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Misunderstanding the Taliban

Whether the Western press, or the foreign policy establishment, want to admit it or not, the Taliban are not one-dimensional and they are not alien to Afghanistan.

The Taliban holds a news conference after taking over Afghanistan.
Sky News Australia

This blog originally appeared on Foreign Exchanges, which, like Discourse Blog, is a member of the Discontents media collective. Discourse Blog readers can save 25% on their first year at Foreign Exchanges by subscribing today using this link.

Recent weeks have brought a flood of distressing news and painful images from Afghanistan, depicting wide-scale human suffering and fear. The Taliban are often harsh, particularly towards women. There are also serious concerns about how non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, non-Pashtun, and indeed anyone who disagrees with them or gets in their way, will fare under their rule.

At the same time, the media coverage of the Taliban takeover has been deeply flawed, reflecting two decades of what amounts, in my view, to a willful misunderstanding of who the Taliban are. Some of that willful misunderstanding owes to journalists’ reflexive modes (conscious or unconscious) of framing the Taliban’s relationship with the wider Afghan population. And some of it owes to what is often called the “Blob,” meaning the foreign policy establishment in Washington and its institutional matrix of career foreign policy hands, think tankers, retired government officials and military officers, and status quo-friendly academics.

Media coverage of the Taliban takeover has already been rightly pilloried on three core counts. First, the media coverage has featured egregious levels of potential conflicts of interest. Cable news networks and major newspapers are repeatedly turning to retired generals and other Blob members without highlighting those figures’ ties to defense contractors or other entities with direct financial stakes in the war in Afghanistan. Second, many journalists have blatantly editorialized in favor of continued war and against the American withdrawal, rather than simply covering the story.

Third, the emotional performances and rhetoric of many elite commentators—their expressions of pain over the (very real) suffering of civilians—have been deservedly questioned because of the utter lack of introspection or consistency. As Ezra Klein, hardly a radical, writes in the New York Times, “The American foreign policy establishment obsesses over the harms caused by our absence or withdrawal. But there’s no similar culpability for the harms we commit or that our presence creates. We are much quicker to blame ourselves for what we don’t do than what we do.” And Eric Levitz argues that the interaction of anti-withdrawal media coverage and the Blob’s hawkishness is threatening to cement a misleading narrative: “if news coverage focuses exhaustively on the shortcomings of Biden’s withdrawal, while largely ignoring what our client state’s abrupt collapse tells us about our two-decade-long occupation, then the lesson of Kabul’s fall could be quite favorable for Beltway hawks: Presidents shouldn’t end wars in defiance of the military brass unless they wish to become unpopular.”

There are three subtler patterns to draw out from the media coverage. First, mainstream Western media systematically juxtaposes the category “the Taliban” against the category “Afghans,” a framing with deep consequences for how one understands the nature of the Taliban’s victory. A sample headline from CNN: “Afghans watch nervously as Taliban regime takes shape, and US and its allies continue frantic exit.” Sometimes in recent coverage, “Afghans” refers first and foremost to those Afghans who are trying to flee from Taliban rule. But often, the media’s usage of the word “Afghans” seems designed to connote that only non-Taliban Afghans count as Afghans, and that the Taliban themselves are fundamentally alien. This is absurd, of course. Yes, there are Pakistani Taliban factions, and some Afghan Taliban leaders and fighters have spent considerable time studying or living in Pakistan – but the leaders of the present takeover, and presumably the bulk of the rank-and-file, are Afghans. Supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, the late leader Mullah Omar (d. 2013) and his son Mohammed Yaqoob—all are Afghans. The infamous Haqqani network’s progenitor, Jalaluddin Haqqani (d. 2018), was Afghan. The Taliban did not descend to Afghanistan from Mars; they are an Afghan phenomenon.

Or call them an Afghan-Pakistani phenomenon. Is Pakistan so far from Afghanistan that anyone who spends time there becomes alien to Afghanistan? Can Pakistan’s intelligence services control everything that happens in Afghanistan? Can all the Afghans in the Taliban be mere puppets of Islamabad?

