, could at most reconcile conflicts of interest among already privileged notables.  Whether, at the time, the Bonn Conference had a better option will be a fair point. But over the following two decades, the ostensibly fair elections continued to cater to self-gratifying and corrupt chieftains.  Alongside this political balancing act of sorts, an army of paid soldiers (some even only on paper whose salaries were lining the pockets of corrupt officers) with only a residual sense of commitment to their country was gradually constituted. Again, the cart was harnessed before the horse. Why there was so much bewilderment when this army melted away before the advancing Taliban militia is itself puzzling.

It is still too early to tell how the Taliban will exercise its power. However, a more informed interest in Afghanistan, even if only to stem the refugee and security fallout in the first instance, will be in order. Taliban cannot be threatened by military reprisals or isolation. They are immune to both. But they will be vulnerable if they cannot govern. No degree of atrocity on their part will make up for that deficit. With an already feeble economy in tatters, a young urban population conscious of better life and freedom, and a landscape hardly welcoming a prolonged domination by the Pashtuns, the Taliban will feel the heat. They can surely benefit from China’s geopolitical and economic interest, but they know China, and for that matter Russia, will never underwrite a violent fundamentalist regime beyond offering limited perks for transactional dealings.

If, on the other hand, the democracies wish to make a difference this time, they should prioritize the people. This will be a much more enduring geopolitical investment than anything they have hitherto underwritten. There are no ready recipes for such a policy’s daily execution, but looming the people large for beneficial deals will put more pressure on the Taliban or on any other future Afghan government to act more sensibly at home.

The West failed its first major test when the push came to shove with the Arab uprisings. It quickly confused the immediate challenge to regional stability with geopolitical interest. Toeing the line of the long-serving dictators in the region, the West subscribed to reducing the whole struggle to one between the incumbents and their Islamist -or Salafist- nemeses.  In actual fact, the belligerents conjointly represented the crumbling status quo. Islamism differs from the sociological concept of piety which is generally characterized as strict religious observance. It instead instrumentalizes, through an anti-historical approach, religious tenets and narrative by adapting them to the roles of contemporary actors.  Consequently, the very survival and appeal of Islamism is contingent on the existence of its “alien” rival. The movement itself becomes irrelevant once that opposite disappears from the equation. This is one essential reason why Islamists constantly pick domestic and foreign targets to demonize so that they can still feel relevant. Yet, Islamism is not a franchise for popular will. It is a medium to monopolize on popular resentment and alienation. The Islamists are as nervous as the ruling autocrats when people take matters into their own hands, as was the case during the Tahrir revolution in 2011. The Morsi period in Egypt, cut short by the military takeover in 2013, in fact attested to Ikhwan’s own bid to clamp down on freedoms. Seen through a broader perspective, the Arab regimes and the Islamists acted as strange bedfellows in strangling the uprisings.

Yet, happily, and to the chagrin of both, the dynamic of change unleashed in 2011 is alive. It will continue to manifest itself in different forms until no stone is left unturned.  If the initial uprisings could not make much headway at home, they were enough to bring down the regional status quo. The surviving regimes now find themselves on a decidedly more precarious footing.  

The community of democratic nations has to acknowledge that it has a responsibility to co-own popular risings for democracy. And, they should stop confining themselves to the “West”, which undercuts the universal validity of democratic governance. On the other hand, the pursuit of realpolitik is not necessarily about the choice between supporting or abandoning a repressive regime. Today, it is more about echoing the peoples’ call for dignity and freedom, thus making it an element of bilateral relations. This cannot go unnoticed in those capitals and by the people on the street.  It is also time to think more thoroughly on Afghanistan.


Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 64 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.