The swift takeover of Afghanistan in August, 2021 by the Taliban forces for the second time has triggered a new set of discourse about the changing regional and global political dynamics and at the same time many are surprised over the apparent apathy of the Arab world towards the emergence of new politics in Afghanistan. The paper is primarily intended to explore the dynamics of tectonic shift in the stance of Arab world towards the Taliban 2.0, the growing security concerns within the region and what does this victory of the Taliban means for the Arab extremist and radical forces.
The terrible image of some Afghans clinging to a US Military Air Force plane at Karzai International Airport in a bid to flee the country following the capture of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15, 2021 stirred a global outrage and the horrible site was described as a ‘shame for the West’ by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.[i] The speculations were, of course, rife about the succumbing of the Afghan forces sooner or later but none had imagined that it would be as fast as one witnessed.
Today a dilemma for the international community is the recognition of the Taliban 2.0[ii] and political and economic engagement with it in the future. Amidst the dilemma and contemplations about how to confront multiple challenges arising out of Taliban’s accession to power, most eyes are on the Arab world which explicitly appears to either maintain a conspicuous silence or express a cautious view. These vigilant posturing is well reflected in the official statements of most of the Arab states including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as most have evaded any signs of sympathy or enthusiasm towards Taliban 2.0. This political quietness represents a stark departure from the past when the same Arab countries had extended all sorts of supports from economic to military, first to anti-Soviet Jihad and later to the Taliban. Later along with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were the only Arab countries to recognise the Taliban in 1996. The current passivity of the Arab world is completely juxtaposed to warmth and political eagerness of countries like China, Russia, Iran and Turkey to reach out to Taliban 2.0 which were ironically hostile to the Taliban 1.0.
Evolution of Taliban 1.0 and the Arab world
Not long after the occupation of Afghanistan by erstwhile Soviet forces in 1979 and subsequent rise of resistance movement, the conflict between Afghan rebel forces and Soviet army galvanised into a full-fledged armed struggle which later in the international strategic parlance came to be known as Afghan Jihad.[iii] Shortly the Afghan fighters/ Mujahedeen were joined by the foreign religious volunteers, mostly from the Arab countries (Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Kuwait, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia and Morocco) and they were then called the Afghan-Arabs. Osama bin Laden’s own recruits only included fighters from Lebanon, Algeria, Somalia, Kenya, Chechnya, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Filipinos.[iv] According to an estimate, around 35,000 Arab Islamist fought on the sides of Afghan between 1982 and 1992.[v] Even after the end of Soviet occupation in 1989, many of the Afghan-Arabs continued to be a part of factional politics among different Jihadist groups which later helped Taliban to usurp the power and create the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996.
The pioneers of the Afghan Jihad were able to appeal to the Arab Jihadist because of their old ideological fraternity with them established during their study in several Arab religious seminaries. One of the prominent symbols of Afghan Jihad, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, was an alumnus of the world-reputed Islamic seminary Al-Azhar in Cairo. He had joined the seminary in 1971[vi] and by the time he returned, Afghan fighters were ready to embrace his ideological and Jihadist rhetoric.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another icon of Soviet-Afghan war had his ideological origins in the Muslim Brotherhood (MBH) of Egypt which had its deep ideological imprint on his political ideas. His contemporary, Burhanuddin Rabbani had also received his education in Al-Azhar in 1960s and is known for nurturing a generation of Afghan Jihadist.[vii] Kamal Bahlavi, a bilingual (Arabic and English) and the spokesperson of MBH Europe had participated in the Afghan war and establish a cultural center in Peshawar with the objectives of bringing the Jihadists of different nationalities under one umbrella. Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries like Kuwait and Bahrain ran many agencies at the Pakistan-Afghan border to recruit the religious volunteers. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia opened a chain of pro-Wahabist seminaries for the purpose of indoctrination of refugees who had crossed over to Pakistan to be sent back again as Islamic warriors.[viii]
Apart from ideological and religious proximities, there was deep economic connection as well. A report released by the Norwegian foreign ministry suggests that Saudi Arabia was the principal financer of ‘Operation Cyclone’, the US-led operation to arm the Afghan Jihadists.[ix] Saudi Arabia’s economic aid to the Mujahedeen between 1979 and 1992 was around US $4 billion.[x] The King Fahad Charity offered an aid worth US $20 million in 1993 for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.[xi] This did not include other individual contributions in form of charity, donation, annual alms, weekly mosque collection and allocation of budget from various Islamic foundations. During decade of war, annual individual contributions to the Afghan war were estimated to be worth US $400 million.[xii] Other GCC countries like the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait too financed the Operation Cyclone.
