The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is a triumph not only for them but is also Al-Qaeda’s greatest victory in a generation. It was their upstart rivals, Islamic State, that astounded the world in 2014 with their proto-state in Syria and Iraq. In 2019, ISIS lost both its state and, later that year, its caliph.
Al-Qaeda, which had for so long seemed to be on the sidelines as ISIS hogged all the media attention, will now gain a new lease on life, and Afghanistan could become a safe haven and laboratory for jihadists worldwide. The Taliban model seems much more successful and appealing to extremists than that of ISIS, and a more likely wave of the future for them.
Afghanistan becoming some sort of jihadi Wild West, that America can and will have to occasionally strike, is the easier, more comfortable scenario. More concerning is the prospect of a functioning state in which the jihadists are less overt in their actions; a place where all sorts of informal connections and symbiotic relationships can be formed. A new, illiberal Islamist version of a nation-state could inspire new generations of foreigners—political pilgrims looking for the next big thing.
Almost 20 years have elapsed since Sept. 11, 2001, and scholars have speculated regarding how much the Taliban may have changed since they were last in power. The consensus is that they have changed very little, in terms of both ideology and governance. However, they have changed somewhat in terms of their exposure to the world.
They may not be worldly, but they are more seasoned and confident in their dealings with the outside world. They use social media (of course, so do all jihadi and Islamist groups); they negotiated with the Americans. They certainly showed excellent diplomatic and intelligence skills in turning and suborning large sections of the former Ashraf Ghani regime, as generals and provincial governors negotiated their surrender or switched sides. We can say that the Taliban has evolved to a certain extent tactically but remained the same strategically. A little more polish but the same brutality.
But if the Taliban has not fundamentally changed, 20 years later we in the West have changed a great deal—and not for the better. While the Taliban way of war and ideology have stayed more or less the same, it is precisely in those two areas that the West, particularly the United States, has deteriorated.
As far as war goes, it is clear that the expensive, tech-heavy American approach seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, while still formidable, has its limitations. Relying on contractors and local staff; outsourcing vital support functions; the interagency decision-making process; the intelligence community process; building up local proxies—all of these have had a rough two decades.
And while the U.S. military is showing some flaws, it is still a supremely powerful force that can do things few others can. Western ideology, however, is under extreme pressure. It is not clear that we know who we are, what we stand for and what we want to do.
To be blunt, the liberal democratic model vehemently preached by the West for years—often in triumphant tones after the fall of the Soviet Union—is under internal assault and showing very real cracks. Our adversaries among the Taliban have convictions. One can see it in the footage of Taliban fighters overcome by emotion as the Koranic Sura “An-Nasr” (The Divine Support) was recited on Aug. 15 as they occupied the presidential palace in Kabul.
Our adversaries in Communist China are also firm in their beliefs and in their vision of the future.
Our convictions at times seem passionate but are becoming increasingly fractured along tribal, racial and gender lines. We prate about American democracy and greatness while we are in hock to China and seem incapable of doing anything about it. Patriotism and national pride seem to have become dirty words, while the history of the West and its heritage seem to have precious few defenders. Our past is being deconstructed brick by brick. And as for democracy, it can mean, as often as not, an alliance of Big Tech with a predatory ruling class that more and more resembles a hereditary oligarchy.
Much can still go wrong among the Taliban. They are less united than they seem to be, and Afghanistan, no matter who rules it, is notoriously fractious. They face a small but bloody insurgency from their rivals at the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) faction. The Taliban should be able to win out relatively easily, but it is still a challenge.
But they are likely to be far less isolated than they were between 1996 and 2001 when they were recognized by just three countries. If they play their cards right, they will likely have productive relations with China, Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Azerbaijan, in addition to their patron Pakistan.
Russia and the Central Asian states are wary but also likely to look for a modus vivendi with Taliban-ruled Kabul. There is, at least as yet, no viable Northern Alliance-type rebel opposition to the Taliban for foreign powers to support. Recreating one is not out of the question, but the Taliban have learned from the past and focused their most recent campaign in prioritizing those areas in the country’s north, where such opposition could emerge.
And while some in the West may want to punish Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the more that it is punished, the greater the stream of Afghan migrants and refugees there will be heading west to Europe, joining other streams of millions of desperate souls emerging from the Middle East and Africa.
The Afghanistan debacle should serve as an alarm bell for Western countries, warning that the old ways of liberal foreign interventionism seem perilously frayed, and the old nostrums and rhetoric shopworn and exhausted. It is likely that the United States will never again spend two trillion dollars in foreign misadventures as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan (even if a considerable amount of that money went to American companies and contractors rather than to nation-building in Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush). However, it is horrifying to contemplate that the next counter-extremist crusade being generated seems to be aimed at the American heartland. It is almost as if we have learned nothing from two decades of conflict.
Alberto M. Fernandez is vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute.
This article was first published by the Middle East Media Research Institute.