Monday, November 29, 2021

Old Wine in New Bottles: The Myth of the "New" Taliban and Strength of its Islamic Emirate

When the Taliban effortlessly occupied Kabul this past August 15th, it appeared as if they would finally be in control of Afghanistan after a 20-year conflict with the United States and its NATO allies.  Combined with the collapse of the Western sponsored Afghan government and the chaotic withdrawal of the final contingent of US troops, the Taliban seemed poised to finally establish their Islamic Emirate. 


After 3 months of Taliban rule, the situation in Afghanistan appears quite different.  International aid, which has supported the country, has all but dried up.  Meanwhile, the Afghans are facing a bleak winter with 95% of the population expected to face food shortages, some of which will be very severe. Government employees have either been paid sporadically or not at all. With 80% of Afghanistan’s electricity imported from Iran and Tajikistan and the Taliban unable to pay for it, the economy faces a potential dire energy shortage. 


A key Taliban selling point has been that, unlike the US and its Western allies, and the former Afghan government, it could offer the Afghan populace a secure environment devoid of conflict.   As we have seen, a more radical Taliban splinter faction known as ISIS-K (the Islamic State – Khorasan Emirate) has mounted a number of attacks on. mosques, a hospital and Taliban troops.  Most ISIS-K members are former Taliban who feel the movement has lost its radical edge.  


Where is Afghanistan at present under Taliban rule?  What happened to undermine the movement’s optimism when it first seized power?  Where is the country heading under its new leaders?  And what happened to the so-called “new” Taliban which, after taking power, assured the Afghan people and the international community that it had changed and would institute an inclusive form of rule and not return to the repressive gender politics which it pursued when in power between 1996 and 2001? 


Bluntly put, Taliban rule thus far has been a disaster with nothing “new” to distinguish it from its older incarnation.  Public executions and floggings may have disappeared.  However, little else indicates that the Taliban will be able to rule Afghanistan in anything other than a repressive and exclusionary manner. 

Ideology trumps reality 

Despite potentially having access to $9 billion in currency reserves held in US banks, the Taliban has chosen to severely limit government positions to the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara minorities, thus breaking it promise to form an inclusive government.  Even where members of minorities have been appointed, their positions are politically marginal because they lack any meaningful power. 


Gender politics has regressed to the same status it had under former Taliban rule. Women are only allowed to attend school through the sixth grade and can no longer be taught by male instructors.  Women have been largely excluded from their former government employment.  Female judges are in hiding in fear of their lives.  When Afghan women peacefully demonstrated against the new Taliban government demanding their rights to education and government employment, they were met with violence. Thus, how has the so-called “new,” more “inclusive” Taliban changed since 2001? 


The truth is that Taliban rule has little to do with Islam and everything to do with imposing a highly repressive and misogynistic ideology on Afghanistan.  The exclusively male and overwhelmingly Pashtun movement is driven by tribal norms parading as “Islam.”  In the view of its members, women should not be empowered through education. Instead, they should remain in the home and not participate in the public sphere, except for a few areas of employment where they are needed, e.g., as teachers of young girls and nurses who attend to women patients. 

Radical versus more radical ideology 

For the minority of Taliban officials who support a more open form of rule, even if to only gain access to foreign aid, they face a quandary.  If the Taliban relaxes its policies on women and access to education, and opens the society to Western culture, such as through social media, it opens the government to even more attacks by ISIS-K that it has foresworn its ideology.  With Taliban already switching their allegiance to ISIS-K, the government can ill afford to lose more of its traditional support. 


Thus, the Taliban is reaping the backlash of its more than 2 decades of inculcating in its members, the evils of Western culture and Westernization.  It is now almost impossible for the current Taliban political elite to back pedal and adopt more moderate views, especially when faced by a radical insurgency which views it as treasonous.  Add to this problem the financial catastrophe facing Afghanistan, and we see a set of rulers with few policy options to address the serious challenges which have arisen since the Taliban seized power. 


No help from its neighbors – the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or the Islamic Republic of Iran 

For the 20 years since the Taliban was deposed by the United States, neighboring Pakistan has provided a safe haven for its fighters.  Indeed, many Pakistanis have lauded the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.  However, talk is cheap and Pakistan is experiencing a major financial crisis caused by global inflation die to the Covid-19 pandemic, including a sharp rise in energy costs. 

Not only is Pakistan suffering from serious inflation, but the ruling political coalition, headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan is threatened with collapse.  Thus, there are no circumstances now or in the foreseeable future in which Pakistan will be able to come to the financial rescue of the Taliban. 

To the West, Iran has expressed its support for the Taliban victory.  However, the Tehran regime is still suspicious that many Taliban harbor hostility towards the country’s Shici Hazara minority.  Indeed, ISIS-K has called for the extermination of all Shica in Afghanistan. 

Iran, like Pakistan, is suffering economically.  International sanctions imposed by the West have dealt a serious blow to its ability to supply the Iranian populace with a wide variety of commodities and services.  Thus, no financial help can be expected to be forthcoming from the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.