West hopes rebranded Taliban can save it from further embarrassment

Taliban desperate to win over world opinion and West’s political accommodation

The Taliban agenda and that of the West are aligned – at least for the moment. After the total failure of the US government and their Nato allies in the form of a disastrous and shameful withdrawal, now these unscrupulous politicians, led by

US president Joe Biden, are hoping that the Taliban will save them from further embarrassment. And their now cliched statement that "we will judge the Taliban by their actions, not words" kicks the can further down the road – a desperate attempt to deflect the criticism they are facing about the chaotic situation in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, on the other hand, are desperate to win over the world’s opinion and the West’s political accommodation, if not outright support; as a legitimate group, capable of running a central government. Undoubtedly, the Taliban backers such as Pakistan and Qatar are also pressing them to resist any public display of atrocities.

How much can we trust these well-choreographed images of a new, moderate and 'good Taliban'?

The new Taliban leadership, a more sleek and PR-savvy male elite, are going out of their way to impress everyone. They have an English-speaking press officer on display, and constant messages that they’re different this time around, that the will not harm women. One of the leaders has been interviewed by a female Afghan presenter on Tolo Television.

And they haven't interfered with the Shia minority's ritual of Ashura – commemoration of the death of prophet Mohammad's grandson in the battle of Karbala in 680AD – which has taken place this past week in parts of Kabul.

More muted than in other years, it has been a hard bullet for the Taliban to bite because, according to their rigid interpretation of Islam, Shias are considered infidels and there is a reward for murdering them. So by allowing the Shias to mark one of their most important days, the Taliban are showing they might, just might, have become more pragmatic politicians.

‘Good Taliban’

But the question we all, including Afghans inside the country, are asking is whether this is for real. How much can we trust these well-choreographed images of a new, moderate and “good Taliban”?

The answer is embedded in history. While today’s politicians, diplomats and media are click-based and social-media oriented, the reality is grounded far deeper in time.

It’s worth pointing out that the Soviet puppet government of Dr Najib lasted more than three years after the Soviet’s withdrawal in 1989 and that the Russians were in Afghanistan for 10 years by then. Compare that with the US and Nato’s 20 years and then this fiasco of disintegration within hours. But the post-Soviet Afghanistan still ended up in a civil war.

And for most Afghans, that's also our personal histories. I remember my father, a medical doctor who loved his job, pacing in the living room of our Canadian-government-rented home in Moncton, New Brunswick, as the Mujahideen forces entered Kabul in 1992. My father's bags were packed and he was only waiting for a Canadian travel document to be able to leave and go back to Afghanistan.

Looking at others, Afghans have come to think that they too could have better living standards, that they deserve a decent life

“It’s my country, they need me more there now and, besides, I left because of the communist regime. Now they’re gone, I must return home,” he informed us. I pleaded with him to wait a bit, just to see how the situation would develop.

We didn’t have to wait very long. In the coming days, the Mujahideen, the predecessors of the Taliban, splintered apart and fought each other. Even the most peace-loving Afghans got dragged into the war based on their ethnicity, language and religious sect.

By 1994 the Taliban had taken advantage of the lack of a central government and the lawlessness. They gained popularity by establishing order. ‘Security’ is their specialty, the harsh kind – security through fear and reliance on punitive measures based on the strictest interpretation of Islam. It was the Mujahideen who “spiritualised politics” in the words of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. They used religion to achieve political victory. But it was the Taliban who perfected the art of brutality through religion.

Now that the Taliban have returned, rebranded for the eyes of the western media for however long that they can keep appearances, in reality they have a more daunting task of running the country. Since the Soviet invasion of December 1978, no one, including the Taliban in their previous life, has been able to control all of Afghanistan. How can they manage this time if they don’t signal some degree of accommodation?

Their own survival depends on having a functioning society, civil servants, a media and public sectors carrying on in some form. That’s why they’re constantly announcing people don’t need to fear them and a national pardon has been issued for the army and the police force to get them back to work. They’re talking about reopening schools and letting female teachers and students attend classes.

Freedom is not something naturally associated with the Taliban or the Wahhabi brand of Islam which they adhere to, the one practised in Saudi Arabia. The details of how women will go out, their dress code, the curriculum they’ll be allowed to teach and what degrees of segregation might be imposed and how strictly, are yet to come.

The Taliban are hoping by then, the western media and politicians will have found some other crisis to follow and these tedious details won’t be worthy of mainstream coverage.

But no one should underestimate the resilience of the Afghan people, especially Afghan women. For the Taliban it’s a different country they’ve returned to this time. In the past 20 years, despite the corruption and failures, Afghans have had an opportunity to get an education and to have contact with the outside world due to advancement of technology.

Looking at others, Afghans have come to think that they too could have better living standards, that they deserve a decent life. The Taliban can’t just put them back into a box. And that’s what the West is hoping will save them from continuing to utter preposterous statements such as “We will continue to speak for the rights of Afghan people, Afghan women and girls.” The West is relying on Afghans, mostly Afghan women, to force the Taliban to behave – rather than the West having to slap their hands.

US tolerance

Afghans know this. Not only because of this latest betrayal by the US and Nato, but also because they are used to Americans tolerating, if not directly supporting, autocratic governments and theocratic oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states where women’s rights are not part of western politicians’ agenda. Afghans know that the US will tolerate the Taliban providing they avoid outrageous actions in public.

In 2001, Madeleine Albright, the then US secretary of state, told the Taliban leaders that if they handed over Osama Bin Laden the US government would recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Let us remember that this was after the Taliban had already banned women from all public life, were torturing civilians for not having the right length of beard or not wearing a long enough burqa and were stoning women to death in sports stadiums on accusations of adultery.

At that time, with all the Taliban crimes, committed openly in the light of day, the US government was prepared to accept their rule. So why will it be different now? The Americans are hoping that the Taliban will relieve them of the burden of the Afghan problem: as long as the Taliban is willing to manage the internal affairs of the country, as the Saudis do, the US is happy to focus on its own domestic affairs.

A functioning Taliban government would help save the US – indeed, the whole West – a lot of money and headaches. But after consecutive British, Russian and US failures in Afghanistan over the centuries, what magic can the Taliban produce that will let them succeed?

Already they face a budding resistance in the north under the leadership of deposed vice-president Amrullah Saleh and his Tajik allies against the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. Forming an inclusive government – as the Taliban say they will do – may be a hurdle but maintaining it is an even bigger challenge.

Nelofer Pazira Fisk is an Irish-based Afghan-Canadian journalist and filmmaker