US President Joe Biden handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban on a platter on August 15, after 20 years of nation building costing trillions of dollars to American taxpayers. It was a monumental foreign policy disaster by the US. Why have Americans not shown patience with Afghanistan as they have with South Korea, Japan, Syria and Iraq, by retaining the American forces? President Biden has reversed many Trump-era agreements like climate change and Iran nuclear deal. But not reversing the Afghan deal may emerge as a potential threat to homeland security.
After signing the agreement with US special envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, the Taliban leadership under Mullah Baradar activated the foot soldiers in Pakistan (mentored by Pakistani ISI) and pushed them into Afghanistan with a strategy. First, to move into rural areas and mix with the locals and, second, to cut a deal with the Afghan Armed Forces and not engage with the American forces.
More than 5,000 veteran Taliban fighters were released from Afghan jails under an agreement between US negotiators and the Taliban delegation in Doha in February 2020. As a consequence, Taliban’s ranks swelled with trained fighters who provided leadership to new recruits and transformed them into a formidable force.
The Taliban's political leadership engaged in talks with the US in Doha, are the ones who, during their rule in the 1990s, enforced strict Sharia law, which included banning music and films on television and deliberate destruction of archaeological sites. Women accused of adultery were publicly stoned to death, and those involved in small crimes had their hands chopped off.
Today, by contrast, they are trying to project the image of a changed regime. With one woman member in their delegation, they are presenting a false picture of liberalism. The Taliban have shrewdly managed to convince the American negotiating team that it is now adopting a tolerant version of Islam while, at the same time, professing their strong belief in the tenets of the puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi or popularly known as ‘desert Islam’.
The Taliban Cultural Commission uses Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages of its propaganda in multiple languages. It issues communiqués and spreads fake news on WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram. The main objective is to manipulate the global perception of Taliban and reassure the educated middle class of Afghanistan of its tolerance.
It skilfully spins narratives, depicting Taliban as patriots. The ultra-conservative Wahhabi-Salafi movement of the 14th century manifesting itself through 21st century technology is indeed a smart move. Today’s Taliban have a better understanding of how to market themselves to a gullible world, though in reality they still follow ultra-conservative ideologies. The lower cadres of the Taliban, ISI and al-Qaeda are raised in the Salafi-Wahhabi ideology and their hatred to the Shiite, Mazars and Sufism in general is visibly visceral.
There are three distinct ethno-geographical regions in Afghanistan: the western region is dominated by Persian speaking Hazaras and Tajik groups, a majority of whom follow Shia Islam and speak the Dari language; the north is dominated by Uzbek and Tajik of the Sufi Sunni strain of Islam who speak Turkic languages and Dari; and in the south and eastern parts, the majority are Pashtun tribes who speak Pashto and follow the puritanical Wahabi Sunni school of Islam. These divisions reflect Afghanistan’s complex history of invasion, colonisation, and incomplete efforts to create a unified, independent state. In 654 AD, Arab armies colonised and spread the message of Islam across the Hindu Kush mountains. They defeated the Buddhist rulers and established Yakub ibn Lias as the first Muslim ruler of Afghanistan.
The Ghaznavid dynasty lasted 200 years and consolidated Islamic rule further eastward into India. Genghis Khan captured Afghanistan in 1219 and the Mongol empire was later expanded by Taimur, who ruled from Samarkand, a city in modern-day Uzbekistan.
The Afghan Lodi dynasty ruled northern India from Delhi between 1451 and 1526. Babur, a descendent of Taimur, first conquered Kabul in 1504 and later defeated the Pashtun Lodi dynasty and established Turkic Mogul rule in Delhi, which lasted until 1857 when the British Army ended it.
In the 18th century, the feuding tribes came together and established the modern state of Afghanistan, driven by the power vacuum created by the decline of Persian Safavid dynasty in the west and the Turkic Moghul Empire in Delhi, and Uzbek Janid dynasty in north. Since then, the three distinct nationalities have never come together except briefly during the Soviet occupation when the warlords, tribal chiefs, and religious leaders fought together with funds and weapons supplied by the US to bleed the occupiers.
Since Soviet forces withdrew, and the Soviet Union collapsed, Pakistan has played an increasingly important role in shaping the politics of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s trump card was to install Pashtuns as the new rulers and marginalise the northern and western ethnic groups. The interior minister of the Benazir Bhutto government, a Pashtun, conceptualised a strategy with the active cooperation of Pakistan’s Army and intelligence service (ISI) to use both Afghani and Pakistani students (Taleban) studying in various madrassas as mercenaries to capture southern Afghanistan and ensure Pakistan’s trade and sphere of influence with Central Asian Republics.
The present political leadership of Talibans is mainly drawn from the earlier ruling dispensation. After the American invasion, the entire leadership moved to Pakistan and was protected by the ISI. When Americans requested Pakistan to bring the Taliban leadership to the table to negotiate peace with the Americans, they were shepherded to Doha where an agreement was reached without seeking any tangible assurances.
Those who believe that the Taliban will will not mentor or harbor al-Qaeda and ISIS are delusional. International media reports suggest that in the present Taliban ranks a substantial number of foreign fighters have been seen moving in Kabul and in provincial capitals.. Reports also suggest that those escaped from Syrian prisons have moved to Afghanistan during the last few years.
A group of fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are also seen moving around on motorbikes; they had links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujhaid, during his press briefing on August 17, said Sharia/Islamic law will soon be imposed. Many Islamic countries implement Sharia law selectively, but the Wahhabi-Salafi is extremely restrictive. The establishment of an Islamic Emirates in Afghanistan by the Talibans will be a security threat to the region and beyond.
The writer is Pro-Chancellor,
Jamia Hamdard University, New Delhi