Taliban is an Islamist movement that has reappeared at the international and regional scene as it succeeded in regaining control over Afghanistan following a 20-year absence since the American war on the country in 2001. This recurrence came in light of the global war on terrorism that was launched as a result of the events following the September 11 attack and ended the rule of the movement that had run the country since 1996. The recent US decision to resume withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan by the end of August has given the movement the chance to extend its control over the 34 provinces that fell in less than 10 days. The retreat of Afghan forces also paved the way for the movement to take over the capital, Kabul, which it seized after the Afghan President’s escape on August 15 to the Republic of Tajikistan under the pretext of preserving Afghans’ lives and preventing further bloodshed.
The absence of any resistance from the Afghan internal forces, and even an actual regional opposition or a strong international resistance has raised many questions at the local, regional and international levels. Among these questions are: What are the factors that led to the withdrawal of the Afghan army and the forces opposing the rule of Taliban without any resistance, especially that Taliban’s actions were expected to plunge the country into a civil war? What are the motives of the regional actors on Afghanistan to allow Taliban’s hegemony over the country? Is this due to the movement’s reassuring messages to these parties or to their awareness of the failures of the Afghan government and acknowledgement of Taliban as the only available alternative? Why did international actors take an appeasing stance towards the movement? Did they base their decision on the US agreements with the movement's leaders that preserve their interests in Afghanistan, particularly that Taliban is trying to show a different image to the world regarding its respect for women, education and human rights inside Afghan territories, and prevention of any contact with terrorist and extremist organizations abroad?
The questions raised about the Afghan situation today stress the intertwining of influential factors, the multiplicity of parties involved, the diversity of expected outcomes, and the varying consequences resulting from this change in Afghanistan following the recent US withdrawal decision.
Before looking for answers to these questions, it is worth highlighting two important observations: The first is related to the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Many reports indicate that this decision shows that there is a close relationship between the democratic administrations in the United States and political Islamist groups. Supporters of this view point out that the US decision was taken during the term of former Democratic US President Barack Obama, noting that he was not able implement it due to the escalating situation in Afghanistan. Joe Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, decided to implement the decision under the pretext that he doesn’t want this conflict to be transferred to his successors. This view was supported by citing the Republicans’ critical reaction to the decision of the current US administration. Nevertheless, this view overlooks former US President Donald Trump’s supporting stance to the withdrawal decision. All this affirms that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of failure is a strategic decision related to the American vision of the developments there, on the one hand, and to the new American orientation towards the east to confront the rising Chinese influence on the other hand. Thus, the decision comes in line with a new US vision of its conflict with China.
The second observation is related to Taliban’s altered rhetoric, in which the movement tries to promote its new image internally and abroad (regionally and internationally). The new rhetoric, which outlined respect for women and their right to education, as well as its call to cooperate with the opposing Afghan parties, has been welcomed. Parties hope the movement has developed its ideology and learned a lesson from its previous failure in rule or from its negotiating experience with the United States. What makes the Taliban movement different from other extremist Islamist organizations is its acceptance to engage in politics by concluding agreements with other internal or external parties and its local vision on its role and responsibilities. Other Islamist organizations, however, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, have global perspectives that make their interventions in the affairs of many countries inevitable from their point of view.
In light of these two observations, the report highlights the future of Afghanistan under the rule of Taliban, as follows:
First, The Return of Taliban: Cautious domestic and international Understandings
Describing the rise of Taliban and its control over Afghanistan as surprising is not true at all, since all reports assessing the situation after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan have emphasized that the movement will regain power. But what was unexpected is the rapid pace of this conquest. Some previous US estimates indicated that it would take three months to take over the reins of power after waging a civil war with the opposing Afghan parties, which would receive regional and international support.
However, what happened on the ground was not expected. The Afghan government forces withdrew from their sites and handed over the provinces to the movement’s forces without any resistance. This move can be explained in light of three factors: The first relates to the stance of the Afghan parties that were opposing the rule of Taliban in the 1990s. These parties belong to different ethnicities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks or to different sects such as the Shiite Hazara, and some even belong to the Pashtuns (Taliban’s ethnic group). They all fought a war against the movement during its previous rule. Nonetheless, the internal circumstances of these opposition groups have now changed. Some of their leaders died and others aged and have become involved in politics over the past 20 years, which led to the disintegration of their forces and their unwillingness to fight new battles.
