Afghanistan has dominated global news headlines the last one week. Everyone everywhere is talking about Afghanistan. It all started when the US decided to withdraw its troops from the country, including ‘secretly’ abandoning military facilities and installations. The US and NATO troops have been in Afghanistan for 20 years fighting with and training Afghan soldiers mainly against the Taliban who were deposed in 2001. The withdrawal of the NATO troops exposed the weakness of the Afghan army. When the Taliban waged a war to retake the country, they faced little resistance from the Afghan forces. The government eventually collapsed on Sunday, 15th August with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country. The Taliban have since taken control except the main international airport which is under the control of US soldiers. These series of events have been received with disappointment from all quarters – the media, analysts, soldiers who fought in the 20-year war, foreign leaders, American allies and non-allies, among many others. But is the situation that hopeless? I share four reasons why the Taliban forming a government in Afghanistan may not be a bad thing. Before we go ahead, let us understand who exactly these Taliban are.
During the Cold War (the global power struggle between the US and the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1989), specifically in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and occupied the country. Like the many proxy wars fought during the Cold War, the US through the CIA supported a rebel group to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Young and exuberant students some of whom had attended various Islamic seminaries in neighbouring Pakistan joined the rebellion against the Soviets and they were trained and equipped by the US. Osama Bin Laden was one of them. Taliban means student in Pashtun language. Pashtun is one of the main ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Afghanistan tumbled into chaos with the Taliban (with their superior training and weapons acquired from the US) emerging as winners in 1996. They established a political system based on an ultraconservative form of Sharia rule. During this period, the Taliban forged a good relationship with the al Qaeda group and Afghanistan became a good training ground for al Qaeda from where many international terrorist operations were planned – including the attack in the US on September 11 2001. Osama Bin Laden the mastermind of the 9/11 attack took refuge in Afghanistan and the Taliban government refused to deliver him and other collaborators to the US. That led to the US invasion in October 2001 eventually overthrowing the Taliban regime.
Following the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the US and other Western allies helped Afghanistan to put together a democratic system with the last democratically elected president being Ashraf Ghani a former university professor. Throughout this 20-year experiment with democracy, the Taliban resorted to forms of guerrilla warfare using targeted assassinations, suicide bombing, car bombing and others. The group is currently estimated to have between 60,000 and 100,000 fighters.
Between 2001 and 2021, the Taliban was able to withstand the most powerful military alliance in the world – NATO – managed under four US Presidents. This is the estimated human cost of the 20-year war: more than 6,000 US troops and contractors, over 1,100 NATO troops, about 47,000 civilians, around 73,000 Afghan troops and police officers and tens of thousands of Taliban fighters were killed. In the first half of 2021 alone, over 5,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan largely through the operations of the Taliban. It cost the US an estimated 2 trillion dollars to maintain democracy in Afghanistan and to prevent the Taliban from retaking power. Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries despite 2 trillion dollars investment in military operations in the country within 20 years. Expert analysis indicates that just a fragment of this amount went into improving the lives of ordinary people in Afghanistan.
Conspicuously missing in the recent discourse about Afghanistan is the fact that Afghanistan was not heaven when the US and NATO troops were in the country. The picture painted so far appears to show that the country was in perfect peace and the Taliban have suddenly taken that peace away. This leads me to the first reason why the Taliban takeover could be the best for Afghanistan. A significant number of the unnecessary deaths from the civilian population, Taliban fighters and NATO allies will cease. The NATO withdrawal automatically takes away battles between it and the Taliban and therefore casualties involving the two sides. This brings down the death rate drastically. However, what is uncertain is whether the fate of the civilian population will be better of under the new regime.
Secondly, the main fear of the people of Afghanistan and probably magnified by Western media is the possibility of a return to Sharia rule. The picture so far appears that Sharia is unthinkable, and it is the first time we are going to see a country implementing Sharia laws. There are many countries in the world employing Sharia law – including more elaborate forms in Saudi Arabia and Iran and more limited forms in Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania. There is no reason whatsoever to conclude that there is going to be implementation of Sharia law therefore Afghanistan will be in chaos. While the Taliban have maintained that Afghanistan must be ruled based on Sharia law, there are clear indications so far from the group that the puritanical and ultraconservative form they implemented in the pre-9/11 era may not be used. Afghanistan has transformed a lot within the 20-year period with the economy dependent on the West more than ever. The Taliban are aware that they will need the West, particularly the US to succeed. Already, the IMF and many Western countries have begun playing the economic card. The Taliban will have no option than to give women more freedom, allow girls to be in school, refrain from punishments such as stoning, amputation and public executions.
Thirdly, the Taliban have so much to lose and so little to gain from providing haven for terrorists. One major fear of the West is the possibility of the Taliban giving al Qaeda and other affiliates field day to plan and execute transnational attacks. In 2020 US President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban. In this accord, the US committed to withdrawing all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban committed to cutting ties with terrorist groups and pledged not to use Afghanistan as training ground for terrorist activities. The Taliban leadership has so far insisted that they would commit to their pledge. It is too early to conclude that they will not respect the spirit of this agreement. In any case al Qaeda is a weaker today than it was 20 years ago. The Islamic State which is relatively stronger with many more affiliates is at loggerheads with both the Taliban and al Qaeda and the possibility of working with the Taliban is very slim.
The fourth reason the takeover of the Taliban may not be bad is that we may not have access to the full story. The sudden turn of events in the last one week appears not to add up if we take what is reported in the media at face value. There are many questions left unanswered. Why did the Afghan soldiers give such a free ride to the Taliban with such minimal resistance? Why did the President flee? Why have the Taliban instructed their fighters not to harm Afghan soldiers – who are technically enemies? Various research reports have found that a significant number of Afghans have sympathy for the Taliban group. It could as well turn out that the Akan adage: ‘if vultures from your own home eat your flesh, at least they will leave pieces behind’ is applicable in what we see in Afghanistan today.
General Sir Nick Carter, the UK Chief of Defence Staff told the media three days after the Taliban takeover that the Taliban could be different this time because they are seeking an inclusive Afghanistan. I conclude by agreeing with General Carter that it is too early to conclude that a Taliban rule in Afghanistan will be worse of than what prevailed in the last 20 years. Thinks could be better for the Afghan people and for the international community. Perhaps what is rather likely to happen is dispute among the Taliban leadership over what strand of the Sharia law should be applied. Moderate leaders would prefer a moderate Sharia to gain acceptance internationally while conservatives would advocate for the application of the pristine form of the Sharia. Such a dispute could lead to breakaways plunging the country into another cycle of violence. But for now, the international community can only keep fingers crossed and hope for the best.
By Francis Kwabena Atta (PhD)
The author is an International Relations Lecturer at Lancaster University Ghana
He could be reached via this email firstname.lastname@example.org