Who is afraid of the Taliban?

Article by Dr Muzaffar Iqbal
Email: quantumnotes@gmail.com

The Taliban pose a number of very serious ideological, doctrinal and military threats to many. The greatest and most immediate threat is to the American hegemony in the region. Had it not been for their consistent, bold and strategic resistance, the proxy government in Kabul would have turned Afghanistan into an American colony. This would have been the end of centuries-old traditional Afghan values, steeped in Islam. This would have also meant that Afghanistan would act as a stepping stone for American designs for the region, providing the ground for its offensive against Iran.

In a way, it would have been a situation not unlike what Russians had dreamt of in the 1970s before they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. They wanted access to Afghanistan for similar reasons. For the Russians, however, it was the extension of their influence towards the south and access to the warm waters which was the greater consideration for their invasion of Afghanistan. For the Americans, Afghanistan is key to the Central Asian oil reserves, a launching pad for all military operations aimed at curtailing Iran, and, of course, a direct way to influence events in Pakistan. The resistance launched by the Taliban has blunted all of these plans. Thus, the Taliban are the greatest threat to the Americans and, by extension, to all those who support American policies in the region.

The second threat the Taliban pose is to the ‘liberal Muslims’. They uphold, practice, and enforce customs and values which ‘liberal Muslims’ cannot live with. They demand strict adherence to the Sharia as well as the Sunnah of the most Noble Messenger, upon whom be peace. Although they pronounce the two shahadas (there is no deity except Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger), many ‘liberal Muslims’ have no qualms about certain aspects of Sharia (such as drinking). Thus, they view as a threat the Taliban’s insistence on closing down shops of those barbers who shave beards, places which spread vices in society, and other such measures.

The Taliban also pose a threat to those Muslims whose understanding of Islam is not defined by the narrow vision held by the Taliban. Although such Muslims support enforcement of Sharia and they uphold the Sunnah of their beloved Prophet (PBUH), they cannot agree with certain aspects of the Taliban’s way of governance. In a more normal situation, such differences could be discussed, but the violence and the treachery with which Taliban have had to cope, even brotherly discussions are not possible. Islam is not monolithic and the level of iman is not measured by the length of one’s beard. But diversity within Islam, as reflected in certain practices, is not within the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.

Regardless of various levels of opposition to them, the Taliban have proven to be a force to reckon with. Most western analysts are surprised at their resilience. They fail to understand that the strength of the Taliban is not in numbers or weapons, but it lies within them. It is grounded in their absolute reliance on Allah. They are distinguished by their bravery, honesty and strict adherence to Islam, and by their loyalty to what they believe in. Unlike the general populace, swayed by winds of all kinds, they have a strong vision of Islam by which they live. Had it not been their inner strength, they would have been wiped out by now.

While many Pakistani and western analysts do not want to admit this, the Taliban enjoy a certain level of support from the general populace in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, their Pakistani support has been gradually increasing. This is so because most Muslims in Pakistan do not support western-style, non-Islamic policies which are tacitly or overtly enforced in both countries. The liberals in both countries are ideologically and emotionally aligned with the western-style secular vision of life. Hence, they are afraid of the Taliban. But liberals are a minority in both countries. Therefore, even if the majority does not agree with some of the things the Taliban do, they still support them because the other side is totally unacceptable.

Those who are afraid of the Taliban have a long fight ahead of them. If history is our guide, it can be said with certainty that NATO is going to be engaged in a no-win situation for decades to come. It is not clear how many western countries will be willing to support such a no-win situation for long. The Americans have their own interests and they have been able to enlist Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, and a host of other countries to provide soldiers. But other than the UK, many European countries have little to gain from such support. Hence, their long-term presence is questionable.

The Taliban have spread their influence into Pakistan and they are now capable of operating in many parts of the northwest. They may not be able to become a main force in the rest of the country but they are certainly capable of influencing events here in Pakistan in the years to come. Their influence may translate into the emergence of new political forces in Pakistan. The Taliban thus pose a threat to the establishment in Pakistan and it has no idea how to deal with them.

Published in The News on Friday, July 11, 2008

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