As the dust settles around the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan, a set of questions comes to the fore regarding what a new era of Taliban rule could mean for Western interests.
Recriminations on the limited results of 20 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s botched evacuation will continue. Yet, with most doors closed to righting past missteps, the focus of those concerned with events in Afghanistan has shifted to threats and challenges faced by those who worked with the U.S. or the former Western-backed government. In addition to the danger they face, their predicament worsens the U.S.’ image and ability to recruit allies in other hostile settings.
The Taliban’s return to power raises a longer-term concern of whether the group will allow Afghanistan to become fertile ground for growing international terrorism — a prospect that once again haunts the West 20 years after al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks.
Same Old Taliban?
When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, their harsh enforcement of Sharia law drew international condemnation. Throughout the ’90s, the Taliban not only gave refuge to al-Qaida, its leaders actively coordinated with the group, which assisted in military training. Following the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush offered the Taliban an ultimatum to turn over Osama bin Laden and all al-Qaida operatives in the country. The offer was rebuffed and the invasion that would topple the Taliban from power ensued.
Twenty years after being thrown out of power, some of the Taliban’s rhetoric has softened. In the talks in Doha that negotiated the U.S. departure, the group agreed not to harbor terror organizations. Since taking power, its leading spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has consistently spoken of tolerance for minority groups and plans to re-establish educational options for women.
Yet, many see a disconnect between the Taliban’s statements and reality.
“The cabinet is made up of old-school hardliners, which makes you think that the tiger hasn’t changed its stripes,” said Benjamin Hopkins, history professor and Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University. “What we are watching now is an insurgent group trying to transform itself into a governing entity. History does not give one much faith in their ability to do that.”
The Taliban’s interim government is led by Prime Minister Hasan Akhund, who led the group’s government during its previous rule. One of his two senior deputies is Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founder of the Taliban who held high-ranking positions in the prior Taliban government and was the lead negotiator with the U.S. in Doha. The cabinet’s interior minister is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who headed the Haqqani terror network responsible for many deadly attacks and has a $5 million FBI bounty on his head.
Professor Hopkins said that one factor that could move the Taliban in a more moderate direction, at least in public, is its need for support from the international community.
“The Taliban is desperate to get international recognition, and I think that the lessons they’ve learned from the ’90s show in the language they’re using,” he said. “In the ’90s, the Taliban was very restrictive, but they were accommodating to the U.N. and NGOs to whom they basically subcontracted the real work of governance. They would like to repeat that playbook, and that is why they are so keen on recognition.”
Formal recognition by the U.S. or other Western countries is off the table for now, and even the Taliban’s closest ally, Pakistan, has yet to officially establish ties. Still, the group is engaged in talks with several nations, most prominently Russia and China. Professor Hopkins added that for well over a century, world powers profited from Afghanistan while subsidizing its basic needs and that the model was unlikely to change.
Several international groups, including the U.N., confirm that opening Afghanistan to foreign aid is crucial as the country faces a looming humanitarian crisis in the coming months that could bring severe shortages of food, water, medicine and other essentials.
Another factor that might force the Taliban to moderate is the changed nature of the Afghan populace, with a young generation that grew up largely under a Western-backed government.
Even with this constellation of factors pushing for more pragmatic Taliban leaders to take a cautious approach to ruling, it might not be easy for the group to reposition itself.
“In the mid- and late ’90s, the Taliban benefited from a lack of international viability or pressure on the harsh methods they governed with. Now they crave international recognition and there are pragmatic voices in their leadership,” said Joseph Campbell, policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and former Defense Department advisor on Afghanistan. “Part of the transition they are going through now is figuring out a balancing act of gaining legitimacy without isolating their core constituency of Islamists. Even China and Russia want assurances that the Taliban will stem extremism, but how to do that while keeping their ties to internationally minded terror organizations and protecting their reputation for a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is going to be difficult.”
One early sign that softened public statements from the Taliban fall short in practice are the numerous reports of threats facing those who aided the U.S. or former Afghan government who were left behind in the country after the close of the American evacuation.
“Everyone is forgiven … All of them have been pardoned. Nobody is going to be treated with revenge,” said Taliban spokesman Mujahid shortly after the group took power. “In your homes, nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors, nobody is going to interrogate you.”
Despite those assurances, reports of Taliban fighters and others in Afghanistan hunting and, in some cases, killing those viewed as traitors abound.
Professor Hopkins said that his sources in Afghanistan confirm these stories.
“The killings are accurate, and the Taliban are the ones doing it,” he said.
The United Nations’ human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, cited multiple incidents of house-to-house searches. In some cases individuals were detained and intimidated; in others they were beaten or killed.
“The Taliban are trying to play down any stories suggesting they are taking revenge for having associated with the previous government or, of course, the U.S. military, but we know that these people are being targeted,” said Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies for the Middle East Institute. “A lot more people who might not feel threatened now are afraid that they will be once the international community’s eyes come off Afghanistan; revenge killings will become much more in practice.”
Multiple media outlets reported stories of judges who worked under the former government being hunted and threatened by Taliban fighters and members of other Islamist groups. In many cases, hunters include the very criminals they sentenced, who are now roaming free after the Taliban emptied many of the nation’s jails. A Business Insider article interviewed several judges who said they are switching hideouts daily to avoid falling into the hands of those seeking revenge. Particular attention has been paid to the plight of more than 200 female judges who face additional danger. A BBC interview with six women judges described the daily barrage of death threats from freed criminals.
