The region will have another ‘electoral autocracy’ in place if Taliban opt for Iran model of governance

Taliban are reportedly mulling adoption of Iran model of governance, with religious clergy holding reins over a political entity, the latter ushered in after some semblance of a democratic process

Taliban in Afghanistan's Presidential Palace
Taliban in Afghanistan's Presidential Palace

Rahul Gul

Former President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani released a video on Thursday, a day after the UAE officially stated that it had given him refuge on ‘humanitarian grounds’, ending days of speculation on his whereabouts, in which he tried to justify fleeing Kabul in the face of the Taliban’s swift advance into the ancient city.

In what seemed to be a bid to quell allegations by Afghanistan's ambassador to Tajikistan that he had stolen USD 169 million from state funds, he claimed that he was "forced to leave Afghanistan with one set of traditional clothes, a vest and the sandals I was wearing".

Incidentally, as per an AP report, spokesman of the Russian embassy in Kabul Nikita Ishchenko has alleged that Ghani fled from Kabul with four cars and a helicopter full of cash. “They tried to shove another part of the money into a helicopter, but not everything fit. And some of the money was left lying on the tarmac,” he was quoted as saying by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti.

This reminded one of allegations levelled against Iran’s powerful monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who abandoned his Peacock Throne and left his nation on January 16, 1979, of having left in an aircraft piloted by him with an air force cargo plane with packing crates full of imperial belongings trailing behind. During the 53 years of the Pahlavi dynasty, the imperial family amassed a great fortune estimated to run into billions of dollars. One Iranian economist estimated the assets of the entire royal family at more than $20 billion at that time.

Pahlavi’s exile with his third wife Farah Diba ended not only his 37-year reign but also 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran, replaced by an Islamic system that remains in charge today.

Incidentally, his departure and the ensuing chaos had blindsided the United States, which for decades relied on Iran and its absolute ruler as Washington’s closest Mideast ally.

It had also led to the Iran hostage crisis, in which militants seized 66 American citizens at the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held 52 of them hostage for more than a year. The crisis had dramatic effects on domestic politics in the United States and poisoned U.S.-Iranian relations for decades.

A 2012 Hollywood thriller, ‘Argo’, had captured the event, adapting the screenplay from a 1999 book by CIA operative Tony Mendez titled ‘The Master of Disguise’ and a 2007 ‘Wired’ article by Joshuah Bearman titled ‘The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran’. The film deals with the ‘Canadian Caper’, in which Mendez led the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran under the guise of filming a science fiction film during the hostage crisis.

In the case of Afghanistan, though the US seems to have had a well laid out plan to withdraw its armed forces after inking an agreement with the Taliban, it was caught off guard by their swift advance and the resulting kerfuffle. Kabul fell just when news reports were coming in that it may happen in around a month, indicating a massive intelligence failure.

What the US evidently also did not foresaw was that the Afghan armed forces, which it developed and trained at a cost of about USD 83 billion – as per the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a congressionally created watchdog that has tracked the war – will fold up like a pack of cards when faced with the Taliban’s onslaught. They clearly just abandoned their posts when the Taliban launched operation ‘Al Fatah’ to take over the country.

Nothing illustrates the dramatic collapse of the Afghan armed forces better than the fact that a large portion of the air force fled into neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. At least 46 aircraft, carrying a total of 585 members of Afghan forces have reportedly crossed over Afghanistan's border since August 15, when the Taliban seized Kabul and the government collapsed.

This was inevitable due to the political vacuum created in the country once Ashraf Ghani abdicated his role as head of the executive and fled the country once he became aware of how swiftly the Taliban were moving towards Kabul.

The Taliban, consequently, is now in possession of arms, equipment and other military infrastructure bestowed by the US on the Afghan armed forces, leading to a panic in the Pentagon about how to retrieve or neutralise them, as admitted by the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The US and NATO forces are also still in the process of airlifting people of interest by holding on to Kabul airport, where heartrending scenes are being witnessed of babies being flung over the boundary wall, some of them getting caught on to the concertina razor wires.

Meanwhile, the Taliban are engaged in a patient and elaborate exercise to decide the shape and form of the new regime in the country, being mindful that it cannot afford international isolation, denying it diplomatic legitimacy and starve it of funds in the months and years to come. They are obviously aware that they now hold Afghanistan possibly for all time to come, with any future international intervention unlikely in the country. The Soviet Union and the US have badly burnt their fingers by trying to rule the restive country, and China, the emerging superpower, would like to use money power as the way to control it rather than military force.

Some reports emanating from the country indicate that they may clone the Iran model of governance, with religious clergy holding the reins over a political entity, the latter possibly ushered in after some semblance of a democratic process. This would lead to the establishment of an ‘electoral autocracy’, which may gain the country recognition from other nations. The last time it was in power, from 1996 to 2001, only the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan recognised it. The Taliban clearly don’t want international sanctions to kick in this time around.

The term ‘electoral autocracy’, of course, came into prominence when Sweden-based V-Dem Institute in March 2021 used it to describe the state of affairs in India.

However, no matter what shape the new government takes, the Taliban, despite its protestations, are, at the end of the day, a fundamentalist force wedded to the ideology of Islamic extremism, and the country may well again become a nursery for terrorism.

This is of particular concern for India. No one can forget the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 on December 24, 1999, subsequently forced to land at Taliban-ruled Kandahar. The hapless passengers then underwent forced confinement within the aircraft for several days, until the Vajpayee government, then in power, capitulated in the form of release of Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Maulana Masood Azhar.

That these three terrorists – who later planned and executed 9/11 attacks, the kidnap and murder of Daniel Pearl and 2006 Mumbai terror attacks – were personally escorted to Kandahar by the then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh still rankles the minds of countrymen.

The Kandahar hijack was, in fact, a classic case on how not to handle a hostage crisis. Former RA&W chief A S Dulat, who monitored the crisis, is on record admitting that the Crisis Management Group in Delhi had “goofed up” the operation. The then DGP, Punjab Sarabjit Singh, who was in charge of the situation when the plane was on the ground in Amritsar, said that he had at his disposal commandos trained in anti-terrorism operations who could storm the aircraft but the CMG didn’t allow him to carry out the operation.

This incident is seen as something of a blot on Indian history.

(The writer works as Senior Editor with National Herald. Views are personal)

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Published: 20 Aug 2021, 9:00 PM