For Taliban, Power Is Everything: What Are the Two Bargaining Chips?

20 years have passed since the September 11 attacks.

By Toru Takagi


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Interview with Koichiro Tanaka, Former Secretary of UNSMA (Part 2)

20 years have passed since the September 11 attacks. The Taliban in Afghanistan, which was supposed to have collapsed after the U.S. attacked it for harboring Osama bin Laden, the foreigner who masterminded the terrorist attack, has survived and regained power, and the situation is now rapidly developing into a revival.

Toru Takagi, who wrote details of the Taliban in his book titled, “Destruction of the Buddhas, Bin Laden’s Prelude to 9/11“ (in Japanese, from Bunshun Bunko), asked Koichiro Tanaka, a professor at Keio University, how he sees the Taliban today. Tanaka, who is the former secretary of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA), had negotiated with more than 30 senior Taliban leaders in the years leading up to 9/11, including Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund who was selected the prime minister in the new cabinet.
(This is Part 2 of a two-part series. See Part 1)

“After All, the Taliban Are a Fighting Group, Where Power Is Everything Like the World of Yakuza”

– How do you see the Taliban’s “cabinet” that was announced on August 8?

Tanaka: Perhaps to indicate that it is not yet a final approval, the term “acting” minister is used, but to be honest, I don’t think it will work as an administrative mechanism, since members who may be illiterate are assigned.

– For a long time, the Taliban has been perceived as having hardliners and moderates, with the moderates making appearances but the hardliners ultimately holding the power.

Tanaka: Rather than hardliners, I call them militants. It is a world where power is everything, the world of yakuza, so to speak. Now that the U.S. military has withdrawn, there is no doubt that the militants have a strong say.

The new prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, is a former foreign minister who was promoted from deputy foreign minister in the previous regime, and I have met him more than 10 times, but have heard nothing but doctrinal principles from him. Mullah Baradar, who often appears in the media now, was also known as a militant. In this cabinet, he is the deputy prime minister, which is a subtle position, and since the U.S. troops have withdrawn, the Taliban no longer needs him to negotiate with the U.S.

It seems like a bad joke that Sirajuddin Haqqani, a former deputy, is the Minister of the Interior. He is like a mad dog, said to have links with al-Qaeda and has been involved in terror bombings and other violent acts in the country, but now he will be in charge of maintaining security.

I‘m not acquainted with Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of the Taliban founder, Omar. He is now the Minister of Defense, but being the former head of the military commission, he is not a person who tries to solve things through talks. In other words, the upper echelons of the Taliban are dominated by militants. After all, the Taliban is a fighting group. Their first and foremost concern is to defeat their opponents in battle.

Their primary mission is to exterminate foreign powers. The second mission is to return Afghanistan to an Islamic state based on Shari’s (Islamic law).

If military tensions continue, the primary mission will remain, and the militants will always have a strong say. The situation should change when the tensions ease, but as long as they feel threatened by the international Taliban-haters and Islamophobes, I think the militants will inevitably continue to take the lead.

To take the initiative away from the militants, the international community needs to become more accommodating to the Taliban and let the reconciliation theory within the Taliban prevail. However, the Taliban will not be able to change their policy of creating a country based on Islamic law, and the international community will not be able to ignore the human rights issues, including those of women. As a result, the paranoia of the Taliban that they are being ostracized by the international community will not stop, and in the end, the militants will continue to have power.

Among the members of this cabinet, the one Tanaka describes as “convincing” is Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaki. In my book, “Destruction of the Buddhas,” I described, despite his militant background, how he showed understanding towards the logic of the international community and, unlike the hardliners, worked to protect cultural heritage.

Tanaka: Mutaki was also appointed by Omar in the previous administration to negotiate peace with the UN as a mediator. We could see he was digesting what we were saying and considering with his own head. On behalf of the Taliban, he had signed a memorandum on how to proceed with the negotiations. I also recall he tried to help free the four Japanese hostages who were held by the armed forces of Uzbekistan in Kyrgyz. However, he cannot move the regime by himself, so it does not mean that future diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban will go smoothly.

“If Unable to Move People, They Eventually Have to Resort to Force”

– For several years until 2001, the Taliban regime was supposed to have “ruled” Afghanistan. Will it return to that form?

