Comment and analysis: Afghanistan and the US withdrawal

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent, CairoMonday 6 September 2021

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​There are serious concerns for the future of women's rights and the rule of law. But there are slight glimmers of hope that ending the military stand-off might pave the way for moderating the Taliban.

In 2000, the Taliban shook the world. The group, then fully in control of Afghanistan, had decided to demolish historic Buddha statues citing vague rules on idolatry. The decision was so extreme that several conservative Muslim scholars from other countries went against the decision. They cited how Muslims have historically kept pre-Islamic history intact and maintained statues in countries they controlled, including Afghanistan.

Two Muslim scholars who visited Kabul at the time to dissuade the Taliban leadership, the Doha-based Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi and then Egypt’s grand mufti Mohammed Fareed Wassel, both authorities on Islamic jurisprudence, came back not only empty handed but visibly rattled. They told the press at the time they had never encountered anyone more literal and lacking understanding of Arabic language than the Taliban. Their mission failed. The statues were demolished. The Taliban, it was clear, listened to no one outside its own cocoon.

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

Mohammed Mokhtar Al-Shanqiti
Mauritanian analyst, specialising in Islamic movements

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’.

The Taliban has not made conciliatory remarks either about issues such as the future status of women, in which the US and its Western allies invested heavily over the past two decades. Issues like rule of law, liberties and freedoms are also off the table for now.

After 20 years of costly war, the international community, particularly the US, should perhaps shun further warmongering and embrace the alternative – that the Taliban should be moderated rather than annihilated. After all, this is what rivals are doing for now. Iran, for one, was quick to interject as it vies to fill the void after the US withdrawal of 30 August.

Iran is presenting itself as an ally outside Afghanistan’s borders. On 31 August, Tehran called on the Taliban to form an ‘inclusive’ government and said it stood ready to help. Iran had been successful in stepping in where the international community declined to do so: in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Over the coming few months, all eyes will be set on the deadlocked country to see which direction the Taliban will eventually take and if it will alleviate mounting concerns internationally. And until that’s clear, the international community will need to do their share in coaxing them towards moderate ways, rather than pushing them deeper into radicalism.

‘The Afghans have demonstrated fighting skills, pride in their own beliefs and an ability to repel outside aggression’, Shanqiti says. ‘They are yet to demonstrate they can govern wisely, manage peace and coexist.’

Fabio Pagani C / Shutterstock.com

Download the IBA Global Insight app

Access expert analysis on international rule of law, business and human rights