The Americans have finally left Afghanistan and a new era for the country under the Taliban has begun. Even historians of Afghanistan’s brutal civil war must be surprised, however, at quite how similar it appears to be to the past, and the speed with which names from the 1990s have reappeared.
Here is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord whose militia indiscriminately shelled the capital in the 1990s and who was only allowed to return to the country three years ago, joining a council that may run the country, sitting alongside the former president, Hamid Karzai.
Here is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious Afghan warlord whose forces have been accused of numerous crimes, now seeking a national role alongside the Taliban.
And here is Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a pro-US warlord, though a warlord nonetheless, whose militia opposed the Taliban when they were in power, returning to Afghanistan and writing fluid op-eds for the Washington Post quoting Roosevelt and asking Americans for more weapons.
This is the grubby business of sudden realignment. Victory and defeat have created strange bedfellows. As politicians, militias and countries urgently seek new allies, they appear willing to tolerate almost any amount of whitewashing of history just to remain relevant. No one is immune to this grubbiness, not the Americans, not the outside world, nor even the Taliban themselves.
In a matter of days, the US was forced to negotiate with the foe they spent 20 years fighting, just to get their personnel out of the airport safely. From being the cause of instability, the Taliban were reconstituted as the “good guys,” trying to stop ISIS bombers getting through. “I don’t think there’s anything to convince me [the Taliban] let it happen,” said the head of the US Central Command, of the Kabul airport attack that killed Afghan civilians and American soldiers.
In the Western media, a narrative of good vs evil continues, even as the “Resistance” to the Taliban calls for more war, endless war – the precise reason many Afghans gave for letting the Taliban walk unopposed into their cities, just to end the conflict.
In a curious way, this grubby search for allies is more problematic for the West and the Taliban than it is for Afghanistan’s neighbors, because both seek a level of moral consistency to their actions.
For the West, there is a moral and political dimension to their alliances: it still matters for Western politicians to be seen to deal with “morally pure” actors, and thus the only way to make alliances with problematic groups – which, frankly, after decades of brutal conflict includes almost everyone significant in Afghanistan – is to downplay or ignore those crimes. The political dimension is especially complex, because no Western government whose citizens died in combat can afford even the merest appearance that those sacrifices were in vain.
The Taliban, too, need to demonstrate a certain ideological purity, especially after fighting the West for so long – they, too, have lost comrades and need to demonstrate to their followers it wasn’t in vain. Yet they will also be acutely aware of the precariousness of their victory. Afghanistan has billions of dollars squirrelled away abroad and the Taliban will need access to banking networks to get hold of it. Taliban representatives have already indicated they want genuine international recognition, with embassies and diplomats.
To get it, they will need to prize open their opaque, centralized power structure and their, perhaps more opaque, religious teachings. They will have to share power, at least nominally, and with people they have tried to hurt. One such figure is the former president, Hamid Karzai, to whom they may be forced to offer a role – the same Karzai whose brother the Taliban murdered and publicly celebrated doing so.
No one will come out of these compromises clean. Even those who ostensibly won the war are scrambling to ensure they don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
For Pakistan, it is one thing to have, as in the 1990s, a pariah Islamist group in charge next door. It is quite another to have an Islamist group that have just thrown out the superpower in charge and be accepted internationally.
For Pakistan, the best outcome is a Taliban government operating just below the threshold of global respectability, so Kabul will always need Islamabad. The worst is a Taliban state whose conservatism could motivate Pakistanis, and whose defeat of the US can be contrasted unfavorably with Islamabad’s more pliant position. And so, mere days after an ally took power in Kabul, Pakistan will need to seek out grubby anti-Taliban alliances in order to contain their power.
Defeat makes realists of everyone, but in Afghanistan even the winners must compromise.
The necessity of dealing with the reality of the Taliban within the international community while appearing to stay true to values once espoused, means whitewashing crimes on all sides. Everyone involved – the Taliban, the “Resistance,” Western, Afghan and regional politicians and spymasters who still want careers – are happy to see some whitewashing, as long as the weapons and the money and the power keep flowing.
The only people not asked are the families of their victims, who once had to wear mourning black, and now see the men who caused their tragedies coming back to Kabul.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.