By Aidan Lomas – Editor-in-Chief
It’s been a chaotic 31 days since Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban. On the one hand, the nation which has been the centre of international conflict for 20 years is now, once again, the graveyard of empires. On the other, the Taliban’s swift conquest of the nation is attributable to one thing, and one thing only; the worst US foreign policy disaster in the ‘great’ republic’s history. What was once a bastion of democracy and “freedom” is now an unreliable, untrustworthy shell of the America once known confidently as the “land of the free”.
One land that certainly isn’t free – and likely never will be again – is the land of Afghanistan. I can still remember in my teen years – around 2014 or 2015 – seeing images of the Taliban strapping themselves to the back of Toyota pickup trucks along side some stolen heavy machinery. They weren’t a legitimate governing candidate, nor were they candidate’s for the Nobel Peace Prize; instead, they were a gaggle of brainwashed, misinformed, mislead morons who felt murder, violence, and chaos was preferable to liberal democratic values which we in the West have, until recently, fought so hard to preserve and expand. Now, and worryingly emphatically, the Taliban are demanding recognition as the legitimate governors of Afghanistan. I once believed that the world itself isn’t mad, we’re just paying more attention to the mad things about it. I now believe, having watched a US President bury his head in the sand and cowardly run away from a conflict, that the world isn’t mad, we’ve merely lowered the standards to which we hold ourselves accountable.
These are harsh words, I know. But imagine how light they’d feel if you were a woman in Afghanistan today. No! Imagine you are an educated, ambitious, free thinking woman in Afghanistan today; suddenly, acknowledging a US President a coward doesn’t seem so bad. We’ve all seen the images coming out of Kabul’s high streets; advertisements of women not covering their faces, or pertaining to be beautiful in any manner, are defaced and painted over. This isn’t even where the anti-emancipation of women in Afghanistan ends; some women have reportedly been burning any evidence of their education. The Taliban wants to be recognised as the legitimate governors of Afghanistan, yet at the same time seem to either be silently encouraging or completely oblivious to the splinter groups which are enforcing an even more radical doctrine in the suburban and rural areas of Afghanistan’s vast landscape.
This is the fanatical regime the West has allowed to take over. Do not mistake my words, I am a Rawlsian liberal after all; I believe wholeheartedly in freedom of religion. If you volunteer yourself to the rules of a religious doctrine, I take no issue nor feel any reaction to how you operate your own life. My support for religious freedom, however, does not mean I believe religions to be free from critique. Nor do I believe that religions should be free to govern those who did not ask them to. When a religion determines that half of the human population is lesser because their God commands it to be the case, that is a religion you do not allow to take control of a country’s government; it’s certainly not one you allow to fanaticise and radicalise. If you’ve ever needed a clear indicator of how terrified the people of Afghanistan are, allow me to point you in the direction of the new “falling man”. We don’t know his name, but we do know that, as the US armed forces were leaving Kabul, this man clung onto the side of an aeroplane just to escape. He tragically, although inevitably, fell from the aircraft and, as you would expect, died. He died trying to escape the Taliban because that risk of dying was preferable to living under their regime. However, these events took place a month ago. To truly understand the venomous snake we in the West have created, we must look to the present state of the Taliban regime.
Government of the claimed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
For starters, their entire ‘cabinet’ is formulated entirely of men. Normally, this isn’t something I’d discuss as in western democracies – be it for alleged tokenism or not – this tends not to occur that much anymore; to the best of my knowledge, the last time a British cabinet was comprised entirely of men, ignoring of course the Prime Minister herself, was when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. However, as I’ve already explained, the Taliban’s attitude towards women is one of subjugation, belittlement, and explicit objectification; women are not women, they are chattel. The new Afghan regime – be it recognised internationally or not – will govern similarly to the current government in Iran. Much like the Ayatollah, the claimed Emir of Afghanistan, Mawlawi* Hibatullah Akhundzada, will act as both an executive and theocratic leader of the new Afghan regime. As the third Supreme Leader of the Taliban, claimed Emir Akhundzada has commanded his new government to uphold Sharia law. The claimed Emir has never made a public appearance.