Some Taliban leaders acknowledged that revenge killings have taken place and that some have been at the hands of the group’s fighters, yet they insist that these actions are not sanctioned by central authorities in Kabul. On September 23, Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi tweeted that “everyone needs to follow the Islamic Emirate’s amnesty and refrain from acting individually [to settle scores].”
The phenomenon has called into question how much control the Taliban government has over its fighters or provincial authorities around the country operating in their name.
Mr. Campbell said that the ongoing threats and killings might reveal a lack of centralized power, but more so that it pointed to tensions in the Taliban’s public positioning.
“The Taliban is being collectively circumspect and weighing how to publicly criticize abuses or whether to advocate for further abuses,” he said.
Another blot on the U.S.’ withdrawal are reports that despite guarantees, many Afghans eligible for the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) are having their exit from the country blocked by the Taliban.
After the U.S.’ evacuation ended, a State Department official acknowledged in a private briefing reported by Politico that “the majority” of SIV applicants and holders were left behind in Afghanistan. Even as the airlift was in progress, in many cases Taliban checkpoints would only allow foreign passport holders to reach the Kabul airport, trapping Afghans who aided the U.S. behind. Now that the American presence in the county has ceased entirely, SIV holders have found their attempt to leave doubly challenging as the Taliban in many instances blocks their efforts to emigrate.
Dr. Weinbaum said that the people the Taliban wants to keep behind are likely those who are most desperate to leave.
“[The Taliban] is concerned about brain drain and want to keep the professionals that worked with the former government and with the U.S.,” he said. “But those people are part of a new generation, and the Taliban is culturally alien to them. On top of that, they see the economy collapsing, and once that happens there won’t be any way for them to earn a living.”
Fertile Ground for Terrorists
With the Taliban back in control, there is acute fear that it will return to its pre-9/11 status as a breeding ground for international terror.
Al-Qaida still operates cells in Afghanistan, and a list of newer groups has emerged as stiff competition. Following its bombing at the Kabul airport, the world’s cognizance heightened regarding Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K). The group first expanded into the region in 2015, around the same time ISIS fighters gained world attention for the group’s ascendance in Iraq and Syria. Since then, it branded itself as a purer version of the Jihadist cause than the Taliban. The Taliban has consistently fought against IS-K and at one point basically defeated them, but over the past year, they have emerged once again as a formidable terror force.
Several other terror organizations dot Afghanistan, including the Tehrick-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and a collection of other jihadists, some with local or global ambitions and other focused on attacking India or China.
Other terror organizations have a history of ties to the Taliban, most prominently the Haqqani Network, which itself has been long connected to al-Qaida.
Dr. Weinbaum did not think that the Taliban had interest in promoting international terror but that the various groups in the country have a wide range of goals.
“The international terror threat is more of a mid- to long-term concern. Right now the Taliban has enough on its hands, and involvement with foreign attacks would only make their job harder. But the question of whether they will facilitate some of them in the coming months or years is very real,” he said. “Some of these groups are aimed at Pakistan, others at Iran or China; the TTP, which is the best organized, has already raised its level of violence in tribal areas. Some of them are at odds with the Taliban, but a lot of them have ties with them that it is hard to imagine the Taliban cutting.”
While the Taliban might have an interest in reigning in rival groups and assuring nations like Russia and China that they will prevent terror threats beyond Afghanistan’s borders, the extent to which the group is equipped to do so is an open question. Such decisions are also likely to create a dilemma for Taliban leaders fearful that combating Islamist terror could erode its pedigree with hardline Islamists.
An additional fear is that perceptions of a moderate Taliban combined with social and economic pressures could drive the groups’ fighters to IS-K or other harder-line rivals.
“The Taliban had guys running around the county killing people. Now you’re asking them to stand at a corner and direct traffic. Especially if the Taliban runs short on money and can’t pay them, these people can easily be recruited by other groups,” said Dr. Weinbaum.
The Biden administration argued that while present, the terror threat in Afghanistan could be managed with “over-the-horizon” tactics, mostly a reference to airborne reconnaissance and strikes.
Yet even before the U.S. left Afghanistan, a drone strike aimed at IS-K apparently hit the wrong target, killing at least 10 innocent people. Many pointed to the incident as a clear example of the limits of exclusive reliance on such counter-terrorism tactics.
“I am very skeptical of this use of the over-the-horizon concept,” said Mr. Campbell. “The U.S. has many resources that can be mobilized, but the idea that these methods can serve as a replacement for a few thousand U.S. forces dedicated to counter-terrorism is highly questionable.”
Another argument for the Afghan withdrawal used by President Joseph Biden was that Afghanistan poses no greater threat for growing terror than states like Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. While threats are not lacking in other locations, Mr. Campbell felt that Afghanistan offered unique opportunities for terrorists.
“Afghanistan’s economy has little to offer and its border region with Pakistan has been a prime location for terror groups to recruit and operate for decades. The Taliban’s security apparatus has many powerful sympathizers who, even if not willing to publicly support international terror, are ready to use other groups as proxies,” he said. “I would not go so far yet to predict that it will go back to where it was in the ’90s, because there is more international attention, and the Taliban has some interest in international recognition. But if I were a leading voice in an extremist organization, I would start looking into Afghanistan.”