Too many in the West are falling for the myth of Taliban 2.0.
If someone had told you in September 2001, as the Twin Towers fell and people in the Pentagon perished, that on the 20th anniversary of this atrocity America would be contemplating aligning with the guys who helped to do it, you would have thought them insane. And yet here we are, fast approaching 20 years since that grim, apocalyptic day, and a US military chief is saying it’s ‘possible’ his forces will work alongside the Taliban. Yes, the same Taliban that hosted Osama bin Laden as his minions were plotting 9/11. The same Taliban whose ties with al-Qaeda have actually deepened over the past two decades – as a recent UN report said, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are now closely bonded by ideological sympathy and intermarriage. That Taliban. That al-Qaeda, essentially. This is who America’s military chiefs are fluttering their eyelashes at.
The ‘possible’ comment came from Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, no less. At a Pentagon press conference yesterday, Milley was asked about the possibility of his forces striking up an operational relationship with the Taliban in order to hit out at IS-K (the Islamic State – Khorasan Province). This is the local ISIS network that has carried out numerous atrocities in Afghanistan, including the Kabul airport suicide bombing of 26 August that killed close to 200 people, 13 American soldiers among them. That is ‘possible’, he said. Yes, the Taliban are ‘ruthless’, he acknowledged, but my enemy’s enemy and all that (the Taliban and ISIS have been locked in battle in recent years). Milley’s comment follows the borderline praise given to the Taliban by Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command. America’s dealings with the Taliban during the securing of Kabul airport were ‘very pragmatic and very businesslike’, he cooed.
No, Milley’s comment does not mean America definitely will launch counterterrorism operations alongside the Taliban – the movement that hosted the people who carried out the worst terrorist attack of modern times, let’s remind ourselves one more time. But that such a prospect can even be floated in public is revealing. There are so many strange and striking things about America’s slow warming to the Taliban. What was the point of losing 2,400 US military personnel, largely in battle with the Taliban, if the US is now going to strike up a businesslike and possibly counter-terror relationship with these ‘ruthless’ Islamists? And what will the 20th-anniversary commemorations of 9/11 feel like, what will they mean, if people know that behind the scenes America’s top military brass are wondering if they should get together with the Taliban / al-Qaeda to rout out IS-K?
Partly, this all speaks to how disastrous the intervention in Afghanistan has been. It has created the space for the emergence of Islamist terror groups that are even worse than the ones America declared war on post-9/11. Twenty years of war, ‘nation-building’, poppy-destroying and teaching Afghans about things like conceptual art have not transformed Afghanistan into the Seattle of Central Asia, as the NGO industry fantasised it would. The intervention didn’t even finish off the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which was its basic mission. Rather, the Taliban is back in charge, its al-Qaeda allies no doubt feel emboldened, and even more nihilistic forms of Islamist barbarism have moved in to fill the vacuums predictably left by the post-9/11 regime-change policies of the West in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. And mighty America, having launched Operation Enduring Freedom following 9/11, must now instead endure the galling fact that it has essentially been defeated by the 12th-century movement that gave haven and succour to the man who masterminded the slaughter of 3,000 Americans 20 years ago. America might soon need to ask its sworn enemies of September 2001 for help. These are dizzying levels of global humiliation.
There is something else going on, too. A more deep-rooted incoherence among the Western elites. This disarray finds expression right now in the extraordinary naivety about the Taliban. There is almost an unwillingness to accept the truth about the Taliban – that it is a backward, regressive and dangerous movement that poses a significant threat to humanity and liberty in Afghanistan. Instead, many in the West, from the military down, from White House advisers to media commentators, seem to have bought into the fantasy of Taliban 2.0, the idea of a kinder, gentler Taliban that will not be quite as misogynistic as it was 20 years ago and might only chop off the hands of serial shoplifters rather than your average desperate bread thief. There is almost an effort to rehabilitate the Taliban – witness White House press secretary Jen Psaki imploring the Taliban to think about its ‘role in the international community’. Perhaps the Taliban will one day join the UN Women’s Rights Committee, alongside Iran?
Everywhere you look, people are wondering out loud if we can work with the Taliban. ‘Has the Taliban changed since it was last in power?’, headlines ask. Western observers urge the Taliban to create an ‘inclusive’ government and to pursue ‘national reconciliation’, as if they were talking to Lib Dem local councillors rather than a movement that whips women who refuse to hide themselves beneath a shroud and which blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These discussions about a future ‘inclusive’ government, overseen by the Taliban and incorporated into the international community, are taking place as powerful local Taliban commanders give interviews to the BBC saying girls should not be educated, non-Islamic music should be banned, and if you commit adultery ‘the punishment is being stoned to death’. I can’t see these people taking part in consensus-building workshops.
