In 2001 the Taliban blew up the giant 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan to show their defiance of the world and their contempt for all religious beliefs aside from their own fanatical version of Sunni Islam.
Another motive was to demonstrate the Taliban’s power over the Shia minority in Afghanistan, mostly members of the 4 million-strong Hazara ethnic group, in whose heartlands the statues had stood before their destruction.
Last week the Taliban blew up another statue in Bamiyan, this time of a martyred Hazara leader whom they had murdered in 1995, shortly before they captured Kabul for the first time. His name was Abdul Ali Mazari and he died when he and his senior aides were invited to a peace meeting with a Taliban leader. On their arrival, Mazari was abducted, tortured, executed and his body thrown out of a helicopter.
His mutilated remains were later handed over to his Hazara Shia followers who carried them for forty days through snow-covered mountains in Hazara territory to a funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Sanctified by his life and the manner of his death in the eyes of the Hazara, he was later declared an official Martyr for the National Unity of Afghanistan by president Ashraf Ghani who fled the country last week.
The swift destruction of the statue of Mazari in Bamiyan last Wednesday is an ominous guide to the future behaviour of the Taliban once they believe that their present show of moderation is no longer necessary to impress the outside world. In May this year, the visceral hatred of the Shia as heretics by either the Taliban, or the local chapter of Isis, was horrifically displayed when 85 Shia Hazara schoolgirls were killed by a bomb as they left their school in Kabul.
The next few months will tell, once Afghanistan no longer tops the news agenda, how far the new Taliban rulers of Kabul will renew persecution of the ethnic and religious minorities outside the Pashtun community to which almost all Taliban belong.
Yet, although the Pashtun are the largest community, they are still only 42 per cent of the 38 million population of Afghanistan. A determining feature of the country’s political landscape is that all communities are minorities, creating different power centres, the relations between which will decide the country’s future.
A militarised party like the Taliban based on the Pashtun community in the south of the country may seize power through physical force for a time, but it is unlikely to hold on to it permanently or peacefully unless some authority is devolved to the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara – as well as to cities like Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.
It was Mazari, the murdered Hazara Shia leader, who advocated a federal Afghanistan with the different regions of the country enjoying extensive autonomy. His fate at the time and the immediate blowing up of his statue a quarter of a century later indicates that the Taliban are no more interested now in his solution to Afghanistan’s permanent civil war than they were when they killed him.
“I don’t think the Taliban can unite the country,” an Afghan friend told me this week. “Afghans only come together to fight obvious enemies like the Russians or the Americans. The last time around [before the overthrow of the Taliban by the US-backed invasion of 2001], the Taliban demanded that everybody speak the Pashto language.”
My Afghan friend wondered if the incoming Taliban leaders would have the sophistication to rule a country as diverse as Afghanistan with its mosaic of cultures, languages, communal identities and political interests. She recalled Taliban leaders prior to 2001 who could not read or write and, at first, employed somebody to write their signature on official documents. “Later they had their signatures inscribed on a ring they would press down on an inkpad and then on a document,” she said.
For now, it is much in the interests of the Taliban to give the impression that they have moderated their old fanatical and murderous ways. Their victory has come faster and is more comprehensive than they had expected because the high profile American pull-out convinced Afghans that a government defeat was inevitable – and this belief became self-fulfilling.
Switching sides early to that of the likely winner has always been a feature of war in Afghanistan, as it was in medieval England during the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, Shakespeare’s history plays about that period provide a good guide to the treacheries and fast-changing allegiances of Afghan politics today.
Taliban domination is more fragile than it might appear in the long term, but for the moment they have the momentum of victory behind them. Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbours will want to see what they do with their new-found power.
Some members of the fallen regime already speak of armed resistance, such as first vice-president Amrullah Saleh. Another is Ahmad Massoud, the son of the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda suicide bombers in 2001.
As with his father, Ahmad says he will fight from the great natural fortress of the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, which the Taliban have not yet taken. The floor of the valley used to be littered with the remains of burnt-out Soviet tanks from battles in the 1980s. But the precedent may be misleading because the Taliban are stronger than ever and opposition to them has yet to come together.
Even when it does, it will require foreign backers in the form of money and weapons – and no foreign state is likely to provide them while they are still assessing the nature of the new regime in Kabul.
The US and its western allies say that a crucial test for them will be how far the Taliban avoids hosting terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, as they did before 9/11. It will be much in the Taliban’s interests not to do so because they want international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Unlike 20 years ago, they do not need anything from al-Qaeda such as money and fanatical recruits willing to die on the battlefield.
Foreign media coverage has focused on the threat to Afghan interpreters who were with foreign forces and the reduction of women to an inferior status within Afghan society.
Yet the decisive factor in deciding whether the 40-year-old Afghan civil war will continue or come to an end will be decided by the degree to which the Taliban will seek to monopolise power or to share it with the other Afghan communities.
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