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Is there just one Taliban?

Mohamed Hadi Hannachi

Published: Updated:

The current situation in Afghanistan seems to be muddled with confusion and mystery. Only one month after taking the reins of power, the Taliban finds itself drowning in the great swamp that is the management of the daily lives of an entire people. Meanwhile, the international community seems to be in no hurry to recognize the movement’s leadership, with everything that this lack of recognition could mean in terms of isolation and inertia that could destabilize the foundations of the Taliban’s fragile regime.

Leaving intentions and slogans aside, thousands of fighters and supporters brandishing the flag of the white emirate have become impatient with hard life in the mountains and await the dignified life and favors promised by the new regime, which should bring them incomes and livelihoods that alleviate their suffering.

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So far, it seems, things are not going very smoothly. The Taliban leadership boasted that it managed to pay off the salaries of Kabul University professors and staff, with the movement’s Higher Education Minister stating his support for education and science. Meanwhile, thousands lined up in the streets of Kabul and major cities and erected random stalls to sell their belongings -- furniture, household items, and even utensils and personal belongings -- to try and get food on the table following the delay in the disbursement of their salaries. Scenes of crowds queueing up in front of Kabul banks to retrieve as much of their deposits as possible have become common, amid warnings of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe engendered by the departure of thousands of foreign humanitarian workers and organizations that provided food, medication, and education to millions of Afghans over the last two decades. Though guarded by Taliban fighters in fresh military uniforms, the warehouses and networks of state administrations have also been disrupted.

The Taliban has been trying to circumvent these constraints and challenges with a religious discourse that is primarily directed toward the movement’s members and supporters. Reminders of this discourse abound. They can be read on many of Kabul’s walls, or heard on the Sharia radio channel, repeatedly and intensively.

In reality, though, the movement is not as it portrays itself to be. That’s the impression I had after spending a few days in Kabul recently. You can easily come to the conclusion that the train could be hiding another train behind it. This requires the international community to arm itself with iron nerves when dealing with the Taliban government, for the true version of this government is not the one that is making promises and vowing to keep them. For all its apparent coherence and tight-knit structure, the Taliban has many hidden wings branching out. The group may be a single movement, but it is also one with multiple narratives and historical backgrounds; and if we were to break it down, we would find more than one Taliban.

There’s the Taliban that ruled Afghanistan for five years at the end of the 20th century. Many of its leaders have seen the insides of prison cells in Bagram, Kandahar, Guantanamo, Pakistan, and Pul-e-Charkhi. They are the same ones who now get high on the narrative of victory over America, which they consider to be the peak of their version of Islam. They are the ones who insist on brandishing their flag on every occasion, be it on live TV or during a stroll in the market. Many of them have held powerful positions in directorates, provinces, and government institutions, carrying the duty of what Afghans call “intercession,” which means serving those who paved the “path of conquest” for them. You’ll find dozens queuing up in front of an official from this or that town to ask for a job, favor, or help. This is the image of the Taliban that’s preoccupied with those who supported it for two decades.

However, this is a strenuous effort that requires quite a long time to settle the situation of dozens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people; not to mention the management of the urgent affairs of former Taliban soldiers who came from the countryside and the mountains to assume the duty of protecting the capital, and whose mattresses, bed covers, and even utensils lie by their side in front of the institutions they guard.

This Taliban is made up of villagers and people from the mountains and countryside who were shocked by the lives of the seven million residents of Kabul, with its roads and lights and towers and restaurants and markets. They unconsciously displayed a kind of hatred against those who were living a luxurious life while they spent the best years of their life hiding in the mountains and fighting for a historical moment that the US withdrawal achieved, forcing everyone to deal with them as victorious heroes. And who is more deserving of gratitude than heroes? In the eyes of the Taliban, gratitude is “full compliance with the dictates of the ideology.”

This Taliban’s viewpoint hides a confrontation with the urban society that refuses the principle of absolute compliance to ideology, even under religious rules and texts. Urban forces have deemed this behavior of the Taliban to be an act of tyranny that requires peaceful resistance led by figures, activists, bloggers, journalists, and media outlets; something the Taliban had not encountered in its first version. Today, 4 million Afghans use the internet, compared to a few dozens back in 2001. Today, of the 10 million students waiting to go back to school, 3 million are girls, unlike in the late 1990s when the education of girls was nonexistent. The Taliban seems hesitant to impose its discourse as it sees those from whom it awaited gratitude and support taking to the streets in disobedience and protesting its practices. As such, its anxious reactions range from threats to violence against women and men, instilling an environment of fear and terror.

This Taliban finds obedience in millions of hard-working Afghans who spend their days working with their blood, sweat, and tears to make ends meet. Who governs the country makes no difference to them, since none of the successive governments managed to alleviate their suffering. Today, these Afghans are a ticking bomb if the Taliban does not manage to appease their hunger and improve their conditions by quickly stopping this looming humanitarian crisis as the harsh winter days loom ahead of Afghans, many of whom live in poverty.

In Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood that houses the Presidential Palace, and in ministries, government offices, and province headquarters, there is another Taliban, and a double-faced one at that. The first of these faces is what is now bluntly labeled the hotels and palaces group. These are the Talibanis who spent the last decade with their families and relatives in Doha and ran the negotiations that paved the way for the US withdrawal and the movement’s control. This large group is the one that talks on the media and gives the world the discourse that the West wants to hear, using a language that woos the international diplomatic community and providing vague answers to questions on human rights, the education of girls, women’s rights to work and participate in public life, and the multi-ethnic pluralistic participation in the government. However, they know they cannot keep their promises, because the “militant Taliban,” whose “voice of righteousness” seems to be loud and powerful, believes that victory was coming sooner or later, and undoubtedly, under the sounds of guns; and that the US was inevitably leaving, with or without negotiations; and as such, the world must accept the movement’s control as a fait accompli and deal with the Islamic emirate under its own terms and conditions, which it will try to impose by force.

In the context of political movements, this may seem like a conflict between the branches of the movement. But in the Taliban’s case and in the Afghani context, this is more of a Russian doll situation, where dolls of decreasing size are hidden within a larger doll. The latter is the Taliban the world sees: the group that enshrined the sanctity and spirituality of its leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, who surrounds himself in Kandahar, the group’s historical capital, with ulamas and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the new Afghani Minister of Defense and son of Mullah Mohammed Omar. Here, we can talk about the Taliban of Kandahar, which holds the keys to the ideological and theoretical game rules and enjoys historical symbolism. However, its power this time around will not measure up to the power of the first Taliban rule, as a lot of water has run under the bridge in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jalalabad. The social scene has been transformed entirely. In their rush to resolve bottlenecks, the lords of Kabul find themselves incapable of managing the rules of the game between the “Taliban of the government” in Kabul, the “Taliban of the grassroots” in the streets, and the “Taliban of historical symbolism” in Kandahar. Given this internal confusion, the international community is not in a rush to recognize a regime that is still seeking an internal legitimacy that is vital for governing and controlling the country.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.