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Time for the United States to Rethink its Strategy for Afghanistan

The idea of a “moderate” Taliban is a grave misconception. The current talk of “moderate” and “ultraconservative” Taliban among western policymakers is fundamentally deceptive. This has created a perception, and perhaps false hope, that if the moderates could do away with Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the current Taliban Supreme Leader, and his ultra-radical clerics, then they are a group with which the United States could do business. While some senior Taliban leaders have publicly aligned themselves with the domestic and external demands around girls’ education or women’s right to work, this is a matter of strategy and sequencing rather than fundamental differences around the Taliban’s shared puritanic vision, which is the total “Islamic” purification and radicalization of Afghan society, with potential consequences resonating far beyond Afghanistan.

It’s time for the United States to recognize the Taliban for who they are–an extremist, dogmatic group on a “divine” mission to embed their version of Islam in society, in ideological alignment with regional and international Islamist militant groups. The United States must rethink its strategy toward Afghanistan: U.S. officials should see the Taliban for what it is, and start shifting focus now to prevent the group from gaining a stronger foothold in Afghanistan.

Different Strategies, Same Dogmatic Mission

The core Taliban leadership is composed of ultra-conservative Islamists and extremists who believe in a divine mission to purify and “cleanse” Afghan society of what they perceive as corrupt “western” values, including girls’ education, women’s employment and their freedom of movement, and freedom of expression and assembly. The group’s priority is to establish and expand a puritanical theocratic Islamic state in which their interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, is upheld by fear and force. The Taliban perceive their victory against U.S.-backed forces in August 2021 has given them a divine mandate to advance this cause. Mullah Haibatullah and those around him have consistently referred in their rhetoric to their sacred mission and to consequences in the afterlife for failing to live up to it.

Since taking power, the Taliban’s primary governance objective has been to ensure full compliance with their oppressive policies and the indoctrination of Afghan society. The group has re-established the power and authority of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice as well as setting up ulama (religious) councils within government departments that directly report to Mullah Haibatullah, and as one analyst put it, to function as the Amir’s eyes and ears, like a nationwide “neighborhood watch”, strengthening and imposing the will of the Amir.

The Taliban are continuing to build their army of supporters to ensure that, in time, their purification mission is embraced by every village across Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership has announced that their priority in the next two years is to establish two to three religious schools, or madrassas, in each of the 364 districts and 34 provincial capitals of Afghanistan.

They have also imposed draconian restrictions on women: banning girls’ education and women’s employment at NGOs. In early April, Taliban issued further decrees banning Afghan female staff working for the UN agencies to come to work, despite confidence and private guarantees this would not happen. These bans were imposed despite an international outcry, not to mention the consequences for their global standing and the immeasurable economic and humanitarian impact on ordinary Afghans.

The Taliban’s leadership cadre has never been moderate, as some have tried to argue, thereby downplayed the egregiousness of the Taliban’s rule. Others have asserted that the current Taliban regime can change – that they are ultimately open to an inclusive government and protecting fundamental human rights if only the international community would give them recognition, money, and more time. In a recent article for the United States Institute of Peace, the authors argued that, due to the failure of diplomatic progress, imposed by unrealistic U.S. expectations and roadmaps, moderate factions within the Taliban have been undermined, further empowering ultraconservatives.

In his book, former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef vehemently rejects such characterizations. He writes: “The thought of dividing them into moderates and hardlines is a useless and reckless aim” and that “the Taliban movement is one based on Islamic ideology, struggling for holy jihad under the principles of ita’at or obedience and samar or listening.”

Those in Kabul, including the Taliban’s First Deputy Leader and Acting Interior Minister Seraj Haqqani, as well as Second Deputy Leader and Acting Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid, could put on a moderate face for western consumption as they consolidate power and seek international recognition. Still, these pragmatists should never be mistaken for true moderates.

These senior Taliban leaders are cut from the same cloth as the rest of the core leadership: the ecosystem of ultra-conservative informal schooling, known as Hujra, in Southern Afghanistan and the radical Afghan-led madrassas in parts of Pakistan. In the madrasa system, children as young as seven and eight are raised, often away from their families, and indoctrinated in ultra-conservative Islamic ideology and militancy, especially in the last two decades following the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan.

The difference between the pragmatists and the core dogmatic group is mainly over strategy and sequencing. The pragmatists’ public show of apparent support for women’s education and work is driven purely by the need to secure international recognition and development assistance. During the 2019-2020 Doha talks, the Taliban strategically played to the demands of Western countries. For example, in a February 2021 Open Letter to the people of the United States of America, the chief Taliban negotiator Mullah Baradar claimed the group was “committed to upholding and guaranteeing all rights of women afforded to them by Islamic law.” Haqqani’s opinion piece for the New York Times was another part of a strategic, orchestrated campaign to present a new face of the Taliban.

