Will Taliban change its stripes?

Dhananjay Tripathi

The US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently expressed his anguish over the rise of violence in Afghanistan. On October 24, a terrorist strike on an education centre in Kabul killed 18 people, including schoolchildren. Although the Islamic State took responsibility for the attack, experts are not ruling out the role of the Taliban. This comes at a time when the Afghanistan government is negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban.

Afghanistan is passing through a critical phase. Whatever happens in the next few months will have a long-term impact on its peace and stability. Technically, the peace process is in its phase two. In the first phase, it was an agreement between the Taliban and the US government. At present, discussions are on between the Taliban and Afghan government.

US Legacy

Whenever we think Taliban a picture emerges for us — a fundamentalist organisation once controlling more than half of Afghanistan, harbouring Osama bin Laden and making life difficult for the people, especially women. These images have not faded. The question then is why is the United States of America that fought the Taliban and chased them out of Kabul after 9/11 terrorist strikes, happily negotiating a peace deal.

This is because despite intense involvement for almost two decades, the US failed to defeat the Taliban. The US made several mistakes like getting into the two front wars – in Afghanistan and Iraq. The second on the pretext of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. Even if we overlook these strategic blunders of the US, any long military involvement in a foreign territory is unlikely to get domestic support. Therefore, earlier it was Barack Obama, and now Trump is making efforts to exit Afghanistan.

But what is the legacy the US is leaving behind? Not even the best of experts are sure that peace and stability will return to Afghanistan. Much of this depends on the role of the Taliban.


The Taliban

The word Taliban comes from the Pashto word ‘Talib’, meaning students. Post-Soviet withdrawal, the Mujahedeen split into different groups as per their ethnic/ideological loyalties. With no common agenda that can bring them together, different armed groups started targeting each other to gain political control in Afghanistan

Meanwhile, after defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the West also lost its interest in the country. The US and its allies ignored Afghanistan when it was most required. Afghanistan needed development and stability; on the contrary, it slipped into chaos and poverty. This gave rise to anarchy, and it was during this time that the Taliban came into existence (1994). Under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar, a small group of students decided to implement Islamic rules in Afghanistan and also eliminate different warring factions.

With hopelessness settling deep in Afghanistan due to conflict, the Taliban soon acquired political space, drawing youth into its fold. But the crucial contribution to its combat strength came from Pakistan. Islamabad fully backed the Taliban, and soon it started attracting the attention of other terrorists like bin Laden, who came to Afghanistan in 1996. Within a few years of its formation, the Taliban almost controlled 80% of Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Plan

It is believed that Pakistan started backing the Taliban to meet its own strategic goals, the main being to establish a strong but a puppet regime in the heart of Asia. After Al-Qaida set its base in Afghanistan, several radical Islamic organisations of different countries started reaching out to the Taliban. One cannot forget that Indian Airlines plane IC 814 was hijacked from Kathmandu and hijackers took it to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

After the US invasion of Afghanistan, when the Taliban and Al-Qaida were chased out of Afghanistan, they took refuge in Pakistan. This even when Pakistan was one of the partners of the US in its war against terror. Notably, bin Laden was killed by the US special forces inside the Pakistani territory.

Indian Worry

If the Taliban remains loyal to their handlers, it would be difficult for India. Let’s not forget the fact that over these years when the Taliban faced almost an existential threat, it survived only by support from the Pakistani military and intelligence agency. This is the most significant concern not only for New Delhi but for the whole of South Asia.

There’s evidence to suggest that the ways of the Taliban have not changed when it comes to dealing with adversaries. The Taliban remained opposed to girls’ education; they wanted a strict male-dominated society with almost no rights for women. The Taliban had a reputation for torturing and killing their opponents. This is a fact that in the past the Taliban refused to accept any international norms on war and stood opposed to human rights issues.

The Taliban, during the peace process negotiation, has assured the international community that it will not return to its old and infamous political format and will refrain from committing atrocities. The US is eager to pull out of Afghanistan, and so are its allies. Regional players like Russia, China and Iran do want to keep the US out of the region.

For Pakistan, this is a win-win situation. It is succeeding in bringing the Taliban back to the centre stage of the Afghan power politics through the front door. For India, it is a declared position of non-interference after 2001 and to keep supporting the development projects in Afghanistan. Thus, there is no real obstruction for the Taliban as the international community is willing to take everything at face value.

Changed Taliban?

In the past, the term Taliban was synonymous to brutality, terror and atrocity. The Taliban opposed modernisation and wanted to create an orthodox society based on its interpretation of Islam. Post 9/11, things changed and the international community came forward to end this brutal regime of Afghanistan. Yet the Taliban was never defeated and Pakistan stood firmly behind it.

Today, the US has lost its appetite to be in Afghanistan and wants to pull out. This has made the Taliban the real winner in this long game. It is now negotiating terms with the US and others for its return to mainstream politics. While all these can be considered as a normal part of any conflict resolution, the real worry is what if the Taliban does not change.

Although recent events make us pessimistic about the return of peace in Afghanistan, much will depend on how the Taliban reorients and dedicates itself to the welfare of the common Afghan.

(The author is Senior Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi)

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