As for the second factor, it relates to the varied stances of the regional parties, which were involved in the Afghan crisis and firmly supported the Afghan groups to confront the movement’s rule, which threatened their security. These include Central Asian republics (Tajikistan - Turkmenistan - Uzbekistan), which realized during Taliban’s five-year rule (1996-2001) that the movement does not intend to intervene in their internal affairs, making them less opposed to its existence today. They now recognize the movement’s local vision, which targets establishing its rule away from discourses aimed at interfering in the affairs of regional neighbors or carrying a global message as is the case with some other Islamist movements, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Taliban also avoids what was previously expressed by the Iranian revolution in 1979 in its interventionist rhetoric to expand the goals of its revolution outside its borders, representing a direct threat to the regional neighbors.
Finally, the third factor is related to the new rhetoric the movement is trying to present to the whole world regarding the development of its vision on issues that concern various global parties. The US and Western parties paid special attention to Taliban’s behavior towards women and their right to education, while Afghanistan’s neighbors were more concerned about Taliban’s meetings with some parties to provide reassurances that it will not provide aid to extremist Islamist groups on their territories, in a clear reference to Russia, China and Central Asian republics. They fear Afghanistan will turn under the movement’s rule into a hub for terrorist organizations, as was the case in the past. The reassurances given have allowed these countries to welcome the movement’s delegations that met with Chinese officials, who stressed that the coming period will witness joint cooperation. Another rapprochement took place between Russia and Taliban through repeated meetings that emphasized joint cooperation in protecting all diplomatic missions and not aiding extremist organizations on the Russian territories.
However, despite all these stances that enabled the movement to easily regain power, there is no guarantee that it will be able to consolidate its rule, as this remains contingent on three factors: First, the movement’s credibility in keeping its promises, whether those related to protecting all the diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, or those related to fulfilling its commitments to allow the participation of other Afghan parties in the next government, not only in the transitional period. Second, the movement’s ability to resolve security issues and the daily economic crises which afflict the Afghans and have been exacerbated by the continuation of internal conflicts along with the outbreak of the new wave of COVID-19 in the country. The government’s failure to contain the previous waves has led to the citizens’ opposition to Ashraf Ghani’s government and their demand to topple it. Arguably, this failure was one of the factors that made the movement welcomed by the Afghans. Third, the movement’s fulfillment of its commitments with international and regional parties not to aid terrorist organizations on their territories.
Second: Afghanistan and Multiple Scenarios
Presenting future scenarios for the developments in Afghanistan will not be easy, given the intertwining events, overlapping policies, contradictory stances and conflicting visions at the internal and external levels, which make the future open to many scenarios that can be summarized as follows:
First, Afghanistan and Rebuilding the state
According to this scenario, Taliban would succeed in managing the affairs of the state by adhering to its internal commitments through adopting a cooperative path with the various Afghan forces to form a government capable of solving daily issues faced by Afghan citizens while improving the status of Afghan women. It would also abide by its commitments with foreign countries to prevent Afghanistan from turning into a hub for terrorist organizations that threaten global and regional security and stability, making relevant actors more supportive for building a state that respects its neighbors by tightening control on its borders and disengaging it from extremist and terrorist organizations.
This scenario remains far from being implemented on the ground anytime soon since Taliban is not expected to carry out real changes in its extremist ideological vision. It outlines the wide gap between the slogans raised by the movement and the policies it would adopt domestically. This idea is supported by the recent behavior of its elements who stormed the Afghan cities, who did not stop growing beards, and forced women to wear veil, while fighting the use of technology and advanced tools among its followers. In addition, the movement is not expected to change its intellectual reference, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood’s, which makes Afghanistan a new haven for the group’s elements whose presence in Europe and the Arab world is seeing a significant decline. In fact, Afghanistan has become the most welcoming haven for the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood to rearrange its cards after the defeats it faced in the Arab region following the failure of the so-called “Arab Spring.” MB’s latest failure was in Tunisia, in addition to the restrictions imposed on the group's individuals in many European countries that are fed up with their practices and terrorist acts.
Second, Afghanistan and the Return to Civil War
According to this scenario, the movement would fail to manage the country’s affairs during the transition period, in which internal and external parties anticipate the path adopted by the movement to organize its ties with internal partners and external actors. This brings to mind the civil war in Afghanistan during the post-Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s.
