A tall ask of the Taliban – Abbas Nasir

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WHO would not have been shattered by those images following the suicide bombing at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport which killed some 170 people mostly Afghan men, women and children attempting to leave their war-ravaged country for sanctuaries abroad?

It was utterly and totally soul-destroying to see men, women and children mowed down, some among them, literally a few steps away from safety by the killer shrapnel from the exploding suicide vest triggered by an Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) member, as the terrorist outfit itself claimed.

The dead, the Taliban said, included about three dozen of their fighters assigned to airport safety. Also, days before their return home as the US completes its withdrawal on Aug 31, a dozen US military men and women, on this occasion, did not die in combat but in aid of civilians in distress, as they patted down those entering the tarmac.

The Abbey Gate (as the entrance is called) massacre was a grim reminder, if one was needed, of how violent and unstable Afghanistan can be and how almost nobody is assured of security and safety of life and limb even as the Taliban, in their latest incarnation, are making many of the right noises.

The deep despair that has made a home in so many Afghan hearts was again evident the day after the massacre. The open sewer next to the Abbey Gate, where their fellow travellers were queuing shin deep and which had turned crimson after the suicide bomber tugged the trigger on Thursday, was again packed with people.

Even as there were feel-good stories from those who, having braved a very uncertain and perilous 10 days, made it to a safe yet totally uncertain and challenging new life, there were many stories of betrayal; of former Afghan employees, allies abandoned to their fate.

The circumstances in and around the Kabul airport very aptly demonstrated the grave challenges that await the triumphant Taliban whether they decide to rule by themselves given their military might or opt for a broad-based ‘inclusive’ government like they are being urged to by all nations including their neighbours.

Experts say that 18 million of the total 38m Afghans will need aid to be fed and if the aid flow stops, within months a critical situation could develop. The Taliban seem aware of this as is explained by the optics they are creating and in their claims of being different from the past.

It is anybody’s guess how successful they will be in persuading the international community about the veracity of their new credentials. For example, the Taliban have said that women will be allowed to educate themselves and work more or less as they did over the past two decades.

At the same time, one of the Taliban’s senior leaders has also advised women to stay at home till some of the foot soldiers have been retrained and reoriented about the role of women in society so unpleasant incidents outside the home are avoided. They know their past is appalling.

The question that the Taliban will need to answer is how far they have to go to convince the international community. And what if somewhere along that journey some of their hard-line foot soldiers find, for example, IS-K to be closer to their views on women.

I am aware that Salafis and Deobandis have ideological differences but the danger exists that some of the Taliban hard-line fighters may find their views on oppression of women more aligned with IS-K ideology than the newer version of their own group.

Whether this could lead to desertions from the ranks of their foot soldiers I can’t say. But Taliban top leaders’ toning down of their ideology, one can be sure, will find critics and detractors among the second-tier leadership ie town-/ village-level mullah brought up on a steady diet of dogma.

If at all the top leaders are sincere in walking the talk on women’s rights and even a marginal opening up of society, they will have to do that through a carefully-calibrated process or all of it could backfire and be rendered unworkable.

Will the international community be prepared to sit, wait and watch where the situation goes or lose patience is a question difficult to answer in this crisis phase. The unfreezing of the country’s frozen assets around the globe will hinge on this factor as it will influence and inform any possible recognition.

The Taliban will be desperate to gain international recognition in order to access the resources to have a prayer of delivering something to the people. A war-weary nation will welcome peace. But no jobs and hunger can soon create a fresh conflict.

The other challenge spotlighted by events in and around the Kabul airport in recent days has been the brain drain. So many of the educated Afghans have left the country that even if rebuilding of the country and society starts, expertise may well be in short supply.

The country is said to have $3 trillion worth of mineral wealth. But who does not know how capital-intensive and time-consuming tapping that is. There is talk of gas pipelines passing through the country, earning it a handsome revenue. For all this to happen peace, stability is a prerequisite.

Don’t we all know how (relatively) easy it may be to be in opposition and seize power via an armed, organised entity. But the tougher task of governance lies ahead. Performance in office requires an entirely different set of skills, orientation and competence without which instability rules.

Unless an ‘inclusive’ Afghan government can deliver lasting peace, one cannot expect planes to land at Kabul airport one after the other, bringing back Afghan and other experts needed to develop the war-ravaged country and revive the economy.