The Taliban are still hardliners, but they are more pragmatic after 20 years of fighting

Posted: August 29, 2021 in Telegraph
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Another short piece I am catching up on posting which was commissioned straight after the fall of Kabul by the Telegraph. Am sure the situation will remain incredibly fluid some time to come, though I have a feeling the Taliban themselves will not change their fundamental views. Whether they will let themselves become hosts of future terrorist threats is another question, and I suspect something more for the region than the west. But we shall see. Undoubtedly more on this topic as time passes.

The Taliban are still hardliners, but they are more pragmatic after 20 years of fighting

After 20 years of sticking to their guns and views the insurgents have ushered the exit of another superpower from their country

Will the Taliban give any ground to Afghanistan’s liberals under their rule? That is the question now on everyone’s mind.

There is little evidence to suggest the insurgents have changed their hardline views in their 20 years of opposition.

In fact, it would not be surprising if two decades of grind followed by victory only hardened their sense of belief in their cause. From their perspective, God has given them victory after a long struggle.

Yet at the same time, the Taliban has developed some pragmatism during their time in the wilderness.

Now it has taken absolute power, its leaders are aware they will have to follow this up with a government. This requires providing a structure to the people of Afghanistan.

The group is clear-eyed about the vicissitudes of governance even while being driven by a set of fundamental and extreme religious beliefs.

The Taliban first emerged from the chaos of the post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, when the country descended into rampant warlordism.

At the time it was a fundamentalist group driven by a purist interpretation of Islam to consolidate power across the country (with some support from outside powers). A key thing they sought to bring back to Afghanistan was a sense of justice.

They took their interpretation of this to an extreme, meting out a brutal form of medieval justice and pushing their country back into an obscurantist time which sought to turn back the clock on modernity.

Women in particular suffered in this world, though they were not the only group to suffer. But there was some sense of justice in this world which was better than the rapacious warlordism that preceded it.

Since being ejected from power, minorities, women and more have thrived in Afghanistan (as sadly has corruption).

This is the changed country that the Taliban have taken over. And while doubtless there will be pressure within the organisation to return to a more austere time, the Taliban government will have to balance this desire against the fact that the world will judge them harshly if they simply let things slip back as they were before September 11, 2001.

Their neighbours may be more accommodating to how they are treating their people than others, but they do not also want to see instability. 

They are also not going to be providing the majority of the aid and support that the country will need to rebuild. A good portion of this is likely to come from the West, meaning the Taliban will have to find a way of making sure they keep up appearances.

They have already shown some pragmatism in their public statements, repeatedly talking about women’s rights and children’s education. They have also sought to promote minority figures into positions of prominence within the organisation.

But it is not clear that this is always genuine. And reports of brutality and oppression are easy to find. The question is whether this sort of bloodletting – something sadly common after such a conflict – is temporary or a sign of things to come.

There is no doubt that the Taliban will want to keep a lid on such stories and continue to project a benign image.

But we should not kid ourselves that they have changed any of their views. From their perspective, why should they?

After 20 years of sticking to their guns and views they have ushered the exit of another superpower from their country.

They have little reason to doubt their formula does not work. At this point it will be up to the world to ensure that we keep them to account to what they say they are going to do.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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