Butterfly Effect: Why Taliban 2.0 Is More Dangerous
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The new Taliban is the old Taliban — but much smarter. And this time, the world wants to do business with them.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Bombed buildings. Families huddled in corners, hoping to survive missile strikes. Many fleeing with meager possessions on rickety motorbikes. Taliban flags hoisted above city squares.
The images and videos emerging from Afghanistan today could be from the mid-1990s. Then, like now, the Taliban were rapidly gaining ground amid a brutal civil war, capturing cities, brutalizing enemies and marching toward Kabul. Over just the past week, the militant Islamist group has taken control of at least seven provincial capitals, including Kunduz, the city where it made its last stand in 2001 against America.
But if the militant Islamist group takes charge of Afghanistan again — as increasingly appears likely — expect it to rule with the brutal iron fist of the Taliban of old, couched in strategic astuteness born of experience. It’s a combination that makes the Taliban far more dangerous than they were in the 1990s.
At meetings in Doha this week, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is believed to have warned the Taliban not to attempt to come to power in Kabul by force. Such a Taliban government, Khalilzad reportedly told the group’s leaders, would not enjoy international legitimacy.
Yet by now the Taliban know that such warnings — especially from Khalilzad and the U.S. — are empty threats. Even as officials from the U.S., Russia, China and Pakistan were gathering in Doha to try to convince the Afghan government and the Taliban to stop fighting, the Pentagon made clear that it viewed Washington’s role in Afghanistan henceforth as only diplomatic. Asked by reporters on Monday about the Taliban’s lightning advances across large swaths of Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said: “It’s their country to defend now. It’s their struggle.”
True, the Taliban would be wary of international isolation. In the 1990s, when the group grabbed power in Kabul after a brutal civil war, it was largely a pariah outfit. That’s not so today. Chastened by the lasting power of the group in the face of two decades of war waged by the most powerful military in human history, Afghanistan’s neighbors and other powers are instead openly consorting with the Taliban.
Russia and Iran, which in the 1990s supported the Northern Alliance led by the charismatic warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud (who was assassinated by killers widely believed to have been sent by Osama bin Laden two days before Sept. 11, 2001) against the Islamist group, have both built strong working relations with the Taliban. Pakistan remains the Taliban’s chief sponsor and supporter. Turkey has long had relations with the group.
China, whose diplomats were once murdered by the Taliban, now hosts meetings with the group’s leaders. Beijing has contracts to mine copper from the giant Aynak mine in Afghanistan and wouldn’t want its investments to be lost. And even India, the last major holdout, is now seeking talks with the Taliban.
All while the group has shown no signs of easing up on its bombings and killings. The underlying message from most international stakeholders appears to be one of quiet resignation, and a desire to cut losses by ensuring that they keep channels of communication with the Taliban open. The brutal former rulers of Afghanistan know this — no matter what Khalilzad says.
Yet while it’s easy to think of the group through the lens of medieval barbarism, it is also showing smart tactical thinking in its military approach. It has focused on taking control of territories that border Afghanistan’s neighbors Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China, Iran and Pakistan. In July, the Taliban captured the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan, the Islam Qala crossing with Iran and the Torghundi crossing with Turkmenistan.
Then, last weekend, it took over the city of Zaranj along the border with Iran. It is through Zaranj that India was building a regional transit network to landlocked Afghanistan. With these border cities and crossings under Taliban control, Afghanistan’s neighbors now have no option but to deal with the militant group if they want to keep trade going — which is important for ordinary Afghan traders trying to make a living. But trading through these crossings will also mean taxes go to the Taliban instead of to the elected government in Kabul, further loading the dice in favor of the Islamists.
Unlike in the 1990s, the Taliban no longer have a millstone around their neck in the form of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind and wealthy Saudi financier who effectively bought his sanctuary in Afghanistan by bankrolling the group.
And unless Afghan territory is used to launch attacks against the West, the Taliban know they need not fear a fresh war against America. Meanwhile, the U.S. knows that sanctions and other economic measures don’t really work against the Taliban: They didn’t reduce the group’s violence for two decades.
The Biden administration — to its credit — has facilitated the evacuation of thousands of Afghan translators and others who worked with the U.S. Army. But a vast majority of the country’s 38 million citizens don’t have that option, including women, ethnic and religious minorities and political opponents of the Taliban.
It can be hard to imagine how things could possibly get worse for a country that has witnessed nonstop wars for more than four decades. Yet there’s little doubt: Under Taliban 2.0, Afghanistan’s future will be darker than its past.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi