Since Dominic Raab announced that the amount of aid the UK sends to Afghanistan (and therefore the controlling power – The Taliban) would be doubled this year, and Kay Burley quizzed General Sir Nicholas Carter on why the UK planned to “collaborate” the group that has caused the death of many British servicemen over the past few decades, many have questioned why the UK seems to be cosying up to a group that they have spent the last 20 years at war with. To be able to understand this course of action, it is useful to understand who the Taliban are, what their aims are, and the risks associated with the strategy that the UK (alongside its NATO allies, and to some extent China) is taking.
As General Carter points out, the Taliban are a collection of tribespeople, from the countryside. They live by the standards of Pashtunwali, and therefore Sharia law. Their aims are quite simple: To eliminate corruption from Afghanistan. The way they wish to achieve this is by installing themself as a legitimate government, and they are already taking steps to achieve this. For example, groups of Taliban have been hunting down Al-Qaeda militants that still remain within the country, and the Taliban have been working alongside the UK, US and NATO allies to evacuate people from the country. The question many people remain with is: Why is the UK legitimising and funding a group that it has been at war with for twenty years, who will undoubtedly take steps backwards from the liberalised Afghanistan that western occupation has achieved?
The answer to this is surprisingly simple: The long term military occupation of Afghanistan is unfeasible, and the Taliban forming a legitimate government is the best way to ensure that Afghanistan is stable, both for the benefit of its people and its neighbours. The Taliban, in order to be seen as a legitimate government, will have to take steps which are welcomed by NATO and its allies in order to receive aid, which they will undoubtedly rely on going forward. Therefore, western governments see that the best, and only, option going forward is to legitimise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government.
The legitimisation of the Taliban
The first issue with the legitimisation of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government is that of terrorism and the association of the Taliban, and Afghanistan as a country, with terrorist attacks. The Kabul attack on the 26th August will not have helped the Taliban’s legitimisation effort in the public mind, but, it should be noted that anyone in a position of responsibility is aware ISIS-K is not part of the Taliban, and going forward, the Taliban will have to ensure they make an effort to prevent this kind of extremism. If they allow extremism to develop and grow in and from the country, they risk being undermined by US airstrikes, as well as the threat of aid reductions from governments. This is one of the reasons the UK government has doubled the aid budget to Afghanistan. Dangling this carrot in front of them with threats to reduce and renege should the Taliban allow terrorism to flourish ensures that the Afghan government have the resources to be able to combat terror attacks, but also pushes them towards eliminating any extremism.
There is also the issue that people such as Kay Burley see with Sharia law. Whilst any implementation of Sharia Law is going to be a regression from the liberal laws that Afghanistan saw under the coalition backed Government, there are interpretations of Sharia law which allow women to hold positions of power within government, and in which Fatwas’ (Judgement under Sharia law) require a very high burden of proof for punishments. Western collaboration, aid politics and the fact that Afghan citizens have experienced a more liberal regime for the last few years, will hopefully push the Taliban towards an interpretation of Sharia law which the west can live more comfortably with.
The Risks looking forward
There are obviously risks associated with this legitimisation of the Taliban. The first is that they will not have the resources, willpower or equipment to be able to minimise terror within the country. Short of another invasion (which there is no appetite for in any government), the West will have to resort to covert special operations and airstrikes. In reality, there will probably be a combination of both western airstrikes and Taliban anti terror operations, as exemplified through the US drone strike that destroyed a car that was heading for the airport for an apparent suicide bombing. This kind of intelligence is extremely hard to come by and crucially – act on in time for it to make a difference, and therefore it is extremely likely that the intelligence about this truck (if the intelligence was correct) came directly from the Taliban to further legitimise their government and improve relations with the West, whilst simultaneously maintaining order in their newly acquired capital. Where the intelligence came from will obviously remain a secret, as the US will not announce where their intelligence came from, and if the Taliban announce they are feeding information to the US, their governance could be undermined.
There is also the alternative possibility that the West decides that airstrikes on terrorists thousands of mile from their borders, that pose no strategic threat to any US/UK/NATO allies, are without purpose or benefit. The thousands of airstrikes that have already happened have not stopped terrorist attacks on the west, and therefore, why should they continue other than to stroke public opinion through news headlines?
In the first press conference the Taliban held, they announced that they would respect the rights of the women and the media “within the framework of Islamic law”. Whilst what this actually means is unclear, there exists a risk that in the future, as the Taliban face liberalisation protests as has happened recently in Iran, that their promise to respect the rights of women and the media are reneged on in order to strengthen their grip on power. This gives the UK and its allies an incentive to legitimise the Taliban government as quickly as possible. The sooner this happens, the sooner Western allies can try and influence the direction the country takes through aid politics. The western legitimisation of the government also strengthens the power that the government has, and therefore reduces the incentive to install oppressive restrictions to maintain power.
Many see the next few months and years as a turning point for Afghanistan, in which it either regresses towards the oppression of women and media, and a hotbed for terrorism that seeps into the Western world, or towards a progressive Islamic state. This Islamic state would be seen in the west as oppressive, but could be a model for other Islamic countries which want to maintain strong relations with the west whilst maintaining Islamic law.