International Affairs

The New Taliban Regime: Constructive Engagement with Emerging Realities

The world just witnessed the takeover of Afghanistan’s political control by the Taliban and critical conversations have been emerging with regards to the future prospects of the new regime with regards to its governance philosophy within the volatile region and broader international relations.  

The Taliban which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) is an Islamist religious-political movement and military organization in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s ideology has been described as combining an innovative form of Sharia Islamic law based on Deobandi fundamentalism and militant Islamism, combined with Pashtun social and cultural norms known as Pashtunwali as most Taliban are Pashtun tribesmen.

From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban held power over roughly three-quarters of Afghanistan, and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia law. The Taliban emerged in 1994 as one of the prominent factions in the Afghan Civil War and largely consisted of students (Talibs) from the Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan who had been educated in traditional Islamic schools, and fought during the Soviet–Afghan War. Under the leadership of Mohammed Omar, who was the group’s leader from 1996-2001, the movement spread throughout most of Afghanistan, shifting power away from the Mujahideen (guerilla fighters) warlords. The totalitarian Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was established in 1996 and the Afghan capital was transferred to Kandahar. It held control of most of the country until being overthrown after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 following the September 11 attacks.

In the aftermath of the dastard 9/11 terror attacks, the United States (US) intensified its pursuit of Al-Qaeda Leader, Osama Bin Laden and as part of many other strategies, the US invaded Afghanistan, accusing the Taliban of refusing to hand over Bin Laden and providing refuge for Al-Qaeda terrorists. The full force of the American military dislodged the Talibans to the underground and paved the way for an installation of the U.S backed Northern Alliance which entered Kabul (capital city) in November 2001 making the Taliban and their regime to be effectively overthrown.  Later that year, an interim president was named after Afghan groups signed the Agreement on an interim government. Under that agreement, some warlords were named provincial governors, military commanders and cabinet ministers, as are members of the Northern Alliance. In 2004, Afghanistan held a presidential election which was won by Hamid Karzai; who was later re-elected for second term in 2009.

In May 2011, almost a decade after 9/11 attacks, the United States finally succeeded in terminating Osama Bin Laden, who was killed after a raid by US Navy Seals on his hide-out compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Having exerted revenge on the mastermind of the deadliest terror attacks on US soil, the Obama administration announced plans to start formal peace talks with the Taliban and after a disputed election in 2014 where Ashraf Ghani succeeded Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president, the U.S. and NATO (North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation) forces formally ended their combat missions in the country.

In 2015 however, NATO launched its Resolute Support mission to aid Afghan forces. Heavy violence continued as the Taliban stepped up their attacks on Afghan and U.S. forces and civilians, and took over more territory. At the same time, an Afghan ISIS branch also emerges which birthed an era of fresh crisis which erupted in the country as fighting continued between government forces and the Taliban, and attacks attributed to the Taliban and ISIS convulsed the country.

In 2018, seeking ways to end the raging storm in the country, former US President Donald Trump appointed a special representative to negotiate with the Taliban and initiate long-lasting peace-talks.  But after another disputed election in 2019, Ashraf Ghani was re-elected president and he formed a peace negotiating committee in early 2020. That period however witnessed a surge in violence in Kabul with ISIS claiming responsibility for some of these attacks, while others were never claimed. Journalists and rights activists were assassinated. Other targets included maternity hospitals, public centres and schools.

The U.S. and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 29 2020. The two sides agreed on terms including the U.S. withdrawal of troops and the Taliban stopping attacks on Americans. Direct Taliban-Afghan government negotiations begin in Doha in September, but quickly stalled and never resumed in a serious way. In April 2021, US President Joe Biden decided to start the withdrawal of troops from the country; declaring that he is the 4th US commander-in-chief to preside over the Afghan crisis which has gulped money running into trillions of dollars and also claimed many lives of American troops, he stated categorically that he will not pass on the Afghan crisis to a 5th president. By May 2021, after some American troops have been withdrawn, the Talibans started re-emerging and gaining some territory in the Northern region of the country. By July, U.S. troops left the Bagram Airfield which was the key hub for the American war and less than a month after that, the Taliban seized control of key cities and provinces, mostly without a fight. Within days, the only major city not under their control was Kabul and they were coming for it menacingly. President Ghani fled and the government collapsed with the capital coming under Taliban control on August 15. Chaos erupted in the country and a new era of political uncertainty began.

At a press conference on Aug. 17, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid promised an inclusive government, security for aid agencies and embassies and women’s rights to work and go to school all within the group’s interpretation of Sharia law.

With Afghanistan’s capitulation, some blames quickly were thrown at the US government and Biden for the withdrawal but he maintained that the action was in line, and that all its military mission; plus, all evacuations and withdrawal will conclude by end of August. He clarified that the United States did what they went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who perpetrated  the 9/11 attacks and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, while also degrading the terrorist threat to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.  He declared that those objectives have been achieved and there is no need for perpetual occupation of the country. He asserted that the US did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build as that was the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people to decide their future and how they want to run their country.   He disclosed the large number of Afghan military forces which the US has trained and equipped over the last two decades and expressed willingness to continue providing funding and equipment.  

