What lessons have the Taliban learned from years of regional instability? Dr Isaac Kfir, renowned counter-terrorism expert, analyses the modern Taliban.
Until his mysterious death in November 1989 Abdullah Yusuf Azzam was the doyen of revolutionary jihadism. His writing, ideas, and engagements helped encourage countless young Arabs to travel to Afghanistan to free the country from Soviet occupation.
In looking at the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, his writing and ideas can help distill what we could expect from the latest iteration of the Taliban (Taliban 2.0), many of whom knew of him and are familiar with his writing.
Azzam was a unique character. He was born in 1941 in the village of Silat al-Harithiyah, near the city of Jenin. In 1969, while living in Jordan, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. He earned a PhD in jurisprudence from al-Azhar University in Cairo. After teaching at King Abd al-Aziz University in Jedda and later at the Islamic University in Islamabad, he moved with his family to the Pakistani town of Peshawar where he met bin Laden and became his mentor. The two established the Office of Services for the Mujahideen (Maktab Khadamat al-Mujahideen), which helped attract Muslim volunteers and contributions.
In April 1988, Azzam published an essay in al-Jihad magazine titled ‘al-Qa’ida al-Subah’ (‘The Solid Base’). In three pages, Azzam identified eight tenets to facilitate the global Islamist revolution. He emphasised the centrality of an enlightened vanguard, operating from a safe place where it nurtures and cultivates through example future jihadis. Another important guideline was patience, which was part of his two-track strategy. This approach divided potential targets into primary and secondary, with Azzam arguing that the mujahedeen need to focus their energy on turning the primary target (in his days that was Afghanistan) into dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) and not focus attention on too many targets. Secondary targets referred to areas that would be next on the list, once the primary target had been secured by the mujahedeen.
Another important Islamist likely to shape the strategy of the Taliban 2.0 is Mustafa bin `Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar, better known as, Abu Mus`ab al-Suri, whom Peter Bergen had described as “intelligent, intense, and well informed and very, very serious”. Al-Suri, who had organised the interview between Bergen and bin Laden, proved at times highly contemptuous of the Taliban seeing them as too rigid, and not pragmatic. Nevertheless, a close reading of al-Suri’s writing underlie a deep understanding of the West and the value of common sense and patience when looking to bring forth the global Islamist revolution.
The Taliban 2.0 is likely to follow Azzam and al-Suri in several ways.
Firstly, as was made clear to all who watched the Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid’s press conference, the movement has learned from its previous experience. It also seems that they learned from al-Qaeda’s experience and most importantly from the Islamic State (2014-2019). They know that winning a country and governing it are two different things. For the latter, they need legitimacy, money, and technocrats. This is why they recognise that once they negotiated the domestic pitfalls, deal with the opposition, and ensure that the international community accepts them, they can turn to their revolutionary foreign policy. This is the lesson of the Iranian Revolution after all, which is why Tehran has welcomed the Taliban’s victory, as a further blow to US credibility. Iran had hosted the former Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.
The process towards attaining legitimacy began almost a decade ago when the Taliban established a diplomatic presence in Doha, allowing their members to traverse the world to persuade people that an Afghan Islamic Emirate will not pose a transnational terrorism threat. Their message has been simple: they just want to run their country their way (not the American way), which they claim is what most Afghans want. They have pointed to the speed of their success as indicative of how unpopular the US-led government in Kabul was.
Secondly, recognising they will need money to govern means being part of the international financial system. Expecting sanctions mainly from the US and some Europeans, they reached out to Beijing. Experience has shown them that the CCP will not meddle in domestic affairs if the CCP’s interests are protected. Consequently, the Taliban would allow Beijing to exploit Afghanistan’s minerals and resources, including its centrality in linking East and West. They are unlikely to undermine the Belt and Road Initiative, which is why the Taliban would support China’s decision to spend $5 million to construct a 50-kilometre road in the Pamir mountainous region. To sustain the relationship with Beijing, the Afghan Taliban will sacrifice the Uighurs, including those already in Afghanistan.
The final piece in their strategy is ensuring they can govern. They saw how De-Ba'athification undermined the American effort in Iraq. Unsurprising one of their first announcements was the granting of amnesty to all who had worked with the previous administration and with coalition forces. They know they need the technocrats and mass executions as was the case in the 1990s is counterproductive and a threat to their survival as it could lead to international intervention, which is why they are very careful in how they project power, as they look to appear as responsible leaders.
Returning to Azzam, the Taliban are likely to apply his thinking to two of their neighbours, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There is no evidence to suggest that the Taliban 2.0 reject their old-age commitment to spreading the Islamist revolution. Applying Azzam’s thinking about the near enemy, the Taliban know that their attention is on solidifying their rule over Afghanistan (primary focus), while looking to territories that they can slowly convert to their way of thinking. Tajikistan could be a prime candidate.
President Emomali Rahmon has spent years supporting the American efforts in Afghanistan, as he feared the establishment of an Islamic Emirate on his doorstep (the two countries share a 1300km border), while also fighting the Islamic Renaissance Party. Rahmon knows Tajiks form one of the biggest ethnic groups in Afghanistan and there is a history of bad blood between the Taliban and the Tajik-Afghans courtesy of the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who brilliantly resisted the Taliban. Rahmon has sought to run his country as a secular state, but Islamism is creeping across the country, which is beset by corruption and the opinion trade. It may not take much to create more instability in Tajikistan.
Their relationship with Uzbekistan is particularly interesting. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was one of the most vicious allies of the Taliban in the 1990s and 2000s. Recognising the threat posed by the IMU and an Islamic Emirate at his doorstep has led President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to hedge his bets vis-à-vis the Taliban. In. November 2017, he hosted a regional security and development meeting that focused on Afghanistan, and a few months later, he organised a second conference looking to mediate between the Taliban and the Kabul government. The Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov has worked closely with deputy Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund (whom the Pakistanis released because of a request from the Trump Administration) and such relations could help limit Taliban interest in Uzbekistan.
The speed and manner in which the Taliban took over Afghanistan has led to rightly led to many discussions about the cause and effect and who bears responsibility. What however has attracted less attention is what the Taliban want and stand for beyond their general statements about restoring stability and ending corruption, which is what many Afghans want. They remain the vanguard for an Islamist revolution, what they have done is innovate their tactics.
Isaac Kfir is a leading international scholar on counter-terror tactics and methodologies.