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The Pawn That Roars, Selfies And Amusement Parks, Or Localism and Soft Islam: The Futures of Afghanistan

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Professor Sohail Inayatullah is the UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies at the Sejahtera Centre for Sustainability and Technology, Malaysia.
Jose Ramos is the Editor of the Journal of Futures Studies, Taiwan.
Roar Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Systems Change Alliance, London, UK.
Satya Tanner is a former Squadron Leader of the Royal Australian Airforce. She is both a leadership development consultant, and currently works on offshore wind projects in the renewable energy industry in Denmark.
Kiran Ahmed is an Assistant Professor at the Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.


While there is considerable commentary on the current situation in Afghanistan, the literature on the futures of the nation is sparse. We seek to address this by developing scenarios on the futures of Afghanistan. The first scenario derives from the work of Pitirim Sorokin and is titled, “The Endless Pendulum.” The second derives from the works of P. R. Sarkar and is titled “Money Wins Over Text and Sword.” The third is from the historical narrative of the nation and is titled, “The Pawn that Roars.” The fourth is from the linear and cultural narrative of technological and informational globalization and is titled, “Selfies and Amusement Cars.” The final is from a mixture of visions of progressive forces within and outside the Islamic world and is titled, “Localism, Soft Islam, and a Regional Confederation.” It is the most transformative, and we argue provides a vision out of the current abyss.


While there is considerable commentary on the current politics in Afghanistan, this short piece focuses on alternative futures. The futures presented are not radical, rather they take a macrohistorical (Galtung and Inayatullah, 1997) – structural – view. There is certainly the danger of reification in this approach but by using different lenses we hope that we have allowed agency in this formulation. As others we have been stunned by the speed of the Taliban victory. We despair at the loss of women’s rights. We despair that Afghanis have been attacked by outsiders in this iteration since the Soviet invasion in 1979. We are surprised that USA and Taliban peace talks did not include the government of Afghanistan. We are despondent by the politics of opium, used by each regime as a weapon against others and the world. Ultimately, while we engage in alternative futures thinking we are transparent with our politics: we hope for a peaceful, inclusive, pluralistic, and prosperous future for the nation, particularly the rights of women, all tribes, and nature. We also write as concerned outsiders; none of us are from the nation. We hope that in the process of governing, the Taliban and/or subsequent governments create such a future.


What follows are five futures of Afghanistan for the next thirty to forty years. The first scenario derives from the work of Pitirim Sorokin (1957). The second from the works of P. R. Sarkar (1992). The third is from the historical narrative of the Afghanis. The fourth is from the linear and cultural narrative of technological and informational globalization. The final is from a mixture of visions of progressive forces within and outside the Islamic world, inspired by the work of Zia Sardar (Inayatullah and Boxwell, 2002), Johan Galtung (1980), and PROUT Economics (Sarkar, 1992: Inayatullah, 2017). It moves from history as defining to imagination and possibility as leading.

As we think about the future, along with the deep patterns there are numerous uncertainties and contradictions. First, are the role of external players, all seeking to influence the nation. Second, are the internal battles in the nation. This is being framed as the battle between the good and bad Taliban (this is partly about marketing) but equally important are the tensions between Kabul vs the regions; women and men; the Afghani and Pakistan Taliban; Sunni-Shia and Pashtuns, Hazaras and Uzbek and the role of Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K. Third, questions over the nature of the economy, can the nation move beyond development assistance, terror funding, and poppy production – can new models of economy flourish that localize and are connected to the global economy? Fourth, will the Taliban become softer as they move from a military organization to dealing with the daily protocols of bureaucracy? And will external pressures ensure that they become good global citizens? These uncertainties are touched upon in the futures below; however, the scenarios are not derived through this approach. Rather, we use the grand patterns of change – deep structures – to map out alternative futures.