During Taliban’s previous rule, parts of the northeast were held by the Northern Alliance, which largely maintained international recognition as a continuation of the interim Islamic State of Afghanistan. At its peak, formal diplomatic recognition of the Taliban’s government was acknowledged by only three nations: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban have been condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which has resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans. When they held sway, the Taliban and their allies committed massacres against Afghan civilians, denied UN food supplies to 160,000 starving civilians, and conducted a policy of scorched earth, burning vast areas of fertile land and destroying tens of thousands of homes.  They also banned media activities including paintings, photography and movies that depicted people or other living things. They prohibited music using western instruments. They prevented girls and young women from attending school, banned women from working jobs outside of healthcare (male doctors were prohibited from treating women), and required that women be accompanied by a male relative and wear a burka (a long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to feet, worn in public by women in many Muslim countries) at all times when in public and if women broke certain rules, they were publicly whipped or executed. Religious and ethnic minorities were heavily discriminated against during Taliban rule. According to the United Nations, the Taliban and their allies were responsible for 76% of Afghan civilian casualties in 2010, and 80% in 2011 and 2012. The Taliban also engaged in cultural genocide, destroying numerous monuments including the famous 1500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan

In spite of its reassurances of a minor departure from the heinous primitiveness and crude barbarity of the past, the re-emergence of the group has stoked large unrest and palpable fear in the country with many native residents seeking to flee the country instead of being subject to Taliban rule.

After a chaotic start, the pace of evacuations by western countries has increased and since mid-August, the U.S. has evacuated or aided in the evacuation of about 105,000 people on U.S. military and coalition flights and there are still troops and some UN staff, embassy staff and humanitarian aid workers yet to leave. The Taliban have warned that any delay in the withdrawal would cross a “red line” and threatened consequences. Some U.S. officials also expressed concern that the Taliban would lash out at Americans and other foreign nationals still in Afghanistan if the U.S. attempts to change the end of August deadline.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid accused the U.S. of instigating Afghans to leave the country, particularly skilled people, and said they would prevent Afghans from heading to the airport in Kabul but allow foreigners to go. US officials asserted that a threat of a terror attack at the airport was becoming more acute and US diplomats in Kabul warned American citizens to immediately leave several gates into the airport, citing security threats. The risk of potential suicide attacks by Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP also known as ISIS-K (which is ISIS affiliate group in Pakistan & Afghanistan) had already led the US to establish alternative routes to Kabul airport, earlier on in the evacuation operation.

While thousands of Afghans have been gathering at the airport’s gates in recent days in hopes of being evacuated, the frenetic evacuation exercises were already a cause for concern as bomb explosions recently occurred in the precinct of the Kabul Airport with thirteen US service members and at least 150 Afghans killed while hundreds were also wounded. The deadly blasts came as the United States and other Western countries are racing to complete a massive evacuation of their citizens and Afghan allies following the Taliban takeover of the country. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the terror attacks and Biden responded by threatening swift military retaliation against the group

With the new dawn of the Taliban reality settling in, it is expedient for the western nations to critically engage its leadership towards maintaining a level of sanity, law and order while also achieving shared objectives and preventing escalation of terror and ISIS infiltration of the country and region at large.

At the outset of the crisis, the US declared its intention to work with President Ghani and other Afghan leaders in coming together to drive towards a future that the Afghan people want and deserve. The US also assured Ghani that they will continue to provide civilian and humanitarian assistance for the country including speaking out for the rights of women and girls.  Ghani has however been displaced and the Taliban are in control; which was not America’s original thinking when they set in motion series of action to exit the country. But the US and NATO’s gradual pulling-out of troops and its new show of non-involvement in the country’s national affairs saw the Afghan government with the local forces trained by the American military collapsing in dismal fashion; with its inability to resist the Taliban resurgence on its own making a mockery of America’s 20 years occupation of the land.

On July 28, 2021, State Councilor and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the visiting delegation led by head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin. The heads of the Afghan Taliban’s religious council and publicity committee were also on the delegation.

Wang Yi said that China, as Afghanistan’s largest neighbor, has always respected Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, adhered to non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and pursued a friendly policy toward the entire Afghan people. Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people, and its future should be in the hands of its own people. The hasty withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan actually marks the failure of the U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. The Afghan people now have an important opportunity to achieve national stability and development.

Wang Yi pointed out that the Afghan Taliban is an important military and political force in Afghanistan and is expected to play an important role in the country’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process. It expressed hope that the Afghan Taliban will put the interests of the nation first, and hold high the banner of peace talks, set the goal of peace, build a positive image and pursue an inclusive policy. All factions and ethnic groups in Afghanistan should unite as one, truly implement the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” principle, push for early substantive results in the peace and reconciliation process, and independently establish a broad and inclusive political structure that suits Afghanistan’s national realities.

