A notable number of Afghan towns’ fall into the hands of the Taliban has given rise to many discussions on the international and regional levels, including in Iran. The main question here is what will be the fate of Afghanistan as a result of these developments, which majorly have military-security precedence to them. Are these developments going to be followed by formation of a “powerful religious administration” or are they going to initiate a more anarchical security situation and further disintegration of the pillars of Afghanistan’s social system? Paying attention to the following matters is important to answering this question:
1. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has an area of 652,840 square kilometres and a population of around 40 million. Seventy-seven percent of the population speak Persian, while the rest speak the two languages of Pashto and Uzbek.
Ninety-nine percent of the population are Muslims that are divided into more than 10 ethnic groups, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Turkmens, Balochs, Pashais, and Sadats. Among these, Pashtuns are the largest of the communities with a population of 16 million that form 39.5 percent of the Afghan population. They comprise devotees to Sunni Islam (the majority of the Pashtuns) and Shia Muslims (the minority). Second in size are the Tajiks, with around 13 million in number that shape 32.5 percent of the population, and are principally Sunni Muslims, who mostly live in the cities of Herat, Mazar Sharif, Kabul, and Qazni. Third come the Hazaras, who are roughly eight million in number and take up 20 percent of the population, and are distributed across various provinces. The fourth are the Turkic-Uzbek people, with a 10-percent share of the Afghan population, namely four million.
Shias among these are seven million in number, and are spread among the Tajiks, Pashtuns, Qizilbashs, Sadats, Hazaraz, and others. The Shia faithful are mostly found in the provinces of Bamyan, Ghazni (including its Jaghori, Malestan, and Nawur Districts), Sar-e Pol Province (including its Balkhab District), and Daykundi, the Parwan Province’s Shekh Ali District and the Ghor Province’s Lal wa Sarjangal District as well as the country’s cities of Kabul, Herat, and Mazar Sharif.
Therefore, it is obvious that there is no single ethnicity that can claim absolute majority status in Afghanistan, and can resultantly proclaim the right to wrest control of the administration as well as the country and its organizations.
Of course, between 75 to 80 percent of the population adhere to the Hanafi Sunni school. It is consequently natural for the administration to fall into line with the school’s principles concerning the laws and fundamental rights that it defines. And this happens to be the case right now. However, it should be noted that Afghanistan’s divisions — like those of Iraq, Lebanon, etc.– are based on ethnicities, not religious groups.
2. The Taliban group rose around 1991 during the Afghan Civil War, and held the power in the country from 1996 until 2001. It is said that the American-Pakistani-Saudi triangle played an essential part in its preliminary formation and growth. The Taliban represents at most 30 percent of Afghanistan’s manifold society. On the back of its religious background and the agenda that it has set up for itself—under the banner of the Islamic Emirate—the Taliban cannot find takers among non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The Pashtuns, themselves, are subsumed under three movements: A Sunni religious movement, which is educationally fed by Pakistan’s Haqqani and other schools, a religious Shia Pashtun movement, and a non-religious Sunni Pashtun movement that supports non-religious ideas. The first religious movement, namely the Taliban, would be representing 30 percent of the Afghan people or 12 million, even if it attracts three-fourth of the entire Pashtun ethnicity.
What is currently being pursued by the Taliban is absolute control over Afghanistan and practical subtraction of the shares and rights that are entitled to the rest of the ethnicities. This would amount to a 30-percent minority’s control over the entire Afghanistan. This is while Tajiks form a bigger minority with a 13-million-strong population.
The point to be mentioned here is that Taliban’s words and pledges are separated by a critical distance from its background on the one hand, and its actions on the other.
Today’s Taliban insists they accept that both the group and the Taliban of the past, besides the group’s desired rule and the previous Emirate are fundamentally different. But the method that the Taliban has adopted towards gaining control over Afghanistan rests on forcing other ethnicities and religions into submitting to its absolute rule. This, in fact, amounts to a new form of the group’s “totalitarianism,” and it would definitely take up arms to silence others and turn its back on its current pledges if it got to obtain control over Afghanistan.
The Taliban is now insisting on formation of the Islamic Emirate and does not back down from it, while around 70 percent of the people and the absolute majority of the ethnic groups are against this idea. The Taliban dismisses the Constitution that has been approved by the Afghan majority, and does not even accept to come to terms with it.
It is incapable of finding any more than a 30-percent following exactly because it opposes parliamentary elections or the capacity of the president. It is, therefore, thinking of a loya jirga, whose members are appointed by a Pashtun majority and a minority that consists of others. And this means that, with formation of such a system, the Afghan people will not get to enjoy their real rights and shares across the government structure for years to come.
Having attacked the northern regions, the Taliban is currently fighting the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek ethnicities. Each day, some die from each side and this translates into recurrence of an ethnic war in Afghanistan. The Taliban insistently claims that it has peacefully captured the northern towns and has no warlike intentions, but this is not true as witnessed by hundreds of fatalities and thousands of people, who have been misplaced from the northern areas. It insists that it will not hurt the Shias and respects the Islamic Republic’s borders, but its method of resorting to force towards wresting control over Afghanistan has faced the future of the Shias and our borders with uncertainty. Of course, the Shias are capable of putting up serious defense, and the Islamic Republic does not allow the slightest incursion against its borders. The Shias and the Islamic Republic are going to bear whatever cost all of this could carry for them, and this issue cannot amount to a source of concern.
3. Another point is that, as stated in the previous part, establishment of an absolute Taliban rule is not as easy as they and the United States have thought. We witnessed that the Taliban could not obtain absolute control from 1991 to 1996, and, therefore, the war went on in the northern areas during this period. The Taliban cannot seize 100 percent of the Afghan soil and establish its Emirate, without coming to agreement with others and offering a clear outlook of an all-inclusive and popular rule that takes cognizance of the rights of all ethnic groups, now either. Even now that the Taliban’s media have put pictures of the group’s absolute victory on display, more than 50 percent or 183 of Afghanistan’s 369 districts are outside their control, and intense war and confrontation is still going on in 136 districts. However, the group alleges that it has gained control over 90 percent of Afghanistan. The rule desired by the Taliban does not translate to any rule at all, but comprises a scene of constant melee among ethnicities. And this is not something that could change by the group’s changing its discourse, while it still insists on its most essential previous ideological elements.
4. Amid all this, the share of the United States is very important. Based on its duty, throughout the past 20 years that the US has been enjoying control over Afghanistan’s political and security-military sectors, Washington has been supposed to train and equip the Afghan army to assume military-security duties. But—due to being rendered unable—after 20 years of occupying the country under the pretext of confronting the Taliban, it is now instead implementing a plan that bears all the hallmarks of an intrigue. A plan, whose result is military confrontation across more than 136 Afghan districts—37 percent of the Afghan soil.
Now, the essential question is what is the hidden aspect of these ethnic conflicts that have risen like a specter over Afghanistan as a result of the Doha talks? Did the US know that the Taliban cannot gain control over Afghanistan alone? Then, why did it not do something to strike a balance of power between the Taliban and the Pashtun government of Ashraf Ghani, and has practically turned Afghanistan into a scene of confrontation by refusing to equip the Afghan army and preventing its equipment by others too? Will the Taliban be playing the role of the US’s proxy group to harness the US’s opponents in Afghanistan and the region from now on?
By Sa’adollah Zarei for Kayhan
Dr. Sa’adollah Zarei is a political science professor at Iran’s Allameh Tabataba’i University (ATU) and an expert in international affairs.