Taliban rising

In a stunning moment in world history, the Taliban rolled into the Afghan capital, Kabul, on August 15 and took control of Afghanistan with barely a shot fired, more than two weeks before U.S. forces were expected to complete their withdrawal from their longest ever war. Scenes from that day have been compared to the fall of Saigon, with U.S. helicopters frantically evacuating embassy staff to the international airport and Afghan civilians, many of whom feared a bloodbath in the city, scrambling for cover.

The violence never happened. Instead, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, now in exile in the UAE, fled the presidential palace triggering a cascade of surrenders and desertions, both military and political.

At the time of writing, the situation in Kabul remained tense with U.S. and British forces in control of the airport and thousands of Afghans clamoring to enter and board near-constant military evacuation flights. The Taliban’s leadership, some of it still in Doha, and its political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader in Kandahar have yet to make any statements, though the group’s spokesperson held the first press conference on August 18, promising a more moderate Taliban than what the world saw in the mid-1990s. But the question everyone is asking is: Can the Taliban be trusted?

Adnan R. Khan: So, what now that the Taliban is in power?

Ilter Turan: This is going to be a very interesting process to study from the perspective of a social scientist. Under normal circumstances, when there is a revolutionary transfer of power, some elements of the incumbent administration negotiate with the incomers. While the decision makers may change, the structure of government, the bureaucracy and so forth, often survives in some form. But in Afghanistan, we are facing a unique situation in which the government has totally collapsed. People that worked for the government are all trying to leave the country, if they haven’t left already, or are in hiding.

In their place we have the Taliban, which is a group of militiamen who do not have extensive experience in governing. In addition, what will they govern? The structure of government has itself broken down. The situation is rendered worse by the fact that the Taliban lacks a cohesive center and a hierarchical administrative structure such that all parts of the organization can receive instructions and implement them.

Adnan R. Khan: Given those internal divisions, how do you expect them to govern?

Ilter Turan: I think it is quite clear that there are cleavages among the top and bottom echelons of the Taliban. Some are more radical ideologues, others are more pragmatic Islamists. Achieving consensus among themselves may prove difficult. Governing, on the other hand, will be more of a challenge than it appears because they lack financial means, the eyes of the world are on them and they cannot survive without external linkages and external support. But, in order to receive external support, they have to adjust their behavior so that they are, at least, tolerable to outside actors.

For example, we have this critical question of how the Taliban treat women. Already, we are seeing some Taliban in parts of Afghanistan reverting to their previous cruelties for even minor infractions like women exposing their faces in public. It is going to be a major challenge for the Taliban leadership to discipline these elements. And the more it tries to develop centralized control, the more the internal divisions within the group will become manifest.

Finally, we may witness the emergence of domestic resistance to their rule that is likely to find external sources of support. It is possible that one type of war is ending while another one is about to begin.

Adnan R. Khan: These contradictory forces – the dictates of their extreme belief system and their desire for international legitimacy – play into every aspect of Taliban rule. Economics, for example: how can the Taliban develop an economy when much of the rest of the world doesn’t want to be seen as funding terrorists?

Ilter Turan: This is an interesting question to which I have no immediate answer. The question is further complicated by the fact that a large part of Afghan national income derives from the production and illegal trade in opium. In the past, the Taliban have been against opium cultivation, but trying to stamp out that trade will not only put them at odds with powerful armed groups, but also with their own farmers who have no lucrative alternative crop they can turn to for economic survival. So, the Taliban may feel some pressure to concede that the income opium generates is more important than eradicating the crop.

Adnan R. Khan: How should Turkey engage, if at all, with the Taliban?

Ilter Turan: The change in Afghanistan is a reality. Turkey will have to talk to theTaliban but I think it should not make too much of the idea that as fellow Muslims we have some special affinity. We do not. Turkey should join the international community on insisting that Taliban subscribe to a certain set of rules about the role of women in society, respect for different beliefs, acceptable forms of punishment etc.

Adnan R. Khan: The Taliban have come out publicly and said they want good relations with Turkey, that Turkey is a friend and a brother. Should Turkey take the bait?

Ilter Turan: Well, if Turkey wants to be a brother to Afghanistan, it should behave like a big brother, telling the younger brother how to behave properly.

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