Will The Taliban Turn Into Dr Frankenstein’s Monster?

Well, the Taliban have been in charge of Afghanistan for a month now. So far, so good, we hear their supporters intoning. Civil war hasn’t broken out, primarily because there is no credible, unified opposition to pose a military challenge to the new government.  Mass murder hasn’t taken place. Well, at least we haven’t heard of any mass murder, but it seems that some (perhaps a lot) of revenge killing may be going on. We don’t know how much, as information is pretty scarce and there is a heavy hand at the censor’s desk. Theoretically, the Taliban should be concentrating on consolidating their control of the government and the levers of power, and rearranging society according to their vision of how an Islamic Caliphate modeled on the 14th century should work in the 21st century, while at the same time, putting together a government that looks more modern and inclusive than the Taliban regime of the 1990s that can attract tons of foreign assistance to prevent the humanitarian disaster they now face without such assistance.  But a funny thing seems to be happening on the way to the Caliphate. They can’t seem to make up their mind what that should look like.

The patina of a unified movement, loyal to the past and to a singular ideology looks to be wearing thin and showing a splintering of factions underneath. The first evidence of this is the reported spat between Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is one of the Taliban founders and now interim deputy prime minister of the Taliban government, and interim Refugee Minister Kalil-ur Rahman Haqqani, which some reports allege escalated to a fistfight. Haqqani is, of course, a key operative in the Haqqani Network, the Sunni militant extremist organization, that is responsible for deadly terrorist attacks in both Kabul and Islamabad, and is symbolic of the volatile mix of factions that make up the Taliban. The spat also would appear to be a symbol of a division most insurgencies have—between the political wings and the military wings. The purges that are one of the behavioral characteristics of insurgencies often start with arguments about which wing did most to win the war, and then evolve into fights over leadership that inevitably become deadly. 
The patina of a unified movement, loyal to the past and to a singular ideology looks to be wearing thin and showing a splintering of factions underneath

Much is riding on who comes out on top in this struggle for power in the Taliban. This is particularly true for Pakistan, the creator of the Taliban. One wonders if we are seeing, in real life and time, a modern replay of Mary Shelly’s beloved novel Frankenstein (aka The Modern Prometheus) in which the monster created out of human parts by Dr.Frankenstein, becomes something very human, a rebel that kills his creator. Ironically, Shelly’s masterpiece is often credited with being one of the earliest works of science fiction. But maybe it wasn’t fiction after all. And as women’s rights are one of the key issues dividing the Taliban, it is almost equally ironic fact that Shelly was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the celebrated 18th century firebrand women’s rights advocate, one of the first of her kind, a passion shared by her daughter, Mary Shelly. These eternal human rights issues continue to roil politics over centuries 

For Pakistan, however, the range of issues that could spell real trouble for its relationship with a Taliban-managed Afghanistan is far wider than a single human rights issue, even a wedge issue like women’s rights or the entire panoply of human rights issues. I am not intimating that Pakistan or Pakistanis are not also seriously concerned about human rights issues. But unlike the other countries concerned in Afghanistan’s governance and recovery, for which human rights issues loom large (with the exception of the Taliban’s promise to not allow its territory to be used by transnational terrorist groups to launch attacks against other countries), most do not have direct, immediate security threats if Afghanistan goes wrong.

Take for example, the issue of domestic terrorism. While some of Afghanistan’s other neighbors may worry about the potential for the Taliban government to stir up and help domestic opposition elements, I doubt any of them have an already well-developed insurgency as Pakistan does, (viz. the Tehreen-e-Taliban (TTP), which has been at war with the Pakistani state since sometime after 9/11, and has been responsible for very bloody attacks against instruments of the state as well as its citizens, including a mass murder of school children at an army-run school. After that attack, the Pakistan Army began to fight back seriously and had managed to reduce the number of attacks significantly in recent years and push TTP adherents into Afghanistan, where they joined with the Afghan Taliban in its recent offensive. 

At the same time, the TTP has  increased its cross border attacks into Pakistan. That a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will suddenly dump their Pakistan cousins seems unlikely to most experts, so the least we can expect is a reverse of the situation of the last 10 years: Afghanistan will give shelter (and perhaps some support) to Pakistani insurgents, which some American military would consider delicious irony after seeing the Afghan insurgent Taliban disappear into Pakistan for the last decade.  

Connected to this is the long-standing fear that a Taliban-led Afghanistan will inspire the large conservative religious groups which have always contested the legitimacy of the state and sought a Taliban-like state governed by a much more conservative system, if not by Sharia itself. This strikes me as one factor that puts the current government and any currently likely successors in a very delicate situation because Afghanistan is in a condition of near economic collapse. The UN and other international agencies warn of a possible humanitarian crisis, which among other things will cause an almost unstoppable wave of migration into Pakistan and beyond. There will be intense domestic pressure to assist an Afghan recovery, but Pakistan is in a weak economic position to do so, so the pressure will be for the government to shill for the Taliban to attract the massive foreign assistance needed. Yet such foreign assistance may be conditioned heavily by the international community on Taliban policy and action on those very human rights issues mentioned above. This could put governments in the catch 22 position of offending large parts of the electorate no matter what they do.
For Pakistan policy makers, there remains the most important great unknown: what will Afghanistan’s position be on relations with India?

These two conundrums are, of course, probably the two thorniest immediate problems for Pakistan in this new South Asian world of a Taliban-run Afghanistan. There are others that go back in history, which I have mentioned: the forever dispute over the Durand Line border between the two countries, which Afghanistan historically has never accepted, and the Taliban, a primarily Pashtun force, are unlikely to reverse as that would be official acceptance of the division the Pashtun “nation.” The Taliban seem undisposed to open the issue of a Pashtunistan right now, but it is always an effective threat.

And for Pakistan policy makers, there remains the most important great unknown: what will Afghanistan’s position be on relations with India? It could be that decision ultimately depends on which faction succeeds in winning the struggle for control of the Taliban.  The wing represented by Baradar in this particular spat is the moderate one looking for recognition and assistance. Contrary to logic and to my expectations, that faction which may be holding the weaker hand in this contest seems to be losing out to the more militant faction. The inclusion of really hardcore extremists, particularly at least the two high level operatives of the Haqqaani Network, who are noted for their bloodthirsty methods and their cruelty, probably means this faction will end up calling the shots. But that possibility is intriguing because it raises the possibility that the ISI will be calling the shots. The Haqqani Network was thought by many to be protected by the ISI, even though it was essentially at war with the Pakistani state. If readers think this is illogical, they are right. But it may also be true, which would only show the illogicality of Pakistani policies. But if the Haqqani Network were both an enemy of the state and a tool of the state, then we really might be seeing a Frankenstein finish—the proxy-turned-monster attacking its creator.  

These ghoulish daydreams aside, the squabbling Taliban leaders argue about which faction was the most important in winning the civil war. The “moderates” claim that they were the ones that negotiated the withdrawal of the Americans. There probably exists a cultural difference that they fail to recognize; for two decades the leaders of this faction which may be holding the weaker hand in this contest, have lived abroad, and in spite of themselves have inevitably become more comfortable in the modern world. Serajuddin Haqqani and his relative, Kiral-ur-Rahman Haqqani, are senior leaders of the Haqqani Network, They represent a more militant faction which is really the military wing, those who did the fighting and saw many comrades die. . They are, in fact, the guys with the guns, and they usually win these internecine struggles. 

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.