Thinking of the Taliban as aliens is perhaps comforting if one wants to avoid thinking about the domestic politics of why they won. Can it be that a movement that took over an entire country in less than two weeks lacks any popular support? Do no Afghans support them except their own members? Is it possible that they rule entirely through force and fear, that no civilians are happy or relieved to see foreign troops departing, that no one prefers the Taliban to the other realistic alternatives? Should we imagine that no women support them—that all those fighters are atomistic men, disconnected from mothers, wives, sisters, daughters? That a movement that held on to its cohesion amid twenty years of foreign occupation represents no one beyond itself?

Second, mainstream Western media has long displayed extraordinary selectivity when talking about the Taliban and women. When images of elite women in miniskirts in Kabul in the 1970s are juxtaposed with images of burqa-wearing women under Taliban control, it is not whataboutism to point out that more than a bit of history and context is missing from such frames. The seclusion of women in parts of South Asia, whether physically within households or through the “portable seclusion” of the burqa, is a phenomenon shaped and reshaped through dynamics of social class, religion, urban versus rural settings, and “patterns of response to rapid social change.” The burqa did not begin with the Taliban, and its meanings and roles were transformed through war and displacement in the 1980s. The Taliban emerged in 1994, by which point there had been more than twenty years of political turmoil in Afghanistan and around fifteen years of war there. Anyone who studies early Islam for more than a half hour will find legions of stories of women playing public roles. The answers to why the Taliban behave as they do toward women must be sought in the contemporary history of Afghanistan itself.

Meanwhile, many of the men who made their political marks in the 1970s and 1980s, and who remained or remain pivotal players within Afghan politics, have their own records of brutality and abuse—including some, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, who served within the US-backed Afghan government. There is much to reflect on concerning the ways in which counterinsurgency efforts inevitably draw the occupying power into partnering with some of the most unsavory political actors in the occupied country. And let us not forget that boys, too, can be victims.

Echoing Klein’s point above, thoughtful commentators have long pointed out American hypocrisy when it comes to Afghan women. I have returned again and again, over the years, to a brilliant 2002 article by two anthropologists, Charles Hirschkind and the late Saba Mahmood. What they wrote that year could just as easily apply today: “It was striking how a number of commentators, in discussions that preceded the war, regularly failed to connect the predicament of women in Afghanistan with the massive military and economic support that the US provided, as part of its Cold War strategy, to the most extreme of Afghan religious militant groups.”

And what did that government really achieve for women and girls in Afghanistan? Looking at UNICEF’s page on education in Afghanistan as of late August 2021, one reads that “the underlining reason for low girls’ enrollment is insecurity and traditional norms and practices related to girls’ and women’s role in the society… Girls continue to marry very young – 17 per cent before their 15th birthday.” Can all of this be laid at the feet of the Taliban? What did twenty years of American occupation bring? Or did it even set back Afghan girls’ education by perpetuating violence and conflict in the country?

Third, commentators appear to want to have it both ways when it comes to the Taliban. Condoleezza Rice decries, as so many have before her, the Taliban’s “7th-century rule.” Are they, then, backward products of a bygone era, brute fundamentalists with no understanding of the 21st century? That line of argument would be problematic enough, given the Taliban’s origins in the aftermath of a superpower proxy fight in a region flooded with 20th-century weapons. But this representation of the Taliban becomes simply too much to take when the same commentariat will turn around and fret over Taliban-China relations, which major Washington think tanks unfailingly depict as being grounded in pragmatism. Which is it, then? Are the Taliban a problem because their values are irreconcilable with this era, or because they are too savvy at negotiating the geopolitics of that same era?

The Blob, I think, is simplistic and incoherent about the Taliban because its denizens never took much time to understand them. Especially after 9/11, an image of the Taliban as part of the global jihadist movement gelled. It is true that the Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden and it is true that al-Qaeda’s hierarchy theoretically culminates with an allegiance to whomever leads the Taliban at a given moment. Yet the Taliban is distinct from the global jihadist movement in many ways, from theology (the Taliban are not Salafi-jihadists, but are rather an offshoot of the Deobandi movement) to ambitions (the Taliban evince no global territorial ambitions) to approach (the Taliban negotiate with other actors and they are willing to operate to a large extent within the international state system).

