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Return of Taliban in Afghanistan will impact all Asia

The fundamentalist outfit will give a new lease of life to Islamic State elements across the continent

Return of Taliban in Afghanistan will impact all Asia

Taliban fighters seize a provincial government building in the city of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan on Aug. 7. (Photo: AFP)

The Taliban have been making rapid gains and winning territories, vying to fill a power vacuum left by the withdrawal of US troops after its longest war in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan National Army (ANA) will use all its resources in a fight to the finish with the Taliban or seek an honorable exit.

The problem with the Taliban is that they loathe sharing power and are ruthless with captured soldiers and civilians. The current Ashraf Ghani-led government has the fate of former president Mohammad Najibullah as an example because the Taliban take no prisoners.

The biggest task before the multi-ethnic government led by a Pashtun president is to reorganize itself to rope in ethnic groups like the Tajiks (27 percent), Hazaras (nine percent), Uzbeks (nine percent) and other minorities (13 percent) to form a national government, with the participation of the Taliban, which are mainly comprised of the Pashtuns (42 percent) on both sides of the Durand Line in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

However, the formation of a national government is fraught with the risk of a civil war as the Sharia-swearing Taliban do not subscribe to democracy and do not believe in polls.

The Taliban are eager to be more sophisticated and modern than the group's former regime which took over Kabul in 1996 after the public execution of Najibullah.

Though the Taliban follow strict Islamic norms, they are more pragmatic than the Islamic State in the Middle East

In their new avatar, Taliban representatives have appeared suave and refined, sending a message to foreign governments that they are part of a nationalist organization and do not subscribe to extremely radical Islamic ideology.

This neo-Taliban want trade ties and formal recognition from other countries, something it failed to obtain during its violent and socially regressive regime from 1996 to 2001, making Afghanistan a world pariah.

Though the Taliban follow strict Islamic norms, they are more pragmatic than the Islamic State in the Middle East, having collaborated with the US to fight Najibullah’s Russia-backed communist regime.

The Taliban may act more conservatively as a strategy in rural areas — banning girls from schools, imposing burqas and punishing people with public stoning — than in cities with modern communication networks like the internet and cellular phones.

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They are keen not to repeat past mistakes while seeking allies.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sat across the table with the then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo last year. Such high-profile photo ops provide them with much-needed legitimacy before forming the next government in Afghanistan, a country of 39 million people known for their tribal loyalties.

They have dispatched high-level delegations to Russia, China and Iran to gain legitimacy and somehow enter into the good books. These countries are tactically backing the Taliban but at the same time keeping their future options open.

The Taliban have given assurances to the US and China — and most likely Iran, Russia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan too — that they shall not convert Afghanistan into a breeding ground for jihadist fighters, to be used against these countries.

These nations fear that after the defeat of the Islamic State, the Taliban will act as the chief protector, mentor and propagator of Islam throughout the world.

India, which has contributed over US$3 billion to rebuild war-hit Afghanistan, the second-highest figure after the US, does not prefer the Taliban in power.

India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world and fears that the Taliban can tilt the balance in Jammu and Kashmir, the Muslim-majority border region for which New Delhi has fought two wars with Pakistan. But it may have no choice but to work with the radical Islamic group.

Across the region, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the political dynamics hint at an active future role for Islam

The re-emergence of the Taliban, as a moderate entity or hardliner, will have a spillover effect in Asia, where Muslims constitute 33 percent of its 4.5 billion population and religion has played a role in geopolitics and foreign policy since the curtains fell on the Cold War.

Unlike the West, religion is also tied to state security in Asia.

Across the region, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the political dynamics hint at an active future role for Islam. People in these nations have shown a tendency to be part of organized Islam.

However, despite Islamic hardliners exerting influence in the social, political and economic aspects of these nations, the public has resoundingly rejected Islamic parties in elections and stuck with softer versions.

Of late, there has been persistent tension between those who want a formal role for Islam and those who resist it in Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic country with nearly 90 percent of its population Muslim.

South Asia, home to the second, third and fourth-largest Islamic nations in the world, houses nearly 400 million Muslims.

India’s Muslim population, about 14 percent of its 1.3 billion people, is larger than the Islamic countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. With the rise of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there has been a breakdown in Hindu-Muslim relations in the vast country.

Concerns are particularly high in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which share borders with Afghanistan.

The Hindu-Muslim narrative also whips up antagonisms in Pakistan, whose government has introduced strict Sharia laws due to developments in neighboring Afghanistan, India and Iran. Shia-Sunni violence is on the rise in the country. Some consider this as the Talibanization of Pakistan.

In Malaysia, Islam is followed by more than 55 percent of the country’s 22 million people. It is both a religion and an ethnic identity because most Muslims are also Malays.

The worsening situation in Afghanistan will also have far-reaching influence in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Some of these Central Asian countries have a predominantly Muslim population.

Concerns are particularly high in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which share borders with Afghanistan.

The emergence of the Taliban on the international scene will also help dormant Islamic State elements in West Asia, giving them a new lease of life.

After the completion of US troops’ withdrawal on Sept. 1, the Taliban will get more room to make their presence felt in Afghanistan. Like it or not, the Islamic fundamentalist outfit is here to stay.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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