The 9/11 anniversary and the spectre of ‘back to the future’

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a larger question looms: how will the ascendance of Taliban impact terrorism? Or, more pointedly, what does it portend for the United States of America?

It is the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 (Reuters image)

By Maj Gen Neeraj Bali (Retd)

Ever since the astonishing collapse of the Afghan government in the face of the two-week Taliban blitzkrieg, analysts everywhere have thrown themselves into a paroxysm to debate – have the Taliban transformed into a gentler, more mature and savvier version of their previous avatar?

When it comes to the human rights concerns, women’s empowerment, narcotic trade and other internal policies, the answer to that query is no longer entirely elusive. But, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a larger question looms: how will the ascendance of Taliban impact terrorism? Or, more pointedly, what does it portend for the United States of America?

The first question that begs an answer is this: do the Taliban have international ambitions? Have they ever proclaimed a worldwide jihad as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and several other terrorist groupings have consistently done in the past? Or have their aspirations been local, ejecting foreign presence from the country and establishing an Islamic Emirate governed by the tenets of Sharia? Simplistically conflating the Taliban with the rest of the terrorist groupings may not lead to a helpful deduction. Indeed, it may distract us into looking in the wrong direction.

Secondly, are the Taliban in far greater need of international legitimacy this time around? Only three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE – had recognised the previous Taliban dispensation that had seized control in the late 1990s. This time, with billions of dollars locked up by the US, the economy in a parlous state, a rapidly spreading drought and murmurs of discontent appear to have injected a modicum of political maturity in the new rulers. Is that a momentary play for effect? Or will this be a permanent and ‘sane’ playbook?

Thirdly, Afghanistan is surrounded by neighbours who, without exception, are wary of the spread of Islamic radicalism into their countries. Shia Iran has genuine concerns. So do the Russians who would loathe a resurgence of the Islamic movement in the south, as would the countries of the Central Asian Region. China, with its ever simmering ethnic pot in Xinjiang, is watchful. Pakistan is – or should be – worried too. It’s homegrown Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), more commonly called the Pakistani Taliban, a largely Pashtun umbrella organisation of various militant groups,is linked closely to the Taliban. Among the stated objectives of TTP is resistance against the Pakistani state and overthrowing the government through violent means. The TTP receives ideological guidance from and maintains ties with al-Qaeda. Their ruthless tactics have manifested in countless attacks, including the massacre of children in an Army school in Peshawar and the attack on Malala Yousafzai. Could such nervous suspicion and scrutiny of the Taliban’s future approach severely constrict its ability and space to invoke terror across the world? Or, even rendered impossible?

It is far too early to hazard an answer to these questions. But the initial signs have not helped assure the world that the Talibani leopard has changed its spots.

The 26 August attack on the Kabul airport resulted in a blood bath, taking over 200 Afghan and 13 US military soldiers lives. It reminded us that it isn’t just the declared intent of the Taliban that matters but the facilitating of sanctuaries for terrorists. Al Qaeda has publically welcomed the return of the Taliban, and the latter, in contravention to the Doha Accord, has refused to condemn Al Qaeda. All that the world has heard is a mild treacle of promises that the Afghan soil would not be used against another country. The suicide attack on the Kabul airport has already belied that diplomatic doublespeak.

The dramatis personae of the newly appointed Taliban government do not instil any confidence either. The Taliban has named a reclusive, 55-year oldhard-line Sunni cleric MawlawiHaibatullah Akhundzada, 55, as its leader, formally called “commander of the faithful.”

The appointed Prime Ministeris Muhammad Hassan Akhund, a man known for his violent temper, radical views and regarded by the US as one of the most ineffective and unreasonable Taliban leaders.

The Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is widely known to have an intimate and long-standing relationship with Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and the TTP. He is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the ill-famed Haqqani Network, the Taliban’s most powerful terrorist grouping. The Minister still carries an FBI reward of USD 10 million for his apprehension.

Indeed, the entire list of ministers – some of whom have spent time in Guatanamo – is dismal reading for prospects of governance, reduction in narco-trade or – and most importantly for our argument – a divorce from terrorism. The Taliban may not overtly express ambitions to attack the western interests, but, as was evident in the recent Kabul attack, they could – and most likely would – provide a haven to others who would. The perceived victory of the Taliban over the US is bound to give a fillip to the morale of Islamic terror groups. A safe nursery in Afghanistan will provide them with a lifeline and renewed motivation to prosecute terrorist attacks.

So, where does this leave the US in particular and the world in general?

Beyond the ‘wait and watch’ approach, the US would do well to avoid analysing the future Taliban actions based on a self-created template of rationality. As we in India learnt in 1999 on the slopes of Kargil, you must not confer your ‘rationality’ onto the enemy while coming to conclusions about future scenarios and courses of action. The adversary may have a cultivated sense of irrationality that renders all logical assumptions nonsensical. Indeed, wherever a situation of strategic asymmetry exists – insurgents versus regular armies, Afghanistan and the US – the weaker opponent would shun following the conventional approach. To do so would spell defeat, as the ISIS discovered when they transformed themselves from hit-and-run militants to ground-holding forces as the regular armies. That change created identifiable targets, easy to pulverise from the air.

In other words, we would do well to expect the unexpected from the Taliban government. The US and the Western world have learnt a great deal from the horrific 9/11 attacks. Homeland security, increased collaboration, stricter surveillance and improved intelligence have obviated another attack in two decades, a handsome achievement but hardly one to lull anybody into complacency.

For the world, this will remain an evolving story for months and years. The guard needs to be up for a long time.

President Reagan had popularised a phrase in the context of nuclear disarmament with the Soviets – trust, but verify.

With the present Afghan dispensation, a piece of better advice would be – don’t trust, and perpetually verify.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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