More than 20 years later, there are indications that the Taliban of today may have at least listened. There are indications that the international community, who previously shunned the Taliban, may find it more pragmatic to try to help fashion a new Taliban early on in their rule and offer them a pathway towards moderation.
Supporting this hypothesis is the understanding that several radicalising influences on the group have now disappeared, leaving room for other forms of external leverage.
For one, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida group is in shambles and clearly have little of the influence they once swayed over Afghanistan. The group, formed from the leftovers from the US-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad of the Cold War era, had leverage on the country because of their role in liberating Afghanistan from the then-Soviet invasion. Members of that group could always remind locals that they came to fight alongside the occupied Afghani people in the late 1970s. But now that’s gone. Most of the al-Qaida leaders who took part in the fight against the Russians are no longer there.
Moreover, the Taliban is also under a new leadership that is reportedly different from the days of Mullah Muhammed Omar, who led the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001. Omar joined the jihad against the Soviet Union at 19. Mullah Omar came to trust bin Laden as an embodiment of Islamic camaraderie. For most of his rule, Umar had no serious rivals inside the group. By contrast, the new Taliban leadership is not yet confined to one person. There are several key figures in control of the movement, many of whom are reportedly less conservative, and more pragmatic, than Mullah Omar.
The other moderating influence is the former US presence. The Taliban is fully aware of how its policies brought about the wrath of the international coalition. While they are evidently good long-term fighters, they will also be fully aware that they are decades behind the international community in arms technology and sophistication.
The Taliban will also have learnt that their ways before the US invasion were chaotic and haphazard. They had no hierarchy or a real system of rule. Their policies effectively took the country back to medieval times. Even among Islamists, the Taliban exemplified exactly what a modern Islamic movement should not be. Currently, the Afghan economy could collapse any minute without real economic policy. Long lines of Afghani shoppers looking for staples are starting to appear on TV screens, which may also influence the new Taliban.
Open to influence
Today’s Taliban has also made itself open to influence from other moderating international players. The group has indicated it will invite managers from countries like Qatar and Turkey to help run Kabul airport. Top level Taliban negotiators have, for months, been visiting and staying in Qatar, a country that at the same time hosts the Udaid US military base, the largest in the Middle East, and offers easy access to Western diplomats and like-minded Arab governments. Qatari officials have direct contacts with the Taliban and can always, with US prodding, wield influence to dilute the Taliban’s extreme tendencies should they arise in the future. As early as 31 August, the Qatari foreign minister publicly urged the Taliban to join international efforts to combat terrorism.
Long-time Taliban observer and former Aljazeera Pakistan correspondent, Ahmed Zeidan is the author of The Long Jihad to the Emirate. He argues that the current Taliban has come a long way from its early founding in the 1990s, citing a new social media posture and pragmatism-driven statements about a new chapter in the country’s history. Zeidan describes the current Taliban as ‘neoTaliban’, to set them apart from the old ways.
After the US military withdrawal, Mohammed Mokhtar Al-Shanqiti, a Mauritanian analyst specialising in Islamic movements, suggests reasons for hope that the neoTaliban may be a different iteration – at least in some ways. ‘There is cause of hope’, he wrote. ‘This is evident in the leniency they showed in dealing with the remnants of the former regime that just collapsed and in the diplomatic overtures they made in dealing with foreign powers.’
Shanqiti, however, found cause for alarm too, saying ‘the movement is still poor in its understanding of Islamic rules especially with regards to the issue of democracy and their limited understanding of the functions of an Islamic government’.