The West must not be fooled by the Taliban’s spin doctors

Aug 20, 2021

On Thursday the Taliban took to social media to declare that after a 20-year interruption, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was back in business. In a month’s time, when we mark the anniversary of 9/11, they will doubtless again be governing nearly all the country. In the West there are understandable fears that the return of the Taliban means the return of Al-Qaeda, whose presence in Afghanistan provoked the American-led intervention in the first place.

That is not to say that the Taliban are incapable of moving with the times. Twitter in particular hosts a succession of Taliban spokesmen (and yes, they are all men) spinning their messages to the world in a significant shift from the approach they took between 1996 to 2001, when they first held power. A new concern with public relations, coupled with some unexpected gestures by their commanders, has given rise to speculation that this is the Taliban 2.0, a socially rebooted movement which, while they may not quite have got round to reading Robin DiAngelo and are still quaintly old-fashioned about pronouns, may not prove quite as brutal domestically as the first time round. It has also been suggestedthat in terms of international security, both the west and Afghanistan’s neighbours may have less to fear than initially thought. Having essentially lost power in 2001 because they allowed Al-Qaeda to use their territory as a terrorist training camp, it is argued the Taliban are unlikely to make the same mistake twice. They have reportedly offered assurances to Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran that Afghan territory will not be used by hostile forces to attack those respective nations.  

In 2014 I was commissioned by David Cameron to conduct a review into the Muslim Brotherhood, and its influence in the UK and abroad.  I found no evidence that engagement with Islamist movements had ever worked to moderate their actions. I continue to hold that view. The things we generally ask of Islamists – essentially to become more like us – would make them cease to be Islamist.  In particular, when Islamists establish a state or a quasi-state, they use an absolutist version of Sharia as the exclusive legal system. Sharia is in truth a methodology rather than a set of clear rules. And there are different ways of applying it. But methods used by Islamists are everywhere catastrophic for what we consider to be fundamental human rights. 

Against this backdrop, it is worth considering just how substantive (or not) the gestures made by the Taliban have been, and indeed how far the organisation has genuinely distanced itself from working with international jihadist groups. As recently as October 2020 the United Nations was referring to Al-Qaeda as “deeply embedded” with the Taliban in the areas of Afghanistan they then controlled. The Taliban were also described as “committed” to maintaining the historic relationship between the two organisations. Given their relationship appears to have endured why should anyone believe reassurances of the Taliban to the contrary?

Domestically, the Taliban have made overtures to the Hazara minority, whom they previously persecuted, visiting the Shi’ite Ashura mourning event in the Hazara district of Dasht-e-Barchi. On Tuesday a Taliban spokesman,  Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad was interviewed on the Tolo News channel by a female presenter, Beheshta Arghand, in what is believed to be the first interview of its kind. With the attention of the world’s media currently focused on the country, these comparatively minor acts made international headlines.

Yet evidence exists that behind the spin, the Taliban’s substantive positions towards women and religious minorities have not changed. There were multiple reports as the Taliban advanced on Kabul of revenge and other killings.  There are now reports of house-to-house searches for anyone with a connection with the former government. Evidence reported by the Guardian indicate other atrocities, including a massacre of Hazara men in the Ghazni district by Taliban fighters as recently as last month, with torture and executions following fighting between the Afghan military and the then insurgent forces. At their first press conference in office, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared they are “committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia.” This needs to be read very carefully, as it is a commitment to interpret women’s rights within the framework of the Taliban’s methodology. Given that ultimately the interpretation of deeply conservative Deobandi ulema will be pivotal to that process, this is certainly not the commitment to respecting women’s rights that some claim to have observed.

This week some British Muslim figures and organisations have opted to keep their counsel, aware that explicit comments in support of the Taliban may undermine existing relationships with non-Muslim organisations. But the Taliban’s victory gives Islamist movements globally something they have recently lacked – momentum. Nothing succeeds like success, and there has been genuine excitement from some British Islamists. Roshan Salih of the 5Pillars news site declared the ‘historic defeat of colonialism and imperialism’ and warned against people being distracted by the ‘red herring’ of women’s rights. Prominent cleric Haitham al-Haddad stated that the Taliban’s victory should ‘make us content and happy’ as well as motivating Muslims to ensure that this time the Taliban do not lose power. In a two-part analysis for the Islam21C website, al-Haddad noted the disarray Afghanistan has been in, before stating “the leaders of the Taliban and the leaders of other mujāhidīn groups should work hard to establish security in Afghanistan.” 

Having seen the Taliban lose power in 2001, and the Muslim Brotherhood lose office in Egypt in 2013, Islamists are in little mood to fail again. That is not a guarantee however, of long-term Taliban caution in office, or that the organisation will decline to shelter jihadist actors. Unless the Taliban rules as the Taliban, supporting like-minded organisations from across the globe, what would be the point of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan?

Sir John Jenkins is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

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