Undoubtedly the elections in Afghanistan last week to elect the next President is historical. According to initial reports, more than 60 percent of the 12 million electorate took part in the elections; given the security environment and the ability of the State to organize polling booths in every district, 60 percent is a phenomenal statistics for the Afghan democracy.
Does the positive vote mean end of the road for Taliban and to radical politics through threat and fear? Initial responses to the elections from the US to our own region have been as a vote against the Taliban, or a sign of its decline. But is it not early to make an assertion whether the Taliban would become irrelevant after this election? Does militancy, such as that of the Taliban, really decline and disappear? If it does, under what conditions? What has been the success story in our region so far?
True, the elections were not as violent, as it was expected. There were few high profile attacks, including the use of suicide bombs immediately before the elections. The horror in the Serena Hotel in Kabul and the suicide attacks in one of the offices of the election commission immediately before the elections did raise a fear that the process would be violent. Few polling booths were in fact closed due to security situation; and in many places, especially in the southern and eastern districts, where the Taliban is having its base, post election interviews do inform that the threat from the Taliban against voting did work.
By no stretch of imagination one could make an argument that the Taliban is weak enough not to carry out targeted attacks, or general bomb blasts anywhere in Afghanistan. In fact, there were days in the recent past of Afghanistan, which were even more violent than what one had witnessed during the day of election last week. Though the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) are better trained and equipped today, the security is not fool proof that the Taliban could not penetrate.
Perhaps, this is a calibrated strategy by the Taliban. A section within Afghanistan and outside was not sure about the election outcome; they believed this one would also be as farcical and fraudulent as the previous one in 2009. With a deeply polarized society and strong ethnic differences between the major communities, many considered this election would be contentious and inconclusive, leading only to further political instability.
So the calculation within the Taliban and their supporters elsewhere could have been to wait and watch; if the election process results in political instability, it would only strengthen the case of the Taliban and undermine the democratic process and a transition funded and supported by the “West”. So why use violence and undermine a process that is already seen as faulty and unproductive? Perhaps, this was a strategy in keeping a low profile.
Second reason for Taliban’s relative restraint during the elections is to wait, watch and choose a time and place of their own choice. The Taliban is well aware that this is only the first round; if none of the candidates get the desired percentage of votes, there would be a second round amongst the top two. Taliban could very well target the process at that time; perhaps, this could be a future wait and watch strategy by the Taliban, as it did immediately after the international security forces landed in Afghanistan in 2001-02. They disappeared into the mountains, only to engage in a guerrilla warfare, that too successfully. Perhaps, this time the Taliban wanted to gauge the response of the people, and pursue an appropriate course of action. The fact that the election process in the South and East were stunted does highlight that its base is intact.
To conclude, it is too early to write off the Taliban. Few high profile suicide attacks in Kabul would change the entire context and the discourse.
The larger question and challenge for Afghanistan and the rest of South Asia is – do militancy of the Taliban variety decline and disappear? Or they only decay but only mutate further? Even if the second round of election is free of violence and results in a new President taking over, what is the likely response of Taliban in the near future?
In South Asia – we have few examples – the NSCN in India’s Northeast, Khalistan movement in Punjab, the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan. The NSCN today has become a fractionalized movement, and the level of corruption in the State has only made an underground movement into a semi-over ground but parallel government. In Punjab, the State used force on the one hand, but politically co-opted the parties and ensured there is better governance; as a result, the Khalistan movement in Punjab today is all but dead, except occasional posters and periodic discussions.
In Balochistan, Pakistan used brutal force to undermine the Baloch national movements more than three times since independence. Neither there was better governance, nor the local population got co-opted into the mainstream. Same was the case in Sri Lanka as well; the government towards the end of Eelam War, used brute force to physically annihilate the LTTE. Though violence has come to an end, the Sri Lankan Tamils are still far from being satisfied.
Which way would the Taliban insurgency turn into in Afghanistan after the elections? This is an important question not only for Afghanistan, but also for the entire regional security. Much would depend on how the Afghan led and Afghan owned transition takes place at the ground level, in terms of improving the situation of the Afghan people.
Though the ANSF may be better trained and well equipped to take on the Taliban militarily, the military equation between the State and the Taliban is not going to be the decisive factor. Political stability and social reconstruction by the Afghan government, an inclusive economic growth along with equitable distribution of development in urban and rural areas would become the decisive factor. Though corruption is also an issue, in the case of Afghanistan, the critics are exaggerating the case; this is a common issue for the entire South Asia and accusing Afghanistan alone may not provide the right answers.
So the question where would the Taliban go – is not in the hands of Mullah Omar, but with the next President, and the rest of international community including Pakistan. If there is better governance, equitable development and inclusive growth, the Taliban will be relegated into an insignificant militant group that would eventually mutate into splinter groups, like the multiple Mujahideen groups did after the so called jihad against the Russians in the 1980s. If the international community lose interest in Afghanistan and allows the positive developments to go down the drain, along with ignoring any Pakistani ingress, it would only strengthen the hands of the Taliban. Worse, if the next government fail to deliver, support for the Taliban would only increase. Not by design, but by default.
The success and failure of the Taliban, is not in the hands of Mullah Omar. It rests with the next President and his ability to take Afghanistan forward.
By arrangement with Rising Kashmir