    In this first scenario, the long pendulum between secular (Kabul, modernist but generally focused on the approval of the West) and religious (rural, command and control, conservative, man over nature and women) continues. It goes in one direction, moves toward the principal of limits, and then returns. This approach is derived from Pitirim Sorokin. He argued that systems reinforce particular views of social reality (truth is ideational or truth is material, with the midpoint of integrated).
    This is more than an Afghanistan issue as in the region from Iran to India to Myanmar, the right-wing rule (as well as throughout the Western world). Bangladesh appears to be the exception, so far. In this future, Afghanistan joins other conservative nations in the region. However, a swing is possible with youth and women leading a pluralistic cultural shift; that is, with external powers out, an endogenous development pattern can emerge that integrates the traditional and modern. As well, a swing back to the modernist is also possible if the Taliban cannot create a unity government, and if terrorist groups such as ISIL-K successfully undermine the Taliban (for being not pure enough, too international, and too soft). A swing is also possible given that the Taliban is foundationally in opposition to modern medicine (Guarascio, 2021). However, there are signs now that they are taking COVID-19 public health responses seriously (Kapur, 2021). What happens with the conflict with the Northern Alliance will be telling. On an optimistic note, the brother of the former President of Afghanistan, Hasmat Ghani suggests integration is possible (Latifi, 2021). He writes: ” It is important to bridge divides in Afghan society, which means the Taliban finding a way to accept modern amenities and advancements, and younger Afghans and opponents of the group being able to engage with the Taliban, whom many of them had likely never seen up close until last week.” “When you haven’t been around certain kinds of people, appearances can be deceiving or even frightening,” says Ghani.
    This scenario is based on the macrohistorical work of Shrii P. R. Sarkar (Inayatullah, 2002). In Sarkar’s perspective, there are four types of power, with each taking turns establishing regimes of knowing. The workers give way to the warriors who give way to the intellectuals (inclusive and dogmatic) and then to the capitalists. Human history is a narrative of this eternal cycle. In Afghanistan the current phase in the cycle is run by intellectuals (conservative Islam) using warriors – the young Taliban to conquer others through ideas and military power. They use religious ideology and weapons to hold on to power. However, in the interaction with the world economy, to rise, to continue to gain power, they need to embrace capitalism or other historical systems of finance. This next stage is, as in India, the capitalist. To advance their economies they will need to accumulate wealth, play by global financial rules as we see in Qatar and the Emirates. The region retains its traditional warrior tribal structure along with Islam as its ideological framework, but it is capital that really runs the show.
    In Afghanistan, the current debate remains ideological, i.e., types of Islam and using ideas and weapons to challenge Western models of reality. However, as they become capitalist then they will need to ensure efficiency and productivity, thus, the rights of females and minorities will initially grow to give access to a larger labour market. Governance, predictability of law, and open markets will become far more important. Of course, given that the rest of the world is in an advanced stage of capitalism, Afghanistan could easily become a dumping ground of cheap products, i.e., continued peripheralization with the resultant return of the old Taliban. As Ramos adds, hyper-capitalism dismembers traditional culture, so a backlash is inevitable. They will need to learn to regulate markets and police the internet to keep markets palatable to the old guard. Thus, the scenario could lead to a return of the past.
    This is the scenario driven by geo-politics. The site of the great game – the endless battles between nations (Expansionist Russia and expansionist USA; Iran (Ghosh, 2021) and India (Kuchay, 2021); and Pakistan’s need for strategic territorial depth to counter India). Thus, Afghanistan is the pawn that roars, playing a role in ending the Soviet Union and certainly playing a role in ending Pax Americana. Is Pakistan next? Pakistan knowing that possibility is doing its best to control what it can. However, in Pakistan’s view, they are the lynchpins. Writes the former ISI director, General Hamid Gil: “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America. There will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.” (Leon, 2021). Afghanistan sensing, indeed, creating palpable danger, uses its narrative as the graveyard of empires to maintain national identity and unity. Challenges to the Taliban come from the usual suspects. However, as Robert Jervis wrote in 1978, “The expansion of [territorial] power usually brings with it an expansion of responsibilities and commitments; to meet them, still greater power is required”. ISIL-K while at one level challenges Taliban power, at another level it conveniently creates a good-cop bad-cop backdrop to give them the power they need to be the “least bad” rulers. Patriarchy, militarism, and a hard Islam continues.
    Following on from viral videos of Taliban men enjoying amusement park rides after taking over Kabul, the good Taliban wins out. Thus, in this future while the Taliban remain deeply conservative, i.e., with traditional tribal feudal rules dominant (one amusement park was burned down days after the Taliban played in it – (Baibhawi, 2021), they begin to integrate in surprising ways into the global cultural economy. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, suggests that we need to be innovative, as previous ways of engaging with the Taliban have failed (Associated Press, 2021). However, given the need for vaccinations, the globalization of news, the internet, the youthful demographics, financial capital, and survival based on adaptation, they join a changing world. Their skills at negotiation and influencing others over social media become more important than arms. Trump negotiates a hotel deal as payment for his part in the Doha negotiations. Step by step there are surprising changes. Generational change allows this shift, indeed, suggests Ramos, playfulness and irony create the door for new narratives. Of course, this is premised on a localized flourishing economy outside of opium and developmental assistance. The trillions of dollars from minerals (Horowitz, 2021) create an Islamic socialist state where basic needs are better met, as in Brunei, for example. Thus, Afghanistan begins to prosper. They slowly enter the world of international statecraft and step by step open. By 2031, Afghani soap operas are the rage in the region. Amusement parks are rebuilt, a syncretic Islam emerges.
    As Galtung (1997-1998) has argued, the battle is not between religions or civilizations but between the hard and soft in every religion/nation. In this future, the progressive soft dimensions of Islam lead and a regional confederation emerges. This reduces costs, develops markets, and is a way to counter the threats from Russia, China, and others. A universal basic income, maxi-mini economic structures, and Islamic cooperative platforms develop.
    In this future, the first step is to create a new agricultural economy. Bjonnes writes: “The new Kabul government needs a constructive plan to help the local economy to grow from a poppy economy to an economy growing wool, meat, milk, vegetables, and fruit, all of which the country has an abundance of already.” However, the economy is nested in education, and thus, writes Bjonnes: “The education of girls and boys is critical. This can be done through a decentralized network of schools, so that most can remain in their local areas and be part of a more decentralized economy for the future. This means, according to Bjonnes, that the development of local, national, and global policies are aligned to:

