As the world watches with fascination, concern and fear over the fast-paced events in Afghanistan, the Taliban seems unsure of how it wants to project itself. The leadership appears to be in a dilemma over whether to soften their hardline approach based on the Taliban’s version of Islamic politics.
Since its takeover of power on August 15, the Taliban has sent contradictory signals. On the one hand, its leadership has said it will not block women from working. A woman presenter was shown on Afghan television, interviewing a Taliban leader which made the world sit up. But that was short-lived. The very next day, true to its reputation, the Taliban prevented a woman journalist from entering the TV station, replacing her with a male colleague.
The Taliban escorted foreigners, including Indians, to the Kabul airport which was quite unexpected given the poor relationship it has had with the country so far.
But confirming some of the worst fears, Kabul residents said groups of armed men went to each house in parts of the city seeking out those close to the ousted Ashraf Ghani government.
Fighters also set alight an amusement park in Kabul and fired upon street protesters in parts of Afghanistan, killing several of them.
Some reports doubted whether armed men indulging in vendetta and violence were part of the Taliban. But given that there is no way of knowing for sure, anyone acting in the name of the Taliban should be construed as such, unless the leadership intervened and contradicted that.
Armed men meanwhile entered two Indian embassies, shut since August 15, and took away documents and other material—indicating that the Taliban still views India with some hostility, despite appearing to facilitate the evacuation of Indians from Kabul and reiterating that the organisation wants to have friendly relations with all countries.
There are at least four ways of interpreting the seemingly contradictory Taliban behaviour since they sauntered into Kabul on August 15 and snatched power.
First, that the Islamic group would want to project a softer image of itself to the world. Second, the softer approach could be just a tactical move to gain acceptability. Or, third, there is a lingering division within the Taliban leadership between the moderates and the hardliners—this is bound to play out in the coming weeks.
And, the fourth—the government would want to make it appear it is moderate by allowing some freedom for Afghans, particularly women, while on the ground Taliban vigilantes will enforce the regressive forms of a purported Islamic law.
The current crop of the Taliban starts off with a huge disadvantage as the world has seen the degree of cruelty and authoritarianism they are capable of, during their first term between 1996-2001. Therefore, the need to make themselves acceptable, at least to begin with. US President Joe Biden called it an “existential crisis” for the Taliban.
China which invited a Taliban delegation was initially gung-ho over establishing a normal relationship with it. But more recently, since they came to power, it has turned coy stating it first needs to see whether the Taliban treats all Afghans equally before taking a call on working with them.
That the Taliban 2.0 is a mellowed version of its former self is not a surprise. In 1996, they emerged from the chaos that followed the exit seven years earlier of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. The Taliban was then unknown. It was created by the Pakistani deep state which saw in it an opportunity to fulfil its long-held vision of extending its strategic control up to Kabul.
Afghanistan, since 1989, had turned into a stateless entity with Kabul in no control over the rest of the country. There were other factions of the Mujahedin, including the Northern Alliance, besides the emergence of regional commanders (or, the warlords) who were powerful in their own provinces and had established de facto independent states.
The result was there was no security for the common people. There were scores of instances of looting, rape and murders without any recourse to justice. Under these circumstances, the Taliban stormed across most of Afghanistan establishing law and order. They were welcomed by the common people who saw in them a return to normalcy in a war-torn country.
A different today
But the situation is different now. The Taliban’s charismatic leader Mullah Omar is no more and there appears to be fault lines within the organisation. Though the Taliban defeated the United States with a show of commitment and discipline, now that it has achieved its objective, the group is torn by conflicting demands from within and from fraternal organisations like the Haqqani network and the Islamic State.
With reports coming in of Taliban fighters indulging in violence and targeting common Afghans from parts of the country, the leadership has been forced to issue a statement that it will bring to justice the perpetrators. Interestingly, the report quotes unnamed sources instead of any top leader identifying himself with the diktat.
Two organisations that can skew the pitch for the Taliban are the Haqqani network and the Islamic State. The Haqqani network, backed by Pakistan intelligence, has ensured it acts in the interests of its masters. When Pakistan was forced to act against the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks, it acquiesced to some extent. But Islamabad never once undertook any action against the Haqqani group.
Attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan, including the embassy bombing in Kabul, has been variously attributed to the Haqqanis, for instance. Even now it is not clear who exactly were the men under the cover of the Taliban that entered two of India’s embassies and took away documents besides the cars parked in the compound.
A top leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is also part of the Taliban think-tank, giving rise to doubts whether the Taliban can be even-handed in its relationships with the neighbouring countries. The Haqqanis are also known to follow their own agenda and work against Indian interests.
Similarly, the Islamic State too is not under the control of the Taliban though the two work together and have ideological similarities and differences. According to recent reports, there seems to be a rift between the two with the IS continuing to remain hostile to the Shia Hazaras for instance. But the Taliban is more open to a broader coalition of different communities unlike its first avatar when it was dominated by the Pashtuns.
The Taliban is also probably realising it needs enormous aid for the country’s reconstruction and that it would be a disaster if most nations walk away. That is another reason why a section of the leadership including Abdul Ghani Baradar has come across as more accommodative.
Amidst this, what has queered the pitch for Baradar and company are the street protests in favour of the Afghan national flag (as against the Islamic emirate flag of the Taliban) in parts of the country. This is unprecedented as never before has the Taliban faced such open opposition since it originally assumed power in 1996.
These protests may be a spontaneous outpouring by sections that favour a moderate government with a semblance of democracy. It is also equally possible that they have been backed by the US and Western governments which until recently were in the country. But the net effect of the protests is that the political contours of the country are changing to reflect a new reality. Parts of northern Afghanistan are still not in Taliban control and are dominated by the erstwhile members of the US-backed Afghan government.
It is fairly obvious that contrary to the easy run the Taliban had on its way to Kabul, the coming days will see unforeseen challenges for the new Islamic dispensation in consolidating its gains. A quote by the philosopher Aristotle comes to mind—“It is more difficult to organise peace than to win a war.”