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Nearly two decades after US forces toppled a repressive Taliban regime, the militant religious movement is once again gaining territory on battlefields across Afghanistan, vying to fill a power vacuum left as America is preparing to emerge from its longest war.
The prospect of a Taliban takeover reminiscent of the movement’s 1996 blitz on the capital, Kabul, has people inside and outside Afghanistan worried about the future.
While the Taliban have made quick wins – especially since US-led forces began a pullout in May – few experts see a full takeover of the capital as imminent.
However, the question remains: after 20 years in the political wilderness, how would the Taliban rule if they regained power? The short answer might be, not much different from last time.
“I think everyone is trying to read some pretty sparse tea leaves here”, says Laurel Miller, Asia Program Director for the International Crisis Group.
Taliban lead a rethought foreign policy
When the Taliban last seized power in 2001, their treatment of women – who were denied education and employment and forced to wear the ubiquitous burqa – as well as minorities, such as the predominantly Shia Hazaras Afghanistan, has earned the country pariah status in the international community. Only the neighboring Pakistan of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would even recognize the Taliban government.
The Taliban are keen not to repeat the mistakes of the past. In recent weeks, they have sought allies and reassured former adversaries, sending high-level delegations to Russia, China and Iran in the hope of gaining legitimacy, if not full support, from powerful regional actors. Miller said.
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“They are currently pursuing a fairly shrewd foreign policy,” she said, noting the visit to Beijing last week by a delegation of the Taliban led by the movement’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to meet with the government. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The Taliban “have been very keen to publicly show their acceptance by governments around the world,” Miller said.
Baradar also sat across from then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year to discuss a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Although she sees Washington as the enemy, Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban, has secured a world stage to strengthen the movement’s position, she said.
Leadership seeks international legitimacy
For the Taliban, these high-profile photo ops give them the legitimacy they need, but it goes beyond that. Beijing has reportedly promised large investments in energy and infrastructure projects, including the construction of a road network in Afghanistan.
Previously, a Taliban delegation visited Russia, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979, triggering events that led to 40 years of conflict there. The Kremlin’s concern is the security of Central Asian states along its southern border, said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
“Russia, China, and Iran have been interested in Afghanistan for several years just to make sure Americans go and leave in embarrassment,” said Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute.
Russia and China are both concerned about “spillovers,” he said – Russia doesn’t want the Taliban emboldening unrest in Central Asia, and Beijing wants to make sure Afghanistan doesn’t become a base for it. China’s Uyghur separatists. Xinjiang region.
Casting their net in an effort to gain international recognition, the Taliban would not necessarily be so dependent on Pakistan, with which they have a relatively close but frequently strained relationship.
Having Pakistan as an ally “is less important to the Taliban today than it was in the 1990s, when there were very few governments that recognized it,” says Madiha Afzal, David M. Rubenstein scholar in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Pakistan is keen to avoid a civil war in Afghanistan that could trigger the kind of refugee exodus that has destabilized its western border region in the past, Afzal said. He also wants to keep in check the murderer Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban. Although the group’s deadly attacks have waned in recent years, the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban could re-energize it.
Reports of atrocities on the ground
Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged concerns over the rapid progress of Taliban fighters as the United States nears the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of its forces. “We have also seen these reports of atrocities committed by the Taliban in the areas they have taken which are deeply, deeply disturbing and certainly do not reflect well the intentions of the Taliban for the country as a whole,” he said. he said at a press conference. in India.
Little has changed since the time the Taliban methodically fought – or bought off – warlords in the countryside before their 1996 victory over Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government, Haqqani says. Today, in areas where the Taliban have taken power, mainly in the country’s more conservative countryside, their conduct “is exactly what it was before.”
“They haven’t changed ideologically at all”, he says.
Just as they did in the run-up to their takeover in 1996, the Taliban established their own style of local government based on their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law wherever they seized territory.
“They carried out summary executions. They beat women. They are closing schools. They blow up clinics and infrastructure, ”says Haqqani.
Women in areas controlled by the Taliban cannot study or even leave their homes unless they wear a burqa and are accompanied by a male relative. Voice of America reports that the Taliban have distributed leaflets in some areas they control ordering residents to follow many of the strict rules imposed under the previous Taliban regime.
Despite this, the Taliban leadership has made vague promises to the contrary, Miller of Crisis Group said.
“They say that women can have jobs and education, that it is in accordance with Islamic principles and Afghan traditions,” she said. “Well, who is going to be the judge of what Islamic principles and Afghan traditions mean and what kind of limitations would that impose? “
The extrajudicial execution of Afghan comedian Nazar Mohammad Khasha in July sparked widespread anger. “Taliban forces were reportedly executed [Khasha] … because he mocked the Taliban leadership, “Patricia Gossman, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.”
It is also unclear to what extent senior leadership control over members of the grassroots militia, Brookings’ Afzal said.
“Political leadership has a face,” she said. “The soldiers on the ground look different.”