After The Taliban Fundamentalists Rise Again in Afghanistan

The Taliban were overthrown five years ago, but Afghanistan's hopes for democracy are faltering, and now interest in fundamentalism -- including draconian Islamic "religious police" -- is growing again. What can the international community do?

By Babak Khalatbari in Kabul


For a long time in Afghanistan, returned exiles and investment-hungry entrepreneurs were full of hope. The country's future was mapped out at donor conferences around the world, and normal government institutions were gradually cropping up -- a constitution, a legitimate president, full parliamentary elections. Afghanistan seeemed to be on the right track.

But now it's faltering. Rising violence may threaten the entire project, and democracy in Afghanistan looks more and more like a genie stuck in a bottle, unable to come to life and prosper. The insecurity may even give new life to fundamentalists like the once-resented Taliban.

"More rockets are falling in Kabul than raindrops from heaven," says Nagib, a 16-year-old, explaining the reason for the parched fields in Share Nau Park in the heart of Kabul where he likes to jog. He's exaggerating, but bombings are a part of daily life in Kabul. As recently as August 30, two rockets exploded in the city center.

Afghans are increasingly demanding new ways to establish order. One current idea of reinstalling the religious police has broad support among the people as well as politicians. Even President Karzai supports the idea: He wants to create a "Department for the Preservation of Good Manners and the Prevention of Bad Habits."

Role of the Religious Police

Islamic religious police have existed in Afghanistan for decades, but under the Taliban they became radical and feared by the public at large. The religious police enforced old-fashioned penalties to uphold the sharia law. Infidelity was punished by stoning; theft by chopping off the right hand. A wet shave or listening to music could provoke a whipping, and women had to cover themselves in burqas.

Despite these experiences, 71 percent of around 300 passersby questioned in a survey conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kabul favored reinstalling the religious police. Even among the 33 women questioned, only 18 percent opposed bringing back the religious police. A full 88 percent of the 40 police officers surveyed were in favor of behavior watchdogs. Support is even higher in the countryside, presumably, than in Kabul.

Faced with this groundswell of public opinion, politicians are likely to approve a return to religious police. Aref Noorzai, a member of parliament, expects approval from 80 percent of his colleagues. Liberal forces warn against a return to fundamentalism. Democratic Party parliamentarian Abdul Kabir Ranjbar says, "The door is open for fundamentalism and extremism." Once the religious police are installed, "they won't be disbanded any time soon."

Lawmaker and women's rights activist Shukria Barakzai sees no need for religious police in Afghanistan. "Who should be appointed a religious police officer?" she asks, pointedly.

No mullah would do the job if the religious police earn no more than normal policemen, around $50 a month. There aren't enough educated people among the broader population, 64 percent of whom can't read or write. And still isn't clear what powers the religious police should have. In fact, this point exposes the fundamental mess that has made it possible for the "religious police" idea to return in the first place: Ordinary Afghans don't seem to understand what the police and judges stand for in their new democracy.

Satisfying the people's basic needs

It's the start of a vicious circle. Unless there the security situation improves, public opininon will radicalize. The demand for reinstalling religious police by many Afghans could damage the young Afghan state irreparably. A strain of reform Islam could help by offering arguments to resolve conflicts between traditional Islam and the modern world.

But the young nation has even more basic hurdles. The "London Compact" signed by the Kabul government and the international community last February lists three central problem areas: security, social and economic development, as well as development of state institutions.

Now a hard winter is in store, and energy resources are tight. Poverty and dissatisfaction are rising with the cost of living. There's also an enormous refugee problem. Thousands of Afghans have been forced to return from Pakistan and Iran to their homeland. The returning refugees not only make the food shortage worse; they also make ideal candidates for recruitment by radical Islamists. Afghanistan is threatened by a creeping re-Talibanization. If the state can't satisfy the basic needs of its population, it will lose more and more of its supporters to the other side.

The international community has a lot to lose, too. If friendly governments can't establish a foundation for a secure future in Afghanistan, and if the process of stabilization and rebuilding fails, they will not only have lost precious money and time; the United Nations and NATO will also have wasted their reputations as crisis managers.

However, it's not too late. An Asian proverb says, "He who thinks too hard about each step spends his life standing on one leg." It's both important and desirable for the young Afghan democracy to stand -- with international help -- on both legs, and march in the right direction. The faster the better.

Babak Khalatbari runs the Afghanistan office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kabul.

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