This scenario remains close to reality despite its exorbitant consequences on Afghanistan and the region as well. In this case, Afghanistan would become a focal point for a destructive war in the Asian continent that may require interventions of global parties, which may increase its destructive ramifications.
Third, Afghanistan and the Balkan Model
According to this scenario, Afghanistan would go through a civil war, after which it would be divided into ethnic or sectarian-based independent entities. This would lead to the establishment of small states that fight each other and are subordinate to regional and international parties which would back each of them and increase the destructive consequences of a battle which no one knows the end of.
This scenario is unlikely to happen in the near future due to its high cost and difficult implementation, in light of the internal complications and foreign interventions that fear its impact on the nearby states, given the ethnic interrelations and sectarian affiliations.
Fourth: Afghanistan and the Syrian Model
According to this scenario, Afghanistan would become an open battlefield due to Taliban’s weak presence in power. The movement would not be able to extend its control over all the territories but would rather focus on the areas to which it belongs ethnically (Pashtuns). The rest, meanwhile, would be areas of influence backed by regional and international parties. More specifically, the movement's failure to run the country’s affairs would lead to a loss of control over all areas due to lack of human resources, the economic crises and the foreign interventions, all of which would make the situation in Afghanistan similar to that in Syria.
It is worth noting that this scenario is the closest to happen in Afghanistan, as it took place in several countries which witnessed U.S. intervention, such as Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. In this model, a legitimate government does not rule on the ground, but rather agents affiliated with regional and international actors manage areas of influence belonging to these actors. This ensures the achievement of two goals simultaneously:
1- Maintaining a fragile stability in the state away from the daily fighting, which would not prevent occurrence of major incidents every now and then, but they remain limited in scope that its consequences would not extend beyond the state’s borders.
2- Granting the relevant actors areas of influence that achieve their interests without harming the interests of other parties, especially if there is an agreement between these parties on the distribution of areas of influence according to the size of their intervention.
In fact, this scenario, which is most likely to occur in Afghanistan, carries a concern about the vision of the U.S. and major powers in shaping the future of the countries in the Arab region. A broad view of the fate of internally-torn countries, as witnessed in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, shows that this is the most likely scenario to happen in the coming days if a country faces an internal conflict.
Amidst all the aforementioned, the main question remains about the Arab stance regarding the current situation in Afghanistan, where its past affected the security and stability of many regional countries, as it was a hub for extremist ideology and terrorist acts in various world countries, including the Arab region.
The answer is clear. The decision taken by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to evacuate their diplomatic missions from Afghanistan represents a major step in emphasizing their rejection of the return of Taliban rule. Yet, this does not mean not interacting with the developments on the ground to prevent the same fate of Iraq. Active Arab countries (mainly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) must play an effective role in protecting Afghanistan from Taliban’s unilateral rule, taking advantage of the old ties between Saudi Arabia and UAE with the movement. Both Gulf countries, along with Pakistan, had earlier recognized the rule of Taliban and then cut ties with it after the September 11 attacks. These old relations could now be useful to open up and negotiate with the leaders of the movement, which will need recognition of Saudi Arabia, for its prominent Arab and Islamic status, as well as the UAE, for its huge economic capabilities and open market, along with Egypt and the religious authority of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif.
In return, these countries could receive guarantees from the movement that it will not harbor the remnants of al-Qaeda or welcome any fighters fleeing from the hotbeds of conflicts in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. This can be achieved through coordinating roles and policies with international actors that have real concerns about Taliban’s intentions in the coming days (i.e. Russia and China, both of which have opened a direct line of coordination and negotiation with the movement), as well as with the US, which remains the most influential in Afghanistan, and with regional actors that have direct interaction with the Afghan parties (i.e. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan). This trend is reinforced by the fact that the ties of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt with all international and regional parties can allow them to jointly coordinate and chart the paths of the hoped-for future of Afghanistan away from falling hostage to the Taliban movement and its alliances with former partners of terrorist and jihadist organizations whose elements are present in some regional countries and threaten these countries’ security and stability.
In this regard, the three Arab countries should probably expedite the organization of an international conference and invite all the local (Afghan) and international regional parties involved in the crisis, as well as representatives of organizations concerned with the Afghan issue.
The conference should discuss how to build the future of Afghanistan by setting a roadmap to restore the Afghan state away from international disputes, regional ambitions and local conflicts.