Afghanistan, the Taliban and the legacy of 9/11
11 Sep 2023|

Once again, the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks reminds us of not only that tragic event, but also two other momentous developments in the history of Afghanistan and the United States: the assassination of the famed Afghan nationalist and progressive Islamist commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, and America’s retaliatory intervention in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and its Taliban harbourers, which eventually failed, enabling the extremist Taliban to regain power after two decades of fighting. These events entailed massive implications for Afghanistan, the US, the region and beyond.

Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the US were unprecedented. So too was America’s intervention in Afghanistan. The US action, backed by NATO and non-NATO allies, as the first salvo in what was declared a ‘war on terror’, was aimed at transforming a highly traditional and conflict-ravaged Afghanistan into a stable and secure state with a functioning democratic system of governance.

As a leading commander of the Islamic resistance forces or the mujahideen, Massoud fought the Soviet occupiers and their surrogate communist government in Kabul. Following the defeat of the Soviets and the collapse of their installed administration in 1992, Massoud led his forces in taking power. He did it not for himself but because he wanted the mujahideen groups to establish a viable, progressive Islamist government to ensure Afghanistan’s transformation into a sovereign, independent, self-sustaining and prosperous state.

For his successes, the conservative Wall Street Journal described him, following 9/11, as the figure on whose back the West won the Cold War. More recently, in a detailed study of Massoud’s vision and actions, the renowned British journalist Sandy Gall called him ‘Afghan Napoleon’ in his book under the same title, hailing him as an ardent nationalist and reformist.

Massoud was fully cognisant of the mosaic composition of Afghanistan and the prevalence of ethno-tribal and sectarian traditionalism. Moderate Islam had historically influenced the landscape but had not bridged its social and cultural cleavages. Massoud was committed to instituting a publicly mandated, all-inclusive and united system of governance and shunned any form of supremacy of one ethnic, tribal or sectarian group over another.

Yet, he wasn’t infallible, and nor was he capable of meeting the deep-seated challenges posed by the complexities of Afghanistan and its neighbourhood. His vision for a stable and inclusive nation was seriously challenged, as different forces, backed by the country’s neighbours, predominantly Pakistan, for conflicting regional interests, bid for power. Afghanistan was plunged into internecine conflict, with the capital Kabul bearing the brunt. In the process, all warring parties, including some of Massoud’s fighters, committed massive human rights violations—something that the commander couldn’t prevent despite all his wishes to the contrary.

The rise of the Pakistan-orchestrated, ultra-extremist Taliban from late 1994 brought its own challenges. The Taliban’s success in fighting and buying their way in drove Massoud from Kabul but couldn’t divert him from pressing on with his vision for the country. He regrouped and fought the new phenomenon, ensuring that the Taliban didn’t gain writ over all of Afghanistan and that the first Islamic mujahideen government under President Burhannudin Rabbani remained Afghanistan’s internationally recognised government.

He was, nonetheless, a marked man. He tried to warn the world—and, more importantly, a complacent America—about the rise of terrorism from Afghanistan, but was assassinated by two al-Qaeda agents just prior to 9/11. Al-Qaeda’s attacks compelled the US to intervene in Afghanistan—a country that US President Richard Nixon had described in 1958 as ‘unconquerable’.

Washington’s hunt for Osama bin Laden and its entanglement of Afghanistan’s campaign with President George W. Bush’s wider war on terrorism and promotion of democracy placed Afghanistan on a rocky course of change and development. It prolonged and deepened US and allied involvement in Afghanistan. The war on terror led to the US invasion of Iraq and a shift of American resources away from Afghanistan, and democratisation spawned incompetent and kleptocratic governments under presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani.

These leaders failed the people of Afghanistan, depriving the US and its allies of an effective and reliable partner on the ground. In addition, the US’s lack of understanding of Afghanistan and its neighbourhood meant that it couldn’t pursue an appropriate strategy. In a fashion typical of a big power losing a small war, it too failed the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban and their supporters could not have wished for anything more.

The US and its allies finally decided to extract their forces from an unwinnable war. Based on the infamous February 2020 US–Taliban peace agreement, under the impulsive President Donald Trump, America, along with its allies, started a total troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. They did so in return for nothing—not even a universal ceasefire, let alone a viable political settlement of the Afghanistan conflict.

Afghanistan was offered on a platter to the Taliban and their outside backers. President Joe Biden simply, though very poorly, completed the process, opening the gate for the Taliban to declare their self-styled, ultra-extremist theocratic order under a leadership group many of whose members are still on the UN black list with some wanted by the FBI.

And so the Taliban once again instated their reign of terror, targeting women and others who opposed their oppressive rule. After two decades of liberalist-inclined changes in Afghanistan under the US-led NATO watch, when an educated and well-connected young Afghan generation had begun emerging with hopes for a better future, all those changes were reversed.

Afghanistan is undergoing an unprecedented dark time economically, financially, socially and culturally. It has become a pariah and gender-apartheid state with a massive humanitarian crisis.

The order that the Taliban have sought to institute in the name of Islam is in a class of its own. It is led by leaders and commanders who have been schooled in an extremely narrow version of Islam. The regime’s self-styled brand of Islam is not practiced in any other Muslim majority country. Its actions set it apart even from Iran, where despite hijab restrictions, girls and women can get an education, work and participate in affairs of the state and society at different levels.

The Taliban’s behaviour has been in total contrast to Massoud’s ideal and vision. However, not all is lost. Massoud’s legacy has been taken up by his young but strategically savvy son, Ahmad Massoud, who now leads the National Resistance Front against the Taliban, along with several other resistance groups that have bourgeoned over the past two years. He and the NRF claim to stand for a just and democratic transformation of Afghanistan as a responsible, constructive, multiethnic and progressive sovereign Islamist state.

The NRF’s leadership is based in Tajikistan, but its fighters have been battling the Taliban in hit-and-run guerrilla operations in several north and northeastern provinces. Neither the NRF nor any other resistance forces, such as the Afghanistan Freedom Front and the Afghanistan Islamic National and Liberation Movement, are at this stage materially backed by any outside power. Their capability remains limited, although it is growing as the Taliban’s repressive rule extends.

They lack sufficient coordination and unity. The fight against the Taliban is expected to be long and arduous. It is important to note that for the first time in history an erstwhile terrorist group has reassumed power, in possession of US$7.2 billion worth of arms, including an air force, left behind by the US and its allies.

The Taliban, while lacking in both domestic and international legitimacy, are not a coherent entity. Serious personality and ideological divisions exist among them. On one side is the Haqqani group, led by Sarajjudin Haqqani, who hail mostly from eastern Afghanistan; on the other is the core Taliban group emanating from Kandahar in the south, who include Mullah Baradar and Defence Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The Haqqani leaders have voiced occasional dissatisfaction with the Kandahar-based leadership of Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, who is supposedly the absolute amir and commander-in-chief of the regime and who has proven to be as hardline and reclusive as his predecessor, Mullah Omar. In all, the Taliban’s rule and the interests of their Pakistani supporters are not based on firm and enduring foundations, as was the case with previous regimes in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are neither prone to change nor united among themselves to embrace an enlightened Islam. It is imperative for the West to support the anti-Taliban resistance until such time as they negotiate for a nationally and internationally legitimate and participatory system of governance and a sovereign united Afghanistan, with respect for human rights and the rights of women. Whatever the circumstances, the struggle for the soul of Afghanistan is set to continue.