Yes, it is highly likely that the Taliban has changed. Things change over time. Twenty years of war and exile (for the Taliban leadership) will undoubtedly have had an impact on this movement. But the idea that the Taliban is no longer really the Taliban – that it might swap its Islamist intolerance for inclusion policies – is deluded. A key argument of the Taliban 2.0 naïfs is that exile may have helped to globalise and thus normalise the Taliban leadership. In a piece titled ‘How exile changed the Taliban’, the FT describes Taliban leaders living in the ‘gleaming modernity’ of Qatar and being wined and dined by diplomats in various other Gulf states and in Pakistan. There have been ‘drawing-room discussions’ about creating an ‘inclusive’ government, it says. This sounds like a global version of the nonsense ideology of ‘deradicalisation’ that has been attempted on radical Islamists in Britain. Western officials really seem to believe that a bit of therapy and flattery or a glimpse of modernity, whether in the educational quarters of Belmarsh Prison or in a swanky hotel in Doha, is all you need to transform a hardcore Islamist into a hippy.
In reality, globalisation can often have the opposite effect to ‘deradicalisation’. It can increase Islamist radicalism rather than temper it. One of the key points of tension between the Taliban and al-Qaeda back in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that where the former were intensely local, focused solely on establishing an emirate within the bounds of Afghanistan, the latter were a highly globalised, technologically sussed outfit drawn to the spectacle of international terrorism rather than to the hard, dull graft of making a local theocracy. If the Taliban, over the past two decades, has entrenched its ties both with the middle-class globalists of al-Qaeda and the rich, modern sheikhs of the Gulf states, that could well make it more menacing, more assertively Islamist, not less.
Note, for example, how unfussed the Taliban is about having its assets frozen by a hostile West. The FT reports that ‘one Western official involved in a training initiative on modern governance’ – yes, they are training the Taliban to be modern! – recognised that ‘top Talibs appeared unconcerned’ about direct financial assistance potentially being cut off by Western governments, because they believe the money ‘will be replaced by China, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia’. And it probably will be. The exiled globalisation of the Taliban leadership could end up assisting rather than hampering the Taliban’s determination to make good on its emirate and enforce its writ across Afghanistan, through expanding its contacts book and giving it a taste of more globalised networks of power, influence and the language of terror.
Of course, the Taliban is a fractured movement. Indeed, its recent successes in breaking beyond its usual Pashtun constituency and winning the backing of other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, including Tajiks and Uzbeks, is both a sign of its strength and its underlying instability. Its growth allowed it to seize virtually all of Afghanistan, but it also stores up sectarian problems for the future. More importantly, the Taliban’s expansion makes it staggeringly naive of Westerners to hear the odd Taliban official telling the BBC or CNN that ‘We will respect women’s rights’ and to take this as good coin. The Taliban is a multitude, much of it as ruthless as the Talibs of the late Nineties, if not more so. In parts of Afghanistan, Taliban officials are turfing women out of work and university and punishing them for failing to dress modestly. There have been executions, crackdowns on anti-Taliban protests. Most strikingly of all, the Haqqani network has been given responsibility for security in Kabul. This is the wing of the Taliban with the closest ties to al-Qaeda. It is currently under sanctions by the US. The leadership of the supposed Taliban 2.0 gave the green light to al-Qaeda’s friends to run Kabul and Western observers are still talking about a new and improved Taliban. It’s surreal.
There are many reasons for the Western delusions about Taliban 2.0. It is partly just reality avoidance. Who wants to admit the truth of the colossal failures of Western intervention in Afghanistan? It might also demonstrate – disturbingly – that the Taliban’s PR machine is better than the West’s (another thing they learned during the globalising experience of exile, perhaps?). More fundamentally, though, Western naivety about the Taliban speaks to a profound reluctance to face up to our enemies, or even to admit to ourselves who our enemies are. For 20 years, there has been a severe caginess among Western officials, observers and academics towards even naming the new terror networks that have sworn hostility towards the West and engaged in vast acts of barbarism against the citizens of Western nations. Don’t say ‘Islamist’, we’re told, as these people ‘have nothing to do with Islam’. Better still, don’t talk about the Islamist problem at all, and maybe it will go away. A West that is not even willing to discuss the fact that a British schoolteacher is still in hiding after he was threatened with death by Islamic fundamentalists is hardly going to find it easy to be honest about the far larger global problem of Islamist regression.
Here’s the thing: a West that no longer knows what it stands for is not going to be able to articulate what it stands against. A West consumed by loathing for its own traditions and values, as can be seen in the woke turn against modern Western history being embraced everywhere from the White House to university campuses across the Anglosphere, is hardly going to make a good fist of standing against a foreign movement that likewise loathes our way of life. The delusions about Taliban 2.0 is at root an expression of moral reluctance, even moral cowardice, where obfuscation replaces clarity and mythmaking about a ‘new Taliban’ takes the place of the tough task of asserting that our way of life is superior to theirs. Western observers cannot, or will not, admit the truth about the Taliban because this would entail doing things they no longer do – making a judgement, taking a stand, and defending enlightenment against theocracy.