By Neil Tidmarsh
Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş
The Taliban leadership has returned from exile in Qatar; Qatar and Turkey have offered to run Kabul airport for the Taliban; it’s rumoured that Turkey is about to officially recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government; the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates have sent messages of congratulation, encouragement and solidarity to the Taliban.
Egypt, Saudi and the UAE must be furious.
Last year, this column reported on the most critical struggle within the Islamic world today; the deadly conflict between Political Islam (radical, revolutionary, populist, best exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood and sponsored by Qatar and Turkey) and ‘establishment Islam’ (conservative, autocratic, hierarchical, best represented by the regimes in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt). Political Islam encourages militant jihadists to use orthodox political processes (rather than or perhaps as well as violence) to establish and maintain fundamental Islamist government. Its grass roots populism and its opposition to corrupt elites is seen as a direct threat by the authorities in Cairo, Jedda and Abu-Dhabi. It’s a ferocious conflict, but one rarely noted here in the West. It explains the savagery of the Khashoggi murder, the coup d’état against President Morsi in Egypt, Saudi’s attempts to isolate Qatar, and the intensity of the civil war in Libya. (See Libya is not Syria, Shaw Sheet issue 235, 28 May 2020.)
The support of Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood is a clear indication that the Taliban leadership has embraced Political Islam, no doubt as a result of contact with the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar (the Brotherhood’s headquarters are in Doha). This suggests that the Taliban’s insistence that they intend to provide responsible and politically legitimate government in Afghanistan shouldn’t be dismissed as cynical, disingenuous or insincere. It’s not altogether inconceivable that they might even eventually hold elections. After all, the IRA morphed into Sinn Fein, and the ANC renounced violence and embraced democracy. And it seems that the Taliban would have little to fear from the ballot box; their effortless take-over suggests that there is little opposition to them among the general populace and indeed they could expect a huge amount of support from an electorate 99% of whom are in favour of Sharia law (according to the Pew Research Centre), and only a tiny proportion of whom bothered to vote in the most recent elections when Western liberal freedoms were on the menu.
If the Taliban’s stated ambition to establish responsible and effective government in Afghanistan is indeed sincere, what are its chances of success? Slight, it would seem. With the exception of Erdogan’s AKP in Turkey, Political Islam has so far failed (whether through political inexperience, international isolation, destabilising foreign interference or something inflexible or impractical in its fundamentalist agenda) to provide efficient and effective government whenever and wherever it has achieved power in the past. The Muslim Brotherhood won the elections which followed the Arab Spring in Egypt, but failed dismally to solve the country’s economic problems; similarly, the alliance which won the elections in Tunisia following the Arab Spring included groups which embraced Political Islam, but it equally failed to improve that country’s dire economic situation; and in Libya, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which includes Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups, has struggled to extend its authority beyond the city itself.
And in Afghanistan today, the Taliban face a number of particular problems and formidable enemies:
First, the very people with the expertise, qualifications and experience needed to run such a government and to keep the country’s economy and infrastructure functioning are exactly the ones leaving the country in their thousands. Understandably, they aren’t prepared to take a gamble on the Taliban’s sincerity and don’t see any future for themselves under its power.
Second, hard-liners within the Taliban itself are unlikely to abandon violent jihad in favour of political activism, however hard the leadership tries to persuade them. This has been a problem ever since the Taliban opened peace negotiations with the US over a year ago; many of the rank and file resented the attempt to replace the armed struggle with political compromise. Many of them defected to Isis as a result, and the defections continue. The leadership is already having trouble controlling the rank and file, hence the contradictions between what the leadership is saying to the outside world and what the troops are doing on the ground.
Third, the ambition for legitimacy and responsibility puts the Taliban in conflict with violent jihadist organisations such as Isis and al Qaeda, who have no time for political processes and insist on violence and terror. A ferocious war between the Taliban and Isis’s Afghan affiliate has been underway for the last year, and can only escalate following the Taliban’s recent triumphs.
Fourth, armed resistance to the Taliban is gathering in the mountainous Panjshir Valley, the vast and traditional natural fortress of Afghan resistance. The forces of the Northern Alliance and of the Afghan Resistance Front (led by its founder, Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Lion of Panjshir who successfully resisted the Soviet occupation forty years ago) are being augmented by displaced army officers, special forces troops, local militias and tribesmen determined to hold their own against the country’s latest occupiers.
Fifth, and most critical, the forces of establishment Islam – in the form of the regimes in Egypt, Saudi and the UAE – are unlikely to tolerate Political Islam taking control of a complete state and building a threatening power base there. In 2013, the traditional political elites in Egypt, including the army, overthrew President Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government at the first opportunity, and have ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood ever since. In Libya, Marshal Haftar and his army of the Tobruk/Benghazi based government enjoys the backing of Egypt, Saudi and the UAE in his war against the rival GNA government and its Political Islam elements. And only last month, the elected government of Tunisia was overthrown, undermined (it is alleged) by an interfering Saudi Arabia because it included elements of Political Islam and represented the Arab Spring’s only surviving triumph.
The prospect for peace and stability in Afghanistan is looking as remote as ever. The Taliban takeover is unlikely to be the beginning or the end of anything, but just one more repetitious chapter in the country’s ‘forever wars’, wars which no one ever wins.
First published in Shaw Sheet magazine on September 2, 2021. Many thanks to Neil Tidmarsh and his editorial colleagues for allowing publication here.
Neil Tidmarsh is author of the thrillers Crackle and Fear of the Dog (“ingenious… a gripping read” Cosmopolitan; “brilliant… could not put it down” The Bookseller; “more twists than a mastiff’s tail” The Sunday Times).