It’s not as if the rest of the world furnishes us with a comforting sense of order: a runaway pandemic has cut away all our certitudes. Still, the spectacle of an entire country caving in like a Himalayan mountainside in an extreme weather event—the same suddenness, the same terror—is profoundly unsettling. Afghanistan at present resembles a quasi-void, the crater of a volcano that’s only half-spent. Who knows what roils its deep insides? How the magma rumbles in unseen aspects of rage … How can we watch placidly when history itself is at stake in a game of roulette? When medievalism returns to rule the ground and modernity falls off a plane?
All nation-states are formed of the stabilising hand of formal structures. However bloody their enactments of power, they are held back from outright depravity at least to a degree by the rule of law. Contrasted against that, the Taliban are a form of organised chaos—a permanent anarchy whose effect on lives can never be measured or chronicled. Born in violence, as one-eyed orphans of the Cold War, justice to them is retribution. Those who plotted Afghanistan’s decades of horror may sit in the Pentagon, the Kremlin or the sleek bungalows of Rawalpindi, but revenge will be exacted on ordinary Afghan men. And women.
Of course, the apparition of a new order is upon us—the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was born by fiat on Thursday. A formal transfer of power! Though raw power is entirely on one side and there was nothing much left to transfer on the other. Except the rights of women and young girls, and the lives of men who had dared collaborate with a collapsed imperialist agenda.
As young, gun-toting militiamen eat their ice-cream sprawled on palatial sofas where corrupt presidents once hosted high-value guests, the supremos must be cogitating about some hard-nosed realities. For one, access to the Afghanistan Central Bank coffers. All the stash is in London, not Kabul. The bank’s chief, Ajmal Ahmady, has fled Kabul, blaming the runaway president Ashraf Ghani for his desertion, and hinting on Twitter that he was being hunted by the Taliban.
There’s one more sleight of hand that awaits us. That’s the talk of a new ‘maturity’. Taliban 2.0 will not rest with a mere coronation; it seems to badly desire a recognition—legitimacy of sorts from the world order. A few in the neighbourhood will indulge them—China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, for starters. If American defence contractors could live off the trillions sloshing around Kabul, what’s to stop the Asiatic lions from moving in for the kill now? There’s good game here: energy, minerals, infrastructural lebensraum, what not. Pakistan, the nearest one, is of course already in their pocket—or are they in the ISI’s? The only mineral resource Islamabad wants is strategic depth, and it has fallen into their lap. As for India, it sheepishly waits to see what Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah deliver in their talks with top Taliban commanders. On the original US prop rests India’s hopes of securing its $3 billion investment and 400 infrastructure projects across Afghan provinces.
China, initially euphoric over the American abdication, seems a bit circumspect now. As if it too is waiting to see who really is the new Taliban. Whether Mullah Baradar, back in Afghanistan after 20 years, can deliver on the promise of keeping away global jihadists. A jihadist collective with every actor from the Levantine ISIS to Pakistani tanzeems like LeT networking with the Uyghur Islamist militia ETIM will do no good to China’s keenness to bottle up the restive Xinjiang province.
But all that is geopolitics, the concern of others. Not of the Afghans. Taliban gunfighters may be taking joyrides in children’s amusement parks, but they are no delinquents. Tribal medievalism and Sharia fanaticism form an unstable, dangerous cocktail. No one knows the markers of their self-proclaimed ‘maturity’ when it comes to the question of the rights of half of Afghanistan—its women.
Opaque, full-body burqas may only be the symbol of a new prison. The signs are clear and tangible. The Taliban top brass may have mouthed pious lines in their PR spree to prove they’ve changed, answering questions from women journalists at their coming-out presser, even giving interviews to women anchors. But within hours, all women anchors were removed from the state-run news channel. One of them, who came to office as usual on Thursday, was told: “The system has changed. Go home.” Meanwhile, TOLOnews, the most reliable of Afghan news channels, is reinforcing its contingent of women journalists … a burqa to hide the truth?
Make no mistake. The full array of rights—the right to work and vote, to be educated, to not be enslaved—is at stake. Already, The Guardian reports women and children being beaten on the streets. Shall we await the stoning and mob lynching? An unverified video showed gun-wielding Taliban wrenching away a child from her mother’s clasp and walking off. What future awaits that girl? The Taliban may put up a showpiece woman or two in government. Faraway commentators will cite that in smug tones. But no rhetoric, no whataboutery will offer solace to the woman who desperately wanted to board a flight with her daughter—any flight to anywhere. To the mothers who reportedly threw their kids over the barbed wire of Kabul airport, to anyone who could fly them out of an imminent hell. In Herat, girls are still going to school, attending university, hoping to be bankers and doctors, even aspiring to politics! Over half of Herat University’s students are female, and they dream of a future. Unless that future is shown to be secure, those who are eagerly waiting to get back to laying roads and energy pipelines will be committing a crime against humanity.
Resident Editor, Karnataka, The New Indian Express