There were many wealthy Afghan-Arabs who travelled to Afghanistan and offered huge economic assistance to the Soviet-Afghan war. An Azhar-educated Palestinian Islamist, Abdullah Azzam was one such volunteer who had established the Arab Mujahedeen Service Office in 1984 in Peshawar (Pakistan) to impart training in guerilla war and lessons in spirituality.[xiii] A large share of Osama’s own economic wealth, estimated to be US$ 250-300 million in 1993[xiv] was spent on different terrorist camps at the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Taliban 2.0 and Waning Enthusiasm in the Arab world
The fall of Kabul into the hands of Taliban amid the drawdown of the Western forces produced a confounded diplomatic scene. When the world is witnessing a high-level diplomatic interplay, others are more anxious to know how the Arab world would deal with the Taliban 2.0 as the former has a cordial past with the latter. Following the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, the visible absence of Arab enthusiasm of the past is intriguing and there seems to be a tectonic shift among the Arab states when it comes to engagement with the new Taliban.
Over the last two decades, since the fall of Taliban in 2001, the world has seen a complete diplomatic and strategic transformation and the Arab world too is passing through a phase of political upheaval since the outbreak of Arab uprising in 2011. These mixtures of global strategic transformation and the emergence of new Arab polity have imposed a redefinition of diplomatic and political preference within the Arab world, which is well reflected in Arab world’s qualms towards the reincarnation of Taliban.
For more than a half decade, Saudi Arabia is trying to alter its traditional image of an orthodox state and is presumably determined to recast itself as an open economy and liberal society and perhaps this new drive exemplifies the current outlook of Saudi regime towards Taliban. Amidst the Taliban’s speedy advance across the country, the Muslim World League (WML), a Mecca-based Islamist organisation and government’s mouthpiece on religious and political affairs declared in June 2021 that the current Taliban–led war could not be called a Jihad.[xv] Similarly the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), another Islamist voice for the Muslim world termed the Taliban’s violence as genocide against the Muslims.[xvi] Earlier in 2018, Saudi Arabia had called a meeting of Islamic scholars from across the world to denounce the Taliban.[xvii] The current estrangement between the Taliban and Saudi Arabia goes back to the incident of 9/11 and subsequent political developments when Saudi Arabia severed all its diplomatic ties with the Taliban after the latter refused to hand over Osama to Saudi’s authority. The Kingdom’s official reaction to the Taliban 2.0 was well-guarded as King Suleiman officially stated that the Kingdom respects the choice of the people[xviii], but there was no reference to Taliban.
In 2008, Taliban not only refused to hand over Osama to Saudi Arabia but it also refused to denounce Al-Qaeda publicly as sought by Saudi Arabia when Saudi Arabia along with Pakistan were trying to mediate between the Taliban and the regime of President Karzai in Mecca.[xix] The mistrust further deepened between the two after Saudi Arabia expelled the erstwhile Taliban’s envoy Tayyeb Agha in 2009.[xx]
This current Saudi’s position towards the Taliban, its one-time protégé, seems to concur with its new drive to move towards moderate politics and modern economy. While the Taliban 2.0 still adheres to its literalist theology, Saudi Arabia tends to peruse a path of tolerance, including calling its Imams in the mosques to put the microphone on low volume during their sermons. Further, the Arab rulers are still haunted by the bitter memories of Osama’s animosity who called upon his followers to topple the monarchies in the region. Fawaz Gerges, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs said that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in a fix as both are scared that any consolidation of Taliban would inspire the Islamists in their countries and challenge their rule.[xxi]
Today the situation seems to have turned on its head and for a decade all form of Islamism in the region has been criminalised by both the Saudi Arabia and UAE.[xxii] It was at the behest of these two countries that Qatar was put under a blockade in 2017 on the pretext of Qatar’s closeness with the Islamists in the region. Over the years, both have changed their foreign policy preferences, which is marked by pragmatism and both seem to be more eager to become a global economic hub. The US $500 billion NEOM project of Saudi Arabia is indicative of changing priorities of the Gulf monarchies.
The growing diplomatic overtures between the Taliban and Iran also seem to have dissuaded both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to join the diplomatic gambit in Afghanistan. In recent months, Taliban officials have paid more visits to Iran than UAE or Saudi Arabia. Iran was also the part of mediation deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban under Moscow Format[xxiii] and Kabul Process[xxiv] launched in 2017.
