Tame Taliban? Let’s not kid ourselves. Their win is just the tip of the jihad iceberg

The rapid collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban has sparked much finger pointing. Yet the Taliban have been advancing for over a decade with the US retreating. Only the speed of the final collapse is surprising.

The Taliban, though backed by Pakistan, are indubitably a domestic Afghan creation. Yet they always saw themselves as part of a global revival of Islamic glory, as an idea whose time had come again. Since both democratic and autocratic regimes were corrupt, callous, and lacking in public confidence across the Muslim world, religious fundamentalism had a purity and attraction for jihadis that grew rapidly and thrived on the deep historical roots of pan-Islamism.

Jihadi advance and Western retreat and disillusionment are almost as evident in Africa as in Afghanistan. French and other European troops have failed after a decade of effort to crush African jihadis. France has 5,100 troops spanning five former colonies — Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. French President Emmanuel Macron, weary with unending war, has pledged to bring home his troops and ask other Europeans and Africans to fill the gap.

His problem was the worst in Mali, where local jihadis were joined by Libyan jihadis expelled after Gaddafi’s fall there. The jihadis took over Timbuktu and destroyed many of its fabled monuments as unIslamic. The French moved in to check the jihadis and initially made good progress. But recently the Mali government itself was ousted in coups, the French left in disgust, and the jihadis smile at this display of their moral superiority and commitment. Supposedly a new international task force, Takuba, will now ensure peace. Fat chance.

Jihadis are strongest in Nigeria where Boko Haram virtually rules enormous areas with a population of millions. A tiny group of Islamists defeated US troops even in Somalia in 1993 (shown in the film Black Hawk Down).

The Taliban say they will attempt a peaceful transition to power and not allow launching pads for international terrorism. Yet they have long harboured terrorists from neighbours — Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan. China is paranoid about Islamic militancy in Xinjiang province and has virtually incarcerated a million Muslim Uighurs there in “educational” and “vocational” camps. China is happy to deal with the Taliban (just as the US was in the 1990s) provided they do not assist those exporting jihad. This is optimistic drivel. The religious forces that help jihad rise globally cannot be curbed by normal diplomatic channels even if the Taliban formally agree to the idea.

The Taliban may deem it expedient to check jihadi adventures in the US, or even in China for the time being, but that will be opportunism, no more. Since the Taliban itself is part of the rising tide of pan-Islamism, no one can take its formal claims at face value. It will surely promote religious fundamentalism in neighbours, including Pakistan and India.

Few Indians read Islamic literature across the world, but this invariably paints India as one of the greatest oppressors of Muslims, above all in Kashmir. The Taliban victory will strengthen that global Islamist wave seeking justice for Indian Muslims being harassed by Hindu nationalists. This greatly raises risks that Hindu communalism and Islamist fundamentalism will clash and reinforce one another, wrecking social harmony. 

Most global debates focus on the coming rivalry between China and the democratic world, led by the US. But the elephant in the room is the gradual, relentless rise of Islamism. Even Indonesia, once totally secular, is becoming communal. In Bangladesh, Muslim fanatics have murdered rationalists and atheists (like me). A quasi-Jihadi enclave has come up in the Idlib region of Syria. Islamic State has been checked but by no means eliminated.

Mozambique is unfamiliar to most Indians. It has the biggest natural gas fields outside the Gulf. Many Indian companies (including ONGC and BPCL) have joined international consortia headed by Total of France to create an enormous LNG (liquefied natural gas) industry that can contribute over 40% of Mozambique’s GDP. Alas, little known Islamist groups have occupied the Palma area near the gasfields, killing 2,600 and causing another 700,000 to flee. This is as bad as in Afghanistan yet little reported since major world powers are are not involved. Total and its French staff have fled. Nobody knows if or when conditions will become secure enough for operations to resume. War weariness has affected all western powers.

Many Indian liberals are reluctant to denounce the rise of global jihad, fearing (rightly) that will strengthen the communal hate messages of the BJP. Some hope for a new, tame Taliban. That is delusion. Global Islamism and Hindu nationalism will almost certainly clash and promote communalism on both sides. The short-term outcome may favour the BJP but will be grim for society and the economy.

This article was originally published in the Times of India on 21 August 2021.

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