4 December 2021

Saturday, 10:00



What can return of the Taliban to political arena cause in the region?



In a matter of weeks, Afghanistan and the Taliban have become the most discussed topics on the global agenda. While the Taliban seek to establish political power in Afghanistan and complete control over the country's resisting regions, the rest of the world is busy analysing the future of this country and the likely events in the region in the near future.

How come that after losing all their strength and power to the most powerful army in the world twenty years ago in just a few weeks, not only did the Taliban not surrender, but regained their former influence? What is the secret of the success of these menacing-looking people walking around the cities of Afghanistan in turbans and with machine guns?

Finally, what can the return of the Taliban to power in such a sensitive and volatile region of the world cause? Will radical Islamism and jihadist movements rise up in this region? By the way, over the past few years, foreign media outlets have been full of all sorts of analyses regarding the likelihood of spreading the threat of terrorism and religious wars from the Middle East to the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. These controversial findings are likely related to the sudden emergence of the terrorist organisation ISIS in northern Afghanistan several years ago. And now the whole country is controlled by the jihadists, although ISIS is one of the main rivals of the Taliban who seized power in Afghanistan. But we will come back to this issue later.


Jihadists and Shurawi

The Taliban, which officially announced itself in 1994 after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, is in fact a product of the Afghan jihadist war against the USSR. Although this event became a fairly obvious reason for the self-nomination of the Taliban against the USSR, if you will, the ideological roots of the Taliban should be sought in the recent historical past of the region. Thus, the ideological basis of the Taliban goes back to the political Islamist movement that emerged in the 19th century. The ideological centre of political Islam, or the cradle of the Taliban, can be considered the religious educational institutions (madrasas) founded in 1866 in the Indian city of Devaband and then spreading in Southeast Asia under the general name of Dar al-Ulum Deoband, also known as the Deobandi madrasas. Educational activities of Muslim intellectuals, including Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, to restore the lost prestige of Islam and its former power in the following decades, have become the main source for all kinds of ideas feeding Islamist groups in different parts of the world.

By the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, large Islamist movements had already functioned in the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia. Prominent Islamic intellectuals like Iqbal Lakhuri, Mawdoodi and others have also promoted their views. The Taliban was the product of the jihadist war against the Soviet Union. At a certain point, radical Islam turned into a fairly handy tool of the West to curb the Soviet policy of spreading its influence in the Muslim world. It’s been discussed quite openly now. With the arrival to Afghanistan in 1979, the USSR opposed the political Islamic movements in a vast territory from North Africa and the Middle East to Indochina. For political Islamist movements inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet-Afghan war was a gift of heavens. If political Islam in Iran has grown stronger because of its revolutionary experience, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has been sort of a strength test for the Islamic jihad. 

Political and moral support jihadists received at the international level, coupled with the fatwas of Islamic theologians against the USSR, turned Afghanistan into a great testing ground for motley Islamists from around the world. Hundreds of them from Africa and Arab countries had been encouraged to participate in the “holy jihad” against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It is no coincidence that the members of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups scattered throughout the Muslim world, or their predecessors, went the ‘graduates’ of schooling in Afghanistan.

But, of course, it were the Afghans that had to carry the main burden of the war against the USSR. About three million of them, who fled to Pakistan in the early days of the Soviet occupation, formed the core of the jihadist movement. It was during this period that jihadists were trained in madrasas set up in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. In a relatively short time, tens of thousands of young people were educated in more than 1,700 Deobandi madrasas located in Pakistan. From here, these people were sent to the Afghan fronts of the war against the Shurawi, that is how they called the Soviet invaders. According to some sources, about two million young people passed through these madrasas, which actually functioned as training camps.

The founder and leader of Taliban Mullah Omar (1960-2013), and other leaders of the movement were also graduates of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan. Although the teaching in these schools was based on the traditional teaching of the Hanafi madhhab of Islam, the war and local geopolitical conditions forced Islamist jihadists, including the founders of the Taliban, to take a more radical position. This was also dictated by the conditions of the time. Therefore, the 1980-1990s can be called the period of flourishing of religious radicalism and the ideas of jihad in the Islamic world.

