Even by the CIA’s most pessimistic assessments, no one predicted the scale and pace of the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan. Two weeks ago, Kunduz was the only major city in Taliban hands. Now, the group has taken the entire country after the Americans frantically evacuated their diplomatic mission in Kabul, whilst President Ashraf Ghani negotiated his surrender and fled the country. Even for seasoned observers of the region, recent days have been dizzying.
Throughout these events, Taliban forces have been keen to portray themselves as reformed and responsible actors. This is a supposedly “new” Taliban; one in which “women can have access to education”, its spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, reassured the BBC in a televised interview on Sunday.
It is an approach that stems from a broader pattern of jihadist learning first pioneered by al-Qaeda. The group recognised shortly after 9/11 that if the global jihad movement was to survive into the future, then it would have to adopt an ostensibly softer and more inclusive approach to governing areas under its control. Recognising the success of this approach helps explain how jihadists have not just endured – but also thrived under – two decades of a so-called War on Terror.
The new strategy was spearheaded by the affiliate group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who realised that the immediate implementation of austere shariah rules was alienating local populations whose support would be vital to the longevity of any governance project. Locals would therefore have to be slowly socialised into the group’s ideology, allowing jihadist groups to establish long-term roots in the communities over which they ruled.
This became apparent after the fall of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, when jihadists poured into northern Mali, at one point controlling an area larger than the state of Texas. AQAP spotted the obvious opportunities this afforded and immediately wrote to their counterparts in the Sahel. “You have to be kind to them [the public] and make room for compassion and for leniency. Try to win them over through the conveniences of life and by taking care of their daily needs like food, electricity and water,” read a letter from Nasir al-Wuhayshi, formerly the leader of AQAP to Abdelmalek Droukdel, who led al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) at the time. “Providing these necessities will have a great effect on people and will make them sympathise with us.”
Those plans were never implemented in Mali because jihadist gains were quickly overturned through military action, but they can be seen in places such as Syria. Abu Mohammad al-Jolani who leads Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the group now controlling Syria’s north-western Idlib province, has been through various contortions to try and make himself more palatable to the international community in recent months.
Dressing in Western suits instead of military fatigues or Arab robes, Jolani gave an extended interview to Martin Smith from PBS News earlier this year in which he invoked the language of a tempered and responsible politician. “The judicial corps is completely independent in the liberated zones. It is not ours. There is an entire government here,” he said. “[People] would never imagine that this [salafi-jihadi] movement is also capable of building or running institutions in a country.” Despite these overtures, the group’s corruption and brutality are well documented. Prisoners are routinely tortured and extra-judicial killings are common, music is banned, and the group has a policy of forcibly converting Druze minorities to Sunni Islam. Women do not hold any notable or prominent positions within the Salvation Government (as it is known).
The Taliban are following the same playbook. The group has also been keen to demonstrate its supposedly newfound sense of responsibility. It did not storm the Afghan capital of Kabul but instead sent a delegation to negotiate President Ghani’s surrender and transfer of power. “Talks are continuing with the opposite party about entering the capital in a peaceful manner, so that the process of transferring power is carried out in safety and confidence,” read a recent Taliban statement.
This is very different from the group’s behaviour the last time they marched on Kabul in 1996. Back then they made a beeline for the former President Mohammad Najibullah, who lived under UN protection at the time. Along with his brother, Shahpur Ahmadzai, both men were seized and tortured to death before their corpses were dragged through the streets. They were then hung from lampposts outside the presidential palace in a very public warning of what was to follow.
Yet, despite the Taliban’s best efforts, videos have surfaced showing bodies in the streets of Spin Buldak in Kandahar province – once patrolled by British troops. Their victims had been taken from their homes and summarily executed in a pattern that has been repeated in other parts of the country. Reports have also emerged that women were turned away from universities in Herat after it fell to Taliban control, despite reassurances to the contrary from their spokesman. Meanwhile, the Taliban has also been releasing tens of thousands of fighters who were once jailed by the previous administration.
The danger lies in taking the political overtures of jihadists as markers of moderation. They’re not. Instead, what the global jihad movement has done is become more pragmatic in the pursuit of power, recognising the need to both socialise local communities into their agenda whilst simultaneously not provoking powerful enemies abroad.
It is a strategy that has paid dividends for the Taliban so far. Indulged by Doha and believed by the West through a series of overlong negotiations, they are in Afghanistan’s presidential palace once again. The national flag is gone and has been replaced with the Taliban’s, the clearest demonstration yet that the jihadi ancien régime is back.