Baradar expressed appreciation for the opportunity to visit China. He said China has always been a reliable friend of the Afghan people and commended China’s just and positive role in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process. He maintained that the Afghan Taliban has the utmost sincerity to work toward and realize peace, stands ready to work with other parties to establish a political framework in Afghanistan that is broadly-based, inclusive and accepted by the entire Afghan people and to protect human rights, especially the rights of women and children. The Afghan Taliban believes that Afghanistan should develop friendly relations with neighboring countries and the international community and will also make its own efforts toward fostering an enabling investment environment.

Unlike most foreign embassies in the Afghan capital, Russia also says its diplomatic mission remains open and it had warm words for the new Taliban rulers. The country’s envoys met Taliban representatives within 48 hours of the takeover and said the Taliban takeover was a reality they had to work with. Moscow’s UN representative Vassily Nebenzia also spoke of a bright future of national reconciliation, with law and order returning to the streets and the end of many years of bloodshed. Despite its willingness to engage with the Taliban, the country is for now staying pragmatic, watching developments and not removing the group from its terror list just yet. The country hopes the Taliban would make good on its promises to restore law and order in the country. The key factors shaping Russia’s policy are regional stability and its own painful history in Afghanistan. It wants secure borders for its Central Asian allies and to prevent the spread of terrorism and drug trafficking.

The US government has been extremely cautious in its public engagement with the Taliban and has severally expressed distrust at the group’s ability and capacity to effectively lead the country peacefully and in accordance with acceptable global norms. But its first desire to seek ways to manage the reality and set a trail for engaging the Taliban was seen when CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) Director, William J. Burns held a secret meeting in Kabul with Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the highest-level face-to-face encounter between the Taliban and the Biden administration since the militants seized the Afghan capital. President Biden dispatched Burns, a veteran of the Foreign Service and the most decorated diplomat in his Cabinet, amid a frantic effort to evacuate people from Kabul international airport in what Biden has called one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history. The US government and the CIA declined to comment on the Taliban meeting, but the discussions are likely to have involved an impending deadline for the U.S. military to conclude its airlift of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies.

Since the Taliban’s takeover of the country, Baradar has maintained a conciliatory tone, saying the militant group is seeking an Islamic system in which all people of the nation can participate without discrimination and live harmoniously with each other in an atmosphere of brotherhood.

The US government has not engaged properly with the Taliban’s leadership given the volatility of the situation, and all discussions so far have been covert, operational and tactical which are focused largely on near-term objectives; more specifically with regards to the ongoing evacuations. The meeting between Burns and Baradar suggests that both sides are being pragmatic and see the need for a dialogue in spite of their well-documented historical differences.

On the Taliban part, they were shunned by the international community when they ruled from 1996 to 2001. They seem to be really seeking international legitimacy this time. They are speaking generally in a softer tone and know that they can’t rule alone. Also, they’re facing an Afghan economy that’s very weak and heavily dependent on assistance from the U.S. and other Western countries. There could be a real risk of economic collapse, security problems, humanitarian crisis, refugees flooding across the border and all sorts of associated drawbacks if any sort of domestic or external war erupts in the country anytime soon. This may force the Taliban to tread more cautiously this time around and cooperate with the US, whether they like it or not. The former toppled Afghan government relied on international aid for 75% of the country’s budget, much of which has now been frozen since the fall of Kabul and the Taliban cannot access almost any of its Central Bank’s $9bn in reserves most of which is held by the New York Federal Reserve

On the US part, it has learnt that it cannot impose a total domestication of its cultures and traditions on an unwilling country. The Afghans have not totally agreed to the US & NATO occupation of their lands and the manner in which they seek to totally foist other western system in trying to take over their country completely from them and that is why the Talibans have been able to survive two decades of extreme clampdown.

If not properly managed, Afghanistan under the new regime of the Taliban is at high risk of being a fertile haven and breeding ground for all manners of multi-dimensional terrorism which has the possibility of wreaking global havoc over the next decade. The dimension which terrorism has presently assumed is more frightening than it was during the first reign of the Taliban; with terror groups now strategically located across coordinated networks from Europe, to the Americas, to the Middle East and in West Africa too. Like the Kabul airport attacks have shown, just few weeks after the Americans suspended their military occupation of the country, deadly signs of wanton terror are already re-appearing. There is a pressing need for the Taliban to show visible resolve and commitment to work within a moderate and civil governance framework which will end its gravitation towards extremist fundamentalism, while also discarding some of its previous harsh Sharia laws especially with regards to press suppression, violation of women rights and opposition to education while also striving towards enthroning a safe, normal and decent society acceptable to its citizens.

It will be in the best interests of the US, and other crucial western countries to give the new regime a benefit of the doubt and effectively work with the Taliban; deploying financial, tactical, and other non-financial resources in achieving some of these objectives with immediate effect. Delay or denial at this crucial juncture could spell series of avoidable global doom and disaster in the nearest future.