Thanks to the ideological views of Arab theologians, jihad against the USSR gave birth not only to the Taliban, but also to Al-Qaeda. Although the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were the products of the same time and conditions, Al-Qaeda, in opposition to the Taliban, declared global jihad and war against the West as the ultimate goal of its struggle. Likewise, ISIS, which emerged from al-Qaeda, has soon become an organisation that announced its intention to establish the Islamic rule not only in a particular country, but in the world. Unlike al-Qaeda and ISIS, the Taliban is an Islamist group of more local and national character, aimed at creating an emirate or Sharia state specifically in Afghanistan.

Thus, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996-2001) declared by the Taliban enacted the Shariah law previously adopted in several of the fifty Muslim countries. However, unlike Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Shariah is the main source of laws of these countries, the Taliban banned television, referring to fatwas issued by theologians of the Deobandi religious movement. But all this happened during the first Taliban government. Now the Taliban claim that they can change some of the harshest fatwas most condemned by the world community. The Shariah allows it as well. However, no matter how hard the Taliban try to appear as ‘good students’ learning from their mistakes and ready to make concessions, it is clear that much of what they promise will hardly make it to materialisation due to their ideological concepts.


Regional threats

Either way, the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan inspires Islamic organisations not only in the region, but throughout the Islamic world. Political Islam is not as popular today as it was in the 1980s and 1990s and after the Arab Spring. In particular, after the emergence and subsequent defeat of ISIS, support for political Islam in the Islamic world has weakened to a certain extent. But the reaction to the Taliban in Muslim countries, especially by Islamist organisations, religious writers and politicians, shows that the Taliban's success in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed. Undoubtedly, the ongoing events are inspiring the Islamist jihadists too.

While the Taliban do not set global objectives such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the strengthening of the movement in Afghanistan will pose a passive threat to the regional states, even if the Taliban fight against ISIS. In addition, recent media reports suggest that Moscow has agreed with the Taliban that the latter would not support any military action in the neighbouring CIS countries. But in fact, not everything may depend on the will and desire of the Taliban and Moscow in the near future.

The current rule of armed (jihadist) Islamists in Afghanistan may cause a threat to the regional countries. One of the reasons is that Islamism began spreading in the region in parallel with the post-Soviet republics gaining their independence. Hizb al-Tahrir, Tabligh and other well experienced Islamist organisations have created a large network made up of their supporters in the region. The 2005 events in the Uzbek city of Andijan showed that religious stability in Central Asia is extremely fragile, especially in the ethnically vulnerable Ferganah Valley.

In addition, given the recent religious tensions in the region, there are no guarantees that the ongoing processes leave the neighbouring Kazakhstan unaffected. Although the Islamist movements are relatively weak in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are at greater risk due to their direct land border with Afghanistan, ethnic ties and the wide spread of radical Islamist groups. In other words, there is a high likelihood that radical Islamist movements emerge in the Central Asian republics in the coming years.

Another country at risk of rising Islamist sentiment is China. Thus, radical Islam has become widespread among the Uyghurs mainly living in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in eastern China. There is a growing risk of the activation of radical Islamist groups in the area due to the growing discontent among the Uyghurs with the Chinese central government. By the way, it is believed that the radical Islamist organisation Islamic Party of Turkestan, currently operating in the Syrian opposition-controlled province of Idlib, has about 15,000 armed members. China considers this organisation one of the main threats for the XUAR. Therefore, it is not surprising that China is now working closely with the Taliban to minimise the risk of possible threats from Afghanistan. Apparently, after the Taliban consolidate their power in Afghanistan, jihadist Islamist groups will pose a clear threat to China, even against the will of the Taliban.

A few days after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the ISIS-controlled Khorasan Group committed a terrorist attack at the Kabul airport. This can be interpreted as a signal from radical Islamist groups unassociated with the Taliban to continue their operation in Afghanistan even under the rule of the Taliban. That is why one of the main reasons for the observed rapprochement between Beijing and Kabul is China’s intention to use the Taliban as a tool to neutralise possible threats in the future.

Ultimately, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will activate Islamist jihadist groups in Central Asia. Obviously, same as with the 1979 Iranian revolution, Islamic organisations view the armed struggle as the main means of fighting ‘against the infidels’ thanks to the victory of the Taliban. Undoubtedly, the Central Asian region will be the region most exposed to risks associated with the swift success of the Islamist movements.