Tanaka: This time, if they do the same thing waving their guns, the country will definitely not operate. The expectations of the Afghan people have reached a different level than those times. Before 2001, the Taliban came out in a situation where the country had been completely destroyed by civil war, and nothing was functioning as a country, and no security was maintained. They occupied Kabul and assumed power.

They did appoint ministers and vice-ministers at that time too, but I honestly wonder how much they were actually functioning as an administrative structure. I frequently visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, but the office was empty, with almost no staff. The Ministry of Education had the largest number of officials. The ministry may have been rather lively because it administered many madrassas (seminaries).

Now, the Taliban is trying to bring back people who worked in the administrative structure by pardoning even the collaborators of the previous regime. But I don’t think the staff would bother to go back to an environment where everything they have done previously may be denied. The most likely scenario is that they will force them to work by taking their families hostage.

This is especially likely in the military area. The Taliban regime before 2001 had several Soviet-made Mig-21 fighter jets, but the Taliban did not have the capability to fly them. So, they found military pilots from the former communist regime in Afghanistan and took their families hostage to make the pilots work for the Taliban and conduct airstrikes. I think they will do that kind of thing again. Right now, the Taliban is putting on a soft face and calling for action, but if people do not follow their orders, they will eventually have to resort to force.

If the Taliban Leans Towards Democracy, They Will Cease to Be the Taliban

– It has been clear for a long time that the Taliban does not adopt democracy at all, hasn’t it?

Tanaka: It does not accept the system of elections. The Taliban rejects even the centuries-old decision-making body in Afghanistan, the Loya Jirga (national council of elders and tribal leaders). Delegates to the Loya Jirga are traditionally elected among elders and tribal leaders, for example. However, the Taliban rejected even that as un-Islamic. What they wanted was a conference of ulamas (religious leaders).

In other words, rule by Shari’a, the Islamic law. If the Taliban said, “We will loosen the Shari’a,” the ulamas would not stay quiet. My conclusion is that it is impossible for the Taliban to stop the strict application of Shari’a. It is structurally impossible. If they do, the Taliban will cease to be the Taliban.

Since the days of the Taliban regime before 2001, there has been an extraordinary ministry called the “Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” that symbolizes the hardline interpretation of Islamic law by the Taliban. It was the religious police that cracked down on people’s violations of Islamic law, patrolling the streets with guns, on the lookout for any women walking without their male relatives, or not wearing full-body burqas, for any men with short beards, or for anyone enjoying music.

It was also the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice that ordered the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, an over-1,500 years old cultural heritage in Afghanistan. In this cabinet formation, Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was revived and a “minister” was appointed. Will the nightmares of those who knew 20 years ago become reality again?

What are the thoughts of the current leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhunzada?

Tanaka: Haibatullah was the head of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice for a time in the 1990s, and even if things have changed somewhat over the past 20 years, he will still be strictly applying the Shari’a and create a social system that reflects it in a strong way.

One thing that caught my attention was that the spokesman of the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, who announced the cabinet, said at the end of the press conference, “Institutions and laws will be made in the future, but until they are decided and announced, demonstrations are prohibited.” I fear that in the future, those who disagree with what the Taliban regime thinks will be beaten and may even be shot with guns. And they do it without hesitation.

In fact, there are many people who were at the center of the Taliban who have been sidelined in the past few years. I used to exchange emails with some of these people up to a certain point. They were aware that the Taliban took the wrong approach in the 1990s and had a kind of self-reflection. They remained with the Taliban, but none of them were named in the more than 30 members of the new cabinet.

These, whom I call “decent people,” have not come to the fore. This suggests that the militants prevail at the heart of the Taliban and are very cold toward those who reflect on the past ways of the Taliban.

Is the Taliban Like the Ruthless Shogun Oda Nobunaga?

– The existence of the Taliban is difficult for Japanese people to understand. If you would try to explain about the Taliban to Japanese students, how would you describe them? They are not bandits. Would the image of the Sengoku (Warring States) Period in Japan be close?

Tanaka: It’s hard to explain. To put it in extreme terms, I might describe the Taliban of 1994 that emerged to pacify Afghanistan in a state of civil war, as something like the demon shogun Oda Nobunaga.

