This commentary was first published on the web portal European Eye on Radicalization (www.eeradicalization.com on 1 July 2022)
After twenty years of US intervention and peace processes, Afghanistan came to full circle — the Taliban retook power in August 2021. Islam has always been at the heart of Afghanistan’s story. The importance of Islam in shaping an Afghan nation is therefore evident, not only in the context of terrorism and as a threat to the West. This is more important than ever to remember in times when a radical group such as the Taliban is in control of the country.
In the Wake of the Taliban Return
After the return to power of the Taliban, many Afghans attempted to flee the country and the international community hastily tried to create a solution ranging from forming safe havens around the country to scholarships for girls — in academia, sports, arts — so they could leave Afghanistan, which became a media sensation of its own. The growing concern regarding the region’s security, as well as the fate of the Afghan people, particularly women and minorities, has led many voices across the world to urge cooperation with the Taliban; most have suggested doing this without acknowledging the legitimacy of the jihadists’ rule, though some have advocated accepting their power-grab in order to control contain the terrorism and humanitarian problems.
While the outside world and the Afghan population have been worrying, the Taliban have been seen having fun in Kabul, visiting amusement parks and gyms since their take-over — only to have it all burned down shortly after, displaying their hypocrisy and foreshadowing the violent nature of their regime.
A Legacy of Betraying and Painful Memories
Although the Taliban’s focus on Islam to gain political support for their actions has been successful in some regards, the Taliban’s have shown an ignorance of the deep-rooted Afghan national identity. This poses a threat to Afghanistan’s distinctive diversity. In the past, the Taliban has engaged in the destruction of historical relics and genocide against several minorities, leaving painful memories for the Afghan people who fear history will repeat itself.
The governments of Afghanistan since the US removed the Taliban in 2001 were considered corrupt, and elite in the capital failed to some degree to engage with local communities in the provinces. This was an error, since the rural poor make up 70% of Afghanistan’s population. There were traumas left from the post-2001 period of warfare, during which almost half of the population were born and raised. These factors doubtless helped the Taliban find an audience for its message, but that message was a promise of peace and stability, and it was false.
The promise of peace has been made before and it was broken then, too. The US intended to bring peace and democracy, but with a raging Taliban insurgency supported from Pakistan it could never quite deliver on the promise. There were other problems, including human rights violations by the Afghan allies the US chose. Ironically, some of this was because of a failure by the US to do more, to take control of the nation-building process: some of the most heinous crimes committed by allies were allowed to continue because the US was fearful of disrupting Afghans’ “culture and religion”. There were notorious mistakes, and then there were the miscommunications, perhaps most prominently the 2012 incident when the U.S. removed Qur’ans from Taliban prisoners at Bagram Airbase, who had been using them to pass messages between each other, then destroyed the books, which triggered mass-violence across the country. This US brought many benefits to Afghanistan, notably a vast increase in prosperity — even if there was some criticism that it was too narrowly concentrated among the elite — and considerable infrastructure, specifically education and health care facilities, that benefited everybody.
Many times over the years after their fall from power, Taliban leaders have stated it is not their intend to mistreat Afghan women. Rather, said the Taliban, women’s rights would be protected under Islamic law. No one knew exactly what this meant for the lives of women, though the record of the Taliban’s 1996-2001 period in power suggested it meant severe threats to the rights Afghan women had come to expect under NATO protection. Since the Taliban has come back into power, women have been excluded from being ministers, cannot oversee the government, or have any state function; in many other areas of life, too, Afghan women have now lost out, demonstrating the deceptiveness of the Taliban’s rhetoric, whether given to Western researchers, journalists, and diplomats, or representatives of Afghan civil society and powerbrokers. It is clear the rights of women and minorities will once again be casualties of Taliban rule.
Women’s rights is a highly complicated, contested, and politically charged debate — not only internationally, but also among Afghans and among Afghan women themselves. The debate cuts across the rural-urban divide, and extends beyond differences between pro-Taliban and anti-Taliban actors and populations. A wide range of restrictions and unsafe situations have always prevailed for women all over the country. Yet, Afghan women have agency and have some basic expectations in common. In this sense, it is important to keep in mind that women in rural areas who had been more favourable to negotiating with the Taliban have joined women who went to the streets to protest the upcoming home confinements and restrictions on women’s education by the Taliban. This underlines the conclusions of a report by the Crisis Group, where both urban and rural women agreed on one thing — they would not stay at home again and have their lives restricted in the way the Taliban did last time.
