The dramatic return of the Taliban to Kabul has consequences beyond the borders of Afghanistan. The Taliban are not the most popular group in Afghanistan but they certainly are the most feared, with enough force at their disposal to impose their dogmatic version of Islam over the country.
It is yet to be seen how much they have changed since they last ruled Kabul two decades ago. While little has likely changed in terms of ideological worldview, their tactics and strategy have surely evolved. How they perform in their second iteration could impact politics as well as religious practices in many of the Muslim majority states.
One thing is for sure. The revival of the Taliban is echoing dangerous sirens across South and Central Asia, once again elevating fears about terrorism. Legitimate concerns and questions exist about Taliban cohesion, their inability to control their international border, and the audacity of their new rivals, such as terrorist Islamic State Khorasan (ISK).
So far, the Taliban are admittedly not sounding as harsh as before, especially in regard to their treatment of Muslim and non-Muslim minorities and their support of women’s education. This has inspired some observers to argue that the “new Taliban” are a relatively reformed version of their old selves. Some Taliban foot soldiers who tried to act brutally were admonished (if not punished) and a Taliban spokesperson went to the extent of apologizing for their earlier excesses. While saying they aspire to convince people to follow Islamic practices (such as dress code for women), they have also said they will not enforce anything through harsh measures.
This could very well be an attempt to assuage international opinion while they attempt to establish control and gain some legitimacy. Of course, authoritarianism and religious rigidity doesn’t disqualify them from earning international recognition, as so many other nations seem to survive (and even thrive) with such peculiar credentials, especially in Middle East.
To fully understand the impact of Taliban, it is crucial to be cognizant of the varieties of Taliban and even their extremist rivals, such as al-Qaeda and ISK. Next door in Pakistan, Taliban’s sister organization, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is already showing signs of resurgence. It is a terror conglomerate with various shades of extremism, ranging from anti-Shia and anti-Sufi sectarian thugs to Kashmir-focused militants. TTP was largely dismantled from Pakistan through a sustained military campaign since 2014, but the success of the Afghan Taliban is a gift that has offered TTP a new lease of life.
It is ironic that Pakistan has facilitated the return of the Taliban to Kabul, and in more ways than one. But religious extremists in Pakistan are now feeling more empowered and are bound to advocate that Pakistan follows the Afghan Taliban model. Given its pro-democracy leanings, Pakistan society is unlikely to take this demand very seriously, but the radicalization of society will be a logical outcome.
The puzzle of ISK poses another major challenge. As an ideological extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it draws from the most extremist cadres of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. It is worth remembering that ISK has conducted some of the most devastating attacks in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, surviving in the face of U.S. airstrikes, counterterrorism operations by Pakistan, and ideological rivalry with the Afghan Taliban.
The Taliban are likely to push back hard against ISK, but as they know well, ISK is capable of conducting their own terror operations, as evident from their recent suicide attack at the Kabul airport entrance. ISK can pursue targeted killings of Taliban leaders and disrupt the Taliban project. To push ISK back, the Taliban have to be cognizant of their ideological base, and may return to their more radical activities to dampen attraction for ISK. By extension, if Taliban leaders start sounding too “moderate” in their approach, it is the hardcore fighters who will start defecting and boosting ISK cadres. Taliban’s primary claim to legitimacy is its ideological outlook, and last time they ruled Afghanistan, they earned political capital from being seen as deliverers of swift justice – crude justice! Difference of opinion was interpreted as a sin and minorities were brutally crushed. Music was banned and historical monuments were destroyed. Can they disown their past without categorically distancing themselves from those policies?
It also comes down to governance capabilities and living up to people’s expectations about their basic needs. Let’s admit a hard fact: The international community failed Afghanistan time and again. In the case of U.S. tax dollars alone, what exactly do we have to show for our one trillion dollars? Yes, al-Qaeda was dismantled from Afghanistan, a new military was raised (hard to locate today) and, to an extent, a new generation of Afghans with hopes of a bright and peaceful future were empowered (mostly those living in urban centers).
But building sustainable and accountable institutions requires much more. Can the Taliban do it differently and more efficiently? Can they govern Afghanistan better? It’s quite unlikely. How will they tell their rank and file that now that they are in government they plan to “moderate” their views about religious ideals and values? It will be a daunting task, but for many in the region and globally, it will be the Taliban’s defiance and rigidity that will be seen as inspiring and worth emulating. For the Taliban to be successful, they will have to give up being the Taliban. That’s a very hard ask!
We must also recognize that shifting the lens from guns and graveyards to potential and peace is a burning desire of the people of the region. In the land of poets, mystics, and melodies, peace is not – and cannot – be impossible.