Possible Futures: Afghanistan

Joe Waters looks into the political climate, as well as potential forces for change, in Afghanistan – a country which has been in a state of tumultuous conflict for most of the last three decades. As large parts of the nation again find themselves under Taliban rule and the U.S. begin their departure, the power vacuum created is one that could be filled in any number of ways: a depressing number of which involve bloodshed. Will the country become a proxy for geopolitical conflict? Will it descend into factional chaos? Or will the Taliban bring an uneasy peace?

By July 15th of this year, there will only be 8,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and, if all goes to plan then, by the end of 2021, there will be none. It is fair to say that success of America’s forays into the region is moot. However, many from both sides of the U.S. political spectrum currently support ending “the forever war.” The question now is less to do with what has been achieved and more with simply getting out quickly. The sense that leaving a nation to fend for itself is preferable to any kind of intervention might have more ground if it were not for the other large nations attempting to advance their own interests in Afghanistan. In 2018, the Washington Post reported that “Russian officials believed the [Taliban] no longer posed a threat to Russian interests […and] like Russia, opposed a long-term U.S. military presence and hoped to extinguish the Islamic State.” Hence, Russia has made attempts to enter into a relationship with the Taliban, to leverage power in the region to their advantage. Similarly, Afghanistan is in the sights of China, who wish to incorporate it into their “Belt and Road Initiative,” in order to increase their dominance in international trade.

But what of America’s supposed aims in the region? The democracy they laid the foundations for is floundering. Only one million, out of the nine million eligible to vote (in a country of nearly 40 million) turned up to the polling booth at the last election. Many believe the low voter turnout is due to disillusionment with the corruption of successive governments. A 2012 UNODC report found that over 40% of adult Afghans were potentially involved in the payment of bribes. Many hoped that this would change after President Hamid Karzai left office, but a 2015 poll found that only 27.5.% were satisfied with current president Ashraf Ghani’s leadership. Public opinion was not bolstered by the 2019 allegations of government posts being granted in exchange for sexual favours. All in all, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current government. To many, they seem both ideologically uninspiring and weak. With more dying in terrorist attacks than of Covid-19 (even as Kabul’s lack of medical provision does lead to terrible loss of life), the current vision of stability and the rule of law is flimsy at best.

Meanwhile, some (depending on who you ask, up to 95% of the population) are coming around to the idea that Taliban rule might actually be more conducive to peace than the current system. Depressingly, this could be true even if just because attacks by the Taliban might stop (“might” rather than “will” because there is more than one faction of Taliban). However, those looking for a resolution push the view that the militants have become easier to deal with in recent years. It has even been claimed, by some close to the former royal family, that they are becoming more liberal with regard to women’s rights and would not prevent women’s education even if they barred women from holding the highest-ranking positions (those Taliban present in the Doha talks draw the line at allowing women to be judges or take the presidency). All of these claims are debatable but it’s still true to say that peace under the Taliban could prove preferable to the alternative. The peoples and factions of Afghanistan are not exactly united. The Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other minorities all have their own conflicting interests. A prevailing view is that, in the absence of a U.S. presence, civil war will break out much like in the early 90s. It is hard not to see the truth in this prediction.

What, then, is the way out for Afghanistan? Is returning to Taliban rule really the only way? It has been argued that perhaps civil war is not quite inevitable. There is one thing that could prevent it: desire for an end to conflict. While the many disparate peoples of Afghanistan may not identify with each other or their government, what they do identify with is a desire for peace. The tumultuous years of fighting that this nation has lived through would make anyone sane cry “enough!” The mood in discussions of the country’s fate is one of weariness and depression. Many of the parties involved feel crushed by the constant barrage of death and failure their nation has been presented with. Maybe, just maybe, these negative sentiments can be harnessed and used as fuel to take the most radical step possible in the next age of Afghanistan: to do nothing. No more militant, ideological deaths. A collective standing still, a lack of encroachment could just about inaugurate the first step to some kind of valuable peace process. It’s a long shot but it is at least envisionable. And envisioning is the first step in achieving any kind of reality.

Image – U.S. Department of State: “Secretary Pompeo Participates in a Signing Ceremony in Doha”

Possible Futures: Bahrain

In this series, Joe Waters will be looking into the political climates of Middle Eastern countries that are not generally explored in depth in mainstream news, with aim of providing a sense of the current political situation in these states, as well as potential forces for change (and whether or not they are likely to prevail). Today’s subject is the frequently overlooked nation of Bahrain. Often lumped in with other Gulf States, it in fact has a very specific political climate of its own – one that combines a generally authoritarian and conservative government with unexpected instances of liberalism. It is hard to work out which of these contrasting approaches is prevailing.

