The Taliban’s new lows show they haven’t changed 
7 Apr 2022|

As the world is grappling with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the tragedy that has beset the Ukrainian people, it’s important that we don’t forget the ongoing human-made crises in other parts of the globe. One of them is that of Afghanistan under the rule of the Pakistan-backed and al-Qaeda-allied Taliban, whose draconian behaviour hasn’t changed since they last ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001, before being toppled by the United States and its Afghan allies.

Prior to reassuming power eight months ago, the Taliban were painted as the ‘New Taliban’ by the former US envoy for Afghanistan, Afghan American Zalmay Khalilzad. He negotiated the US–Taliban peace agreement of February 2021 that facilitated the American, NATO and non-NATO allies’ withdrawal and paved the way for the Taliban’s return to power.

In several interviews with Afghan media, Khalilzad justified his conclusion of the peace deal on the grounds that the Taliban had changed, acknowledging their past mistakes on women’s education, the group’s standing in the world, and their links to other groups such as al-Qaeda.

Two Pakistani scholars, Huma Baqai and Nausheen Wasi, have lately affirmed and expanded on that view. In Pakistan–Afghanistan relations: pitfalls and the way forward, they state: ‘The new Taliban appear more pragmatic and politically savvy. They are displaying political acumen which is refreshing and raises hope for the better. Many confidence building measures have been initiated to cultivate domestic and international support.’ This is also a perspective that is pushed by Islamabad.

These views couldn’t be further from the truth. Since seizing power, the Taliban have proved to be as theocratic a cluster as ever. They have done nothing that could persuade most of Afghanistan’s mosaic population and, for that matter, the international community that they are less absolutist and discriminatory than before.

In contrast to some of their leaders’ earlier assertions that they would form an inclusive government, respect human rights and especially women’s and girls’ rights to education, work and participation in public life, they have failed to take any positive steps. Their persistence with an interpretation and application of Islam that relies on a perverted form of Salafism or Deobandism for power consolidation amounts to an abuse of the religion. They have remained firmly exclusionary and repressive, with no intention of building a participatory system of governance and respecting human rights. As is also reported, they have not severed their ties with al-Qaeda, which has forged cells in at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

As a cluster hailing predominantly from the Ghilzai tribe of ethnic Pashtuns, who have historically formed about 42% of Afghanistan’s population, the Taliban have enacted draconian decrees and rules to treat females as social outcasts. They have ignored the Islamic emphasis on acquisition of knowledge as the right of all Muslims. Women are not allowed to travel more than 67 kilometres from their locality or board planes without lawful male chaperones. Freedom of expression, broadcast and congregation is severely curtailed. This has been accompanied by beating, detaining and punishing women who have publicly protested for their rights, and journalists and intellectuals whom the Taliban have deemed undesirable. Ostracisation, marginalisation and killing of some of those who served the previous government and ethnic minorities, the Hazaras and Panjshiris in particular, as well as house-to-house searches for detaining suspected opposition and confiscating weapons have become the order of the day.

Meanwhile, the factional split between Taliban leaders who come from the southern province of Kandahar and those who hail from the eastern provinces has weighed in favour of the latter, which are run by the dreadful Haqqani network. This group that controls Kabul has been closely linked to al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. It is led by the interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the FBI’s wanted list. Many other cabinet members, including Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund, are on the United Nations’ blacklist.

Yet, while the Afghan people are in a dire economic and financial situation, with half facing starvation, Pakistan has not been deterred from maintaining its full backing of the Taliban. The Chinese and Russians are heavily leaning towards forging close ties with them as an anti-US measure. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the Chinese foreign minister and a Russian delegation, headed by Moscow’s envoy for Afghanistan, concurrently visited Kabul on 24 March for wide-ranging talks with Taliban leaders.

Whatever the political game of Beijing, Moscow and Islamabad, it is incumbent on the West and indeed the international community not to lift their focus from Afghanistan in view of the Ukrainian and other crises in the world. If left unrestrained, the Taliban’s rule is not of the nature to build a viable political order and generate a widely acceptable functioning state in the face of a population who have historically proven to be divided and rebellious. Various armed opposition groups have already started guerrilla operations against the Taliban and they can only gain strength should the Taliban fail to change their ways. This is something that the Taliban’s main patron, Pakistan, and other outside receptive actors, especially China and Russia, need to realise.