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Taliban 2.0: death by government

The world is panicking about Afghanistan. While we don’t know how the Taliban will rule, it’s difficult to believe it will be significantly less brutal than last time, despite the laptops and polished PR. They do want to portray themselves as more in touch with the population. Perhaps it’s not fair to panic a population that must, after all, still live in Afghanistan. It is far from sobering, all the same, to know that intrastate murder is often more lethal than interstate death. Governments kill and kill their own.

The late political scientist Rudolf Rummel coined the term democide for “death by government”, which was the title of his fourth book. His research investigated collective violence at the hands of intolerant, ideological regimes. As he said, “the more power a regime has, the more likely people will be killed. This is a major reason for promoting freedom.”

M03JT0 Still image taken from a propaganda video released January 14 2018 showing Taliban fighters in a training camp in Faryab Province, Afghanistan.

Rummel, a former professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, believed that “concentrated political power is the most dangerous thing on earth”. He estimated that 272 million people were killed by their own governments in the 20th century, mainly from Stalin to Mao. He later revised that estimate upwards to 400 million.

Data on Afghanistan has always been notoriously difficult to collect and document accurately over the decades. While we don’t know about the future, it seems that Afghanistan now has an equal opportunity terrorist regime at the helm, feared by its own people. Last time they were in charge, the Taliban targeted women who strayed out of line from their strict Islamic beliefs and strictures, but also moderates of all kinds and, especially, the Hazaras. This ethnic Shia minority constitutes about 19 per cent of the population.

Over the last 40 years, Afghanistan has been a dangerous place to live. In 1978, the first President of Afghanistan, Mohammed Daoud Khan, was assassinated in the Saur revolution, an autocratic regime led by the Afghan military and the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The Soviets supported the Communists, and they had a policy of democide that they exported. Once the Communists started killing, the Mujahideen reciprocated, and the Taliban continued. 

The country can document many massacres, and the Hazaras are only one ethnic group that rightly fears the new regime. According to a recent Amnesty International report, nine ethnic Hazara men were murdered in Ghazni, a province in the east. The organisation’s Secretary-General, French human rights activist, Dr Agn è s Callamard, said: “The cold-blooded brutality of these killings is a reminder of the Taliban’s record and a horrifying indicator of what Taliban rule may bring. These targeted killings prove that ethnic and religious minorities remain at particular risk under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.” The Hazaras have been systematically persecuted and often killed over many generations by the Pashtun majority. The persecution is both ethnically and religiously motivated: not only are Hazaras Persian-speaking and Shia, but they are recognisably descendants of Mongol and Turkic peoples.

We know Afghanistan is a patriarchal society. In other democides, people were motivated by money, property and power. Violence was one way to achieve gain. This was true, in part at least, for the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan Genocide. The Taliban are supposed not to be corrupt, but one motivating factor for their brutality is power. To impress their superiors or prove their loyalty to the cause, they use coercion and fear to augment their status and prestige among their fellow militants. That could translate to beating minorities or Westernised women up or beheading “infidels”. 

In a turbulent world, brutality is one way to control feeling overwhelmed or asserting control over the environment. If you have automatic weapons, you can easily intimidate the elderly, women and people who you consider inferior. With four million young men between the ages of 15-24 and high unemployment, guns seem an excellent way to gain power and stature within a largely rural country, over people you think are inferior, such as women and ethnic minorities. 

As Rummel writes: “The less freedom people have, the more violence, the more freedom, the less violence. I put this here as the Power Principle: power kills, absolute power kills absolutely. What I call  democide —in this century. The more power a government has, the more it can act arbitrarily according to the whims and desires of the elite.” Rummel here echoes the adage of the 19th-century British scholar and politician Lord Acton : “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. States with absolute power often turn on their own subjects and citizens.

This is the ideology that drives the Taliban or ISIS, primarily men who believe they are absolutely right and eligible for victors’ spoils. A theocratic military state favours punishment over persuasion. Traditional societies tend to be rigidly set in their ways and punish deviation severely. Under the previous Taliban regime, in 1999, Zarmina, a 35-year old mother of seven and victim of domestic abuse, was executed by the Taliban in Kabul’s Olympic Stadium for the crime of killing her husband. She became an icon for female suffering. Journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote that the Taliban went several times to the victim’s family and asked permission to kill the murderer. The answer is always yes. They do not want to forgive. 

Modern societies tend to be much more heterogeneous, more diverse and tolerant of diversity. It’s no surprise that we are witnessing the images of Afghans desperate to leave their country. Democracies are far less willing to kill even one person, and a free press is a good indicator of tolerance. Transfers of power in Afghanistan are always bloody. It’s the beginning of Taliban 2.0, and we will see whether or not they stand by what they have said. Death by government, however, seems far more probable than tolerance or mercy.