Three concerns about Taliban 2.0
The Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan. The spectacular fall of the US-backed government has caught everyone by surprise, although for years it was conventional wisdom that the war was lost in Afghanistan. Yet, the US continued its presence and pursued a failed policy of engagement. However, within the past weeks, city after city fell like dominoes to the advancing Taliban forces as members of the Afghan Army either surrendered or abandoned their posts. This led to the fall of the capital without any resistance. The hasty and unplanned evacuation of the US embassy in Kabul was reminiscent of another ignominious defeat of the United States—Saigon in 1975. Often referred to as the "Saigon Moment", this came to life one more time, bringing an end to the US military operation launched 20 years ago after the terrorist attacks in the US by Al Qaeda, which was hosted by the then ruling Taliban. The Taliban was dislodged from power in a few weeks and two decades of US presence began.
Since the fall of Kabul on Sunday, the events leading to the moment have been analysed in extensive detail all around the world, and there have been emotionally charged discussions in the Bangladeshi media as well. Many have expressed their delight at the defeat of the US; some praised the Taliban for their success. Since the Taliban blitz began a few weeks ago after US President Joe Biden declared the timeline of the US withdrawal, and it became evident that the Taliban's victory is all but certain, security experts and analysts of Afghan politics expressed an array of concerns.
These fears have been rejected by those who are optimistic of a new beginning in Afghanistan and want to give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt. They are suggesting that this is Taliban 2.0. Implied in the statement is that the Taliban has transformed. They argue that these concerns are only a part of the anti-Taliban campaign on behalf of the West. These explanations and concerns warrant our attention, particularly now that Taliban rule has become the reality.
A common explanation of the Taliban's victory is that the people of Afghanistan have rejected the foreign power, as they did the British and the former Soviet Union before. Instead, they have chosen their political representatives. This characterisation of the Taliban as a nationalist force has some merit to it. To some extent, the support for the Taliban among Afghan people can be traced back to their nationalist ethos, but it is not clear whether this brand of nationalism has transcended the deep-seated ethnic divide in Afghan society.
However, nationalist ethos alone does not explain the entire phenomenon; the failure of the US-backed government in Kabul bears some responsibility. The parochial nature of the Afghan elite, the lack of inclusive governance, the incessant factional wrangling among them, the rampant corruption and utter disregard for the larger segments of society—all of this together contributed to the emergence of the Taliban as the alternative. While trillions of dollars of US taxpayers' money was poured in, there was a disconnect between reality and perception.
The nationalist explanation is also fraught with the problem that the Taliban alone does not represent Afghanistan—those who oppose the Taliban ideology are also part of the national fabric. Afghanistan cannot be imagined without Taliban followers, neither should it be imagined excluding those who do not subscribe to the Taliban ideology. But the most serious inadequacy of the interpretation is that it ignores the political disposition of the Taliban and its record of five years in power between 1996 and 2001.
Explanations of the Taliban's victory without considering its history and ideological position only offer a partial account, laced with emotion and devoid of the implications. There are those who are elated from ideological considerations, describing the Taliban's victory as a victory of Islam. Whether Taliban rule is consistent with Islamic precepts is an open question at best. The Ulama have long rejected this claim.
The concerns about the future of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan can be broadly divided into three strands. First, the nature of governance to be introduced within the country. Second, whether Afghanistan will become a safe haven for international terrorist groups. Third, whether Afghanistan will emerge as a threat to regional peace and stability.
Taliban rule during 1996-2001 was marked by the absence of inclusivity in politics and governance. The notion of citizenship was absent, let alone their consent in governance. The basic human rights of citizens were absent. The so-called code of conduct was imposed by force, women's fundamental rights were taken away, cultural activities were banned, the education system was restricted, and only religious education was given the status of education, and independent intellectual exercise was admonished. These were justified on the pretext of being distinct characteristics of Islam and Afghan society.
A particular interpretation of Islam was imposed as the only authentic and acceptable version. The Taliban did not acknowledge the presence of diversity, multidimensionality, or plurality of Islamic thought. Thus far, the Taliban has not given any indication that it would abandon those practices. This is not only a concern of Western nations, but is widespread among Afghans too. The possibility of such austere measures has already frightened people within the country. Even if the Taliban leadership make promises, is there a guarantee that their followers will not continue the old practices in different parts of the country?
It is needless to say that Afghanistan was once an al-Qaeda base and training centre. Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan from Sudan around 1996 and under his leadership, al-Qaeda engineered and implemented attacks on US interests, in the United States and elsewhere. Although the Taliban has assured the United States, China and Russia that they will not allow Afghan soil to be used by terrorist groups in the future, experts on Afghanistan believe that it will continue to maintain contacts with al-Qaeda, and the link is "unbreakable". Dr Asim Yousafzai, a Professor of International Relations at the University of Maryland and an expert on Afghan politics and security, told the BBC that "no matter how much Taliban promises, their relations with al-Qaeda are still intact and al-Qaeda is fighting alongside the Taliban in battles against Afghan forces".
Besides, such organisations can emerge without state support. There is no guarantee that the Islamic State or al-Qaeda will not build their bases, taking advantage of a chaotic situation and finding ungoverned spaces. This has happened in Sahel and Western Africa. Whether the Taliban will have the capacity to launch operations against such organisations is quite a valid question, as is the question of whether it will cooperate with any international initiative against such organisations. Will those within the Taliban with more extremist proclivity refrain from patronising the regional or transnational terrorist groups? These are the second strand of the concerns.
The third concern is how much will be the ideological impact of the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan on countries in South Asia and Central Asia. Harkatul Mujahideen (Huji), a Pakistan-based violent extremist organisation, came into being in support of the Mujahideen. Although the organisation was named Huji in 1988, it was already in existence for quite some time. By 1992, it had expanded into a regional terrorist organisation. Its official journey to Bangladesh began on April 30, 1992—after the fall of Kabul. The Taliban's victory will energise the followers of its ideology throughout the region. In the past 20 years, the Taliban has been able to recruit members without being in power; now, their success is likely to attract more. Pakistan's Taliban, which has helped the Taliban in Afghanistan so far, will gain further strength, and may seek return of their favour.
It is imperative to highlight and be vigilant about the use of the manufactured threat of terrorism by states in South and Central Asia to justify the persecution of opponents and silencing of contrarian voices. Authoritarian rulers of the region have been using the presence of violent extremist organisations as an excuse to consolidate their power and legitimise the use of various tools of intimidation. Two decades ago, authoritarian rulers around the world joined the bandwagon of the so-called War on Terror as it provided a carte blanche to engage in unlawful acts. It is necessary for the members of civil society and international community to remain vigilant and resist any kind of attempt to take advantage of the situation.
The ball is in the court of the Taliban. It is incumbent on them to behave as a responsible political actor and ensure that Afghanistan is not going back to 1996. It is also imperative to watch what the followers of their ideology are doing. And it is necessary to watch what other governments are doing under the pretext of the Taliban victory.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Illinois State University, a non-resident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and the President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).