On August 15, the world was taken aback by the dramatic developments in Afghanistan. Taliban vanquished the United States after 20 years of battle. Taliban regained control of Afghanistan despite thousands of US military soldiers, trillions of dollars, and vast resources. They assumed responsibility for maintaining law and order in the country shortly after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Afghanistan remains a “Graveyard of Superpowers.” Despite the Taliban securing a thaw with Afghan people, the terror and anxiety in eyes of people are still apparent. The bloodless and swift takeover of the Taliban raises a slew of fundamental questions about the future. Have the Taliban changed significantly since the 1990s? Why are they adopting a less hardline approach this time?
First and foremost, let us have a look at the Taliban’s first authoritarian rule. The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s to oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. From 1996 until 2001, they ruled the country as an Islamic Emirate. Their rule was the subject of withering criticism because of the harsh interpretation of Shari’a laws (Islamic laws). Women were forbidden from attending school, working, or leaving the house without male escorts; henceforth, depriving them of their rights. Women who did not follow Taliban-interpreted Islamic rules were threatened, beaten, and killed. The Taliban also persecuted and massacred ethnic minorities, primarily Shia Hazaras and Uzbeks.
Notably, the Taliban of 2021 appears to be very different from the Taliban of the 1990s. The Taliban of 2021 want the rest of the world to believe they have changed. It is still debatable if the Taliban’s set of beliefs or ideology has evolved over the last two decades. They have changed in the sense that they now understand the value of national unity, diplomacy, state-building, economic development, technology, PR exercise, globalization, and legitimacy. That is why, despite capturing all other provinces, they choose to remain on the outskirts of Kabul to avoid further strife. Following their takeover of the city, the Taliban also declared a “General Amnesty” across Afghanistan and encouraged women to join the government.
Similarly, the group also sought allies, sending high-level delegations to Russia, China, and Iran in order to secure the support of important regional countries. Also, in a live broadcast around the world, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid demonstrated their savvy foreign policy by addressing questions from Afghan and international media. He assured regional actors and the international community that their soil will not be used to propagate further terrorism. He underscored his commitment to ensuring the rights of women and media within the context of Islamic law. Later on, he also gave an interview to a female journalist who was just wearing a headscarf. These progressive actions are appealing at first glance.
Zabiullah Mujahid appears to belong to a separate group from the hardliners. It is critical to understand that the Taliban is not a monolithic organization. It is made up of several factions and groupings. The real question now is, have all factions changed? No, that seems to be the answer. At the moment, two groups are at loggerheads. The first group is the political or sublime group, which has resided outside the country for the last two decades, and the second is the fundamentalist group, which has been fighting inside the country for the last two decades. The political group appears to have evolved as there has been a shift in nature and disposition. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, have not changed in the same way. The delay in forming the government also suggests clashes and confusion between two groups for ranks.
In addition, when Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s co-founder, and deputy leader, arrived in Afghanistan, all tongues were wagging about the absence of Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s leader following the death of Akhtar Mansour. According to certain rumors, he is no longer alive. Time will tell whether this is simply an outrageous proposition or not. He would have devised a solution to narrow the gap between the two groups by now. But if the rumors are true then the Taliban will face enormous obstacles in consolidating control of the country.
Furthermore, the Taliban claim to have no contact with Al-Qaeda. But the sign suggests otherwise. The relations between the Taliban and the Haqqani network (Al-Qaeda) remain strong. It is based on ideological compatibility. The Haqqani Network is an extremists group created by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a renowned Mujahideen commander during the Soviet invasion. Some of the members of the Haqqani network hold prominent positions in Afghanistan.
For instance, Khalilur Rahman Haqqani, the uncle of the chief of the network, is a member of the Taliban’s council that oversees the administration and is also in charge of the security arrangements outside the airport. Other prominent members include Sirajuddin Haqqani, chief of the outfit, and his brother, Anas Haqqani. The chief is present in Kabul while his brother is assisting Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council.
All things considered, the Taliban are still conservative, albeit more liberal than they were two decades ago. The international community dithers about their liberal stance. As history is not always a good guide to the future, the world must wait and see if the underlying ideology and belief system of all factions has changed or if simply the political wing has changed. The international community should also give room for all Taliban factions to evolve.
As Taliban understand that a conservative regime can never be accepted by the world community; thus, they have a conciliatory stance. If the Taliban truly wants the world to think that they have reformed, they must reach a consensus among their divisive factions and improve their treatment of women and minorities. Taliban should fathom whether they act in accordance with Islam or speak in the name of Islam. The Taliban must demonstrate, not simply with words, but through actions that will build a representative government rather than autocracy.
The writer is a student of International Relations, National Defence University, Islamabad.
*The views expressed in this opinion article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the organization.