Afghanistan: Shifting the ‘Caliphate’ from Turkey to South Asia!

In religious organizations, the nomenclature is very important; it evokes extreme human emotions. In Christian countries, for example, there cannot be two popes: the Roman Catholics believe in only one, while the Protestants and other denominations are led by their own religious leaders. Similarly, in Sunni Islamic countries, there cannot be two Caliphs/ Emirs; for, the Emir is also a Sheikh, top religious authority, and, at the same time, Amir-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful).

After the collapse of the Eighth Crusade in the 14th century, the military leadership of the Pope weakened and gradually shifted to the ‘secular’ monarch. Slowly, the domain controlled by the Vicar of the Christ, with its Headquarters at Vatican City near Rome, shrunk from 10.18 million square kilometers of Europe to just 44 hectares in Italy now, with a population of less than 850 in 2019!

Not so in the Islamic countries. In both the Sunni and Shia worlds, the supreme religious authority has often been the supreme political-military authority as well—in many, they control each other. In the Shia –dominated Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, the lifelong Supreme Leader among the Ayatollahs is a religious, political, and military chief under whom work the President and other political functionaries.

Many amongst non-Arab Sunni countries are elected Republics, usually aligned with religious leadership. Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc., fall in this category. Theoretically, they have still elected republics but the word of the religious authority is often final. Like a pendulum, they usually switch from secular to Islamic mode.

Among the hereditary Arab Sunni countries, however, even the pretense of election or a republic is absent. While Saudi Arabia is a Kingdom, other Arab countries are Emirates, ruled by hereditary Sheikhs/Emirs. For instance, the United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven emirates, each ruled by a Sheikh.

But there is a difference. Unlike non-Arab Muslim countries, the Emirates do not have powerful armies and have been dependent on the western powers for protection against internal or external enemies.

Now a ‘new’ model of Islamic leadership is emerging in war-torn Afghanistan, just vacated by the US-led western armed forces. The Taliban are trying to create an Iran-type leadership in a predominantly Sunni country, whose largest component, 45 percent, is of Pashtun ethnic origin. Currently, the Taliban are busy ‘flushing out’ the Northern Alliance rebels comprising the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and others to enrich and crystallize a predominantly Pashtun-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Unlike the Arab-ruled Emirates in the Middle East, however, this Emirate in South Asia would be a combination of religious, political, military, and ethnic leadership.

This internal struggle is believed to be causing the delay in the formation of the new, official government in Kabul wherein other, non-Pashtun factions are also trying to assert themselves. Even the Republic of Turkey, and the Islamic State for Syria and the Levant (ISIS), and the IS-Khorasan (IS-K), have opposed this Taliban model in the proposed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Why? Because if an Afghan/Taliban/Pashtun becomes an Emir, he will also, theologically, be the Amir-ul-Momineen, combining in him, like the Supreme Ayatollah, all the powers of religious, political, and military leadership. His word will carry the weight of an edict from God. In other words, a Pashtun Emir will be like a Caliph for all the Sunnis to follow! Since Turkey and ISIS have also been trying to revive the Caliphate, the Taliban are, therefore, the newest challenge from within the Islamic Ummah (Brotherhood).

For now, the Taliban have not only almost neutralized the non-Pashtuns of the Northern Alliance but also the Turks who were trying to create a non-Arab caucus within the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), led by Saudi Arabia and challenge its leadership in the Sunni world as the first requisite to revive the Caliphate, which ended in 1924. With this objective, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enrolled Pakistan and Malaysia in 2019; the Arabs sabotaged it by punishing a vulnerable Islamabad for this ‘indiscipline’ by demanding pre-payment of loans worth billions of dollars!

If the Taliban succeed in eliminating the non-Pashtuns from their upcoming government, it will create a new ecosystem for the creation of ‘Greater Pashtunistan’.

In the intra-Islamic, and Sunni-Arab dynamics, it suits the Arabs’ interests: having a top non-Arab religious leader, almost as a Caliph, will torpedo the Turks’ ambition to recreate the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate that associated with it. The Arabs have always been opposed to the Ottoman Caliphate and were the first to break away from it in the 1920s.

Remember, an Arab country, Qatar, is now managing the Taliban’s outreach to the rest of the world. The Taliban had recently denied Ankara’s request to manage the Kabul airport after the US-led forces vacated it.

Remember, that top Taliban political leader and its co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has his base in Doha, Qatar, from where he flew into Kabul after August 15 when the Taliban retook the Afghan capital.

Remember, that all the top leaders of the Taliban, including Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, are Pashtuns, and so were former President Ashraf Ghani, and his projected successor Baradari.

The Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who brought the Taliban to the negotiating table and closer back to the US with the February 2020 agreement, is also a Pashtun!

And also remember that the last great monarch of Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Abdali in the 18th century, was a Pashtun; and so was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (‘Frontier Gandhi’) in the 20th century.

So many Pashtun leaders, but no Pashtunistan so far!

So far, there has perhaps been no Caliph from South Asia.

Well, this is a developing story!