Afghan Protests: Foreign-Financed Color Revolution or Genuine Grievances?

Regardless of whether one sympathizes with those protesters’ causes or not, it should be acknowledged that these disturbances could greatly destabilize Afghanistan at one of its most sensitive moments in modern history amid its historic political transition back to de facto Taliban rule following the West’s withdrawal last month after nearly twenty years of occupation.

Taliban vs. Protesters

The Taliban claimed that the latest protests against its de facto rule are financed from abroad, but the case can also be made that they’re at the very least partially driven by genuine grievances, even if some of the latter are being externally manipulated through information warfare means. Those participating in the recent unrest are concerned about women’s rights and Pakistan’s alleged role in their country. The Taliban, which is still recognized as a terrorist group by many countries including Russia even though the Kremlin also pragmatically engages with it in the interests of peace and security, dispersed their demonstrations and then decreed that anyone protesting must first have prior authorization. Even so, the protests continue in some cities.

A “Culture Shock” For Liberal Women

Addressing these two protest motivations in the order that they were introduced, the first arises from the precedent established the last time that the Taliban was in power from 1996-2001. Unlike then, however, the group nowadays allows women to study (albeit in gender-segregated classrooms though they intend to eventually introduce separate classrooms and even facilities), work in certain professions, and leave the house without being accompanied by a male family member. It only wants them to wear the hijab the whole time they’re outside their homes and no longer participate in sports due to the group’s interpretation of Sharia. Nevertheless, this is a “culture shock” for some women who were used to living under more liberal standards.

The Two Dimensions To Anti-Pakistani Protests

Regarding the second one about Pakistan, this narrative is the result of two factors. Firstly, Islamabad has close ties with the Taliban, though the Pakistani Ambassador to Russia recently clarified that this doesn’t mean that his country controls them. There are consultations on various issues such as the ones that Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence Faiz Hameed held during his latest visit to Kabul, but the Ambassador said that they didn’t concern the acting government’s composition. This, however, didn’t stop some from speculating that Pakistan pulls the Taliban’s strings, which provoked anti-Pakistani hostility among some Afghans.

The second factor has no factual basis whatsoever unlike Mr. Hameed’s public visit to Kabul that was exploited for provoking anti-Pakistani protests through information warfare means, and that’s the claims that Pakistan militarily participated in the Taliban’s Panjshir operation. Indian media shared fake news footage and images purporting to be proof of this claim, which regrettably succeeded in misleading the Iranian Foreign Ministry into later giving credence to these false accusations. The impact on Afghan society was to push those who already disliked Pakistan for whatever reason into taking to the streets to protest against it and the Taliban.

No Foreign Actor Wants To Stop The Taliban

These dual demonstrations are especially dangerous at this sensitive moment in the country’s political transition. The Taliban has zero-tolerance for what it deems to be illegal protests so those who are participating in them know very well the harsh response that they’re destined to receive irrespective of however much some outside observers might feel that these consequences are morally unjustified. The fact of the matter is that no foreign actor has the capabilities or political will to stop the Taliban from suppressing these demonstrations, though the media’s coverage of this can still be taken advantage of to promote ulterior agendas.

Ulterior Agendas

Firstly, the external encouragement (whether through foreign financing or simply political support) of these protests is intended to provoke a self-sustaining cycle of unrest whereby the Taliban’s suppression leads to more demonstrations and so on and so forth until the situation becomes more destabilized. This could especially be the case if some of those who are on the receiving end of the Taliban’s harsh anti-protest responses are representative of ethnic, regional, and/or religious minorities whose fellows might then intensify their anti-Taliban activities in response up to the point of once again taking up arms against them.

The second agenda is to delegitimize the presently unrecognized though de facto acknowledged Taliban-appointed interim authorities. This serves the purpose of justifying unilateral sanctions against it such as the formal ones that the US has as well as the informal ones recently imposed by the IMF and World Bank. It could also discourage the US’ Western allies in Europe from more pragmatically engaging with the group if their decision makers are flooded with images (however possibly decontextualized) of it violently dispersing female-led protests and/or those organized by ethnic/regional/religious minorities against Pakistan.

Clarifying The Uncomfortable Optics

These observations lead to a deeper analysis of the complex dynamics that are being discussed, specifically the reason why Western countries might react that way in response to such optics (whether accurately reported or misleadingly so) as well as the role that foreign fake news has in generating socio-political unrest. About the first, for as painful as it is for Westerners to see women being beaten by the Taliban for protesting against the group, it must be acknowledged (though not necessarily approved of) that Afghanistan has different cultural and legal traditions. Still, it’s inaccurate at this moment in time at least to believe that women are being beaten for not wearing hijabs or because of their gender.

They’re on the receiving end of the de facto authorities’ force because they’re participating in illegal protests that they didn’t voluntarily disperse after first being warned to do so by the Taliban. Men who participate in other illegal protests are also beaten for the same reasons too. At the risk of being accused of so-called “whatabouttism”, this actually isn’t much different from what happens in practically every country across the world, including Western ones. Regardless of how strongly one might feel about their personal interpretation of whatever they believe to be fundamental human rights, there objectively exist different such standards whether one supports them or not and they aren’t always compatible with others’ no matter what liberals say.