The hosting of Afghan’s self-exiled former President Ghani is more revealing of bitterness between the UAE and Taliban, which is suggestive of deepening mistrust between the two. Taliban is alleged to have been involved in the killing of UAE’s diplomats in 2017.[xxv] The media in the UAE has been projecting the forces of Mohammad Shah Masood as a real bulwark against the ascendency of Taliban. The diplomatic adviser to the President of UAE, Anwar Gargash kept his official remarks very short and modest and, referring to Taliban’s proposed amnesty for old regimes’ loyalists and freedom for women in public places,[xxvi] merely stated that the moderate statement of Taliban is encouraging.
Moreover, the political development in their neighboring countries like Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Yemen could also have shifted their focus from Afghanistan as turmoil in their neighborhood merit more attention than Afghanistan which today seem more eager to deal with China, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia or the UAE does not want to join any of the diplomatic ploys where Pakistan seems to hold the sway after the latter refused to join the Saudi-led war in Yemen in 2015 which led to a degradation in their ties.
Qatar holds an exception among all the GCC countries when it comes to the Taliban 2.0 as it permitted the Taliban to open its political office in 2013.[xxvii] After the successful Peace Agreement between the US and the Taliban in 2020, Qatar is known to have emerged as a major diplomatic hub. Qatar not only hosted the Taliban but pursued a hectic diplomacy to help Taliban become a serious and indispensible political actor. Apart from hosting US-Taliban negotiations, Qatar facilitated a series of Taliban-government level negotiations as well. Qatar, unlike UAE and Saudi Arabia never sought anything in return from Taliban and merely acted as a neutral facilitator throughout the negotiation process. The use of Qatar Air Force plane by the Taliban's political bureau and deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar for his recent visit to Afghanistan is a true indication of the level of relationship both are enjoying at present. Qatar had to face some diplomatic criticism as well after the Taliban raised their official flag in their office in Doha and named it Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which antagonised the erstwhile Afghan government.[xxviii] Qatar never extended diplomatic recognition to Taliban but recently it has called upon the international community to recognise the Taliban and engage with it.[xxix]
Kuwait’s role in Taliban 1.0 was not less than that of Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, but this time they opted for a cautious response and asked all parties to exercise utmost restraint against bloodshed and work together to establish peace and security.[xxx] No statement was issued by the royal palace in Oman, but Oman’s Grand Mufti Ahmad bin Hammad Al-Khalili congratulated the Taliban and in a statement he said, “It was a very precious victory against the aggressors and invaders…. and Muslims should remain in unison in face of all challenges.[xxxi] The statement by the official clergy seems to be a departure from the past because Oman is known for not taking sides in global or regional conflicts. As expected, Hezbollah and Hamas congratulated the Taliban over its victory and asked Israel to learn from this.[xxxii]
The response of the Muslim African nations too remained vigilant and most of the governments maintained a conspicuous silence but there were some responses from the Islamist outfits active in the political arena. The head of Algeria’s ‘Islamist Society for Peace’ Ahmed Sadouq in a parliamentary deliberation said that his party hopes that Taliban will learn from their past mistakes and would adhere to the democratic value.[xxxiii] One of the biggest Islamist group in Morocco, Justice and Virtue Party (presently banned), in a statement said that they support the freedom of all countries from the foreign occupation.[xxxiv] The Egyptian government has shown no such antipathy towards the Taliban 2.0 but would not like the current status of Taliban to be a source of inspiration for the MBH which are for years in the line of fire by the current regime.
The diplomatic overtures of Iran, Russia, China and Turkey towards the Taliban 2.0 sprang a surprise for many because the latter was a source of diplomatic and political unease for the former when Taliban had usurped the power in 1996. Iran, along with Russia and Turkey had thrown all its weight behind the Northern Alliance to confront the Taliban 1.0 but now the story has not just reversed but the Taliban 2.0 seems to rely more on these past adversaries for their economic stability, diplomatic outreach and political acceptability. Today’s Iran affability towards Taliban represents a complete reversal of its past abhorrence when in 1998, both were almost on the verge of war after Taliban had killed Iranian diplomats during attack in the consulate in Mazar-i- Sharif. Iran’s changing diplomatic preference could be attributed to US’ invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq which had evoked a fear in Iran that they too might be dragged in the US’ war orbit. This fear subsequently made Iran alter its policy and afterwards it started extending military aid to Taliban against the US. Russia, Iran, Turkey and China have hosted many of the Taliban officials in recent months and Taliban hopes all these countries will be of great strategic significance to them in future.
