Will Taliban be accepted as a pragmatic alternative to ISIS?

Once again, it seems that efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and end the dispute between them and the Western-backed government in Kabul will come to nothing. We may think that this is regrettable, but from their point of view, this is the most reasonable course of action.

At the moment, the Taliban are in the ascendency in Afghanistan. They have survived the onslaught of 10 years of fighting the United States and their allies, and have since re-established themselves as the most credible military force on the ground. Without its Western backers, the Kabul government can hold its own in some areas, but it cannot hope to establish dominance over most of the country.

It can hold Kabul and neighbouring areas, and be safe in that stronghold, but not much more. The Taliban are in a position of relative strength. And if their goal is to re-establish the pre-invasion Islamist regime, they do not stand to gain very much from any negotiations.

This situation is developing against two very important background factors. The first is the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan. And ISIS is a target of opportunity for the Taliban. On the one hand, ISIS is largely a foreign fighting force – Afghan Islamists are much more likely to favour the Taliban. And on the other, Kabul’s Western backers are much more terrified of ISIS than they are of the Taliban.

In this situation, the Taliban can claim to be the force most likely to be able to defeat ISIS and drive them out of the country – even to Kabul’s Western allies. The second factor is the US election. As things stand, Hilary Clinton is the most likely to win the presidency. If she wins, it is inconceivable that the United States will have any appetite to get dragged into Afghanistan again.

The Kabul government is barely holding on against either the Taliban or ISIS on its own and they will not be receiving any extra hard backing

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

There is just too little to gain, and very much indeed to lose. Prospective Republicans are more likely to war-monger but even with them it is hard to imagine the rationale which might get them back into the country.

In these circumstances, the West can claim all it wants that they stand with the Kabul government against whoever poses a threat to them. The Kabul government is barely holding on against either the Taliban or ISIS on its own, and they will not be receiving any extra hard backing.

Assad position

So the Taliban are betting that they will eventually be in a position similar to that of Assad in Syria: they are hoping to become the only pragmatic alternative to ISIS in their region. And they expect that when the West finally acknowledges this reality, they will move aside and let them have the country once again.

Already, much of the stage is set for this. Consider the perception of the conflict in the West. It has been many, many years since Taliban brutality or atrocities have been reported in the West as such. On the other hand, most of us will have lost whatever sympathy we may have had for the “democratic” Kabul government – it has proven to be every bit as corrupt, authoritarian, and brutal as any of the dubious regimes we have supported around the world.

By now, whatever moral distinction we would have wanted to draw between the two will have been very much blurred. And on the other side, ISIS does what ISIS usually does: it is by far the most awful and inhuman actor, and shocks everyone else out of their senses with the way they revel in their grotesque brutality.

How long before “pragmatic” voices in the media and the defense establishment start calling for us to make “pragmatic”, “hard choices” and allow one group of fanatical murderers to take over the country, so that the other group of fanatical murderers does not?
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:50 - GMT 06:50
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