Transformed Perceptions: Pashtun Intelligentsia And The Taliban Regime

Transformed Perceptions: Pashtun Intelligentsia And The Taliban Regime

Gone are the days when the Taliban were severely criticized by Pashtun postmodern intelligentsia and nationalist political activists outrightly on social media. Having consolidated power in Kabul after the withdrawal of the US-led Coalition, the Taliban government has not shown any tolerance for women's rights, minorities, or any respect for democracy whatsoever. There were teething troubles, however, with the flight of the middle class from Afghanistan on the eve of the US withdrawal in 2021, which had an impact on the resistance within Afghan society. Postmodern Pashtun intellectuals have already succumbed to the rationalization that there is no inherent impetus for change emerging from Afghan society in terms of modernization. Attempts by outsider powers, such as Soviet and American invasions, have also resulted in disappointment.

Despite all their oppression, the Taliban regime has sparked a resurgence of interest among postmodern Pashtun intellectuals in various ways. The Taliban government has promoted trade with neighbouring countries, especially with China, Iran, and Pakistan, and has started attracting intellectuals. Pashtuns traders, and transporters have profited from the bilateral trade between the two countries. Even those bitterly opposed to the Afghan Taliban during the war on terror are actively pursuing contracts for supplying minerals from Afghanistan, with a significant number engaging in the coal trade. It was widely circulated on social media that when Pakistanis were experiencing their highest inflation, the inflation rate in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime was reported to be in the negative during the months from July to August 2023. The dollar-Afghani parity also contributed to the effect. As the Pakistani Rupee considerably deteriorated against the US dollar, losing value, the Afghani as a currency showed stability. The Taliban regime claimed that the Afghani had been stable compared to other countries in the region. It would seem, then, that the Taliban regime has skilfully navigated internal and external difficulties. 

Above all, videos shared on social media by nationalist political activists showcase the Taliban regime's unbelievable achievements and mega projects, asserting a lack of corruption, rapid progress and collaboration with local communities, utilising available resources and machinery. The news shared on social media reveals that Afghanistan’s government plans to build a dam on the Kunar River, generating 1,200 MW of electricity for the country. This project could have negative implications for Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. But the prime mega-project that attracts the most attention and is widely shared on social media is the construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal, considered the jewel in the crown of the Taliban regime. 

The construction of the 285 km long Qosh Tepa Canal in northern Afghanistan, aiming to redirect water from the Oxus (Amu River), is expected to transform 550,000 hectares of desert into arable farmland. A Pashtun nationalist who is involved in the mining trade with Afghanistan and was previously bitterly opposed to Taliban terrorism now says that the Taliban regime has brought about a revolution in Afghanistan, resulting in enormous change: “Those mega projects being shared on social media are only the tip of the iceberg,” he told me.

It seems the new rulers of Afghanistan have clarified the air on a project considered essential by the intelligentsia for both economic development and the uplift of common people. When I asked a nationalist activist Arshad Kundi as to why nationalist activists are sharing these posts on social media, he said, “In my opinion, people are sharing these posts because the general perception is that the Taliban are incompetent, not fit to govern, and that they have no vision or expertise. The Taliban government has disproved this perception.”

Nevertheless, policies regarding girls' education and women are not uniform throughout Afghanistan. Thousands of girls are being educated in their houses through informal education. Girls' schools and colleges are open in the Hazarajat region of Afghanistan, and even females are running shops in this region. He is of the opinion that the Taliban should be influenced to change their policies regarding girls' education.

In almost three and a half years, the Taliban's administration still has not fulfilled the international obligations vital for recognition. Yet, the Pakistani government scrupulously maintained good relations with the regime until they soured some months back. The violent activities of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and cross-border movement of trade and people become the bone of contention between the two neighbouring countries. 

The conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan became more complex after the TTP increased their assaults on Pakistani security forces. The government of Pakistan became embroiled in a war with TTP after negotiations failed with the organization, and newly appointed COAS General Asim Munir declared war against the outfit. Despite no stern opposition from parliamentary Pashtun leaders, the Pakistani state faced resistance from the peaceful Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and the militant TTP. However, with exceptions such as the Awami National Party (ANP) and the National Democratic Movement (NDM), which are not officially inclined towards the Taliban regime, Pashtun religious and nationalist leaders including Maulana Fazalur Rehman, Siraj Ul Haq and Mahmood Khan Achakzai have not publicly criticized the Taliban regime.

The forced migration of Afghan refugees and ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 matches fuelled controversies between pro-Pakistan intellectuals and the Pashtun intelligentsia. The game of cricket, along with the escalating terrorist attacks on Pakistani security forces, serves as fuel for the debate. Prominent journalists such as Nusrat Javeed and Suhail Warraich also took part in these debates, exploring the historical background of the conflict between Afghans and Punjabis. While Nusrat Javeed stated that without the support of the Taliban government in Kabul and sanctuaries across the border, the TTP would not be able to confront Pakistani security forces, Suhail Warraich was of the opinion that the invaders have historically approached from the north, conquering Punjab and the entirety of India from there. Warraich compared this to the situation faced by Maharaja Ranjit Singh's commander Hari Singh Nalwa in the 19th century, who extended his campaign to Kabul and besieged it. In this context, it is argued that if terrorism persists, Pakistan may be compelled to face these challenges and wouldn't hesitate to invade terrorist bases inside Afghanistan, regardless of the consequences. In response to Suhail Warraich, Pashtun intelligentsia reminded him by sharing a picture of Akbar Khan, a 16-year-old boy who killed Hari Singh (injured, subsequently succumbed to injuries) in the Battle of Jamrud when he attempted to enter Afghanistan.

In this situation, intellectuals have urged Pashtun leadership on both sides of the Durand Line to overcome their divisions by shedding excessive ideals and ideological divides in favour of realist and pragmatist approaches. However, the nationalist postmodern intelligentsia leaves no room for praising the Taliban regime without explicitly naming it. Although, at face value, the Taliban regime and their apparent adherence to Islamism on one hand, and economic development on the other hand, might sound different from the language used by the pro-capitalist Pashtun intelligentsia, a closer look might suggest that the two ideologies and their adherents have more in common than we think. Though subtle, consciously or unconsciously, these common grounds are not so easy to find — and yet they do exist. This reflects the perception that there is a common denominator—capitalist development—one of the threads that runs throughout the two camps generally viewed as diametrically opposite.

Democracy and human rights, precisely the sort of achievements in the last century that the intelligentsia has altogether ignored in favour of capitalist development, pose a perceived danger of falling prey to authoritarianism. The very failure of intellectuals to challenge the repression of the Taliban regime and their ideas, instead praising the development under the same regime, is ensuring them a new lease of life. In the light of the flight of the middle classes from Afghanistan, a compelling alternative to the Taliban regime is scarcely considered in the aftermath. The sudden cooling towards the Taliban regime should come as no surprise, as the Pashtun political leadership initially rejected the Saur Revolution of April 1978 as well. However, subsequent despotic regimes under Soviet and US occupations were tolerated. The last 40 years are littered with the disastrous consequences of such seductions.

To this end, Pashtun intellectuals seem to be bending the liberal principles of formal human equality and democracy to lock up women, minorities, and their allies. Some cosmetic changes on the part of the Taliban regime, for instance, girls' education and allowing women to work under strict rules and regulations in the name of Sharia, might make it tolerable to the so-called international community and consequently regional forces. This is undoubtedly traumatic for the Afghans – whose lives were first marred by war and then a repressive regime.