Is The Taliban Seeking A ‘Sunni Afghan Version’ Of Iran?

The Afghan government and the Taliban will need to find compromises on a plethora of contentious issues to reach a peace settlement — from civil liberties and women’s rights to the country’s name and flag.

The most crucial issue facing the warring sides is the makeup of Afghanistan’s future political system, which is currently an Islamic republic that is modeled on Western-style democracy.

An extremist Islamist group, the Taliban is seeking to transform the Afghan state into a theocracy. The militants see the current system as the product of a U.S. “occupation.”

The internationally recognized government in Kabul is seeking to preserve as much of the current constitutional order as possible, including key democratic tenets like women’s rights, free speech, and competitive elections.

The Taliban has admitted it cannot revive its Islamic Emirate, the official name of the brutal regime that ruled from 1996 to 2001. An international pariah that was targeted by U.S. sanctions and air strikes, the regime committed gross human rights abuses and persecuted women and religious minorities.

Fragile and deeply divided, the Afghan government has come to the peace negotiations that started on September 12 in the Gulf state of Qatar in relative weakness.

With roughly half of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban, Kabul lacks the military advantage to drive a hard bargain, especially with U.S. forces withdrawing, experts say.

As a result, they say, the Afghan government will likely have to accept significant constitutional changes and alterations to the current political system to achieve peace.

“The Taliban knows that they cannot go back to their old emirate and will need to compromise because of their need for international recognition,” says Kamran Bokhari, a director at the Center for Global Policy, a Washington-based think tank. “We could see a hybrid between their medieval Sunni ideal and a modern Western-style state.”

Bokhari says the likely outcome, if a peace deal is reached and the Taliban abide by it, is a “Sunni Afghan version of the Islamic Republic of Iran” — a republican system with a heavy theocratic layer.

A political settlement between the opposing Afghan sides is a key component of a landmark U.S.-Taliban signed in February that is aimed at ending the 19-year war.

Under that deal, foreign forces will leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing formula with the Afghan government.

‘Truly Islamic’

Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based political analyst, says recent remarks by U.S. officials and Taliban leaders appeared to show that “regime change,” via the negotiations, was under way.

“Both sides will not use that term because of its sensitivity,” says Amiri. “But in reality, the Taliban’s main goal is regime change, and that is what is being discussed.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during the opening ceremony of the peace talks in Qatar on September 12, told the Afghan sides that the “choice of your political system is yours to make.”

He added that the size and scope of future U.S. financial assistance to the country, which relies heavily on international funding, would depend on that choice.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s political chief and deputy leader, told the ceremony that Afghanistan should “have an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood.”

Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, the head of the Taliban’s negotiating team, said the group was seeking to establish a “truly Islamic” system.

Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, a body that oversees the peace talks with the Taliban, made his own reference to the current “political system that is supported by millions of men and women from a diversity of cultural, social, and ethnic backgrounds in our homeland.”

Supreme Role Of Islam

There is common ground in the legal and governance systems of the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Both the Taliban’s political vision and the Afghan political system rely heavily on the centralization of power and the supreme role of Islam.

Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution prescribes that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” and sometimes appears contradictory with more liberal and democratic elements within it.

Power resides in a heavily centralized government.

According to the Taliban’s views on governance, power should be centralized in an “Amir ul-Momineen,” or leader of the faithful. This supreme leader is the head of state and has ultimate authority.

The Taliban, too, regards Shari’a as the supreme law.

But the warring parties have staunchly different interpretations of Shari’a law and the role of Islam.

“The Taliban is a group of clerics,” says Amiri. “In any outcome, the implementation of their version of Islamic law is paramount for them.”

The Iran Model

Experts say many new political systems are built on modifying existing models.

Bokhari says Iran’s Islamic republic, despite being predominately Shi’ite, could be used as a template in Afghanistan, a Sunni-majority country.

Under Iran’s Islamic system of government, known as “velayat-e faqih,” a top cleric serves as supreme leader and has the final authority on all matters of state and religion.

The system is designed to balance two forms of governance: theocracy and democracy. The supreme leader, the paramount expert in religious law, supervises the office of the president, who represents the people’s will.

Bokhari says Afghanistan’s future political system is likely to have a complex web of institutions — like the system in Iran — that will be dominated by the Taliban at the expense of its opponents.

“The Taliban could allow the presidency to remain in the hands of their opponents as long as it has oversight through a powerful cleric, much like Iran’s supreme leader,” says Bokhari.

The Taliban will face stiff resistance in the legislative branch because they do not have a political party or experience in elections, experts say. But the group could look to establish a clerical body like Iran’s powerful Guardians Council, which supervises elections and vets legislation passed by parliament for compliance with Islamic laws.

Experts say the Taliban is likely to control the judiciary, which is already a stronghold of like-minded ultraconservative clerics.

The security sector, which is dominated by the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, and the National Directorate of Security, the country’s main intelligence agency, is likely to be a major source of dispute.

Bokhari says the Taliban will look to break that monopoly through a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program as a framework for demobilizing or integrating fighters into the army or police.

Another option, he says, is for the Taliban to maintain a militia that is parallel to the state security forces like Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hizballah, a powerful armed militia that plays a prominent role in politics.

Revolutionary Model

Experts say there are also reasons why the Taliban’s ideal “Islamic system” might not be based on or closely resemble Iran’s.

“It would be difficult for the Taliban as a movement, even among their own people and sympathizers, to put forward a model that was recognizably similar to the world’s most prominent Shi’a Islamic state,” says Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The Iranian state is also based on a revolutionary model that seeks to export its 1979 Islamic Revolution, which goes against the Taliban’s insistence that its aims are solely national.

Shi’ite-majority Iran and the Taliban, a fundamentalist Sunni group, were former foes. But in recent years, the sides have forged closer ties.

External support has been key to the Taliban’s insurgency.

Pakistan, the Taliban’s main sponsor, has long been accused of sheltering and aiding the militants. U.S. officials have accused Iran of providing financial, political, training, and material support to the Taliban. Washington has also accused Russia of arming the Taliban, which Moscow denies.

“The Taliban want to be seen as independent and not influenced by neighboring states,” says Watkins. “This will also likely steer it away from similarities with Iran’s system.”

The Saudi Template

Amiri says the Taliban appears to be most interested in replicating the system in Saudi Arabia, outside of it being a theocracy headed by a religious leader who rules for life and is chosen through “bayat,” or an oath of allegiance.

The Sunni kingdom is governed by Shari’a law, has no elected legislature, and has a Council of Ministers, headed by the king, that exercises both legislative and executive powers.

“While the Taliban might be interested in a Saudi style of government, they have not been able to articulate this because of the recent reforms made in Saudi Arabia have become unpopular among the Taliban,” says Amiri, referring to Riyadh’s publicly stated effort to open up the ultraconservative kingdom.

Saudi Arabia was among only three countries that recognized the Taliban’s brutal regime in the ’90s and is believed to have sway over some Taliban leaders.

“The Kabul government is not going to be able to secure a peace settlement without consenting to significant changes to the current political system,” says Watkins. “Whether those changes are constitutional in nature, or if the Taliban prove to be more flexible on the constitutional framework and more insistent in other ways, remains to be seen.”