That’s because, from the perspective of trying to stabilize the whole country and develop commerce, the Taliban also had some of those elements. In the process, Oda Nobunaga did a lot of terrible things, such as burning of Mount Hiei, so it’s a question of how you look at it.

However, Oda Nobunaga has been portrayed as a hero so much in dramas and games these days. So expanding the image in that direction would only miss the point, and may not be an appropriate metaphor, especially for today’s younger generation.

– It is sometimes said in Japan that many Afghans actually welcome the Taliban. How is the reality?

Tanaka: The way it is perceived is quite different between urban and rural areas, and in terms of ethnic background, it depends on which province you are talking about. Even so, I think very few Afghans will say with certainty that the current Taliban is better than the Afghan government of the last 20 years.

Although the governance was made possible by foreign aid, medical opportunities have certainly increased, and children have been given the chance to go to school. The previous Taliban regime would have liked to have achieved this, but they were so badly behaved and placed so many restrictions on the activities of foreigners that they could not do enough.

If the Taliban regime comes to power this time, the assets of banks bearing the name of the Afghan government in foreign countries will be frozen as the assets of the Taliban under the UN Security Council sanctions. This means that sooner or later, Afghanistan will run out of money. The people’s livelihood will also inevitably deteriorate, so even more so, it is hard to imagine the Taliban regime would be better off.

An Excessively Brutal Organization Created by Ordinary Individuals

– It is sometimes said that the Taliban are just ordinary people. How do you think about this point?

Tanaka: I think the question is how to understand the almost 180-degree difference in attitude of the same person as an individual and as a member of an organization.

There is an opinion that is sympathetic to the Taliban, saying that the Taliban are just ordinary people if you talk to them, that they are still human beings, and that it is wrong for the U.S. and other countries to conduct military attacks as if they are evil incarnate. For example, the words of Tetsu Nakamura, who passed away in Afghanistan, are sometimes reported with such a nuance. This is not necessarily a wrong assessment, but I feel it is dangerous to get caught up in it.

In my experience, the Taliban members are normal people, with children and parents. If you talk to them, you will see that they too are a human. Some of them have shared their feelings and inner thoughts with me. However, when these ordinary people become an organization, they can do things that are incredibly brutal, things that no human being would do, even amid a civil war.

As Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who studied the Nazis of World War II, said, there have been tragedies in history such as totalitarianism and the Holocaust that were created by ordinary individuals. If we don’t see these aspects squarely, I don’t think we can face up to the question, “Who are the Taliban?”

As for the interpretation of the Taliban, we must avoid letting the “ordinary people” theory generate momentum in Japan and conclude that the Taliban was right to destroy the “illusion of democracy” the international community created through military force.

The Two Bargaining Chips Against the Taliban

– Earlier, you said that the international community, including Japan, needs to adopt a kind of conciliatory stance to prevent the hardliners from gaining momentum, but at the same time, you claim we should not easily grant international recognition for the Taliban regime.

Tanaka: A difficult balance is required. Recognition of the regime is one of the few bargaining chips that the international community has. The other is money, and we don’t want the Taliban to think that they can gain unconditionally the money that has been provided to the Afghan government. We have very little leverage to move the Taliban.

We have only two bargaining chips: the regime’s approval and money. We need to use them carefully. But we can’t just wait and see, we have to continue to engage with them. There is no doubt the people of Afghanistan are starving. It is also important to continue to provide humanitarian assistance.

– Listening to what you have said so far, we consider the situation in Afghanistan will rapidly deteriorate under the Taliban. What do you think will happen in the future?

Tanaka: If things continue as they are, at best they will return to the days of the 1990s when the Taliban had their own way. If it gets worse, it could turn into a failed state. So many people from all over the world have been involved in this project, and there have been visible results such as improvements in healthcare and education, and women’s social advancement. We have to do something to prevent all that from disappearing.

In the end, it is up to how the Taliban conducts politics. The international community cannot force them to do something. On the other hand, it may still be possible to guide the Taliban with words. It is a difficult task, but I think we have no choice but to continue that effort.

(Toru Takagi, Chief Producer of NHK WORLD Department, NHK)


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