Military, Middle East and Central Asian scholars tell an Elliott School audience that the Taliban has reversed progress and resorted back to old ways of law.
By Nick Erickson
The images and reports that have surfaced from Afghanistan since the United States first announced and then executed its full troop withdrawal have been unnerving to much of the world.
Seemingly just as quickly as U.S. forces left this summer after a 20-year stint in the South Central Asia country, the Taliban has regained control of power and reversed progress made in Afghanistan’s pursuit to a more modern democracy. It’s left many to ask the same question: What happens now?
Three experts who spent last Wednesday evening talking to a hybrid crowd at the Elliott School of International Affairs offered an answer that many hoped would be more concrete after two decades of fighting extremism and state building: It remains to be seen.
“Where do we find ourselves? I guess pretty much where we were after 2001,” said Marvin G. Weinbaum, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies at The Middle East Institute.
Dr. Weinbaum, also professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, joined editor of FDD’s Long War Journal Bill Roggio and Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute Richard Weitz in the presentation “Creative Dialogues in a Changing World: Implications of Afghanistan Under Taliban Rule,” put on by Delta Phi Epsilon Foreign Service Fraternity and the Onero Institute. George Washington University fourth-year International Affairs major Laurent Kleinheinz, an event coordinator for the Delta Phi Epsilon Foreign Service Fraternity, moderated the discussion.
Much of the problem, Dr. Weinbaum and Mr. Roggio argued, is that the United States underestimated the Taliban’s commitment to its religious mandates. It was never going to compromise those principles as the United States had hoped it would when it struck the Doha Agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. Despite the peace deal that had NATO forces completely withdrawing from the region in exchange for a Taliban pledge to keep al-Qaeda away from its operating areas, insurgent attacks against Afghan security forces and the still developing new system skyrocketed.
Mr. Roggio pointed out how the Taliban took the Ministry for Women’s Affairs in the previous Afghan government, kicked them out and reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the state agency in charge of implementing the Taliban’s definition of Islamic law. Mr. Roggio said that agency has resorted to old ways of extreme violence for what they perceive as a violation of a law such as not wearing a face covering.
“Meet the new Taliban. It’s the same as the old Taliban,” Mr. Roggio said. “We never understood the nature of the enemy. Trying to negotiate with a group like this, it was insane.”
The speed in which the Taliban has taken over the new Afghanistan government, coupled with the U.S. withdrawal, has made it particularly dangerous for Afghanistan civilians—women and children included—who either helped U.S. soldiers or wanted to shift toward more modern governing.
“They have no place in this emerging Taliban government,” Dr. Weinbaum said. “Our decision was an American first decision. While it might have made sense to us, it was in my view a little shortsighted.”
The U.S. decision to withdraw troops, which Mr. Roggio points out was a position the last three presidential administrations favored, has had a global effect.
Mr. Roggio wondered how other allies would view the United States after it left the new Afghanistan government and its civilians vulnerable, even questioning whether the United States lost its place as a superpower with this decision. Dr. Weitz agreed and said other countries in Central Asia might be relying on Russia to backstop them as they don’t place much faith in U.S. pledges.
Dr. Weitz is also curious how China, another world power that directly competes with the United States in global commerce and trade, will respond. For now, he said China’s focus is on security and trying to work in a multilateral framework, particularly with Russia and Pakistan, a country the Taliban fled to in 2001. But time will show how they handle the new reality in Afghanistan, as it will with the rest of a region now on edge.
“(Central Asians) are very concerned,” Dr. Weitz said. “There’s worry about the power of example. You’ve already seen the overthrow of one secular government.”
Dr. Weinbaum offered a scenario where the Taliban could eventually pull back its reins, and that’s if there is an economic collapse in Afghanistan. If that happens, he said, he could see the pressure becoming unbearable that the Taliban will bend and adapt a little.
Until then, the hopes of the Taliban becoming more modern appear to be temporarily dashed, and that will force the United States and the rest of the world to keep the book open on Afghanistan despite not having a physical presence.
“I predict we will have a great deal of difficulty putting Afghanistan in the rearview mirror,” said Dr. Weinbaum, who noted that countries with nuclear weapons are in close proximity. “This is going to remain critical to our global concerns.”