The Taliban may have been fighting to regain power for the past 20 years, but having lost most of those who misgoverned Afghanistan the last time around, their cave-dwelling leadership has no idea what to do with a victory that surprised them more than it surprised the outside world. These are people whose organizational experience to date has been planning mass-casualty terrorist attacks against civilians and extorting money from the heroin trade.
Has any organization been more a victim of its own success, squashed between public contempt and sky-high expectations of radical supporters? Sixty percent of Afghans are under 25 and have no memory of a Taliban government or sympathy with its medieval worldview. However, if the group shows a hint of flexibility from its retrogressive principles, many of its fighters will quickly conclude that this isn’t why they fought for 20 years, and defect to psychopaths such as Daesh-Khorasan.
These developments have immense significance for other parts of the Arab and Islamic world, where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda win risks galvanising a new generation of extremists. Governments must rapidly mobilize capabilities to monitor and address such tendencies if we are to avoid a new phase of murderous jihadism. Immediately before the US withdrawal, about 10,000 jihadi fighters from the wider region flooded into Afghanistan. This rate of influx may increase exponentially now the Taliban are in power, bolstering numbers of Al-Qaeda and Daesh-aligned fighters already buttressed by mass prison breakouts.
Are the Muslim world and the West ready to counter such dangerous tendencies this time around? The Gulf states have advanced immeasurably over the past 20 years, in a manner that makes it immensely more difficult for jihadists to find recruits and sources of funding. However, in every street in every town, naive and angry young men are easy prey for lies about the glorious and heroic opportunities of “global jihad” – when the gory reality is savage violence against the innocent, exploitation by terrorists, and the participant’s brutal and untimely death.
Former Saudi diplomat and intelligence chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal has slammed these unforced American errors, noting that after Trump did a deal with the Taliban it was “inevitable” that the Afghan government would implode. He slammed the “incompetence” with which the withdrawal was carried out, and the dangerous consequences of billions of dollars worth of US weapons falling into terrorist hands.
Western officials debate how best to encourage the Taliban to fight Daesh-K, yet these are just different heads of the same fundamentalist hydra
Just as Trump’s 2016 victory provided a shot in the arm for populist authoritarian despots worldwide, the Taliban’s re-emergence will reinvigorate the exhausted, shop-soiled model of political theocracy, with all the inevitable regressive consequences for women’s rights, civil freedoms and competent governance. While citizens need bread, hospitals and functioning banks, acolytes of Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada are tussling over theocratic principles of governance, and who gets the nicest offices. Akhundzada himself is an excellent advocate for education and youth opportunities, having encouraged his own son down the path of becoming a suicide bomber.
There is nothing more repulsive than a supposedly religious organization hopelessly corrupted by power. Just as a scandalous two-thirds of Iran’s state budget is siphoned off to opaque slush-fund theocratic foundations for super-rich ayatollahs while citizens starve, the minuscule state funds available in Afghanistan will not go to those in need. This is an organization whose first priorities after capturing Kabul were seizing lists from the Interior Ministry of those who worked with the Americans, and painting over images of women in cosmetics and clothes shop windows.
Western officials debate how best to encourage the Taliban to fight Daesh-K, yet these are just different heads of the same fundamentalist hydra. Leading figures in Daesh-K are former Taliban hardliners. Groups such as the Haqqani Network and Imam Bukhari Jamaat maintain tight connections with Daesh-K and Al-Qaeda. Notorious terrorist kingpins such as Osama bin Laden’s security chief Amin Al-Haq are already congregating in Kabul. Daesh-K, Al-Qaeda and Islamist states such as Iran, Qatar, Turkey and Pakistan are playing different Taliban factions off against each other in order to exploit divisions and cultivate allies.
With $9.4bn in Afghan currency frozen in the US, some speculate that the Taliban can be controlled by judiciously wielding aid money. But the Taliban has never been short of funds. Aside from support from Pakistan’s security services, the Taliban earned up to $83.4 million a year just from taxing fuel and transit goods from Iran — more than twice the $40 million value of the opium trade. With Iran profiting from the opportunity to circumvent US sanctions, such mutually beneficial criminal activities may explain why relations between Tehran and the Taliban have thawed considerably.
The earthshaking aftershocks of the Taliban takeover will be much more expensive and problematic than the relatively modest costs of retaining foreign forces in Afghanistan. Western attempts to withdraw small numbers of troops from Syria, Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa will likewise result in terrorist and rogue-state entities gaining supremacy.
When prominent, experienced voices in global diplomacy concur that the consequences of these developments will be catastrophic on a global scale, and may even ultimately compel the international community to return to Afghanistan in the near future, we should be deeply worried.
Throughout modern history, periods of Western isolationism have always terminated with hasty (and often disastrous) bouts of interventionism when chaos inevitably erupts in neglected areas of the world. What we really need is a mature new international doctrine on the need for vigilant involvement in the world, through vigorously supporting competent governance, developmental projects and environmental protection, and countering extremist tendencies before they get out of control.
Joe Biden desperately hopes that US voters with microscopic attention spans will have long-since forgotten the horrific scenes from Afghanistan before the next US elections. Unfortunately for him, the horrors emerging from Afghanistan are only just beginning.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.