Much like its better-known neighbour Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has a powerful Sunni monarchy (however, unlike Saudi, the majority – arguably about 60% – of its population are Shiites). Its current head of state is King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Perhaps surprisingly though, the prime minister of the nation, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa has been around longer than its king. Having been in post for 60 years, he is actually the longest serving prime minister in the whole world today. Some argue that these two entrenched, senior figures are the roadblock to major change in the country and prevent many conservative policies from being overturned. Indeed, after the failed 2011 uprising, their grip tightened significantly. Sadly, even the country’s single opposition newspaper (quite a unique phenomenon in a fundamentalist state such as this), Al-Wasat, was shut down a couple of years ago. 

Interestingly, however, the winds of change have been blowing in the royal family. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (not to be confused with his Saudi-Arabian namesake) has spoken positively, with some considerable justification, about the country’s incredibly progressive “Alternative Sentencing” offenders policy, second only to the Netherlands, and claims on his website that he “is committed to providing quality healthcare services to all Bahraini citizens.” He has also supported the International Labour Organisation and attempted to start nationwide conversations on workers’ issues. He would go further if he could. Unfortunately, many of his more visionary efforts are discouraged by the more conservative elements in the Government. Nevertheless, in the persona of the Crown Prince, the country’s oldest and most antiquated institution has already become a force for change. 

It is perhaps ironic that the monarchy of Bahrain is more likely to see a change of personnel than its democratic counterpart. Unfortunately, Bahrain arguably has the most entrenched and ossified opposition movement in the world headed by Ali Salman, the world’s longest serving opposition leader.

That said the problems faced by the opposition are legion. There has been pervasive gerrymandering in all recent elections. This might have changed but the principal opposition party, Al-Wefaq, boycotted a generous power sharing deal in the 2014 elections (offered at the behest of the Crown Prince) and have been on the back foot ever since. In the 2018 elections there was no repeat of the offer, and to add insult to injury, they were barred from standing. This has rendered the party somewhat powerless in recent years, a situation unlikely to change unless there is a new approach before the next election in November 2022. Entering government seems unlikely for the party but, by my reckoning, their boycott achieved little and they should attempt to stand at the next opportunity they get. Even given the electoral crookedness, and in the absence of a repeat of the power sharing deal they were offered before, a show of official opposition would be powerful and they might even gain back some of the eighteen seats they previously held in the Council of Representatives. 

Refusal to engage with the system is understandable given the number of political prisoners in the country, notably Al-Wefaq’s leader Ali Salman. Even the respected Shia religious leader Sheikh Issa Qassim has had his citizenship removed after settling in Iran having left Bahrain (where he had been under house arrest) apparently to visit the UK for medical treatment. Yet, given the political deadlock of most of the last decade, and the recent release of the tub thumping and staggeringly outspoken government critic and opposition populist, Nabeel Rajab, a man who is constantly outspoken about the Bahrain government’s use of torture (a practice that has become far less common in recent years) and critical of the actions of the Saudis in Yemen (Bahrain’s allies and paymasters), a clear gesture of goodwill by the government, the time seems ripe for at least an attempt to parlay with the government, even if only incremental reforms are achieved.

To go about making change, it is necessary to understand the motives (other than habit) behind the rulers of Bahrain. Are they driven simply by religious fundamentalism? No – as always in these situations, the answer is both more complex and rather more predictable. The majority of Bahrain’s GDP is debt; much of their infrastructure relies on huge loans from Saudi Arabia. As a result, the Saudis put pressure on their smaller neighbour not to be too hasty in their steps toward democracy and a Western idea of human rights. The larger country fears that, if its citizens see concrete reforms in a state so close to their own, they will demand greater freedoms themselves.  

If Bahrain did have the gumption to liberalise, perhaps it might just trigger a broader shift in neighbouring states. This small, politically stagnant country might just become a progenitor for a major transformation in the Gulf. Maybe this is blue sky thinking but it feels like, given the depressing uniformity of the debate in Bahrain in recent years, a little imagination is necessary to instigate change of any kind. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to expect Bahrain to move away from its unhealthy dependence on Saudi Arabia. But to push the boundaries a little could help give the nation a new lease of life – an opportunity to move toward freedom of expression and real, democratic accountability.  

Currently, these ideas seem remote. However, there are concrete steps that can be taken in the here and now. Al-Wefaq can push to be able to stand in the next election and attempt to start a dialogue with the Government. And the government could encourage Al-Wasat newspaper to relaunch, providing some financial support for it to do so. Acting out democracy is not sufficient but maybe, over time, pretence can evolve into reality. It is possible that, with a more empowered Crown Prince and a more active opposition, Bahrain may finally find its way to a brighter future. 

Image: The Saudi Bahrain Bridge taken by Mohamed Ghuloom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)