Last update: 2021-09-28 13:53:10
There has been a lot of buzz about the Taliban’s lightning campaign which, in less than a month, secured them control of most of Afghanistan. In comparison, the Soviets did much better than the Americans. After the withdrawal of troops in 1989, it took three years for a coalition of mujahideen to seize Kabul and another four years of internal warfare before the Taliban could declare their emirate in 1996. And even though the summer of 2021 has not been short on humanitarian tragedies (Lebanon and Haiti, to name just two), international focus on Afghanistan is completely justified, since the American withdrawal marks the end of an era. The era of the war on terror. Launched by George Bush after the September 11 attacks, this ideology almost immediately led to the invasion of Afghanistan, putting an end to the first experiment in Taliban rule. This was followed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was completely groundless in terms both of international law and political strategy. Twenty years on and we are back to square one, and it is hard not to feel a sense of dismay.
One way to cast off this feeling is to talk, as some have been doing, about “moderate jihadism”. The expression is completely meaningless and betrays a lack of knowledge, not only of the situation on the ground (which very few—among whom I cannot be counted—can say they know well), but also of the ideological repertoire of Islamic fundamentalism. Translating it into Islamic fundamentalist terms, we might reformulate the question thus: are the Taliban an emirate or a potential caliphate? First we should clarify the terms of the issue. Classic Islamic political thought has always focused on the idea of a universal caliphate. Yet, as early as a century and a half after the death of Muhammad, a series of local potentates—emirates—began to emerge, which nominally depended on the central caliphate, but were in fact autonomous. These were the seeds of what, many centuries later, would become the modern Muslim states. However, the idea of restoring the universal caliphate has never been completely abandoned and, in a completely different context, this slogan has found new life in the modern age as rallying cry for anti-Western sentiment.
The Taliban, who emerged from the jihad against the Soviets, are a fully Afghan force. They are, indeed, a perfect example of that combination of “group solidarity” and “religious colouring”, which, back in the fourteenth century, the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun identified as the engine of change in Islamic societies. And if there is anywhere in the world where Ibn Khaldun’s analysis still makes sense, it is Afghanistan, which is still largely tribal, still partly nomadic.
The question we should ask, then, is not whether or not the Taliban will be moderate (they will not), but whether they will see themselves as a territorial Afghan emirate, or if they will be overridden by ISIS jihadists who are pushing for a universal caliphate. On one hand, the defeat in 2001 and their two decades long spell in the wilderness have taught the Taliban how risky it is to incur global hostility. On the other, the very title of their leader, “Commander of the Faithful”, is that of a potential caliph and the foreseeable difficulties they will encounter once they are done with media-friendly declarations and start having to make on-the-ground decisions about governance, the economy, or managing the complex ethnic make-up, could make a “maximalist” change in direction necessary.
The reality is that it is impossible to answer this question without considering the international context. First of all China. Once the predictable satisfaction at the embarrassing blow suffered by America has waned, the prospect of a jihadist or pro-jihadist Afghanistan remains a serious concern for Beijing. China herself is currently engaging in the extremely harsh repression of its own Muslim minority in the neighbouring region of Xinjiang, by way of deportations and concentration camps. Until not long ago, the Taliban represented the incarnation of the Three Evils that Chinese politics combats: terrorism, separatism, religious extremism. As long as they remain on a nation-to-nation footing, it is conceivable that a pact could be reached whereby, in exchange for a free hand in cultural and religious matters, the Taliban agree to step back from fomenting regional instability. But this is certainly not the agenda of the jihadist groups, which, even in neighbouring Pakistan, have carried out a number of attacks on Chinese targets in recent months, despite the huge economic interests that link (or rather bind) Islamabad to Beijing.
Thus, the American decision to disengage might still reveal itself to have been, at least in part, a winning political gamble. It still remains, however, a huge humanitarian failure, even more than it has been a media failure. In addition to the imperialist hubris underpinning the project to export democracy through weapon, also the customary mechanisms of international have come out badly tarnished.
Huge amounts of resources have been poured into Afghanistan in these last two decades, primarily for military purposes, but also to build schools and hospitals and to promote the rights of women and minorities. It seems that this huge machine, which always has a tendency to be self-serving, has failed to make a real impact. It is true, however, that social changes occur at their own pace and could have some surprises in store for us. One indicator to watch, far more than the number of mobile phones or levels of Internet access, is the rate of endogamous marriages, an essential feature of a functioning tribal society.
In all events, the West should reflect hard on this cultural failure. And Muslims cannot avoid revisiting the issue of their place in the world, which ISIS raised with shocking urgency, driving institutions, including religious ones, to take completely new stances. Now, the return of the Taliban has once again thrust it to the foreground.