Taliban 2.0: A source of worry for the Arab world
Before the Soviet-Afghan Jihad, Afghanistan was imagined to be a distant country by the Arab world but this imagination was rendered meaningless given the expansion of Jihadist network over the years in general and shrinking distance between the space and time in particular. The Arab world including the GCC countries cannot afford to overlook the aftermath of the reincarnation of the Taliban. The collapse of Kabul was followed by a lot of buzz on the social media and one tweeter remarked that, “What happened in Afghanistan is a major source of anxiety for the Arab rulers”.[xxxv] Another tweet read, “The ISIS has been replaced by Taliban to accomplish their dream in the Arab world”.[xxxvi] No doubt the victory of the Taliban would bolster those voices which had lost its appeal among the people. The Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula congratulated the Taliban over its victory and said that Arab fighters would expel the westerners from their territories as the Taliban had done.[xxxvii]
Many Arab media reports like one appeared in ‘The New Arab’ have likened this victory of Taliban to the Islamic Revolution of Iran in terms of its ideological and religious appeal. [xxxviii] The victory of Taliban is likely to overshadow the moderate Islamist voices and inculcate a new belief that only armed struggle can change the fate of the Arab world. Many of the Islamist movements like the MBH of Egypt and Ennahda of Tunisia that have lost their appeal among the youth in recent years can look towards Taliban to learn how to revive the eroding rigour among its cadres. A hardliner MBH member, Mohammad Kamal tweeted that the secret of Taliban’s victory lies only in its sticking to the violence and the guns.[xxxix] On the similar note, the Libyan MBH leader Ali Sallabi said that God had promised them the victory and George W. Bush had warned us of defeat and today we have seen whose words are eternal.[xl] President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars Ahmad al-Raysuni, interpreted the victory in a historical perspective and termed it a victory against the crusaders.[xli]
The Arab world cannot escape the spillover effects of Afghanistan because the region itself is enmeshed in the vortex of conflicts and clashes due to decades of power vacuum and ensuing subversion by the non-state actors. The countries like Libya and Syria are going to be affected most because they are almost failed sates and large swaths of their territories are still controlled by those terror outfits which might be swayed by victory of the Taliban.
Soon both the West Asia and the South Asia can become a testing ground for the war of supremacy between the Taliban and the ISIS because the Taliban over the years has been challenged by the ISIS and a significant number of the Taliban cadres have reportedly joined the ISIS camps.[xlii] Many of the Arab Islamist organisations enjoy close relationship with the Taliban and one cannot rule out the prospect of many of the Islamist on the wanted-list of various countries in the region moving to Afghanistan.
One does not know how long the Taliban will survive in power because history is testimony to the fact that they agree on what they have to resist but they disagree on what they intend to achieve. The international community will take time to determine its relationship with the Taliban 2.0 and the nature of the engagement largely depends on how the Taliban addressess the concerns and fear of the world community. But one should have no doubt that Arab world’s outlook towards the Taliban 2.0 would be radically different from what it was during the Taliban 1.0.
Over the last two decades, since the fall of Taliban in 2001, the world has seen a complete diplomatic and strategic transformation and the Arab polity has also changed which have imposed a redefinition and fresh prioritisation of diplomatic and political preference within the Arab countries which is well reflected in Arab world’s qualms towards the reincarnation of Taliban.
The reasons for this current apathy towards the Taliban 2.0 among the GCC countries is more indicative of the growing emphasis on political realism in their foreign policy pursuits because the Arab governments have realised that their past association with the extremist forces have brought no good to the region and the masses.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[ii] Global media has started addressing the accession of Taliban second time after they were ousted in 1996 as the Taliban 2.0.
[iii] Mustafa Hamid & Leah Farrall, The Arab s at War in Afghanistan ( London: Hurst and Company, 2015), P. no. 21.
[iv] Ahmad Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia ( London: I B Tauris, 2002) P. no. 136
[viii] Ahmad Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia ( London: I B Tauris, 2002) P. no.85
[x] Saudi Arabia and future of Afghanistan, Council on Foreign Relations, December 10, 2008, Accessed https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/saudi-arabia-and-future-afghanistan August 30, 2021
[xiv] Ahmad Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia ( London: I B Tauris, 2002) P. no. 134
[xxii] James L. Gelvin (ed.), The Contemporary Middle East in an Age of Upheaval( California : Stanford University Press, 2021 ) P.no. 106
[xxxvii] Afghanistan: Does the return of Taliban boost the Jihadist in Middle East, BBC Arabic, August 18, 2021, Accessed https://bbc.in/3l0gbhz August 29, 2021.
[xxxviii]Afghanistan: Does the return of Taliban boost the Jihadist in Middle East, BBC Arabic, August 18, 2021, Accessed https://bbc.in/3l0gbhz August 29, 2021
[xxxix] The March of Taliban: Between the cheering of Arab MBH and loss of Afghan Banna supporters, Almarjaa (An Arabic Portal), August 20, 2021, Accessed https://www.almarjie-paris.com/18603 August 25, 2021