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The Taliban Can—and Can’t—Be Trusted

There’s good news on international terrorism—and bad news on plenty else.

By , a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Afghan Taliban fighters at Bakwah in the western province of Farah on Nov. 3, 2015.
Afghan Taliban fighters at Bakwah in the western province of Farah on Nov. 3, 2015.
Afghan Taliban fighters at Bakwah in the western province of Farah on Nov. 3, 2015. JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images

Now that the Taliban once more rule Afghanistan, can they be trusted to keep their promises to the international community about their future behavior? The answer depends on which promises, and to which countries.

The most important issue, of course, is protection for international terrorists based in Afghanistan. Here, Taliban statements have been unanimous and unequivocal (with one potential exception). The Taliban delegation to the defunct peace talks in Doha, Qatar, has repeatedly stated that the Taliban are a purely Afghan force and that they will not engage in or sponsor international jihadi behavior.

The Taliban can probably be trusted on this for several reasons. Firstly because “they are not idiots,” in the words of a Pakistani journalist who has interviewed some of their leaders. “Before 9/11, they were securely in power in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda destroyed all that. They are not going to repeat that mistake again.” A new terrorist attack on the United States would not lead to a new U.S. invasion, but it would certainly lead to bombardment by U.S. missiles and strong U.S. support for armed uprisings against Taliban rule.

Now that the Taliban once more rule Afghanistan, can they be trusted to keep their promises to the international community about their future behavior? The answer depends on which promises, and to which countries.

The most important issue, of course, is protection for international terrorists based in Afghanistan. Here, Taliban statements have been unanimous and unequivocal (with one potential exception). The Taliban delegation to the defunct peace talks in Doha, Qatar, has repeatedly stated that the Taliban are a purely Afghan force and that they will not engage in or sponsor international jihadi behavior.

The Taliban can probably be trusted on this for several reasons. Firstly because “they are not idiots,” in the words of a Pakistani journalist who has interviewed some of their leaders. “Before 9/11, they were securely in power in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda destroyed all that. They are not going to repeat that mistake again.” A new terrorist attack on the United States would not lead to a new U.S. invasion, but it would certainly lead to bombardment by U.S. missiles and strong U.S. support for armed uprisings against Taliban rule.

Another reason to trust this promise is that they have made it in different forms to all their neighbors. Taliban representatives have told Russia that they will not harbor Chechen, Uzbek, and other militants from Russia and Central Asia. They have told China that they will not harbor Uyghur militants. They have promised Iran that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for Saudi-sponsored Sunni militant rebels in Iran. And they have also promised Pakistan that they will not support Islamist revolt in Pakistan and that they will continue to fight hard against the Islamic State-Khorasan, the local offshoot of the Islamic State militant group.

The appearance of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the group’s bitter rivalry with the Taliban have created a new set of regional calculations concerning terrorism based in Afghanistan. The Islamic State does remain implacably committed to global jihad. It was partly for that reason (as well as local rivalries and ambitions) that it was able to gather a number of dissidents from the Taliban. As an international jihadi force, the Islamic State has recruited into its ranks Chechen, Uzbek, Uyghur, and other foreign militants based in Afghanistan. A large part of its membership is also made up of Pakistani Islamist rebels who were driven into Afghanistan by successful Pakistani military offensives after 2014.

All the states of the region are therefore deeply hostile to the Islamic State and ready to support the Taliban in fighting against them—but only, of course, if the Taliban do not themselves sponsor international jihad. This means that the Taliban would be completely crazy to do so. Not only would Pakistani and Iranian hostility block Afghanistan’s trade routes to the sea and crush the Afghan economy, but the Taliban (encouraged by Pakistan) are also hoping that once they have restored order in Afghanistan, China may go ahead with its $3 billion contract to develop the great copper mine at Mes Aynak, as well as oil and gas reserves in northern Afghanistan.

The possible exception to this regional consensus is India. While all the other countries mentioned have been pursuing talks with the Taliban for years, India refused to do so until a few months ago. Indian hostility to the Taliban is rooted above all in their closeness to Pakistan and the fact that when they were in power in Afghanistan they helped Pakistan-based anti-Indian terrorists. Some of these terrorist groups (notably Lashkar-e-Taiba) have been very close to the Taliban.

A considerable number of al Qaeda members also remain in Afghanistan and retain links to the Taliban. As U.S. President Joe Biden noted in his speech on Monday, however, it is very striking how quiet these al Qaeda members have been recently—perhaps because of Taliban pressure. While therefore it is unlikely that the Taliban will expel them, there seem to be good grounds to hope that Afghanistan’s new rulers will prevent them from engaging in international terrorism—not unlike Turkey in its approach to al Qaeda affiliates in the areas of Syria that it controls.

Another key area where the Taliban have made promises to Afghanistan’s neighbors and the international community is the suppression of Afghan heroin production—a social plague for Russia, Iran, and Europe. The Taliban have pointed to the fact that they are the only Afghan government over the past 40 years that was able successfully to crush the heroin trade (in 1999-2001), due to their moral authority and control of the Afghan countryside. However, as in 1999, the offer of a stated or implicit bargain is involved. The Taliban will only sustain this effort if they receive international recognition and aid with which to compensate Afghan farmers.

It is a very different matter, however, when it comes to Taliban promises concerning the rights of Afghan citizens: ethno-religious minorities, women, and the educated middle classes in general. Here, Taliban promises have been ambiguous, hesitant, and contradictory. There are clearly hard-line elements in the Taliban who are opposed to making any concessions on these issues, and as their own interests are not involved, it is not likely that China, Russia, or Pakistan will bring any pressure to bear. The Taliban may also fear that too many compromises with modernity will lead to their hard-liners joining the Islamic State. The West may be able to exert some limited influence, but only as part of a bargain involving continued very substantial aid to Afghanistan.

One categorical promise on domestic policy that the Taliban have made is to Iran: to respect the rights of the Hazara Shiite minority. If this leads to good relations between Taliban Afghanistan and Iran, it is just possible that the Taliban will be influenced by the model of a neighboring quasi-theocracy in which women’s opportunities and cultural freedoms in general are restricted compared to the West, but vastly greater than in traditional Afghanistan. That may seem a faint hope, but when it comes to Taliban attitudes to cultural freedom, any hopes must be pretty faint.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, with John Hulsman.

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