On the face of it, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid’s maiden media briefing today(Aug. 17) after the dramatic fall of Kabul was quite remarkable.
First, you could see his face. He was known to keep it covered generally as a Taliban fighter.
Overall, he attempted to recast the Taliban as a reasonable international entity “within the framework” of Sharia. That is an important caveat but it is clear that they are earnestly trying to live down their violently earned reputation as medieval misanthropes.
One of the clearest assurances he offered was a promise to the international community to not allow Afghanistan as a base for terrorist groups. Within the extravagance of such an assurance coupled with the Taliban’s decades-long track record as heartlessly violent misanthropes if they can really manage to achieve that, it would indeed be the emergence of Taliban 2.0.
If the world is incredulous at Mujahid’s official position, the Taliban have themselves to blame because of their historic conduct. However, if the world is willing to take a chance in the absence of any other option at this stage, then it is not altogether inconceivable that the Taliban will try a calibrated measure of reform within its own thinking, but it is still very early days.
Apart from the United States, in particular, Mujahid’s assurance to not let Afghanistan be a staging ground terror attack by any group is of potential significance for India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they try to fashion their positioning with the new reality in Kabul.
One of the most serious concerns for New Delhi with the return of the Taliban is its impact on Kashmir’s forever insurgent movement. There has been a long record of messing around in the Kashmir Valley. In this context it is significant that the Taliban has reportedly described Kashmir as “a bilateral and internal matter”; bilateral being between India and Pakistan. To the extent that the Taliban keeps its word both on not letting it soil be used as a terrorist launch pad and keeping off Kashmir, there is a possible window for the Modi government to engage with it.
It is not clear whether this apparent change of strategy to position the Taliban as both domestically and internationally sensitive is a result of some internal churning or external promptings, such as from China, or a combination of both. Either way if they really mean what they say—and that is a gigantic if—then there could be some measure of reconciliation in a country that has seen so much bloodletting for the last four decades.
For the United States, the two-decades-long invasion and occupation has generally been a debacle. A photograph of a group of Taliban fighters on their motorbikes riding into Kabul and elsewhere was a stunning reminder of that debacle. All the bikes had blankets on their seats. The most plausible explanation for those blankets was since they were on the move and determined to take over Kabul, lodging and boarding too had to be mobile and bare minimum. They probably spread their blankets on the ground anywhere to catch some sleep before getting on with their business of gobbling province after province.
The point is the reason why the Taliban were able to do what they do in the face of the world’s mightiest military machine is that they have stripped down their lives to a singular purpose of killing or beating back those they consider their enemy.
Speaking of how long it takes, as the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan after nearly two decades the Taliban with their motorcycles draped with blankets and beat-up Toyota pickup trucks are yet again proving that in the end what wins is a terminal wish to both die as well not to lose and not hundreds of billions of dollars, state-of-the-art weaponry, night vision goggles and expensive communications infrastructure.
According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the United States has spent $2.26 trillion on the Afghan invasion and occupation, which is a little over $130 billion a year. The Brown estimate says 47,245 Afghan civilians have been killed in the war as of mid-April this year. The US Department of Defense says 2,442 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded in the war since 2001. The actual fighting, which involves everything including ammunition, fuel, vehicles, armored vehicles, tanks, food, the famous Humvees, airstrikes, and so on have cost $815.7 billion.
The number of dead Afghan troops is said to be 66,000 to 69,000. In contrast, 2,442 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded.
It is extraordinary and even strangely suspicious how quickly the country’s armed forces have folded up in the face of the Taliban onslaught, so much so that they are now on the verge of taking over the capital Kabul. President Joe Biden’s decision to rapidly end the Afghan engagement is already being seen as a debacle in the league of Vietnam. It is also being seen as an action that very seriously undermines America’s international credibility as an unassailable military ally perhaps much to the joy of China and Russia. It is astonishing that a rapid fall of Afghanistan was not factored in while deciding to withdraw to an accelerated schedule. The result is that the Biden administration is having to send back 3000 US troops to ensure a secure evacuation of the large US embassy staff.
In a galling indictment of how flawed the rapid withdrawal has been that Washington had to essentially plead with the Taliban via its chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad not to attack the embassy and its staff. After spending $2.26 trillion it has come to this–pleading with fighters on motorcycles draped with blankets.
Much is being said about how Washington is abandoning Afghanistan at the wrong time. Actually, leaving Afghanistan at any time for America would be a wrong time. If President Biden has made the calculation that in the short-term there will be opprobrium for him but history might be more reasonable to his decision, then one cannot do much about it. If the logic in Washington is that America cannot be expected to be mired in forever wars no matter what happens to the countries it leaves, that decision has to be accepted.
Of course, the biggest worry now is that the level of freedom and empowerment that Afghani women, girls and children have become accustomed to since 2001 and the dislodging of the Taliban will now be severely tested if not altogether dismantled. Taliban spokesman Mujahid offered some qualified answers both on women’s rights and media freedom.
At 18.9 million women and girls constitute about 48 percent of Afghanistan’s total population of 48.7 million. Historically, at least in the last four decades or so, they have been at the receiving end of the country’s slide into violent, medieval misogyny led by the Taliban.
On both women’s rights and media freedom, he walked a fine line of qualified freedoms. He says, “we are going to allow women to work and study within our framework”. The framework being the Islamic Sharia law.
“Women are going to be very active within our society, within our framework,” he said, the framework being Sharia.
On the media he said, “I would like to assure the media that we are committed to the media within our cultural frameworks. Private media can continue to be free and independent.”
“Islam is very important in our country… Therefore Islamic values should be taken into account when it comes to the media, to developing your programs. Impartiality of the media is very important, they can critique our work so that we can improve. But the media should not work against us,” he said.
For President Biden, barely eight months into his presidency, this is confronting perhaps the most enduring legacy-tarnishing crisis of his career.
No matter how one slices and dices it, the caving in of the Afghan security apparatus created by the United States by spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the face of the Taliban is a galling but just one illustration of the deep malaise.