HAVING made their way to Kabul like a hot knife through butter, the Afghan Taliban are saying all the right things to a world jittery about the possibility of Afghanistan once again becoming a safe haven for transnational Islamist groups.
In his first news conference on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared they would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a launching pad to attack other countries. This pledge was part of the peace deal signed by the Taliban and the Trump administration in 2020 which was the prelude to the US withdrawal. And the world will be watching very closely to see if the victorious Afghan insurgents follow through.
There are two main points of concern here. Are the Taliban sincere in their assurances, and is it possible for them to keep transnational terrorists in check?
In the face of impending US military action after 9/11, Mullah Omar, despite his close ties with Osama bin Laden — whose financial support and foreign fighters had helped bring most of Afghanistan under Taliban control — wanted his Arab guest to leave. Ultimately though, he opted to not force bin Laden’s departure. That decision had profound, long-term consequences for the then Taliban government.
Twenty years later, the present crop of Taliban leaders may be more pragmatic. They know they need international aid to rebuild their war-wracked country, whose internal dissensions will otherwise ensure perpetual instability and chaos. However, over the years, Afghanistan’s militancy landscape has become more complex, reflecting shifting patterns in the wider arena of extremist violence. It is a Gordian knot that will be diabolically difficult to unravel.
According to a recent UNSC report, Al Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces; in some of them, it “operates under Taliban protection”. Meanwhile, the banned TTP has long enjoyed sanctuaries along Afghanistan’s border areas after being pushed out of Pakistan by military campaigns in Swat and the tribal districts. With the unification in 2020 of several splinter groups, overseen by Al Qaeda, the TTP is enjoying a resurgence manifested in increasing cross-border attacks into Pakistan. As per the UNSC report, IS, after a battering at the hands of the Taliban and the Afghan and US forces in Kunar and Nangarhar last year, has dispersed to other provinces and formed sleeper cells there. It is also feared that IS may be able to attract fighters from conflict zones in the Middle East. Last but not least, there also remain pockets of Uighur and Uzbek militants in Afghanistan.
The world, besides keeping up the pressure on the next Afghan government, must help it address the issue of militancy. Given that all the major players in the tragedy of Afghanistan — from the US to Pakistan — have played a role in seeding and enabling extremist violence in that country, it is incumbent upon them to do so.