Given confusion in the commentariat around Deobandism, it is worth a slight digression here. In 1866, several Muslim scholars founded a school in the town of Deoband, in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, called Dar al-Ulum (The House of Sciences, i.e. religious sciences). As Barbara Metcalf insightfully explains in her classic 1982 book on Deoband, Islamic Revival in British India, the school’s organization, layout, and ethos broke with many earlier models of Islamic education. Broke in what way? By drawing on British colonial educational models. Dar al-Ulum Deoband had a “professional staff,” a “central library,” classrooms, examinations, prizes, even an “annual printed report, itself an innovation.” The school’s outlook has been described as fundamentalist, but that’s an empty signifier—especially when considering the impact of British colonialism on the school, one cannot simply explain them as an effort to return to the seventh century. Deobandism has a specific South Asian genealogy that is geographically and intellectually distinct from the roots of the 20th-century Salafi movement, roots that lie in the Middle East.

Even when looking at the basics of Deobandism, one can see the substantial daylight between Deobandis (who follow Hanafism, one of the four major schools of Sunni Islamic law) and Salafi-jihadists (who claim to be following Islamic scriptures without any intermediary, but who in practice draw heavily on the Hanbali school). The wider Salafi movement has been adept at spreading around the world and absorbing certain sympathetic local movements into its fold, but it has not absorbed Deobandism, whose own global network remains distinct from the Salafi movement, let alone from Salafi-jihadism. Finally, Deobandi scholars’ attitudes towards Sufism, the mystical tradition bitterly denounced by Salafis, are complex, and many leading scholars of Deobandism consider their movement a deeply Sufi one, even if Deobandis criticize some (other) Sufis’ practices. Even when it comes to the Taliban, it is telling that one argument from the “Islamic State-Khorasan” against the Taliban is precisely that the Taliban are not Salafis. As Borhan Osman writes, “Some scholarship conflates the Taliban’s ideology with Salafism, but this is a mistake; the Taliban during its reign moved to ban Salafi teaching and any institutions or literature spreading it.”

Despite all this, one can find a major report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) downplaying differences between Salafi-jihadists and “extremist Deobandi groups.” That report folded the Taliban into the category “Salafi-jihadist,” arguing that “Deobandism…seeks to emulate the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad.” This argument tells us approximately nothing about the Taliban, given that almost all Muslims seek to emulate the Prophet Muhammad and the Companions according to their own understanding of what that means. But by collapsing the distinctions between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the authors significantly padded the report’s eye-grabbing (but deeply inflated) estimate that there were 230,000 “Salafi-jihadist and allied fighters” in the world—of whom, apparently, over 100,000 were in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This image of the Taliban as a kind of “al-Qaeda lite” helps to cripple any understanding of the Taliban’s tenacity within Afghanistan, a point that goes back to the media depictions of the Taliban as alien, even rootless. Critics have certainly pushed back against the idea of a “merger” between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but without overturning the mainstream view among Blob members.

Thus the dominant modes of talking about the Taliban in Washington are to emphasize its ideology and its military behaviors. The idea that the Taliban offer people something—rule of law, stability, cultural compatibility, national pride, religious pride, predictability for businesspeople, etc.—is not unfamiliar to the Blob. But in Washington that idea is often downplayed (“ok, the Taliban make a few compromises, but they’re still fanatics”) or is rebutted with fantasies (“here’s my program for how to convince Afghan villagers that the US-backed government is better at delivering services—it’ll work if all the stars align”). Ultimately, many Blob members cannot admit that there is no magic formula to make an unpopular foreign occupation work. They also cannot admit that however many Afghans may hate the Taliban, one can also find many who welcome, or at least are willing to accept, their rule.

The Blob’s inability to face basic truths is also manifest in the expanding genre of “blame” articles. Blame Pakistan. No, blame the American public. No, it’s Biden. No, it’s Trump. No, everyone is at fault. The blame discourse is still a way of rationalizing, of insisting that there was a way to avoid something that was in reality inevitable. If the last two centuries have taught students of world history anything, it should be this: most peoples will eventually expel foreign occupiers, unless you inflict genocidal levels of violence upon them or explicitly integrate them into your empire. 

For US policy moving forward, interaction with the Taliban should be premised not on treating them as a parasite preying upon the Afghan people, but as a reality within Afghan society—not the only one, but a reality nonetheless. The alternative is to dwell in fantasy, as the US has done with Iran and so many other places, pretending that Washington’s adversaries must be everyone’s adversaries. And so the Blob is always anticipating the collapse of America’s rivals, explaining away their successes, fixating on the domestic opposition to them (often genuine, but perhaps less sweeping than US policymakers might believe), and telling itself that the next time will be—must be—different. It won’t be.