Will Pashtun Secularists Be Overlooked After the Afghanistan Peace Process? | Opinion

The idea of ​​secularism in Afghanistan dates back to the 20 century. Historically, the Pashtun political elite in Afghanistan paid attention to secularism. Although there is no accurate survey on the country's ethnic population, the Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. The majority of Pashtuns are Pashto-speaking and follow Sunni and Hanafi Islam.

Although Afghanistan was never a secular utopia, it was a developing country which fell suddenly in 1979. With the overthrow of the Taliban and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a suitable space gave way for the presence and influence of secular elites in the country.

Considering secularism as a separation of religion from governing bodies and politics, secular Pashtuns have a unique perspective when regarding the role of a secular state, notably the separation of state institutions from religion, individual and social freedoms, democracy, civil rights, tolerance, pluralism and so on. Conditions of Afghan society and its ethnic diversity have in the last two decades led to Pashtun personalities and factions who are in increasingly in favor of secularism.

With growing Taliban presence and influence in Afghanistan since 2007, the Taliban view the Kabul elite aiming to westernize Afghan society. After the Taliban peace agreement with the United States and the start of inter-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the government, the question will be whether Pashtun secularists will be sidelined or if they will maintain their presence and influence in the political sphere?

Pro-secular Pashtuns are now in a special situation. Some of them within the government see themselves as close to the ideals of President Ashraf Ghani, and some emphasize protecting the achievements of the past two decades, including women's rights, freedom of expression and electoral democracy.

In the current context of the inter-Afghan peace process at the Istanbul Conference, which will occur later this month, most of the tripartite conflict is between the Taliban, Ghani-led centralists and Abdullah Abdullah, chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation, who will lead Afghan peace talks with the Taliban.

Afghanistan
Afghan schoolboys walk past a mural of painted with the colors of the Afghan national flag in Kabul on May 21, 2012. BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

Secular Pashtuns see themselves as close to Ghani-led centralists, but the reality is that the presence of the Taliban and the position of Pashtun secularists in power will change dramatically. Ethnicity plays an important role in the political structure and distribution of power in Afghanistan. Secular elites or supporters of some secular aspects now face a major rival: the Taliban.

Taliban fundamentalists argue for a return to the basics of Islam with a purely Islamic military. But Pashtun secularists will try to maintain the centralized system of government alongside modern values, despite what the Taliban wants. The reality, however, is that Pashtun secularists cannot expect the powerful political elites of the three major ethnic groups, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, to hand over their share of power in the future. It is now the Taliban who claim to represent the Pashtuns in future power dynamics.

Despite the Taliban's cross-ethnic claims, the group remains an influential Pashtun movement in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

In these circumstances, apart from the future and structure of Afghanistan's political system, after inter-Afghan (presidential, parliamentary, or semi-presidential) negotiations, the Taliban see the Pashtun secular elite as their main rival in achieving a centralized structure. They are willing to give them a little influence or power, whether local or national.

What is clear now is that Pashtun secularists will not be ignored in Afghanistan's political sharing power process. Their future role depends heavily on their relationship with the Taliban and the Taliban's presence in power. The Taliban will practically win the competition in the short-term. They will effectively give a small percentage of the Pashtun secularists 40 to 50 percent share in power and will ultimately take over their leadership.

Secularists can hope that real change with the Taliban will proceed rapidly, with them reducing their rigid ideology to work in sync with the rest of Afghanistan's political establishment.

Farzad Ramezani Bonesh is a senior researcher and analyst of international affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.