Something also unsurprising yet also noteworthy is the new interim Afghan ‘Prime Minister’. HIs name is Mullah* Mohammad Hassan Akhund, a Taliban founder who finds himself on a UN Blacklist; hardly the most positive of beginnings. It is believed that, since Mr Akhund is more influential on the religious side of the Taliban regime, he will operate as a caretaker Prime Minister charged with transferring Taliban Afghanistan from a disarrayed battleground to an almost stabilised country. Similarly, the new Minister of the Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is also a notable cabinet office holder. The head of a militant group know as “The Haqqani Network”, Mr Haqqani is wanted by the FBI for “questioning in connection with the January 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul… that killed six people, including an American citizen”. The Haqqani Network is also designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US, with this organisation being behind some of the worst atrocities committed by the anti-coalition forces in Afghanistan during the war; this includes a truck explosion in 2017 which killed more than 150 people. Mr Haqqani’s spotless record doesn’t end there either. The US Government are also seeking Mr Haqqani for his involvement in a 2008 attempted assassination against President Hamid Karzai; Karzai served as President of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014.
With regard to other ministers, all are high level and well established Taliban leaders. Despite the Taliban’s claims that they are not the same terror-breading organisation of the start of the century, the newly announced cabinet is harshly contradictory of this. In addition to this, the political stability of the country is seemingly in a worse state than one might previously have expected. Numerous reports have emerged from the country expressing the understanding that regionalism has taken hold of the Taliban’s new order; an already fragmented organisation, regional leaders are infighting with one another over what variation of new age fascism and religious fanaticism the country should take. In addition to this, the Kabul airport bombing, which took place on the 26th of August, was carried out by a splinter group of Islamic State named ISKP: Islamic State Khorasan Province. This splinter group is directly opposed to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The prevalence of this terror organisation means that civil war is likely to re-wrap the country; it’s likely that a similar state to that of Syria will unfold in Afghanistan over the coming weeks, months, and years.
The main concerns being expressed by international leaders in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power are the degradation of women’s rights and the potential for Islamic fundamentalist terrorism to reignite its campaign across Europe and other western nations.
Despite concerns that the Taliban cannot be trusted, – a radical position for leaders to take no doubt – the organisation has stated that women’s rights will be respected “as per Afghan norms and Islamic values”. In addition to this, despite the recent cabinet announcements once again being contradictory of the Taliban’s claims, the organisation has also stated it wants women to join its government and civil service. However, the Supreme Leader’s commitment to strict sharia law means that women’s freedoms simply will not be respected. Any country that claims to seek to uphold women’s rights, but then also implements a religious legal system, which not only condones but encourages public stoning and executions for broadly emancipatory actions, such as Sharia Law, is not a country which will seek to uphold women’s rights. Within days of their accession to power, the Taliban made clear their intentions to end mix-gender education, and some women have reportedly been removed from their place of work, taken to their homes, and their jobs have been offered to their husbands.
It’s important to note that the Taliban has made numerous press releases, including the recent cabinet release, in English. The use of the English language, and other utterances made by the organisation’s Spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, indicate that the Taliban are addressing directly the United States and its allies. This is important because it indicates further that when the Taliban say, ‘women’s rights’ they do so under the clear implication they will hold women’s rights to the same importance as western liberal principles dictate; whilst the recent Texas abortion law doesn’t uphold the western liberal principles, it’s important to remember the US, the UK, the EU, and their respective allies continuously claim to. Whilst this is evidently an effort to mislead the western powers, it’s still important to recognise that the Taliban may have, just maybe, some moderates within its senior ranks; whether this desperate dream will prove a revelation or ridiculous idea in the future is still a long way off from being seen.
