Making Sense of the Taliban Return: Winners and Losers in the Muslim World
Hussein Ibish 6 September 2021

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, although it is in the heart of central Asia, has immense implications for the Middle East. Apart from a few exceptions — most notably the Islamist-supporting governments in Turkey and Qatar and Islamist groups themselves, ranging from violent extremists like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to less violent organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood parties — most in the Middle East will find the development deeply disturbing on several counts.

First, for most pro-US states, including Gulf Arab countries, Israel and pro-US forces in Iraq, the spectacle of the United States going through with its agreed withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaotic and in many ways bungled effort to withdraw potential victims of the Taliban, is deeply alarming. It reinforces the notion that the US is no longer a reliable partner, if it ever was, and that Washington is more willing than other global powers to simply abandon its former friends. Whether that judgment is in any sense fair is beside the point. It is widespread. It dovetails with a generalized sense that the United States is looking for an exit from the Middle East in general and the Gulf region in particular, where most large and fixed US military assets are concentrated, and seeking to either pull back from international engagement altogether or at least focus firmly on competition with China and to a lesser extent Russia. All of that leaves pro-American countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, more anxious than ever about Washington’s reliability as senior security a partner and a guarantor.

Second, at a time when radical Islamism appears to be in an existential crisis and a freefall in its influence and power, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is widely viewed as a very dangerous countertrend. It will certainly embolden the radical Islamist groups in general, above all its long-term ally Al Qaeda and its recent bitter rival the Islamic State (which operates in Afghanistan under the title ISIS-K). But it will also inspire confidence in Salafist groups, Muslim Brotherhood parties and virtually all Sunni Islamists.


Coming to terms with the new regime

For Shiite Islamists such as the government of Iran and proxy militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen, the Taliban victory is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it confirms the general power and efficacy of radical Islamism as a revolutionary ethos and agenda. But on the other hand, the Taliban and similar organizations have a long history of anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence, and they were profoundly at odds with Iran during the first period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s. So for Shiite Islamists, the victorious Taliban are both an inspiration and a confirmation and, potentially and historically, a mortal threat.

The big winners in the Middle East, at least for now, are Turkey and Qatar, which support a range of Islamist groups around the region and work together closely in promoting a fledgling Sunni Islamist regional bloc. Turkey was bound to immediately look for potential lucrative contracts for its familiar pattern of diplomacy through commerce. And, indeed, it did not take long for Turkey, with Qatari backing, to seek a contract for running the Kabul international Airport once the US had fully withdrawn. This is likely to be the first of many such management and reconstruction contracts Ankara secures from the Taliban.

Qatar is an even bigger winner, having bet on the Taliban all along, and allowing, with Washington support, the organization’s international headquarters to be based in a de facto embassy in Doha. In addition, Qatar is now one of the prime means of communication with the new government of Afghanistan and secured a great deal of credit for its role in helping to evacuate refugees from the country, turning its close relationship with the extremist organization into a PR coup. If the Taliban moderates its conduct, and governs with some degree of restraint compared with its extreme brutality in the 1990s, Qatar will reap even greater benefits. If, however, at the other extreme, the Taliban allows Afghanistan to once again serve as a hub for international terrorism, Doha could find itself exposed to considerable criticism for its closeness to the Taliban.

The countries in the most awkward position are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Particularly in the period following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Saudi Arabia and, especially, the UAE have developed an increasingly antagonistic relationship with not just Al Qaeda but with Islamists in general. The UAE already took a dim view of all Islamists after 9/11, and Saudi Arabia eventually came to a similar perspective following the Arab spring uprisings of 2011. However, because Saudi Arabia has a history of state legitimation narratives based on its own Islamic character, culture, history and geography, it cannot completely support the UAE model of a total separation of religion and politics, even as Saudi Arabia shifts, under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, to a national narrative that emphasizes patriotic identity and broad history rather than a focus on Islamic heritage and piety.

Both countries feel threatened by the Taliban, especially insofar as it has a very close relationship with Al Qaeda, and can serve as much as an inspiration for Islamic State fighters as an enemy to them. One of Al Qaeda’s principal founding goals is the overthrow of the Saudi state, and all states, in the Arab world. So, Saudi Arabia is obviously deeply concerned about the potential for Al Qaeda to find in the new Taliban-run Afghanistan a revived headquarters and base of operations. The UAE finds everything about the Taliban alarming, even though it was among the few states to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s. In both cases they are taking a wait and see attitude. If the Taliban declines to serve as a hub for international terrorism and adopts a more constructive and less ideologically rigid and bombastic approach than it did 20 years ago, it is likely that these countries will seek constructive relations with the Taliban to encourage that to continue and help prevent Afghanistan from becoming a far-off danger again. So, relations with these important Arab and Muslim countries will largely be shaped by the Taliban itself, and what attitude towards the outside world it takes in the coming months.


Fundamental questions

Finally, the big question for the Arab world and other Muslim societies is the impact the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan will have on political Islam and Islamism in general. On the whole, and especially in the post-Arab spring environment, Sunni Islamism has been in a massive crisis. Organizations that have stuck with the revolutionary, conspiratorial and transnational model of the old, traditional Muslim Brotherhood movement have generally found themselves rejected by the public, persecuted by governments and driven to the margins. If they, and their sponsors in Ankara and Doha, expected such groups to be swept to power in post-dictatorship Arab republics by a giant green wave following the Arab spring, they have been bitterly disappointed.

Many Islamist parties have sought to rid themselves of their old revolutionary, conspiratorial and transnational aspects, becoming as much as possible “Muslim Democrats,” in the model of the Western European Christian Democratic parties, promising to abide by the Constitution, seek power only through legal means and operate openly and strictly within their own countries and for their own national interests. But, as the autogolpe in Tunisia demonstrates, even a fairly thoroughgoing program of that nature does not insulate a group like Ennahda from being marginalized with a high degree of public support. Similarly, more violent and radical Sunni Islamist groups which came to lead the revolution in Syria dramatically failed in the bid to overthrow President Bashar Assad, and indeed their centrality to the armed opposition was probably a major cause for its failure. Arguably Hamas in Gaza and the GNA government in western Libya are the only two examples at present of politically successful Sunni Islamists.

It seems unlikely that the victory of the Taliban, which is rooted very deeply in Afghanistan’s particular history, ethnic and tribal structure, and regional environment, will have much of an impact on the fate of Sunni Islamists in the Arab world. And, while Shiite Islamists such as the government of Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, PMF militias in Iraq and The Houthis in Yemen have been extremely successful by contrast to their Sunni counterparts and rivals, the Taliban is also unlikely to affect their fortunes. Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan will now primarily be a problem facing immediate neighbors: Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran and India. Unless the Taliban decide to embrace international terrorism again, or mismanage the country so badly that ISIS-K or other potential international terrorist groups carve out their own space to operate in a failed Afghanistan, the Arab world and most of the rest of the Islamic world for that matter, will probably be able to tolerate Afghanistan suffering under an extreme fundamentalist government. There is, after all, not very much they can do about it on their own.


Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.


Cover Photo: Muslims listen to an Imam during the first Friday noon prayer after Taliban’s “reconquest” of Afghanistan – Abdul Rahman Mosque, Kabul, August 20, 2021 (Hoshang Hashimi / AFP).

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