These claims belie the reality that ordinary Afghans are facing. There is little to suggest that the Haqqani leadership truly has a “moderate” vision for Afghanistan. The pragmatists’ stand should not be interpreted as a significant internal rift within the Taliban, potentially leading to the group’s fragmentation.

Despite internal jockeying over the Taliban’s strategy and tactical approach, there are no substantive divides regarding their shared ideology. The pragmatists are wholeheartedly committed to the shared elements of their ideology. They also will not defy their Amir, as some might hope. Given how the group’s legitimation system is structured, they cannot afford to lose an open conflict against their Amir and risk being ostracized.

The Taliban’s Legitimacy Structure

In the Taliban’s ideologically-driven hybrid authority structure, with vertical and horizontal features, Amir ul-Muminin (the Commander of Faithful) sits at the top of the vertical command structure, defining direction and policies. The current leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, remains the ultimate source of supreme and divine moral authority. As with the Roman Catholic Pope, when speaking ex-cathedra, Mullah Haibatullah, as the Amir, remains infallible. As such, there is no other credible or legitimate actor within the Taliban who can challenge the leader’s will. At the horizontal level, the ministers and state officials are mainly responsible for managing day-to-day government operations, ensuring policy implementation and, if need be, advising the Amir.

This dual authority structure may explain the differences in practice on some issues across Afghanistan, for instance, in how strictly the restrictive decrees on banning girls’ education is being implemented, rather than signifying differences in value and politics within the Taliban senior leadership as some analysts have pointed out. At the horizontal level, officials enjoy a degree of elasticity, allowing for local variations in practice. The historically decentralized nature of governance in Afghanistan better explains these local variations.

Within this legitimation process, going against the leader means, at the very least, losing face and ostracisation by peers. In response to criticism from the ulama regarding the Taliban’s ban on the education of girls, Mullah Haibatullah, in a public July 2022 statement, warned that criticism of authorities was “not permissible” in Islam. The Amir has quickly framed any criticism and dissent around the use of fitna – a state of political disorder in which people cannot fulfill their duties as Muslims. Fitna can permeate society like a disease, which must be eradicated by all means. This ideology ensures that the Taliban’s sacred agenda faces no disruptions, even minor ones, subsequently allowing them to present their policies as in alignment with the Afghan society and Islam and even as popular. As such, the group has brutally suppressed any dissent to their rule in the broader Afghan society and within their ranks.

More recently, Taliban’s Minister of Higher Education, Neda Mohammad Nadeem, warned that “those undermining the order, either by speech, pen, or in practice, are considered Baghi [the one opposed to a just leader] and Wajeb ul-Qatl [permitted to be killed].”

Time for the US to Rethink its Afghanistan Strategy

From this lens, unsurprisingly, international engagement with the Taliban keeps hitting a brick wall and has mainly proved ineffective, including on women’s rights. The United States and its allies are dealing with a regime on a radical mission, making any meaningful engagement very difficult beyond technical discussion over the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The carrots the international community has proposed so far subject to Taliban’s improved policies towards women – broader engagement and potential development assistance in specific areas – such as salaries for teachers or in the healthcare sector – is of secondary importance for the Taliban core leadership. They are driven and motivated by a puritanic mission and elements of a shared ideology. Indeed, they would rather see the Afghan population starve to death than undermine this mission.

It’s time for western policymakers to be realistic about the potential security threat the Taliban pose and the group’s commitment and ability to prevent the use of Afghan territory for international terrorism. On the third anniversary of the U.S.-Taliban deal, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price once again confirmed that “the Taliban have not fulfilled their commitment… while they have taken some unsatisfactory steps regarding certain terrorist groups in Afghanistan, it is well known that the Taliban sheltered then al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, which flies in the face of the agreement.” On July 31, 2022, a U.S. drone strike killed the al-Qaeda leader, Aiman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor, in the heart of Kabul. He was reportedly hosted and sheltered by the notorious Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s First Deputy Leader and Acting Interior Minister, and one of the so-called “moderate” Taliban.

Similarly, the regional affiliate of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) has carried out dozens of attacks targeting Shia and other minorities, demonstrating the Taliban’s inability to quell the threat from ISK. General Michael Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command told lawmakers in March this year that ISK in Afghanistan could target U.S. and other Western countries’ interests in the next six months. His assessment was that the group is recruiting and expanding rapidly inside Afghanistan.

