In the end, all the intellectual gymnastics could not hide the real deal. The Taliban 2.0 narrative crashed at the altar of the ambitions of the old Taliban. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone but the West, particularly the US, who has now got in the habit of getting surprised. The unveiling of a hard-line interim government led by Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, with key roles being shared by high-profile members of the Taliban, is the latest in a series of setbacks the US has faced when it comes to Afghanistan. The 33-member interim Government is a veritable of who’s who of the global terror leadership. The Taliban had supposedly promised an inclusive government and it was supposedly accepted in good faith by Washington only to realise now that forget women and minorities, Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of Jalalauddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network, designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US, has been appointed acting Interior minister. The humiliation is total as a new terrorist regime is taking charge in Kabul just days before the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
There was never any doubt about what the Taliban would do but hope springs eternal in the labyrinthine maze of American bureaucracy whereof the idea that the US would be able to work with the Taliban to conduct counterterrorism operations against ISIS-K is actually taken seriously. When asked whether the Taliban is an enemy, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan has suggested that“it’s hard to put a label on it,” because the US is“yet to see what they are going to be now that they’re in control—physical control of Afghanistan.” Clearly, the last two decades of fighting against the Taliban has not been enough to understand what they are likely to do in Afghanistan once in control.
The Taliban are busy doing what they do best – oppress their people. Protests are growing across the country as ordinary Afghans push back against the brutality of the Taliban. From Herat to Kabul rallies have been held as a show of defiance with chants of ‘freedom’ in the air. Women are coming out in big numbers to underscore their growing vulnerability under a regime that sees no place for them in society or politics. Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada has asked the Government to uphold Sharia law. The Taliban have warned the public against protesting “until all the government offices have opened, and the laws for protests have been explained,” making it clear that they would brook no dissent against their rule.
The Biden Administration is facing flak at home for its disastrous Afghanistan policy that will likely hang across Joe Biden’s neck like an albatross. With hundreds of would-be evacuees desperate to board waiting charter flights out of Afghanistan, there is an immediacy to the challenges Washington is facing. But the long term challenge is a more substantive one with the announcement of the new Government by the Taliban. The Haqqani network was designated a foreign terrorist organisation when Biden was the Vice President. It had targeted US forces and has continued to work in close coordination with Al Qaeda. Now its leader is the interior minister. The Taliban itself has been closely coordinating its actions with Al Qaeda and the Haqqanis, so the assumption that the extremist group will provide a broad-based government or that it is even interested in governance says more about those making such assertions than about the Taliban.
For the US, the fall of Afghanistan is the most consequential foreign policy crisis, and Biden owns it. For a nation that saw unprecedented unity at home and support abroad after the attacks of September 11, 2001, today, two decades after, finds divisions all around as its leadership struggles to contain the damage unleashed by its incompetence and short-sightedness
The US has been left to issue a statement that underscores the dilemmas it faces. It has expressed concerns about “the affiliations and track records of some of the individuals,” adding that America would “judge the Taliban by its actions, not words.” But the Taliban are making it clear with their actions that they have won a military victory which is being encashed as they move towards politics. There’s to be no negotiated settlement; the barrel of the gun will decide the political spoils. The decimation of resistance in Panjshir valley makes it amply clear.
The US can still salvage some of its credibility. But does it have the political will to build a global coalition that refuses to recognise the terrorist Government that the Taliban intends to unleash in Afghanistan? Washington still hopes “to hold the Taliban to their commitments” to allow safe passage for foreign nationals and Afghans with travel documents, “including permitting flights currently ready to fly out of Afghanistan.”
That violent extremism would gain momentum worldwide as a result of this perceived victory of jihadist ideology is a given. Whatever the gloss, this is no victory of a nationalist movement. The Taliban leadership and its foot soldiers retain an extremist ideology at its very core and unless the world comes to terms with this basic reality, there is no possibility of an adequate policy response to a challenge that is only growing to go bigger with time. American follies may have generated the present chaos, but its consequences will be felt far and wide.
Washington’s inability to withdraw with even a semblance of dignity intact will have a great bearing on America’s future conduct in global politics and it is not readily evident that the Biden administration is up to the task of moving ahead purposefully. For the US, the fall of Afghanistan is the most consequential foreign policy crisis, and Biden owns it. For a nation that saw unprecedented unity at home and support abroad after the attacks of September 11, 2001, today, two decades after, finds divisions all around as its leadership struggles to contain the damage unleashed by its incompetence and short-sightedness. Pax Americana may or may not end in Kabul, but Washington will have to set new terms of engagement with the world after its disastrous retreat in the face of terror onslaught in South Asia.