Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
The current iteration of the Taliban—“Taliban 2.0”—is less likely to turn Afghanistan into the epicentre for transnational and regional terrorist groups, since the current leadership is aware of past mistakes. Evidence of their political savviness began almost a decade ago with the establishment of a political office in Doha. That presence allowed them to gain an aura of respectability. The leaders in Doha showed adroitness in the way they negotiated with the Trump administration, winning the freedom of 5,000 members—including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban—for little or no concession. These strategic engagements culminated with a meeting with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, underlying that the Taliban 2.0 is politically savvy.
There is no evidence that the Taliban have abandoned their commitment to create an Islamic state, but rather that they are taking a different modus operandi to attain their goal. This is why it is useful to turn to Abdullah Azzam, the doyen of revolutionary Islamism. Azzam incited, organised, trained, and dispatched countless Arab mujahedeen to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He was a brilliant strategic thinker, and his understanding of revolutionary warfare was tremendous, based on his experience in Palestine, leading him to adapt the ideas of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ideologues like Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj and others, in his call for revolutionary jihad.
An important element in Azzam’s strategy was to call for a two-track approach to achieving a successful Islamist Revolution. Azzam identified primary and secondary tracks that would slowly facilitate the expansion of dar al-Islam (the house of Islam). He argued that jihadis must concentrate on liberating Muslim lands, addressing the “near enemy” and not the “far enemy”. His strategy called on jihadis to focus attention on a single primary target—a single Muslim country—that had lost its way. There can be secondary targets, but the revolutionary jihadi movement must focus on the primary track.
By placing all attention on the primary target, jihadis would win there and establish a base, instead of treating everywhere as primary, which wastes resources and leads to competition. Azzam argued that once the area is secured, the secondary track becomes the primary, and so on. Through such a mechanism the jihadis secure more territory while consolidating what they had won. The Taliban are likely to return to Azzam’s initial strategy of securing a base of operation, before shifting attention to their neighbouring states.
The big question is which country is likely to be the next primary target.
Iran and Pakistan are unlikely to see Taliban interference. Pakistan has served as a base for the Afghan Taliban leadership since their eviction in 2001, whereas Iran has worked to develop a détente with the Taliban, as both accept that they have similar enemies, namely the U.S. and Islamic State (ISIS).
Consequently, the two countries most likely to fear the Taliban resurgence are Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, though the other states of Central Asia—Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan—cannot be considered safe from the Taliban. Nevertheless, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have faced years of Islamist insurgencies and have Islamist entities within their borders, looking for ways to overthrow the regime.
Tajikistan shares a 1,200-km border with Afghanistan, with many ethnic Tajiks living in Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, and Balkh. In the late 1980s, Tajiks fought with the Afghan Mujahadeen against the Soviet occupation, giving rise to the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). President Emomali Rahmonov has sought to destroy the IRP, leading to a bloody civil war between 1992 and 1997. There are specific vulnerabilities for Tajikistan.
First, Rahmonov has sought to run Tajikistan as a secular state. He had spent years supporting the U.S.-backed Kabul government that fell on August 15. An Islamic Emirates on Tajikistan’s doorsteps places his regime under an existential threat. As a brutal dictator, who knows there are many Islamists within his country, Rahmonov is likely to turn to the methods used by most dictators, namely brute force against opponents, which has the potential to backfire and empower and radicalize the opposition.
Secondly, the Taliban recognise Tajikistan’s importance to the opium trade. Such a reality is likely to encourage them to support a continuation of the trade because they know that it creates instability in Tajikistan, and, playing the long game, means that stability undermines Rahmonov and empowers his Islamist opponents who would use the drug trade as an example of corruption and decadence.
Thirdly, there is a history of bad blood between Tajiks and Afghans and the Taliban. One of the legendary Mujahideen was Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated by al-Qaeda, possibly on the instructions of the Taliban, two days before 9/11. This could mean that the Taliban will support a large movement of Tajik-Afghans back to Tajikistan, as a large refugee population is likely to further destabilize Tajikistan.
Uzbekistan is the other main country where the Taliban might look to expand. The government in Tashkent is fragile, having fought the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) for years. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev supported a political resolution to the persistent conflict in Afghanistan because he wanted stability on his border. His government made overtures towards the Taliban, recognizing that ultimately Uzbekistan would rather have the Taliban, as opposed to ISIS, on the border. (ISIS not only operates in Afghanistan, but also has a presence in Tajikistan.) By attempting to mediate between the Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani government, Mirziyoyev was hedging his bets. This was always risky: as senior government officials met with senior Taliban leaders, Andrew Wilder, vice president of Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), warned that such talks were helping legitimize the Taliban. Now Mirziyoyev has to deal with a Taliban controlling the whole neighboring country.
The Taliban 2.0 is a dangerous force. They have spent the past twenty years not only improving their military capabilities but also international relations. There is no evidence that their ideology has changed; the group’s senior leaders are the exact same people. They know that governing a country is harder than winning it. Baradar was there in the 1990s, and he saw how a lack of funding greatly undermined the Islamic regime. Additionally, they know, through the American experience in Iraq and specifically with de-Ba’athifcation, that purging the technocrats would hinder their ability to govern. They know that the andiwali (comradeship or camaraderie) system cannot be used to govern a modern state. This is why they have sought to reach out to Afghan civil servants, offering them amnesty and assurance that they would not exact revenge from those who worked with the Americans and the previous government.
Finally, the Taliban know there is no appetite in the West for any intervention if they take a slow and steady approach to achieve their agenda of an Islamic state in Afghanistan. It also means that if they operate covertly as oppose to overtly they could export their Islamism, and the world would let them be.
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