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Commentary: The United States’ Parting Gift To Afghanistan Of Theocratic Democracy

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (third from left) inspects guards of honor as he arrives at the Afghan parliament in Kabul. (file photo)

A civil war in Afghanistan seems increasingly probable amid the withdrawal of foreign forces, the Taliban’s unwillingness to compromise, and the Afghan elites’ inability to come to a consensus. But we shouldn’t give up hope for peace or stop discussing how to make such a peace sustainable.

Though the form of political settlement is still relatively vague, we can make certain assumptions about the political order the United States aims to leave behind in Afghanistan. The peace proposal from the office of peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad recommended the formation of a religious jurisprudence council, which was followed a few months later by talk of the formation of a Supreme State Council within Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s previous rejection of calls for early elections by President Ashraf Ghani and its evasive stance on any future participation in elections all point toward the importance of discussing how the pro-settlement elements within the Taliban envision the future Afghan political order.

A future order in Afghanistan with a council for religious jurisprudence would add a theocratic aspect to the state. Talk of Islamic theocratic states brings to mind the examples of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In Iran, the supreme leader and the council of experts that elects him are religious scholars constricting the role of the president and parliament to conform to the overarching direction chosen by the religious authorities.

Saudi Arabia, though similar to Iran in the authoritarian nature of its nonelected head of state, differs from Iran in that the powers lying with the Saud family and religion have been delegated to Al-Sheikh (descendants of Sheikh Abdul Wahab who helped found the kingdom of Saudi Arabia).

The recent shift in vision and arrests of religious scholars in Saudi Arabia have shown the royal family reasserting their dominance over all important matters of the state. The Saudi monarchy has always ensured that it is the real authority within the state, an authority that the Taliban aspires to assume without having to compete in elections.

An Afghan executive jurisprudence council might evolve from the Supreme Council of the State. This council was intended to comprise influential political elites that presumably would hold executive authority and be tasked with monitoring the working of the state. Though there is currently controversy over whether it would have executive authority, this body could help transition into a new government by including the Taliban after a preliminary agreement over peace is reached.

One of the transitional government’s tasks would be to review the constitution and decide the form of the future government. The Taliban has likely had some semblance of an agreement with the United States as part of their deal to be handed a council of jurisprudence that holds supreme authority in the state. Thus the Taliban can realize their goal of establishing an Islamic state without having to participate in elections that they are unlikely to unanimously win while maintaining an Iran-like control over politics.

There is an important question to be asked as to why the Taliban movement would set impossible conditions to participate in peace talks and escalate violence when it has been promised such a handover of power.

Khalilzad encouraged Ghani to declare his intentions of leading the republic’s delegation at the Istanbul summit. A meeting between the heads of the republic and the Taliban would have enabled the United States to frame the Afghan conflict as a contest of legitimacy.

Notwithstanding that this would have been another in a series of instances where Khalilzad and his team undermined the republic’s legitimacy by making the Taliban and republic leaders sit as equals across from one another, it would have granted legitimacy to the peace process and a possible transition.

However, the scale of grievances and distrust in the conflict have led the Taliban to take a stern stance on demanding a transitional government not involve Ghani, and the United State’s failure to realize such a promise seems to have led the Taliban to lose faith in the process altogether.

If the ultimate goal of the peace process is to end the war then we would only achieve a negative peace that lacks structural and societal reforms laying the groundwork for sustainable peace.

Any settlement that would hand over control of the state to the Taliban in the form of a religious council would betray everything that Afghanistan has achieved in the past 20 years. We would be compromising on democracy, education, and women’s rights in a democratic theocracy run by the Taliban.

The Islamic revolution in Iran that was once welcomed by the West should be lesson enough not to recreate that world in Afghanistan.

These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFE/RL Gandhara is committed to publishing a diversity of views about critical issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you would like to pitch an op-ed or analysis, please write to us:

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    Obaidullah Baheer

    Obaidullah Baheer is a lecturer of transitional justice at the American University in Kabul. He holds a postgraduate degree in international relations from the University of New South Wales. He tweets at @ObaidullaBaheer