Underneath the relative calm, there is trouble brewing. It’s a matter of time before the country once again becomes a breeding ground for international terrorism and radical Islamic movements. It doesn’t help that since taking power the group has alienated the vast majority of Afghans and diverse ethnic and tribal groups from the political process. This can have implications for future domestic conflict.

Some pundits have played down the threat posed by the Taliban, pointing out that the group has not expressed ambitions to expand its mission beyond Afghanistan’s borders. That might be the case for now, but three factors increase security risks beyond Afghanistan.

First, the Taliban’s victory and return to power resonated with militant Islamic groups far beyond Afghanistan. Their return to power is a blueprint for other Islamist groups in the region whose aim is to topple and replace regimes through violence. Immediately after the Taliban victory in August 2021, Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Noor Wali Mehsud, renewed his oath of allegiance to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in a statement, describing their win over the United States as a “victory” for the “entire Muslim ummah” (or worldwide community of Muslims).

Second, the Taliban’s attempts to further radicalize Afghan society and undermine modern legal frameworks and institutions may provide a blueprint for other religious groups in the region. Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah recently spoke about the legal framework in Pakistan being contradictory to Islam, indirectly justifying TTP’s attempt to topple the existing structures. The radical policies of the Taliban will inspire other groups and may have global ramifications.

Third, the Taliban might not be in the position or have the ambition to lead the flag of “global Jihad” against the West and within the region. However, this should not be interpreted as their unwillingness to empower and enable the country and regional-specific militant groups and movements to expand their ultra-conservative mission. There is ideological alignment on a shared jihadist project, with several regional militant groups seeking to implement a Shariah-compliant political order through force.

Several experts aptly documented the ideological alignment between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP. Since the Taliban military takeover in August 2021, TTP has intensified its attacks and wreaked havoc across Pakistan, killing hundreds of state officials, police, army soldiers, religious minorities, and civilians. Similarly, Tajikistan has persistently raised, especially in recent months, concerns about potential militant incursions, not only by Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)–a terrorist group with close links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to set up an Islamic’ caliphate’ in Central Asia–but also by other purported jihadi outfits.

In the medium to long term, the Taliban could further forge and consolidate the alliance with militants in South and Central Asia to try to destabilize the region and beyond. Afghanistan is an incubator for many of these militant groups. It may only be a matter of time before Afghan soil is used to stage another international terrorist attack. For example, TTP is already using Afghan territory to launch attacks inside Pakistan.

Others have argued that the Taliban is using the existence of militant groups, including TTP, IMU, East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and al-Qaeda, as a short-term strategy to gain political leverage against its neighbors and the world. However, the Taliban’s track record of supporting ideologically-aligned militant groups has been historically consistent. In 2001, they did not turn against al-Qaeda or hand over Osama Bin Laden to ensure their survival. Why would they do it now? At the same time, why would the group break its relations with transnational Islamist groups such as TTP, IMU, and al-Qaeda, given their shared mission? The group historically has been willing to take extreme risks to maintain their commitment to foreign jihadis in Afghanistan, despite significant international pressure.

What are the policy options for the United States and its allies? While the United States must continue to engage with the Taliban on humanitarian issues, this engagement should be limited if the Taliban’s repressive policies remain unchanged. As the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction warned in yesterday’s congressional hearing, U.S. humanitarian aid to Afghanistan requires greater oversight to ensure resources are not diverted to the Taliban or other terrorist groups.

Recognizing that the Taliban’s mission could further radicalize Afghanistan and have implications for the region and the world, political and financial support to counter the Taliban’s dangerous and dogmatic mission should be at the heart of U.S. outreach efforts. The United States should also more effectively engage with non-Taliban Afghans, both political and civil society groups.

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s narrative and ideology must be consistently and vocally challenged by Muslim leaders and scholars. This dangerous vision for society, particularly their complete erasure of women, must not be normalized. Prominent Pakistani Mufti Taqi Usmani’s recent letter to Mullah Haibatullah urging him to reconsider his position on girls’ education is encouraging. Turkish President Erdogan’s stance on the Taliban’s oppressive policies towards women was also a positive step. The United States and other western countries should support consistent and coordinated messaging on these issues from the Islamic world’s leaders and religious leaders inside Afghanistan.

In its engagement with the Taliban, the international community may find an occasional ally within the group on a few issues. While this may seem reassuring, it does not provide inroads to changing the Taliban’s radical outlook and behavior. What is needed now instead is a coherent foreign policy that contains the threat the Taliban poses to freedom and stability in Afghanistan, the wider region, and beyond.

IMAGE: A Taliban security personnel sits on a humvee armored vehicle near the site of a suicide attack in Kabul on March 27, 2023. – A suicide attack on March 27 not far from Afghanistan’s foreign ministry killed six civilians and wounded several others, the interior ministry said. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

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