The Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan must give peace builders and development workers in the Bangsamoro some pause. Many people say that this moment may inspire and drive the struggles of violent extremists elsewhere, including the Philippines. Others will see it as the defeat of a liberal peace and the waste of billions of dollars in development and security assistance. Worse, some will treat it as a slap on the face of those invested in the painstaking effort to consolidate democracy in a country unwilling to receive it.
Then again, others may view this as the unrelenting impulse for self-determination of a people determined to push for their ways and are proud to call their country the “graveyard of empires,” even as al-Qaida lurks in the shadows. Those who know Afghanistan will recognize how this victory stretches back to the ancient wars waged against the Greek and Mongol empires, up to the British empire and the Soviet Union.
The reasons behind the defeat of the Afghan security forces, the subsequent collapse of the government, and the country’s fragile democracy are highly contested. The US and its allies failed to curb corruption, nepotism, and vested interests, and continued to whitewash the weakness of the Afghan state and the hollowness of its legitimacy and authority. More importantly, the departure of the US was seen as the betrayal of the social and security contract with the Afghan people that enabled countries like Pakistan and Iran to fill the gap and fuel the Taliban offensive.
However, there are other plausible reasons that are shared by many. The first has to do with how the US and its allies turned a blind eye to the Taliban and its deeply conservative, anti-democratic, and fascist ways to justify their entry into peace negotiations and to fulfill these countries’ desire to leave Afghanistan.
The departure of the Western alliance is going to be safe and secure despite the surprise entry of the Taliban into Kabul, but it will not be the same for the people left behind, especially the millions of Afghan women, young and old, who now fear a fate no different than that suffered by Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel peace prize awardee who was shot in the head for daring to go to school.
Second, the US and its allies hoped that recognizing the Taliban’s belligerency would cause the latter to sever its deep and strong alliances with al-Qaida. But al-Qaida was deeply embedded within the Taliban communities through kinship ties in the tribal regions where the latter mobilized their own forces, with only the warlord clans standing in the way of their total domination. The warlord clans may be feudal and despotic, but for years, they served as the first line of defense against terrorism and violent extremism.
Third, the Afghan state was built and buttressed by external groups, including some members of the international development and peacebuilding community, who are probably aghast at how their aid contributed to the resilience of the country’s elites, but not its poor citizens. The graft and corruption in the Afghan government did not make for polite conversation among diplomats, development agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, their hosts, and partners, and hence, was never seriously pursued.
The Afghan narrative holds so many truths about our own march to a developed and democratic Bangsamoro. The substate is young, freedoms are fragile, and capacity is weak. Two years after the ratification of the region’s charter, the democratic impulse is under extreme pressure, violent conflict remains widespread, and extremist violence is resurgent and thriving on porous alliances and the ruins of Marawi.
These pose at least two important questions. One, how can we entrench the democracy that was promised and upheld in the plebiscite that created the Bangsamoro in 2019? Two, what will the Bangsamoro youth take away from the Taliban victory in Afghanistan?
Democracy needs to be advanced consistently yet gradually. Many of those who enabled the creation of the Bangsamoro hope and expect democracy and development to flourish and peace to reign. Gender rights are adjacent yet critical institutions that will define democracy in the Bangsamoro.
Indeed, the Bangsamoro elections in 2022, or the lack of it, sits behind the more important threats to women’s democratic rights posed by violent extremism and the pandemic. Akin to the Afghan burqa, there are emerging pressures on women to wear the niqab, to abjure their public roles and space, and to focus on fulfilling their reproductive roles. There is also an appeal to “moral governance” that sounds less about destroying corruption and more about imposing cultural norms that subjugate women.
Finally, how can we prevent the youth from being further radicalized by the Taliban march to Kabul? Hearing the voices of the youth and giving them important responsibilities in governance is just about the best iron-clad guarantee we can offer the youth to stem their radicalization and recruitment. The Afghans are proud to call their country the graveyard of empires, but we must prevent the Bangsamoro from turning into a graveyard of democracy.
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Francisco J. Lara Jr., Ph.D., is a professor at the University of the Philippines and senior peace and conflict adviser to International Alert Philippines.
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