Have the Taliban changed?


By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

IN resisting for 20 years and forcing the third great power of our times to negotiate a peace deal and quit, the Taliban have achieved remarkable success, unprecedented in the history of modern insurgencies. It is very different in many ways even from Vietnam, in that it had its government in the north, maintained regular and guerrilla armed forces and had international backing from communist states and parties. Taliban skilfully forced the United States to exclude their puppet government in Kabul from the peace deal in February 2020 and sign the agreement directly with them as a party in the conflict. There was no commitment to cease-fire or any time frame for another peace agreement between the Taliban and the Kabul government. What is being revealed now and becoming more apparent when the American and allied forces evacuate their citizens and the Afghans who worked for them is that America’s intelligence had wrong estimates of the capacity of the political order and the security institutions of Afghanistan in the raising of which they had invested a colossal sum of $144 billion.
US intelligence, perhaps the largest network on the ground, underestimated the social, political and fighting ability of the Taliban once they started pulling out the last of the troops. They were shocked to see Taliban soldiers sweeping the country like a whirlwind in just a week. The security infrastructure with strength of forces at 350,000 proved a house of cards before the advancing Taliban. At the first sight of them, they either surrendered or left their posts in plain clothes, leaving their weapons behind.
The idea in the western press that the ‘forces were demoralized’ seems ignorant of Afghan history as much as the exclusion of the Taliban from the post-Taliban political reconstruction was. Ordinary Afghans have never accepted foreign interventions and have resisted whenever they found a space and opportunity to do so. It is always a different matter for the warlords, lackeys and pawns, as like anywhere, they can be incentivized by offices, power and money to work for the invaders. The Americans either didn’t measure up the weak links between the Afghans on the street and the former warlords and expatriates they had brought into power, or ignored it.

Taliban fighters stand guard along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city.

The Taliban highlighted this disconnect, terming the Kabul government and those affiliated with it nothing but an instrument of American aggression and deadly war on Afghanistan and its people. Even those who were trained and equipped to defend the political order and the government brought the narrative of resistance against foreign occupation– more than their duty to defend ‘democracy’ or a ‘legitimate’ government. This is why Kabul fell without a single gunshot. As Ashraf Ghani ignominiously fled the country, within hours Taliban were seen in the presidential palace.
This explains the inclusive social base of the Taliban and broad political support they have garnered nationwide; this is different from the brand and image they had when they capture Kabul in September 1996. They have negotiated many of the surrender agreements through local elders, ethnic and regional notables. Their fighting force includes other ethnicities as well. It is as much about the political logic of broad alliances and coalitions they have built across ethnic lines as addressing international concerns that they are committing themselves to forming an ‘inclusive’ government. If not as an organization, as the Mujahideen fighters, commanders and Taliban leaders have been interacting with the world community for over four decades. Almost for a decade, they have been meeting world leaders, negotiating deals, attending conferences and socializing with the international elite. They understand better how much post-American Afghanistan needs international support to rebuild and sustain itself. One can estimate dire dependence of the country on western assistance, as 70 percent of its budget support comes from external sources. With their departure from Afghanistan- you may call it a defeat or a debacle- the West has turned its back on the country and its people by imposing sanctions.
They stay open to a possibility of engaging with the Taliban-led government but would like to judge it by its actions. The debate is whether the Taliban will remain the same; ideologically fixated, dogmatic, treating women and minorities as harshly as they did in their first stint in power, or not. My view is the Taliban have changed in many respects as an organization. They sound pragmatic, worldly and recognize facts on the ground. The long struggle has changed them and a larger part of the populations in the towns that they have, benefitted from the war economy and massive investment in reconstruction.
However, while they show warmth, moderation, grant amnesty and plead with government functionaries to resume work, they may not compromise on a religious government and Sharia law. They will stay under the radar, and much will depend on their actions in the near future to convince a skeptical world to consider them a normal government.

(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @RasulRais)