With regard to terror-breading, however, the landscape is ever dimmer. Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hopes that Afghanistan would not return to a “breading ground for terrorism”, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have maintained their close cooperation. Taliban officials have proclaimed their intention to stick to the 2020 February Deal which would prevent them from using Afghan soil to base its attacks against the US and its allies. However, numerous reports from Afghanistan have cited a presence of Al-Qaeda trainees. As referenced earlier, the presence of Islamic State Khorasan Province is also a concern for Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the West. ISKP, much like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban during the coalition’s presence in the region, have been devastated by the US and allies’ superior military might and strategy. However, the withdrawal last month could allow the ISIS splinter group to engage in a ‘recruitment drive’ in Afghanistan but also in the Steppe nations of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. All three are former Soviet states, yet despite the USSR’s collapse thirty years ago, the three nations have yet to truly demonstrate a post-soviet recovery like that seen in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe. Whilst not a direct connection to the Taliban, the organisation’s disorganisation could lead inadvertently to a return of ISIS terror activities.
A March Forward into the Future? Or a Step Back into the Past?
Whilst the recent events in Afghanistan will forever be remembered as one of those foreign policy disasters which turns us to a new chapter in history, it’s uncertain what that chapter is going to look like. On the one hand, the Taliban’s return is going to be horrific for everyone except the Taliban themselves. On the other, the disorganisation of the organisation, as well as the terror threats they themselves are now ironically facing, let’s not rule out a military return to Afghanistan. As Senator Lindsey Graham stated on September 7th, the United States “will be going back to into Afghanistan”.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 closed the chapter on British and French Imperialism, and brought about the concrete reality of the Cold War age. The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, closed the chapter on the Cold War and brought about the age of globalisation, rampant capitalism, and, sometime later, the War on Terror. The collapse of Afghanistan in 2021 might just bring about that same degree of international change. Like Egypt and East Germany, Afghanistan itself is not considered a major international actor; the consequence of its collapse will have, perhaps, a greater shockwave on foreign shores. This historic event will force internal reflection in Washington, Westminster, Brussels, and elsewhere. Whilst we can’t be sure what the future will look like, there are some similarities between the Suez Crisis and the Fall of the Berlin Wall which can be found in the collapse of Afghanistan. These similarities could provide some worrying clues as to where we’re going.
When the Suez canal fell to the Egyptian forces, and when Britain and France, with the help of Israel, sought to reclaim it, it was the latter entente which were seen as the losers. If there was ever a date in which Britain’s sole supremacy on the international stage ended could be found, it’s Suez. Similarly, when the Berlin Wall came down to the cheers of East Germans and the tune of David Hasselhoff’s “Looking for Freedom”, it was the Soviet Union who were seen as the losers; once again, if there’s a date upon which to place the beginning of the end for one of the world’s superpowers, it’s November 9th 1989. The point I’m making here is that we in the West are the losers of the Afghan war; at least, we presently appear to be. And if history is ever to repeat itself, irrespective of who does and who doesn’t know it, this is as good a time as ever. For the past ten years at least, the rise of the Eastern Powers in China, India, and Japan has been at the forefront of economic and international news. Similarly, the rise of the other BRICS nations, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa, also being remarkably prevalent in similar areas, one could make the argument that the fall of Afghanistan is the fall of the West.
I don’t wish to strike some sort of fear, after all, it’s not as if New Year’s Day 2022 will see the UK and Ireland set ablaze by the wrath of history. But Afghanistan’s fall has certified two incredibly important things. Firstly, for all their patriotism, flag-waving fantastical fancies, and their evidential disregard for the international community, the United States has demonstrated they cannot be trusted anymore; very few were aware of America’s decision to withdraw so quickly from Afghanistan, something proved further by the chaos of the evacuation. The second is that Britain, nay Westminster, now has to rethink its second oldest continuous foreign policy; we can no longer pretend we’re the 51st state. The collapse of Afghanistan could prove to be – albeit rather drearily – the best thing to happen in British foreign policy. If the Prime Minister and his cabinet are truly set on their “Global Britain” policy, then a phased breakaway from the shadow of the US could be the best way to perpetrate this. If one thing is for certain, however, we have to take this moment to realise that, for the second time in history, Afghanistan truly is the graveyard of Empires.
*the prefixes of “Mullah” and “Mawlawi” are Islamic religious titles. A Mullah is a Mosque leader, whilst a Mawlawi is a senior Islamic cleric who has completed studies a Madrassa, an islamic school.