The myth of the ‘moderate’ Taliban
With the last of the US troops about to depart Afghanistan, the Taliban are reported to have captured almost half of the Afghan countryside. They are yet to take over any of the 34 provinces, including Kandahar, where the militant movement began in 1994, but they have established control over major border crossings with Iran, Pakistan and the three Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
For now, the Afghan security forces, by enforcing nightly curfews in 31 provincial capitals and gaining support from anti-Taliban local militias, have been able to contain the Taliban advance. However, there is no indication that the militants will agree to the ceasefire call by all the foreign missions in Kabul.
The recent round of Doha peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives also concluded without a ceasefire agreement. Instead, the Taliban have set the ouster of President Ashraf Ghani as a condition for further talks. The government has responded by saying he will stay as president until the next elections.
It is clear that the Taliban are impatient to fill the security vacuum created by the US troop withdrawal by capturing some Afghan provinces before the approaching winter brings a natural lull in the warfare. That is why they have continued to wage war even while talking peace. But Kabul is still far from the Taliban’s reach.
However, the prospect of the Taliban returning to power in Kabul has revived the all-too-familiar “good Taliban versus bad Taliban” debate. This debate is reminiscent of the time the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s and were viewed as a force for good. However, when a similar Taliban movement started to haunt Afghanistan’s neighbors post-9/11, it was treated as a force for evil.
During the course of the “War on Terror,” some officials and experts sought to make a distinction between “good” Taliban (the Afghan Taliban, which used its tribal areas to attack Afghanistan) and “bad” Taliban (such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which used the same region to carry out terrorist attacks beyond Afghanistan’s borders).
Now, however, the Taliban apologists have replaced the “good” with the “moderate” Taliban to show that they have learned their bitter lesson from the previous misrule and long warfare and are now willing to respect women’s right to work and education, as well as the sovereignty of neighboring states.
The Taliban have indeed opted for diplomacy. They concluded the Doha pact with the US, which has facilitated the American withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years. The Taliban have also publicly declared they will not monopolize the Afghan government like before. To assuage regional security concerns, their leaders have also held talks in Iran and Russia.
The Taliban may pretend to have changed. However, once in power without any checks, they are likely to go berserk like before.
But such assurances are only declaratory in nature. We cannot be certain about the Taliban’s real intentions. Moreover, they have not yet clarified if they are ready to share power under the current Afghan constitution or settle for anything less than the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a violent video of their en masse shooting of rival commandos even after they had surrendered has surfaced on social media.
The Taliban’s intended claims will only be fully tested if or when they return to power. However, last time around, all hell broke loose under the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. In fact, the impending disaster in the war-torn nation was quite visible in the run-up to the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul in 1996.
Having reported the rise of the Afghan Taliban in the mid-1990s, the current media narrative focusing on their moderate outlook or peaceful intent looks similar to what we were being told then: That, after years of mujahedeen infighting, an Afghan movement has finally emerged to ensure lasting peace by enforcing disarmament and the rule of law.
My recollection of time spent with Taliban leaders in Kandahar suggests that this politico-religious militia was quite clear from the start about what it wanted for Afghanistan and its neighborhood: The establishment of an Islamic emirate, to be replicated in Pakistan and other neighboring Muslim states. They were able to capture Kabul by forging unholy alliances and using brute force. Once firmly established in government,
the Taliban stopped deferring to external powers. Then-leader Mullah Omar even refused to accept Saudi Arabia’s plea not to host Osama bin Laden. What happened to the Afghan minorities and women under the Taliban’s rule is a story that we all know very well.
As for the Taliban’s worldview at that time, a discussion with Taliban leaders (who would later occupy important government posts) revealed two underlying senses: A sense of pride, for having defeated the communist Soviet superpower; and a sense of betrayal by the US, the sole capitalist superpower that they intended to defeat. When asked why they collaborated with America, the Taliban leaders would offer Machiavellian reasoning: “We partnered with the lesser evil to destroy the bigger evil. Now we will go after the lesser evil.”
Yes, the Taliban have managed to fight the US-led forces over the past two decades, but without defeating this “lesser evil.” In fact, they have provided America with its much-desired, face-saving exit, allowing Washington to wash its hands of an unwinnable war. What happens in Afghanistan — an aggravated civil war or civil society, particularly women at work, thrown to the wolves once again — is of no consequence to the US. The legitimization of the Taliban movement could, in fact, serve the larger US geopolitical interest of containing China in southwest Asia and troubling its southwestern Xinjiang province.
In such circumstances, the region will face the same dilemma as it did before: It cannot expect to be at peace if Afghanistan is at war or under draconian rule. Let it also be clear: The “moderate Taliban” is a myth, as the militant movement is ideologically rooted in religious bigotry. So, out of power, the Taliban may pretend to have changed. However, once in power without any checks, they are likely to go berserk like before.
- Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who has subsequently served as the Vice Chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.