Taliban fighters patrol the streets of Kabul (photo: AFP)
For nearly four decades, the Middle East has been picking up the pieces of the US strategic folly in Afghanistan and paying the price for its unending wars in the region.
The debacle led to the creation of Islamic jihad by CIA proxies that rose during the civil war in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979, with devastating consequences for the region and the world.
Both governments and societies have shouldered the brunt of the terrorism that has since shaken the Arab and Muslim nations and sparked a “clash of civilisations” between the West and Islam.
The sweeping Taliban victory after the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan this month has brought back memories of the chaos and horror caused by violent terrorist networks and raised fears across the region of the jihadists making a comeback.
Some even fear that the Taliban victory could have a broader geopolitical impact on a region already battered by civil wars, regional conflicts, despotism, corruption and underdevelopment.
A week after the Taliban stormed into the Afghan capital Kabul, the movement seems to be consolidating its control over Afghanistan, facing few challenges to its renewed theocratic rule.
Taliban fighters are using force to break up protests, beating people trying to flee the country at Kabul Airport, and stepping up efforts to arrest people who worked for the former government, particularly in the security services.
Most horrifying has been the climate of fear hanging over the battered country, as Afghans remember the Taliban’s brutal rule by stone-faced insurgents who imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law during their short-lived control of Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Reactions abroad have been confused, especially from the US’s Western allies who scrambled to respond to the crisis after NATO troops were bounced into withdrawing from Afghanistan with little in the way of consultation from the US administration.
While US President Joe Biden remains under criticism for his fast retreat, Western governments have sent mixed signals on how to address the new situation in Afghanistan.
Some have realised that they will have to grapple with one of their biggest foreign-policy and security challenges in decades and continue their efforts to suppress global terrorism threats and a possible refugee influx.
Meanwhile, Pakistan and Iran, Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries which have nurtured close ties with the Taliban over the years, stand to benefit from the US withdrawal in different but geopolitically significant ways.
For Islamabad and Tehran, the retreat removes the US security presence that they believe Washington was using to expand its influence in Afghanistan at their expense. Both Iran and Pakistan hope to make regional strategic gains through the Taliban’s victory.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan welcomed the changeover in Afghanistan and said that “the Taliban have broken the shackles of slavery.” Iran’s position was straightforward, with President Ebrahim Raisi taunting the Taliban’s takeover as “America’s military defeat.”
Qatar, the Gulf emirate which has served as a facilitator for the US-Taliban talks and maintains close ties with the Islamist movement, endorsed the movement’s takeover, with its Foreign Minister Mohamed Bin Abdel-Rahman Al Thani, promising that Qatar will do “its utmost to bring a peaceful transition” to Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s victory received a warm welcome from like-minded Islamist groups, such as the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan and the terror-listed Al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia.
Yet, governments and mainstream Arabs remain stunned by the troubled US exit and are taking the Biden administration, even though implicitly, to task over the chaos the withdrawal is leaving behind and the risks of a spillover.
Moreover, it is evident that the Taliban comeback in Afghanistan is galvanising many regional actors as policy makers try to reassess their security and strategic calculations as a result of this huge challenge for a terribly fluid region.
Whether or not regional policy chiefs have been surprised by the sudden takeover of Afghanistan, or were well prepared for this moment, broader questions have arisen in the wake of the Taliban’s victory as pessimistic assessments of where things are going are also emerging.
The most pressing challenge is the tremendous impact that a strict Islamist system will create in Afghanistan, as most Arab governments are pressing ahead with plans to introduce religious reforms at a time when the region seems to be at a turning point in its unsettled struggle between nationalism and Islamism.
The reforms were triggered by the attempts of Political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood group, to seize on the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011 to take power and advance their own agenda, spurring divisions with the largely nationalist and secular sector and religious minorities.
Across the region changes are aimed at reforming religious discourse and social behaviour and restructuring religious institutions away from fundamentalism and extremism and not without resistance from traditionalists and Political Islam.
The much-needed reforms are being widely viewed as leading to a more open and more tolerant society and a forthcoming path to a broader Islamic reformation and enlightenment. In the long term, the social changes could hopefully end the vicious cycle of nationalism versus Islamism and set the path for democratic reforms.
Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban has now put all that at stake. The movement has ruled out an elected government, and its spokesmen have made it clear that the group envisages a Sharia basis for governing the country.
If Afghanistan is declared an “Islamic emirate,” in other words if it becomes a country ruled by a religious theocracy as it was in the 1990s, it will be a huge challenge for a terribly weakened region to sustain itself with another Islamist state next door.
The largely Sunni Arab world already feels threatened by the Shia-dominated Islamic Republic in Iran that seeks to export its religious model, and an extremist Sunni regime in the Middle East would have a devastating impact on reform endeavours.
The second key challenge is the fear that Afghanistan will become a terrorist safe haven again where Arab jihadists can operate and direct their networks back home as they did under the Taliban’s last emirate.
Arabs were among the thousands of jihadists who remained in Afghanistan after the war against the Soviet army in the 1980s and formed the backbone of Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terror group and other networks spread over the region from Iraq to Morocco.
Al-Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban seems to be intact, and there are no indications that the group, whose leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has pledged allegiance to Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada, has or will abandon its networks.
While Al-Qaeda could take advantage of its close ties to the group, the Taliban’s rise could also open up opportunities for the notorious Islamic State (IS) group, which suffered a devastating defeat in Iraq and Syria in 2017, to rise up again and expand.
The number of IS members in its branch in Afghanistan, known as the “Khorasan Emirate,” are estimated at 1,000 fighters, and these have been responsible for dozens of attacks against civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as scores of clashes with US, Afghan and Pakistani security forces, over the last few years.
The group, which is believed to have established footholds in some of the central and south Asian nations, receives support from the IS leadership in Iraq and Syria and is believed to be reconstituting to launch attacks that will not necessarily be restricted to Afghanistan or the Asian theatre.
However different things may be from the way the group behaved during its last run in power, since its return the Taliban have been tight-lipped about the future of these terrorist groups under their rule. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has only promised that “Afghanistan won’t be used against” the United States and its allies.
While the Taliban has not made any revisions to its extremist ideology or promised to change, radical groups and even mainstream Islamic political groups have publicly cheered its triumph as a victory by Allah for Islam, and they will look to the movement as a driving force for their resurgence.
If that disastrous scenario takes place, it will roll back all the gains that have been made so far in the battle against extremism, and the region will find itself once again trapped in Political Islamism and possibly an IS-like insurgency or one reminiscent of that carried out by returning Afghan veterans in the 1990s.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly