The Taliban is not just another political faction in a Central Asian Islamic country. It is far more than that. The Taliban is a natural extension of the movement formed by students of religious institutions in Afghanistan, a country that has long been a place of interest and magnet for the greedy ambitions of various Asian, European, and American colonialist powers.
I recently watched a clip of Afghan King Amanullah Khan’s visit to Egypt at the end of the 1920s and saw how the enlightened king sought to elevate his people to new heights and achieved considerable improvements in education and culture in his country. During that visit, he met with King Fouad I of Egypt, known for his key role in the establishment of Cairo University. Egypt’s celebration of the Afghan King’s visit showed the level of progress that the resilient Afghan people had reached.
I then came across another clip of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s visit to the Afghan capital, Kabul, on his way back from the Indonesian city of Bandung in 1955. Crowds flocked to the streets of Kabul to greet the president of the Al-Azhar Mosque’s country. In a sign of the strong bonds that tied the two states, President Abdel Nasser held talks with the Afghan Prime Minister at the time. The Afghans’ warm welcome of Abdel Nasser also conveyed a clear message about the solidarity of moderate Islam and a clear understanding of the spiritual relation between Arabs and Afghans. After all, the country gave its name to the great Islamic preacher Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, whose origins were questioned by many, with some of his detractors going as far as claiming he is an Iranian spy planted by MI6 to play a role in the Pan-Islamism movement of the 19th century. Whatever his origin is, he is to be thanked for the awakening he preached along with his Arab disciples who accompanied him in his journey of enlightenment, at the forefront of which was the Egyptian Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Abduh.
As years went by, Afghanistan’s strategic value increased, given its location as a central passage between Eastern and Western Asia. Afghanistan borders some major regional powers, such as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran. Its people are brave, condemned by the country’s rough terrain to show strength in all circumstances. Afghanistan managed to remain immune to foreign interference and resisted the invasions and tyrannies that started with the British ambitions in the country and did not end with the Soviet invasion and then the US aggression in the aftermath of 9/11, when Washington decided to strike the Taliban in its backyard. Twenty years the US spent in Afghanistan, building its foundations and spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost in US attacks on Taliban strongholds. Then came the surprise of Washington’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the country, leaving it to become a battleground for liquidations, vengeance, and revenge, in a striking resemblance to the Israeli Army’s unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip years ago. In the end, all that is left is infighting among the people of the same land.
Nonetheless, what happened in Afghanistan recently necessarily draws some key observations.
First, Russian concerns are inevitable, with many Muslim communities calling the territory of Chechnya home. China also has concerns about the relations between the Taliban in Kabul and Chinese Islamic communities demanding self-autonomy, particularly given their geographical proximity. As for Pakistan, with its sturdy intelligence agency and permanent presence on Afghan soil, the relation between Islamabad and Kabul will likely ebb and flow according to the circumstances. India, for its part, is constantly looking over its shoulders at the Islamic forces surrounding it, despite being home to nearly 120 million Muslims. This is especially true in the light of the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan that started after the partition of India in 1947.
Second, some Islamic and Arab states will seek to curry favor with the Taliban and play a role alongside the movement in defining plans for the region’s future, whether in Western Asia or the Middle East. There is a general feeling that the road will be as bumpy as Afghanistan’s rocky and mountainous roads. Even a country like Russia tried to win over the Taliban and turn over a new leaf, seemingly forgetting that the movement was born in the midst of a bloody conflict with the Soviet Union on Afghanistan’s soil.
Third, I believe Washington itself is the biggest loser in this recent decision it took without any graduality nor a long-term arrangement that allows the Afghan people to reconsider their situation and define their future. The US has lost much of its authority in this rushed, confusing, tense withdrawal.
Fourth, the Taliban will try to reinvent itself and shed its traditional robe to seem more acceptable and promising to the international community. However, this may not be an easy feat. Proving this new approach may require the Taliban to have a proper regional and international behavior that breaks with extremist groups and forces that raise the Islamist banner and offer unforgiving misinterpretations of the tolerant sharia.
In the meantime, Arabs are looking forward to seeing a brotherly Afghan state that becomes a model of moderation and an eminent addition to the community of Muslims as they face the rapid changes in Central and Western Asia.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Egyptian daily Al Ahram.