A Bleak Future for Afghan Minorities
While the Taliban had been somewhat cryptic about what it intended for Afghan women, and Afghan women were themselves divided in certain ways, the situation for ethnic minorities was always much clearer and more grim. Their rights were dismissed during the peace talks and the Taliban openly stated their intention to eliminate rights which minorities had acquired under the NATO-supported Afghan government. The Taliban have never hidden that they see a diversity of ethno-religious identities as a threat to society, foreshadowing the threats and persecution that now face ethnic and religious minorities.
Afghanistan: A Terrorist Safe Haven
The final peace stipulations in the Doha Agreement signed between the US and the Taliban had little consideration for women’s and minorities rights — one can argue the deal had little concern for the Afghan people in general, since it was clearly unviable and never implemented. Nonetheless, one thing the Doha deal did deal, albeit vaguely, was terrorism in Afghanistan: the Taliban committed to preventing the country being used as a springboard for international terrorists. The deal did not, however, call for the Taliban to sever its links with Al-Qaeda, nor for Al-Qaeda to be expelled from the country, leaving room for different interpretations.
An indication of the Taliban’s interpretation of this deal was seen recently when Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, the leader of the mostly-ethnic-Uyghur Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), who is an Al-Qaeda official, was publicly present during May 2022’s Eid celebrations in Afghanistan, which “directly contradicts the Taliban’s claim that no foreign fighters operate or are based in the country”. The problem of a Talibanized Afghanistan becoming a breeding ground for radicalization and terrorism has been a concern since their takeover, sometimes expressed publicly by US intelligence, though there is a serious question about what Western intelligence services know (and can know) about terrorist activities in Afghanistan.
TIP’s place within the jihadist universe is somewhat contested and highly politicized. But it is clear that a primary motivator of TIP is the repression of Muslims by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is therefore interesting that the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda partners collaborate with the TIP on the basis of a shared ideology and the notion of an umma (global Islamic community), while the Taliban regime collaborates increasingly closely with the CCP, which is engaged in a genocidal campaign against China’s Uyghur Muslims.
Taliban’s International Aspirations
The Taliban’s have not created an inclusive government: only ten percent of the government are from ethnicities other than the Pashtuns, the group that dominates the Taliban, and as mentioned women have been entirely excluded. The Taliban believe that their hyper-conservative interpretation of Islam is all that is necessary, and those who do not subscribe to it suffer.
The ambiguities in the Taliban’s public messaging about its relationship with Al-Qaeda and its claim only to want to govern Afghanistan exist alongside a reality that the group has always had an international outlook, and the territorial expansion of the Taliban has always gone hand-in-hand with support for foreign Islamist organizations.
There might seem to be a tension between the Taliban and its predecessors opposing external interference in Afghanistan, whether it is the Soviet Union in the 1980s or the United States these past twenty years, and the Taliban welcoming Al-Qaeda, but for the Taliban, ideologically, Al-Qaeda is not foreign, it is part of the umma, and is regarded as bolstering their position and their globalized agenda. This is a serious concern, potentially in the near future. This intimate connection can be seen in officials like Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban and their Minister of Interior, who is also a senior Al-Qaeda official.
The other worry, alongside Al-Qaeda having more freedom to establish training camps and grow their global movement in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, is the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP or ISIS-K). ISIS-K, the archenemy of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, has been steadily gaining strength in Afghanistan since Kabul fell to the Taliban.
A Sustainable Afghanistan
The Taliban has de facto control of Afghanistan, despite its failure to receive international recognition and the challenges to the stability of its rule from ISIS-K and others. The Taliban has conquered and destroyed while using the rhetoric of peace and stability. The disregard for Afghanistan’s diversity makes it unlikely the Taliban can bring peace; military force alone cannot work forever. Afghanistan’s long struggle for freedom will continue.
To date, the Taliban has managed to gain some purchase among conservative rural communities, where the suffering during the wars of the last forty years was worse, while having much less appeal in the cities, where minorities and women (among others) exercised a range of freedoms since 2001.
It is, of course, important here to define what freedom is. As H.E. Manizha Bakhtari, the Afghan Ambassador to Austria when the Republic collapsed, stated:
When I’m talking about freedom, I am talking about the definition of freedom as a Muslim and as an Afghan woman. However, as a Muslim, I believe that freedom means moderation and, above all, freedom of expressing it in your own way. We want to have a free society where everyone can exercise their right to go to school and to pursue a career.
Afghanistan under a radical group like the Taliban cannot attain this — they cannot create an Afghanistan were the national identity, in all its diversity, is celebrated — and “a peace in which Afghans do not see their own reflection is one that will not be sustainable.