Exploiting “Proselytizing” Tendencies

Westerners tend to be more “proselytizing” of their worldview than others, though that’s not to deny that some Islamists for example also feel the same way about their own interpretation of everything. The point being made is that the repeated expose to footage and images of someone on the receiving end of the (in this case de facto) authorities’ use of force for what the civilizationally dissimilar foreign audience is made to believe is their expression of fundamental human rights (e.g. to protest and/or not wear a hijab in Western eyes, or to agitate for more mosques in a secular country and/or wear the hijab where it’s banned in Islamist eyes) is going to provoke a negative reaction from them that can be manipulated for strategic purposes.

The aforesaid could include imposing/prolonging sanctions like in the Western case or boycotting a certain countries’ companies in the Islamist one. It’s up to each individual on a personal level to decide whether these responses are justified, but it’s nevertheless important to acknowledge the cause-effect relationship and how that could be taken advantage of by others for certain strategic ends that the sincerely passionate participants might not even consciously aware of. In the Afghan case, these relate to isolating the Taliban-appointed acting authorities by refusing to recognize them and/or imposing/prolonging sanctions, the latter of which can actually worsen socio-economic tensions if this leads to a cutoff of much-needed humanitarian aid for instance.

Fake News Can Provoke Real Violence

Regarding the role that foreign fake news has in generating socio-political unrest, this exploits the targeted audience’s preexisting political triggers in order to provoke a more intensified round of identity conflict per the basics of Hybrid War theory that could easily lead to kinetic conflict as was earlier explained. Anyone anywhere can believe whatever they want about Mr. Hameed’s public visit to Kabul, but holding the Pakistani intelligence chief to a different standard than the American one who traveled there late last month to also meet with the Taliban by only speculating that the former played an allegedly pernicious role with regard to the acting government’s composition very strongly suggests an ulterior motive behind pushing such a narrative.

There’s also no denying that Indian media propagated fake news purporting to prove that Pakistan militarily supported the Taliban’s Panjshir operation, which whether intended or not served to reaffirm the weaponized narrative that Islamabad allegedly backs the Pashtun-majority Taliban at the expense of Afghanistan’s other groups such as the influential Tajik minority that the “Panjshir Resistance” claimed to represent. Targeted infowar audiences in long-running conflict zones such as Afghanistan’s usually already have very deeply held convictions about the wars that they’ve suffered from so sometimes it only takes a minor spark, including from fake news, to provoke them into taking tangible action against their opponents, both real and perceived.

From A Color Revolution To An Unconventional War

This could take the form of protesting and/or picking up arms against them. While only the first of these two has thus far taken place vis-a-vis Pakistan inside Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal context, it might very well turn out to be the case that the self-sustaining cycle of destabilization provoked by weaponized protests such as these triggering forceful reactions from the Taliban could lead to those on the receiving end undergoing the transition from Color Revolution protesters to Unconventional Warfare fighters exactly like Hybrid War theory predicts. The result could be that they’d then once again fight against the Taliban or possibly even consider carrying out acts of terrorism against neighboring Pakistan, both of which would further destabilize the region.

Conceptual Review

Reflecting on the insight that was shared in this analysis, which might realistically necessitate the reader reviewing the article one or more times in order to more effectively absorb it all if they weren’t earlier familiar with some of these complex socio-political dynamics, the Afghan protests as a whole are a blend of genuine grievances and Color Revolution plots. The first motivation is relevant to most of those women who are participating in protests under that banner while the second relates to those who are participating in anti-Pakistani protests triggered by foreign fake news reports. This combination severely complicates everything and deserves some further elaboration before concluding in order to remind readers of the analysis’ main points.

Female and anti-Pakistani activists can be genuine and have no direct or conscious connection to foreign forces, but their respective protests are being given positive coverage from abroad by those who have an interest in propagating certain narratives. These are that the Taliban are uncivilized thugs who brutally beat women that don’t want to wear the hijab and that Afghans are supposedly rising up against their allegedly Pakistani-controlled de facto authorities. Both protest movements run the risk of catalyzing self-sustaining cycles of destabilization by continuing to be carried out illegally in contravention of the Taliban’s recent decree. The first can also be exploited to impose/prolong sanctions while the second could lead to intensified identity conflict.

Concluding Thoughts

To wrap it all up, everything isn’t as it seems to most of the protests’ participants and foreign observers alike. Regardless of whether one sympathizes with those protesters’ causes or not, it should be acknowledged that these disturbances could greatly destabilize Afghanistan at one of its most sensitive moments in modern history amid its historic political transition back to de facto Taliban rule following the West’s withdrawal last month after nearly twenty years of occupation. There’s also undeniable evidence of positive media coverage being given by some countries to these disturbances, which could be intended to advance their respective strategic interests as earlier explained. Ultimately, it’s one’s individual choice who to support, why, and to what extent.

By Andrew Korybko
Source: OneWorld

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