The explosion at Kabul airport killing several people has broken a couple of myths about Afghanistan and the narrative that has been built around the Taliban’s invincibility in its recent return to power.
The first myth is that the Taliban is in total control of the situation and is a well-knit compact organisation that can take on any opposition. The second is that the Taliban is going to pursue the regressive ideology that the world witnessed during its first term in office between 1996-2001. It may try but will find it difficult to implement its regressive ideology.
There is no doubt that the Taliban virtually glided into power on August 15 with the Afghan National Army giving up the fight and President Ashraf Ghani reportedly fleeing with bag, baggage and money for dear life as the prodigal Islamic group returned to the nation’s capital.
But as the days go by, it increasingly becomes clear that the Taliban is not going to find it easy to set up shop in Kabul, unlike in 1996.
Having returned to power in style, the Taliban is being pushed and pummelled from various sides even as it tries to entrench itself in the capital’s presidential palace.
Take Thursday’s Islamic State-engineered bombing on the outskirts of the Kabul airport. (The US Pentagon has clarified that there was one suicide bomber and a single explosion, not two). At least 79 Afghan civilians, 28 Taliban members and 13 US soldiers were killed in the blast. If at all there was one organisation that has been affected the most by it that is the Taliban. It is now in power, and accountable for what is happening in the country.
On the one hand, it is trying to straighten the chaos in the aftermath of the August 15 changeover and settle down to business. On the other hand, it is desperately trying to tell the world it will allow freedom, albeit limited, in Afghanistan and that women will not have to face the severe restrictions they experienced during Taliban 1.0.
Even as it is attempting an image makeover comes the August 15 blast by the Islamic State. In popular understanding, the Taliban and the Islamic State are lumped together. So too the Al-Qaeda, but today this organisation is all but defunct – after the capture and killing of its leader Osama bin Laden.
See video: Explosion rocks Kabul airport
Undoubtedly these are groups that derive their politics and agenda from the Quran, Sharia and various other Islamic texts. At the same time, each has its organisation, history and modus operandi.
The Islamic State –Khorasan Province (ISKP), as the Afghan unit is known, is an extension of the Syria-based Islamic State. Formed in 2015, the organisation has been involved in a tug-of-war with the Taliban over control of Afghanistan.
However, it has never matched the Taliban’s clout. If the Islamic State has had a strong pan-Islamic worldview, the Taliban is rooted within the Pashtun tribe and much of its beliefs are a takeoff from traditional practices of the community.
For example, in the Taliban mindset, women have no public role to play and need to remain sequestered at home, raising children and engaging in domestic chores. But, the Islamic State has female fighter battalions though it too practises segregation between the genders.
Both the Islamic State and the Taliban are Sunni-dominated. But the IS has little tolerance of Shia Islam and don’t consider Shias as even Muslims. The Taliban is more relaxed on this count and does not share the Islamic State’s extreme antagonism towards the Shia sect.
Problems between the Taliban and the Islamic State came to a head in 2015 when many disenchanted Taliban fighters defected to the Islamic State. Interestingly, the IS has members from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and see themselves as part of a grand global pan-Islamic organisation.
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The Islamic State views the Taliban as a regional outgrowth with limited potential and doubts its commitment to the Ummah or the global Muslim faith. When the Taliban began negotiating with the previous Donald Trump administration the Islamic State, for instance, scorned the move and termed them as “Western stooges”.
In the stakes for Afghanistan, in a curious turn, US-led forces, the Afghan National Army and the Taliban took on the Islamic State reducing its presence to a minimal by around 2018. However, none of these was able to eliminate the IS leaving the organisation with some 2000 fighters, according to some estimates.
But the tightly-woven group with organisational and military links to the main Islamic State in Syria has shown it can mount attacks at will across Afghanistan, with the latest one outside the Kabul airport.
For the Taliban, the IS has the potential to turn into a major headache as the foot soldiers of both fundamentally share similar views on the primacy of Islam.
The nuanced differences can, in most cases, be lost on the local fighter who can potentially transit from one to the other for any reason.
This is a new development as far as the Taliban is concerned as in its previous stint between 1996-2001,there was no Islamic State to contend with.
The Islamic State is bound to pressure the Taliban not to dilute its interpretation of Islam.
Contrarily, a large section of urban Afghans has already started pressuring the new rulers in the opposite direction — to moderate their governance.
Widespread protests across the country since the August 15 takeover indicate that a large section has got used to the comparatively moderate, democratic rule over the last 20 years under the US-backed Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani governments.
There is no reason why this urban population will not continue to resist the Taliban in the coming weeks and months. This is going to place the Taliban government in a spot.
Amidst this, there are pulls and pressures within the Taliban itself with a section promising some freedoms and assuring all countries of friendly relations. At the same time, comes the caveat from another section of the Taliban that “democracy is unIslamic” and that everything will be governed by the Sharia. While this may sound verbally precise, how these get translated in practice is what will eventually count.
Already, the West has frozen Taliban-related accounts and those linked to the official Afghan government. Their message is clear: if the Taliban returns to its former self it could find itself facing a roadblock as far as its economy is concerned.
Fearing this, if the Taliban leadership opts for a degree of liberalised governance that is going to alienate the hard-line sections and a revolt within the Taliban cannot be ruled out.
If the Taliban had gone in for a power-sharing arrangement with the Ashraf Ghani government it could have got away by blaming its coalition partner in the event of criticism from within the group. But now that the Islamic group is on its own it has no excuse to dish out to its supporters or to the West and its allies, like India, which are watching the Afghanistan situation closely.
The Kabul blast, in this context, undermines Taliban power. Moreover, this time around it needs to satisfy a noisy crowd of disparate interests inside and outside Afghanistan if it has to survive in office.