Most accounts of the Taliban’s emergence in the 1990s attribute it to a Saudi-funded and Pakistani-led project. Its aim was to create an Islamic state in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, one that would keep Iran at bay for the Saudis and India for the Pakistanis. This was necessary because the mujahedeen, who had routed the Soviets with help from the United States, were too riven by internecine quarrels to form a government. But the Taliban were also heirs to the Marxist state the mujahedeen had defeated. Like many anticolonial movements during the Cold War, Islamists, too, had adopted the Soviet model of an ideological, one-party state.
The Taliban were belated supporters of this Cold War model, which had already outlived its global historical context. Unlike Iran, the only successful version of such an Islamic state, the Taliban’s emirate in Afghanistan was crude, violent and unstable. But in contrast to pre-modern examples of Islamic governance, it remained true to the Soviet model in establishing the collective rule of an ideological party, without sharing it with kings, aristocrats, military commanders or even the higher clergy who had traditionally advised and supported Afghanistan’s previous rulers. The Taliban of the 1990s represented not the Middle Ages but rather a worn-out modernity from the 20th century.
The Taliban was also one of the last Islamist movements to emerge at a time when Islamism’s old-fashioned vision of an ideological state was being challenged or discredited globally. This soon became evident when al Qaeda sought refuge in Afghanistan, taking advantage of the country’s poverty, instability and lack of international recognition. Unlike the Taliban, al Qaeda was a post-Cold War movement dedicated, like its Western enemies, to a global project in which the state was a means rather than an end. It would displace Islamism from the radical edge of politics and drive it to the center, sometimes even toward liberalism, exemplified by the increasing popularity of the so-called Turkish model of electoral power and capitalist economics among parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda after 9/11.
Coming to Afghanistan as adventurers, al Qaeda’s fighters turned into parasites who ended up destroying their host. The Taliban seem to have imagined they could use the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity to claim the international recognition they craved, either by conducting the investigation into al Qaeda’s responsibility or even by surrendering to the U.S. In the event, they famously “melted away” with the U.S. invasion in the classic gesture of Afghan warfare, which is about negotiation and shifting allegiances more than it is about zero-sum games. Ideology here is not an existential condition so much as the mark of loyalty to a cause that is itself revocable.
The Taliban’s biggest enemy is neither the international community, toward which they are emollient, nor liberal Afghans, but the Islamic State group (ISIS), which has taken up the mantle of global militancy from an al Qaeda in decline.
The Taliban have returned to power in the same way they left it 20 years ago, by negotiations and shifting allegiances in the wake of Western war crimes, venality and incompetence. So far, the change of regime has been remarkably nonviolent, with the Taliban also switching from a Soviet to an American narrative. Their statements of amnesty and inclusion may indicate not hypocrisy but the failure of Islamism. For the Taliban’s biggest enemy is neither the international community, toward which they are emollient, nor liberal Afghans, but the Islamic State group (ISIS), which has taken up the mantle of global militancy from an al Qaeda in decline.
ISIS was a product of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and, like the U.S. and coalition forces, represents the role of global politics in Afghanistan. If al Qaeda and ISIS used Afghanistan as a base from which to conduct global operations, the U.S. and its allies did the same by replacing terrorism with counterterrorism. In both cases, the real objectives and beneficiaries were elsewhere, primarily in North America and Western Europe. Afghanistan itself was a sideshow in which money and careers could be made and repatriated. In the meantime, an artificial economy was created there to service birds of passage, from diplomats and aid workers to military officials and outside contractors.
Whether it was al Qaeda and ISIS or the U.S. and its allies, the global focus of each party has made it impossible to stabilize Afghanistan. They have prevented it from settling into a regional context in which Afghanistan could foster the commercial and political relations that are essential for knitting it to the region by bonds of mutual dependence. If anything, the U.S. was interested in limiting, if not entirely disrupting, Afghanistan’s relations with Iran, Russia and China. But this only led to proxy wars fought between regional powers on Afghan soil, most importantly India and Pakistan’s jockeying for influence against one another. The U.S. was unable to stop these conflicts, which made peace impossible in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has been a site of global or great power rivalries since the 19th century, whether between the British and Russian empires, the U.S. and the Soviets, or the West and Islamic militancy. These conflicts have had other kinds of global consequences, including, in our own time, the outward flow of migrants and drugs. The task now is deglobalizing Afghanistan, something the involvement of distant powers like the U.S. and U.K. can only prevent. Their exit affords the prospect of a regional settlement in which no single country can take control of Afghanistan. It requires political maturity to accomplish this, but there is no other option if peace is the objective.
The real choice facing Afghanistan is not between a corrupt republic and a dogmatic emirate but between global and regional approaches to peace. The Taliban constitute the regional option, while ISIS and the international community, each in its own way, represent the global one. The Taliban’s two decades out of power have allowed it to forge relations within their neighborhood with former enemies like Iran, while abandoning erstwhile friends like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates outside it. Taking their place in the anti-Islamist camp after the Arab Spring, these Persian Gulf countries have lost influence among the Taliban, which have turned for advice to pro-Islamist states like Qatar and Turkey instead.
We may not approve of Afghanistan making common cause with Russia, China and Iran, as well as with neighbors like Pakistan. But such a regional arrangement is the only way to prevent Afghanistan from hosting terrorists or promoting the heroin trade and outflow of refugees. Since the Taliban want international recognition and assistance, engaging them might offer the best chance to modulate Afghanistan’s social, political and economic life, while allowing for its regional integration in a pluralist neighborhood. To call for more interventions and sanctions is to risk another civil war, and so the West’s exit must become its opportunity.