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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

OP-ED: For religion or power?

What is happening now in Afghanistan is a fight for the Taliban, not the US

A poignant news report on a street scene in Kabul captured the following comments of a Taliban commander, made to the reporter a few days after the fall of Kabul: “All of my men, they love jihad and fighting,” he said. “So, when they came to Kabul, they didn’t feel comfortable. There isn’t any fighting here anymore.” 

Just months ago, the Washington Post report adds, the unit was attacking government posts and convoys. Now, the fighters are standing at checkpoints, searching cars and inspecting vehicle registrations. “Many of my fighters are worried that they missed their chance at martyrdom in the war,” the commander said. “I tell them they need to relax. They still have a chance to become martyrs. But this adjustment will take time.”

Martyrdom-seeking juvenile militants

How will the Taliban discipline its martyrdom-seeking juvenile militants and turn them into a force committed to govern the country instead of seeking new jihad? Will they turn to other militant organizations and join their endless quest for martyrdom? 

There are already reports of fights between Taliban and other Islamic militants known as ISIS-Khorasan — an offshoot of Islamic State of Syria. Ironically, the objectives of this group, like the original ISIS are the same as those of the Taliban, namely, to establish an Islamic State in Afghanistan. So, what is the difference between them? 

The conversation quoted at the beginning of this writing exemplifies how wars in the name of religion are being fostered by various Islamic groups all over the world and how cannon fodders are recruited from among gullible juveniles for “martyrdom.” 

The thousands of would-be jihadists do not for a moment hesitate to join a holy war because in their mind, fights to establish an Islamic state are a “just” war. Deaths in such wars are sure ways to achieve heaven. They do not pause to think about the goals of their leaders or the party they have been enrolled in. 

A plethora of militant organizations

There are currently more than 50 militant organizations in the world, according to the Canadian government website on public safety. Of these, more than 70% are based in Muslim countries. 

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, aka ISIS, came into prominence after the Iraq war with their establishment of the short-lived Caliphate in Mosul of Iraq. The group was dismantled in three years, again with returning US soldiers but more importantly, because of cooperation from other Muslims who opposed them — including Kurds of Iraq, and of course Syrian soldiers loyal to President Bashar. 

ISIS took to their heels but reappeared in other Muslim countries adopting nomenclatures attached to Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. There are disparate militant groups in the space with similar objectives, and it is disconcerting that these groups are waging battles in different countries, killing innocent people, with governments sometimes helpless in containing them. 

The latest example now is Afghanistan where one militant group just succeeded in toppling a US-supported regime and have now established their own “Emirate” to fulfill their long-held wish to reestablish an Islamic Sharia-based government.

Each with their own version 

Had this been an end to itself for Afghanistan and its Islamic country-focused Taliban objective, the region would have been a safer place, at least for now. The Taliban would have been expected to spend their newfound victory to consolidate their power to rebuild a war-torn country, paying heed to calls from the international community. 

But instead, they are obliged to fight other home-grown militants who want to establish their version of an Islamic government. This group, which is a local chapter of ISIS, made their opposition to the Taliban known by killing nearly a hundred people near Kabul airport, including 13 American soldiers. 

Not satisfied with this, they carried out another brazen attack in a mosque near Kabul, killing the imam who was leading the prayer. Most recently, they conducted another attack, purportedly to kill the Taliban chief spokesperson when he was attending the funeral of his own mother. 

The Taliban government reacted to these incidents by launching attacks on ISIS-K hideouts, claiming to have killed several of this group. But how long will this war of attrition continue? 

Most importantly, why is this opposition to the Taliban which wants to establish a government based on Sharia? This opposition is not from the people or the government that was upended by the Taliban. This is from another branch of Islamic militants who also want to establish Islamic government following Sharia law. 

Now, who is right? Which Islamic group are the poor Muslims of this country (or for that matter other Muslim countries) to follow?

No correct option

Actually, none. All these groups and militants fighting in the name of Islam are quarreling among themselves to seize political power in the territory they work in, whether it is Al-Qaeda or ISIS in the Arabian Peninsula or Sahel region of Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or Al-Shabab in Somalia. 

The Taliban was originally inspired and aided by the militants in other parts of the Arab world, notably Al-Qaeda to fight for an Islamic state and free their country from Western influence. 

But their indebtedness to Al-Qaeda leadership led to their undoing when they refused to turn in the Al-Qaeda leader to the US after the group was accused of attacks on the US. But while the US remained obsessed with Al-Qaeda, other militant groups sprung their heads elsewhere, including Afghanistan. 

The most important outgrowth in militancy beyond Al-Qaeda happened in war torn Syria and Iraq, when after declaring victory in Iraq, the US withdrew its forces from Iraq. 

A fledgling militant group led by Baghdadi, a then obscure former Al-Qaeda middle-rung leader, formed his group and called it Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In a short time, he was able to form a formidable force of jihadists, drawn from Muslim countries, including Europe, and had them trained and reinforced by renegades from the Iraq army. 

His newfound militancy attracted world attention and fear because of its sweeping victory over a feckless Iraqi force and ability to establish his Islamic Caliphate by snatching away a good part of Iraqi and Syrian territory. 

Although Baghdadi’s caliphate dissipated as quickly as it had grown, primarily because of a lack of support from the people he had wanted to rule over and reengagement of US forces, his group splintered and dived into other countries, creating local chapters of ISIS. Now what Taliban faces as enemies is the ISIS chapter in Afghanistan.

A new hotbed for terrorists

One of the major worries of the critics of President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan lock stock and barrel was that the country would turn into another hotbed of terrorists. 

Critics may point to recent ISIS attacks in Afghanistan and nod their heads in support of their fear. But this alone should not have been the reason the US should have stayed back to fight an endless war there. 

What is happening now in Afghanistan is a fight for the Taliban, and not of the US. It is a fight for power, not for religion. But what is of concern to the US as well as the rest of the world is that this fight for power in the name of religion will continue to broil not just Afghanistan but the neighboring countries (notably Pakistan) as well. It will require international assistance and coordination to aid the countries threatened by this militancy to eradicate it.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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