Observations of an Expat: Trusting the Taliban

Can we trust the Taliban? President Joe Biden says the US has to work with them. But can we accept their assurances that women will be allowed to be educated and not forced to wear the oppressive burka? That foreign journalists can remain in Afghanistan to monitor their activities?

Do we believe the Taliban leadership when it says it will allow foreign nationals and Afghan citizens who worked with them to leave the country and that American and British troops can protect Kabul Airport until 31 August to ensure their safe departure? And, most importantly, can we trust their pledge to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base for international terrorism?

Or are those the right questions? Should we instead ask: Do we trust the Taliban to control a historically uncontrollable Afghanistan? Because if they can’t, any other pledges are worthless.

The Taliban is comprised of individuals in the same way as any other political group anywhere in the world. They are united in their belief that Afghanistan should be governed by Sharia law, but a bewildering variety of conflicting groups disagree about the interpretation of that law and the tactics to be used in achieving that goal.

There are three basic camps within the Taliban. The first is the leadership. Twenty years in the wilderness, prisons and negotiations with America is believed to have invested them with a greater degree of political sophistication and realism than when they were last in power. Then there are the military commanders who have had no involvement in the discussions with American negotiators. Some of them support the leadership. Some of them are working with the third rogue group who are ignoring the leadership, closing down schools, arresting and sometimes killing Afghans who worked with Westerners; forcing women into burkas and imposing the harshest tenets of Sharia law.

But that is only part of the chaos. There are the organisations tangentially linked to factions inside the Taliban but outside the main group.  Specifically there is Al Qaeeda and ISIS-Khoramshar Province (aka ISIS-K). The latter organisation is responsible for the double bombing outside the Kabul Airport Perimeter which has – as of this writing – claimed 90 lives and 150 wounded.

ISIS-K is not a big organisation in Afghanistan. It is believed to be only about 2,000-strong in the country. But, as they proved this week, it only takes one well-placed suicide bomber to put them at the top of the world news agenda.

ISIS-K is the most extreme Islamic terrorist group operating today. Founded in 2015, its members follow the Salafi tradition which rejects religious innovation and demands the strictest possible interpretation of Sharia law. It operates an international network and in Afghanistan is believed to be responsible for a number of recent murderous attacks on hospitals and schools.

But perhaps most important of all, ISIS-K believes its mission is to destroy all those who work with non-believers as well as the non-believers themselves. This means that the current Taliban leadership is as much a target as American troops.

In the eyes of ISIS-K, Abdul Ghani Baradar, the current de facto leader of the Taliban, made a fatal mistake meeting with CIA director Bill Burns this week and agreeing to help protect the perimeter around Kabul Airport and facilitate the evacuation of foreign nationals and Afghan citizens who had worked with them. Add to that his pledges about women, journalists and the suppression of terrorists, and Baradar’s days could well be numbered.

Abdul Ghani Baradar was one of the co-founders of the Taliban in the 1990s. He was an American prisoner from 2010 to 2018 when he was released to participate in US-Taliban negotiations in Qatar. Baradar was the man chosen for the breakthrough telephone conversation with President Trump and was delegated to sign the agreement for US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Bill Burns is the only CIA director to have been recruited from the ranks of America’s career diplomatic corps. He has served as ambassador to Jordan and Russia and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

The two men almost certainly talked about more than the protection of the airport perimeter. The Taliban needs access to the $7 billion in frozen assets in the Federal Reserve Bank, the $5.3 billion for projects that the World Bank has “paused”, $440 million for new hospitals which is now being blocked by the World Bank and food aid which is feeding roughly half of Afghanistan’s 38.4 million people.

Perhaps most of all, it needs American help in persuading Afghan professionals to remain in the country to keep the schools and hospitals open, clean water flowing and the electricity running.

All of the above are dependent on the Taliban proving that is in control of the security situation in Afghanistan. When the bombs went off – it failed the first test.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • > When the bombs went off – it failed the first test.
    Did it? These won’t be the last bombs ISIS-K will set off in Afghanistan, they are just the opening shots. How the Taliban responds (to these and the US drone strikes) is the real test.

    We need to work with the Taliban, there are now thousands of people who have been unable to get out, they have knowledge and skills that the Taliban need to quickly establish a national government and start to build the international relationships Afghanistan needs.

  • “We need to work with the Taliban” Why? When the Taliban clearly don’t want to work with “us”- and do we wish to support such a repressive anti-libertarian, anti women, anti everything regime?

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Aug '21 - 8:02am

    @Tony re 29th Aug ’21 – 5:54am

    How would you propose to help those people who we reasonably expect to suffer under Taliban rule? In practical terms rather than ideals?

  • David Evans 29th Aug '21 - 8:31am

    Nonconformistradical – just as is the case with the Uighurs in China, I am afraid there is almost nothing we can do for the people suffering under Taliban rule.

    Boris Johnson will say pious nothings about concern, but we all know that is nothing new.

    The real commitment to help those people ceased on 29 February 2020 with Donald Trump’s Doha surrender, and finally disappeared on 14 April when Joe Biden finally announced his and acceptance of Trump’s “America First, the Rest on their own” agenda.

    We are entering a very dark time indeed.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Aug '21 - 9:04am

    @David Evans
    “I am afraid there is almost nothing we can do for the people suffering under Taliban rule.”
    Given that you use the word ‘almost’ rather than ‘absolutely’ – what do you think we can do for them?

  • If we are interested in human rights, why does this depend on the country we are talking about? We could look more closely at Saudi Arabia. Human rights? Perhaps if Afghanistan had large oil fields and the income to buy weapons from us would our attitude be different?
    It is time for a consistent ethical foreign policy.

  • Nonconformistradical – If they can get out to UK territory give them asylum – little more is possible. If you look on them as the equivalent of Prisoners of War, e.g. those left behind from the retreat to Dunkirk, think what we managed then and add about 4,500 miles to their problems. Perhaps the 300 miles to our High Commission in Islamabad is an alternative, but I don’t see many making it even that far, and certainly not with a family.

    We have to ask ourselves, how far would they have to travel across Taliban territory, without help and probably without much money which could be taken from them at any time, and onwards through possibly several foreign countries, before they get to somewhere remotely safe.

    Also do you think they would trust us, and except out of total desperation and terror, what would drive them to take their chances and flee?

    The West’s leaders chose to desert them. Would you trust Boris Johnson and Priti Patel to let them in, except possibly as a nice one off photo shoot to show off their nice side?

    Ultimately what do people think can be done (as opposed to talked about and hoped for)?

  • Peter Hirst 29th Aug '21 - 3:58pm

    It’s extremely complicated. We certainly need to talk and negotiate with the Taliban. They must however take responsibility for what happens in their country however much they refuse to. Anything else leads to chaos. We should give them some months to allow their control to be established. Any further killings are however a retrograde step whoever does them. Drones are not a credible way to take revenge except in isolated and exceptional circumstances.

  • Charles Smith 31st Aug '21 - 7:14pm

    The Taliban held full control of Kabul’s international airport Tuesday after the last U.S. plane left its runway, marking the end of America’s longest war and leaving behind a now-quiet airfield and Afghans outside it still hoping to flee the insurgents’ rule.

    Vehicles raced back and forth along the Hamid Karzai International Airport’s sole runway on the northern military side of the airfield. Before dawn broke, heavily armed Taliban fighters walked through hangars on the military side, passing some of the seven CH-46 helicopters the State Department used in its evacuations before rendering them unflyable.

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