Could the Afghan Taliban’s Victory Be a Win for America?

August 17, 2021 Topic: Afghanistan Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: AfghanistanTalibanChinaGreat Power CompetitionArab Gulf

Could the Afghan Taliban’s Victory Be a Win for America?

Although the United States is ostensibly on the losing side of the story in Afghanistan, it has much to gain from the Taliban take over.

The United States removed the Taliban in 2001 due to its nurturing of terror groups that threatened world security. The new Taliban in control of Afghanistan has changed and has turned pragmatic, especially in foreign policy. Could this new Taliban become the government the United States worked to build in Afghanistan?

Previously, the Taliban militant group was dominated by ideologues, and it strictly adhered to Islamic principles. However, during its exhaustive war with the United States, it has become more pragmatic. It has begun negotiating with parties it once eschewed on a religious basis. It extracts revenues from drugs and smuggling that are strictly prohibited in Islam. These practices indicate a paradigm shift in the Taliban or the “New Taliban.” Moreover, for the Taliban to stay in power it has to modernize. When the Taliban entered Kabul, they did not vandalize the city as many expected.

These changes suggest a change in the Taliban’s values and politics, but the people of Afghanistan have also transformed over the past twenty years. Afghanistan is now more educated and connected, making it a harder redux for some of the Taliban’s previous practices. Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban, and other Taliban leaders have voiced their commitment to work with other parties to agree on “an inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected.” In some Taliban-controlled regions, women are allowed to go to school. In a surprising statement, the Taliban urged women to join the government and declared amnesty across Afghanistan. Later, a woman interviewed a Taliban leader on Afghan National TV.

Even if these changes are mild in the groups’ domestic affairs, its foreign policy resembles any other political entity. Visiting and forming relations with China, a state that is officially atheist, and negotiating with countries such as the United States and Russia, which the Taliban once considered infidels are conspicuous indications of a dramatic change. For instance, the Taliban has called China a friend and promised not to provoke the Uyghurs living in Xinjiang.

China represses its Muslim population, but the Taliban looks the other way. Yet the Taliban justified its war on the basis of Muslim oppression by the West and defended its harboring of terror groups such as Al Qaeda on a similar basis. Traditionally, the United States has relied on non-democratic allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in its global rivalries, including during the Cold War when many of its allies were dictatorial regimes that suppressed their own populations. That the Afghan Taliban is not on the U.S. foreign terrorist list is revealing; The Taliban’s recent actions show a pragmatic, realist entity that could follow the United States’ geopolitical code. Hence, the costly American and NATO presence was an ill-advised strategy. Further, the group has learned that international cooperation is the key to remaining in power.

The presence of Western forces in Afghanistan mobilized millions of Muslims in Afghanistan. It justified Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s claims that Muslim lands have been invaded by infidels, and Jihadist groups began a lengthy battle against the West. With the United States and NATO out, the Taliban could sell its people on the notion that there are no longer non-Muslim forces in their Islamic state, depriving Jihadists of their motivation for conflict.

The rationale for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was to eradicate terrorism from the country. Eradicating terror requires uniting, stabilizing, and delivering economic prosperity. For the past twenty years, the United States has chaperoned the Afghan government that failed to unite and stabilize the country. Nevertheless, the Taliban has united the country for the first time in decades and it seems to be the only entity capable of that grave task.

The vacuum created by U.S. withdrawal was not filled by various forces which could have turned Afghanistan into a nest of terrorism, drug trafficking, and criminal activities. The Taliban controls almost all of the country, has deeply penetrated Afghan society, and could prevent any jihadist group from emerging. Moreover, in its peace deal with the United States, the Taliban promised to cut ties with terrorist organizations. The group has also claimed that it has no external agenda.

As a multi-ethnic country with many languages and dialects, not to mention its rugged mountain geography, tribalized society, and loosely connected roads, Afghanistan’s sole uniting factor is Sunni Islam. The Taliban has employed Sunni Islam to rally most of the Afghanis behind it, conquering the country in a rapid blitz not through sheer force but through popular support and claims such as offering long-awaited Afghan freedom and a promise to eradicate corruption. Most of the Afghan army surrendered to the Taliban; ostensibly they had more confidence in the group than the Afghan government.

In the long run, the Taliban has to deliver economic benefits to the Afghan people. An independent Islamic Afghanistan requires a strong state which comes only through modernization that needs foreign investment and an open market and society. Through their economic might, the United States and China could offer Afghanistan what it wants, gaining access to resources and geopolitical benefits in the process. As a landlocked country that sits upon trillions of dollars worth of natural resources but lacks the technology and personnel to extract them, Afghanistan needs foreign expertise and investment; This presents an opportunity to open up the Taliban to the international community.

Although the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was similar to its withdrawal from Vietnam, it can accomplish similar geopolitical objectives. Washington’s departure from Vietnam transformed its former enemy into a friendly nation towards the United States and paved the way for a new era of Sino-American relations that changed the dynamics of the Cold War.

The U.S.-Taliban Doha Agreement paved the way for the Taliban to capture Kabul as it caused morale among Afghan soldiers to collapse. The U.S. departure serves Washington’s core interests in Afghanistan, and it assists the United States in great power competition by making it easier for Washington to strategically pivot to Asia. Committing U.S. forces to Afghanistan and much of the Middle East only diverts resources and attention in its burgeoning rivalry with China and Russia. By developing possible friendly relations with the Taliban, occasioned by U.S. Sunni allies such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, Washington could bolster its position in Central Asia.

Although the United States is ostensibly on the losing side of the story in Afghanistan, it has much to gain from the Taliban take over. As Abraham Lincoln once stated, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” The new Taliban has so far embraced moderation in its domestic policies and realism in its foreign policy—resembling more of an Islamic state similar to Saudi Arabia than a kingdom from the Middle Ages. U.S. policymakers should take note.

Farhang Faraydoon Namdar is a researcher and journalist covering the Middle East. His work has been published in various printed publications and has been featured on TV and translated into other languages. Follow him on Twitter @farhangnamdar.

Image: Reuters.