• Avoid leakage caused by product imports and extraction of wealth by non-local and international business interests.
• Increase the speed of circulation of money between local producers, suppliers, institutions, and the public.
• Provide more local jobs through increased local production and services.
• Achieve better local economic stability as localities become more self-reliant.
• Move from an economy based on corporate greed toward an economy of need, since local economies are much more effective at serving the local needs for housing, education, health care, food, and energy.

With a more comprehensive plan, agro-industries can be developed to also export finished products, such as wool clothing, jams, canned and pickled foods, etc. There must also be implementable laws to ensure international corporations do not extract the nation’s mineral deposits for export only. It is the local economy that needs to be the main beneficiary. Ultimately, writes Bjonnes: “The nation’s challenge to create a more localized economy in Afghanistan is formidable, and this cannot take place only from a top-down level, it must grow from the grassroots up and involve support for local culture through a growing sense of cooperation between more self-sufficient regions and a stable nation. Along with the localization of the economy is the localization of knowledge, particularly gendered knowledge. Critical in this reconstruction are the female warriors of Islam, the forgotten Queens as Fatima Mernissi (1991, 1993) has argued. These include the fabled Malalai of Maiwand (Hamza, A, 2019) and latter-day leaders such as Fawzia Koofi, Zarifa Ghafari, or Salima Mazari. This becomes a counter-narrative. Jose Ramos imagines this as a Gaia of civilizations, even going so far to see the development of an eco-cultural tourism in the nation in the medium term. Continuing the move way from realism and toward idealism, author Kiran Ahmed moves from geopolitics to imagined futures. She writes: “Women from Pakistan who feel beleaguered by rising violence and slackness by the state join hands with women in Afghanistan. Access to the Internet and social media make these connections possible. Given the fear of backlash, they decide to co-create productions in the form of children’s stories. These seem innocuous enough, so they stay under the radar. However, their messages overturn the us/them dichotomy by espousing self-hoods that go beyond identities of nationhood, gender, and religion. It results in an expansion of consciousness and identity, towards a neo-humanist orientation that plugs the youth into the broader network of humanity. This narrative gradually gains momentum, creating a niche especially in the new generation of South Asians. States and reactionary forces realise their narrative of divisiveness is no longer ‘sellable’ to the youth and adapt, paving the way for regional cooperation.” As Ramos argues, this is a mode of being beyond the battle of who is the purest. Instead of primordial purity (as we are seeing in the USA and India), it is interconnectedness that is defining.

This last scenario is our preferred. However, we are unable to answer the question of which future will result. And by when. None of us know. The uncertainties – not just the macrohistorical structure – but the outcome of geopolitical battles between the nation and the external world; the religious battles within; the tension between the past and dramatic technological change; and between closed and open futures are far too great. However, the main intent of this essay is to loosen the straitjacket of history and imagine alternative futures. Afghanistan’s future is far from being written in stone or in blood. Agency in creating alternative futures is far more important than daily commentary on current politics.


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