Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 11 April 2024

The Taliban Have Restored Barbarism to Afghanistan

Taliban security members stand guard in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 20. Photo: samiullah popal/Shutterstock

Nearly three years after the Taliban retook Kabul, they plan to resume the brutal practice of stoning women for adultery. “You say it’s a violation of women’s rights when we stone them to death,” Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said in a March audio message aired on state television, apparently directed at Western critics. “But we will soon implement the punishment for adultery. . . . We both say we defend human rights—we do it as God’s representative and you as the devil’s.”

The return of barbarism to Afghanistan shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Shariah. Since returning to power, the Taliban have brought back public executions, banned girls from attending school beyond sixth grade, and carried out hundreds of public floggings. Nonetheless, the Taliban 2.0—like the Taliban 1.0, which ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001—offer lessons to the West.

First, their actions expose the naiveté of Western analysts who argued that the Taliban would be more moderate the second time around. Except for reluctantly accepting television and the internet as unavoidable aspects of 21st-century life, they appear as committed as ever to instituting its archaic and bleak vision of Allah’s law on earth.

In a phone interview from London, Tamim Asey, a former Afghan deputy defense minister who now heads the Afghanistan-focused Institute of War and Peace Studies, says the Taliban are “involved in a state-building exercise, the likes of which you have never seen in the Islamic world. They say they are going to establish the purest Islamic system. They view all other Islamic countries as under the influence of infidels.”

Unlike the Islamic State at its peak, the Taliban have failed so far to draw large numbers of Arab and European Muslims to their cause. But as long as a corner of our planet remains home to a radical jihadist experiment, the potential for attracting adherents in other countries remains.

The Taliban’s 2021 victory—compounded by the Biden administration’s ignominious withdrawal from Kabul—has already given them street credibility among Islamist terrorist groups. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has likened his organization’s campaign against Israel to the Taliban’s successful insurgency against the U.S. and its allies.

Taliban rule also highlights the Islamist inability to govern effectively. The nonprofit World Vision estimates that two-thirds of Afghanistan’s 41 million people need humanitarian assistance. According to the United Nations World Food Program, 1 in 3 Afghans don’t know where their next meal will come from. Of the more than 15 million Afghans who will face food insecurity at crisis levels this year, 2.8 million are in the “emergency” category—one step from famine. Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled Taliban rule, and the outflow is likely to continue.

In the long term, European nations—already dealing with the threat of terrorism and militant Muslim protesters in major cities—will bear the brunt of Afghan mass migration. But for now, the destabilizing effect of Taliban rule in Afghanistan poses a more immediate danger to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s southern neighbor and a nuclear-armed Muslim nation of more than 240 million people.

For decades, Pakistan’s army, along with its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, backed the Taliban as part of a “strategic depth” policy whereby Pakistan tried to use Afghanistan as a political pawn and strategic hedge against its rival India. Pakistan also sought to weaken left-wing Pashtun separatism, a movement for independence by the ethnic group that straddles southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan and has long provided the Taliban with both foot soldiers and leadership. Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, then chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, was among the first international visitors to Taliban-ruled Kabul in 2021. Then-Prime Minister Imran Khan applauded the Taliban for “breaking the shackles of slavery.”

Islamabad’s support for the Taliban has backfired and now threatens Pakistan’s own stability. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which aims to bring the Afghan Taliban’s version of God’s law to Pakistan too, has stepped up attacks on the Pakistani army in the restive Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, estimates that last year Pakistan lost more than 500 police, army and other security personnel to terrorism, the most in a decade. The Taliban show no interest in reining in the TTP. Mr. Khan’s party controls the provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa even as the still-popular former prime minister remains in jail for a slew of alleged crimes, including corruption, all of which he denies.

Afghanistan’s return to barbarism also reveals the inability or unwillingness of rising Asian powers like China and India to fill the vacuum left behind by a receding U.S. Despite what many leftists believe, a diminished U.S. would be a disaster for many nations of the so-called Global South. Ask the women of Afghanistan.


To China's frustration, the Aukus partnership between the U.S., U.K. and Australia to deliver Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines is gaining ground, despite funding challenges to the U.S. submarine industrial base. Images: U.S. Navy/Zuma Press/AP Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the April 11, 2024, print edition as 'Meet the New Taliban, Same as the Old Taliban'. 

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