Tim Marshall

Does anybody believe what the Taliban tell us?

The new rulers of Afghanistan promise they have changed, but this seems unlikely


Men adjust the Taliban flag before the arrival of Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid (unseen) to address the first press conference in Kabul on August 17, 2021 following the Taliban stunning takeover of Afghanistan. (Photo by Hoshang Hashimi / AFP) (Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images)

August 26, 2021 18:38

The old Taliban saying? “You have the watches, but we have the time”. Now it’s us who must wait. We wait to see if Taliban 2.0 is different, or if its leadership’s exposure to PR while in exile in Qatar taught it that the West likes to hear rational statements about learning from mistakes and tends to believe them.

It matters, and not just for the Afghans. If this is 2.0, then within its interpretation of sharia law, the Talban might allow some vestiges of freedom, and even allow girls to read and write. It could also mean it will not seek to spread its violence across the borders of its six neighbours, nor give shelter to al-Qaeda.

The track record of despotic regimes honouring cheap talk is not good. A quick glance next door to Iran and the assurances given by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 is a case in point. A close eye on possible negative scenarios may be prudent. And rational.

Taliban 1.0 enjoyed killing Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara community so much that it managed to murder 8,000 of them in just one year (1998) in Mazar-i-Sharif alone. The ideology behind such psychotic violence is unlikely to have been diluted much in just two decades. Shia-dominated Iran wants stability on its border, but will act, probably clandestinely, if the Hazara are threatened. Heading clockwise round the map, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have their own jihadist groups and fear that the Taliban will give them assistance. Russia is moving to reinforce relations with the Central Asian Republics, to deny the Americans a foothold there and create a buffer to prevent radical Islamist ideology from strengthening in the Caucuses.

Next is China. Its border with Afghanistan is in Xinjiang province, home to the repressed Uighur Muslim population. Unconcerned with despotic forms of government or human rights abuses, China may be the first country to recognise the new order. That should be enough of a carrot for the Taliban to keep the border quiet and, unless there is a civil war, to invite China in to hoover up Afghanistan’s rare earth materials.

Many in the Pakistan government view the Taliban victory with glee but it could come back to bite them. Elements within the intelligence services have supported the Taliban for decades to have a friendly government in Afghanistan and prevent Indian influence there. But the Taliban are overwhelming ethnically Pashtun and have strong relationships with the Pakistan Taliban in the Pashtun regions across the border. The danger now is that the Afghan Talibs may not feel beholden to Islamabad, but instead help their cousins next door and threaten Pakistan itself.

Harder to quantify, but very real, is the inspiration that the defeat of the Americans and their allies is giving to jihadist groups in the Middle East and Africa. The lesson drawn is that the Americans have the kit but not the will to keep their promises. Therefore, the jihadist ideologues can tell recruits that their faith is stronger than the unbelievers and point to Afghanistan as proof. All you must do is keep fighting and the territory will be yours. This argument has already been made to Palestinian groups and is heard in Jordan and beyond.

Some of the intended audience for this call to arms will head to Afghanistan if, as feared, it again becomes a safe space in which to train and then use to project violence. The Taliban says it will not shelter al-Qaeda. Many experts are sceptical, and it’s thought the Taliban has assured al-Qaeda (AQ) that they remain allies. The Haqqani network within the Taliban coalition is thought to still harbour AQ fighters within its ranks. The moral code of the Pashtunwali (The Way of the Pashtun) includes guidance about unconditional hospitality for guests. The Taliban also share some of the same ideological values as al-Qaeda, making it difficult for them to break ties. It doesn’t mean they won’t; switching allegiances is another hallmark of warfare in Afghanistan, and has been for centuries. But the Taliban in Qatar (and now Kabul) can say one thing to the media and foreign governments, but do the opposite in most parts of a country which is almost three times the size of the UK.

So let’s wait. And watch. Closely.

August 26, 2021 18:38

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive