Why Taliban Remains Intact 20 Years After 9/11: Realities Explained by a Former Diplomat

Now, 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, old and new questions are coming once again before us.

By Toru Takagi

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Now, 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, old and new questions are coming once again before us.

The Taliban in Afghanistan, which was supposed to have collapsed after being attacked by the U.S. for harboring Osama bin Laden, the foreigner who masterminded the 9/11 attacks in 2001, has escaped pursuit and survived, though scattered, and is now making a rapid comeback.

Based on the hypothesis that the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which occurred six months before 9/11, was a prelude to the attacks, I covered the path of the Taliban being taken over by Osama bin Laden, the leader of the international terrorist organization al-Qaeda. The story was broadcast as an NHK Special program and compiled into a book titled “Destruction of the Buddhas, Bin Laden’s Prelude to 9/11” (in Japanese, from Bunshun Bunko, winner of the Soichi Oya Nonfiction Prize).

After extensive interviews with the Taliban themselves, as well as Afghans, Pakistanis, and Westerners who knew them well, I decided to place Koichiro Tanaka, a Japanese UN diplomat (currently a professor at Keio University), at the center of the story.

In the years leading up to 9/11, Tanaka, as an secretary of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA), visited Afghanistan under the Taliban regime countless times and used his language skills to negotiate with more than 30 senior Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who was elected as the prime minister in the latest cabinet. Tanaka is a valuable person who knows the Taliban inside out, down to the nature and behavioral patterns of each individual.

In this article, we asked Tanaka, who continues to eye the situation in Afghanistan as a researcher, about the Taliban that have once again appeared in front of the world.

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The Identity of the Mysterious Students

– On August 15, Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in its lightning-quick advance. How did you feel about it?

Tanaka: In fact, since the summer of 2002, I had been thinking that “This is not good” and had been sending out messages. This is because I have witnessed firsthand that the international community’s goal of “putting Afghanistan in order” was being taken elsewhere in less than a year after 9/11. I have the impression that in 20 years, it has come to this point.

– What exactly do you mean by “taken elsewhere”?

Tanaka: In 2003, the United States goes to war with Iraq, and from a year earlier in the summer of 2002, becomes increasingly less interested in Afghanistan. The U.S. had created a self-inflicted situation in which Afghans felt, “Is this democracy?”

This came out clearly at the emergency Loya Jirga (traditional national council of elders and tribal leaders in Afghanistan) held in June 2002. The U.S. had a clear policy to make Hamid Karzai (the first president) the head of state and went around threatening those who disagreed. Seeing this, the people of Afghanistan began to think that their opinions were not being listened to after all.

In Afghanistan, where democracy was very immature, the great project to build a democratic system has suddenly taken a strange turn. The whole premise of democracy is that it should be based on the will of the people. But the U.S. moved to stifle the will of the people, and the Afghans felt a great disillusionment.

Although the Loya Jirga does not have elected delegates, it is a parliamentary system, and it was seen at the time as a first step toward democracy that could be used to elect a head of state before the formal presidential election was ready. According to Tanaka, the most promising candidate among the participants of the Loya Jirga was former King Zahir Shah, who held the position until he was dethroned in a palace coup. But the U.S. insisted on Karzai’s appointment as head of state because he was fluent in English and could talk to the U.S.

Why Did the Great Disillusionment Emerge?

Tanaka: As for the U.S. Bush administration, they wanted a success story for the 2004 U.S. presidential election. For that reason, they scheduled the presidential election in Afghanistan to be in time. As a result, they fell into a thinking trap by making the self-evident assumption that all was well in Afghanistan, and nothing needed to be fixed there. This is the same structure as the safety myth of Japan’s nuclear power plants—they were built to be safe, so the discussion of doubting the safety itself is not allowed. From there, they lost the timing to correct the situation.

-The Obama administration, that took over the Bush administration, also increased the number of troops.

Tanaka: This may sound very harsh to the U.S., which suffered so many deaths and paid so much for the war, but it was clearly the wrong approach. I saw and heard on site. As the reinforcement proceeded, they just gave out money to various people and tried to buy their loyalty. The U.S. did this in Iraq too, but at least in Afghanistan, most of the cash went to the Taliban and into the pockets of the warlord elders, causing corruption that later became a problem.

The War on Terror Taken Advantage by China and Russia

– To be honest, I think many people, including myself, were shocked by the unexpectedly quick fall of Kabul, just when our attention to Afghanistan was waning. Some people say the U.S. was wrong to start the war in Afghanistan 20 years ago in the first place. But I think that was the only option in the aftermath of 9/11.

Tanaka: The U.S. attack was based on the legal framework, including the exercise of the right of individual self-defense under the UN Charter and the exercise of the right of collective self-defense under Article 5 of the NATO Charter. However, the other side was not a nation.

One was a terrorist organization called al-Qaeda, and the other was the Taliban regime, a political movement that claimed to be a state but was not recognized by the international community. It was a big question whether we could really eradicate terrorism by using force, especially against the former.

Also, looking at the historical progress after that, China and Russia really took advantage of the War on Terror. China expanded its crackdown on the Uyghurs by exploiting the War on Terror, and Russia used this logic to clean up the Islamic forces in Chechnya and Dagestan. They have created a sanctuary where everything is acceptable under the War on Terror.

Why the Taliban Remains Strong

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– Over the past 30 years or so, various violent Islamic forces have emerged around the world, with the rise and fall of al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and its offshoots, and Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia. Among them, the Taliban has been around for a long time. The mysterious “students (=Taliban)” suddenly appeared in Afghanistan in 1994 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and governed for five years after occupying the capital in 1996. People with similar orientation, or even the same members from those times, have stayed on until 2021 and made the sudden comeback. Why do you think they lasted so long?

Tanaka: I think it is because they have an unwavering awareness. Whether it is objectively correct or not, they consider that Afghanistan is occupied by foreign forces. They believed so in the 1990s and still do today. They feel that they are standing up and fighting to free Afghanistan from that occupation. So they can maintain the momentum as a kind of nationalistic movement.

And here’s the tricky part; there’s a state, Pakistan, that supports the Taliban. Pakistan showed false obedience to the U.S. in 2001, and since then, it has been more defiant than ever by increasingly swaying towards China and out of American control. It is believed that this neighboring country was harboring the Taliban, providing them with hideouts, feeding them, providing them with medical care, even issuing fake passports, and in some cases providing them with weapons.

– Do you mean that the idea of defending the homeland from foreign powers has stronger sympathy than the “global jihad” concept of al-Qaeda, IS, and others to wage a global war against what they call the allied forces of Christians and Jews?

Tanaka: Yes. There is a strength as a sort of local force. For example, in the case of IS, they occupied various territories around the world, but in the end, they were not welcomed, because IS came from the outside and the occupied people were persecuted and in some cases killed.

On the other hand, in the case of the Taliban, they are fighting for the liberation of the homeland based on the fact that they are the same Afghans and, in some cases, the same ethnic Pashtuns. They had to face backlash and animosity for the terrible things they did in the past of course, but there was room for more affinity.

Furthermore, as the U.S. and other foreign troops repeatedly carried out misdirected bombings and violated people’s rights, such as raiding private homes in the middle of the night and conducting reckless searches for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, antipathy toward the U.S. spread and sympathy for the Taliban was created.

Changes in the “Camera Hating” Attitude That Affected Even the Governor

– What has surprised many people about the Taliban’s recent takeover of Kabul is their public relations strategy. A number of spokesmen came out and spoke fluently on TV. Before 2001, the Taliban had banned television, calling it a “devil’s box,” so this has completely changed. In addition, the spokesmen are responding to exactly what the international community is worried about. I was amazed to see them answer one after another, such as whether the country would become a base for terrorism, what would happen to women’s rights, what would happen to ethnic minorities, etc. I also wondered if I could trust their words.

Tanaka: The former Taliban never let us take pictures, let alone appear on TV. I have negotiated with many Taliban members, but I do not have any pictures of us together. Even when we became close, we never took a single photo.

On one occasion, the UN office in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan was involved in a terror bombing, and I went to take photos of the scene to see the damage. The governor of Kandahar province at the time, a man with one leg, was there, and he hid his face with the edge of his turban when he almost came into the frame. Even the governor didn’t want to be in the picture that much.

It is said that this is a religious reason to prohibit idolatry. But in fact, there were rumors that non-Afghans are blending in under the guise of the Taliban, so that is why they are wary of exposing their dubious identities.

The current Taliban, on the other hand, is focusing on its media strategy to appeal its legitimacy through the media and gain international recognition as a legitimate regime. However, it is difficult to know whether we should take their words at face value. We have to consider the power structure of the Taliban and the status of their spokesmen. When they talk about respect for human rights, they put a condition that it must be under “Shari’a” (Islamic law).

False Image of the “Taliban’s Number Two” Created by the U.S.

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Who is in power in the Taliban today? The Taliban 20 years ago was led by its founder and absolute charismatic leader, Mohammad Omar, who seized all power and led the Shura, the council. Omar died of illness in 2013, and the next leader was killed in a U.S. military attack in 2016, after which the third successor, Haibatullah Ahhundzada, is said to have taken over. As his deputies, he had Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the Taliban’s strongest hardline group, the Haqqani Network militant group; Mohammad Yaqoob, Omar’s son, and the head of the military commission; and Mullah Baradar in the office in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Of these, Baradar is the one most often seen in recent reports. He has attended negotiations with the U.S. since the Trump administration and recently visited China to meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, making him the highest-ranking member of the Taliban to appear in public. Perhaps because of his appearances on the international stage, he has been described as a “moderate.”

– What do you think about the recent power situation of the Taliban?

Tanaka: Recently, the Taliban has three bases: Quetta in Pakistan, which is said to be moving to Kandahar in Afghanistan, Peshawar in Pakistan, and Doha in Qatar, but I am not sure how much influence the Doha office has.

It is sometimes said that Baradar, who is said to have recently arrived in Kabul from Doha, is the “Taliban’s number two,” but he is only one of the several deputies, and it is one-sided view of the U.S. to say that he is number two. It is true that Baradar has been a close ally of Omar since he created the Taliban, and it is believed that he was a right-hand man of Omar at one time, but it has been 20 years since then. During this time, he was held captive by the Pakistani army for more than eight years but had been released with prompting from the U.S. and had become the head of political negotiations.

In other words, the U.S. has set up a convenient person for the negotiations. It is advantageous for the U.S. to make him the “number two.” From the Taliban’s point of view, it is not their intention to negotiate with the U.S., but to get the U.S. to leave quickly, it is better to look like they are negotiating. That is, they are trying to out fox each other. The U.S. is making it look like everything is going well. I don’t think these realities have reached President Biden.

(Continues in Part 2)

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

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