For Whom the Taliban’s ‘Existential Crisis’ Tolls
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Joe Biden doesn’t know what to make of the Taliban. Asked in an ABC News interview last week if he thought the Afghan insurgents had changed, the U.S. president gave a tortured answer that amounted to, “Yes, no and maybe.”
It is worth examining his exchange with George Stephanopoulos in some detail for a full appreciation of Biden’s self-delusion:
Q: What happens now in Afghanistan? Do you believe the Taliban have changed?
A: No. I think… let me put it this way: I think they're going through sort of an existential crisis about do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government. I'm not sure they do.
Q: They care about their beliefs more?
B: Well, they do. But they also care about whether they have food to eat, whether they have an income that they can provide for their… that they can make any money and run an economy. They care about whether or not they can hold together the society that they, in fact, say they care so much about.
I’m not counting on any of that. But that is part of what I think is going on right now. I’m not sure I would've predicted, George — nor would you or anyone else — that when we decided to leave, that they’d provide safe passage for Americans to get out.
This is, to put it most charitably, a case of presidential projection. There is no meaningful evidence that the Taliban are feeling any existential crisis, much less that they care about making money or running an economy. Unlike American politicians, the Afghan insurgents rarely feel the need to claim they “care so much” about society.
Any reading of the Taliban’s actions, remote and recent alike, makes it clear that self-doubt is not their strongest suit. Whereas they do plainly care about making money to keep fighting, largely from drug-smuggling, they have shown little interest in running an economy for the material well-being of Afghan society. In parts of the country that have been under Taliban control for an extended period of time, they have demonstrated, if anything, a tenacious fidelity to their old worldview.
We should not, then, be surprised if the Taliban decide that they don’t need international recognition or legitimacy, much less aid and trade, and instead revert to the status of a hermit emirate: a North Korea, with terrorist enclaves. Isolation would bring great hardship upon Afghan society, but the Taliban leadership might not — to use Biden’s term of choice — care.
But the president clearly hopes the Taliban have changed. Indeed, he may need for them to have changed. His gamble in Afghanistan is predicated on the insurgents behaving like reasonable and responsible political actors with whom the U.S. can do business — or at least cut deals — in the expectation that agreements will be honored and promises kept.
To make such a calculation is to willfully disregard the Taliban’s behavior, from last year and the last century. The ink was not yet dry on the 2020 peace deal with President Donald Trump, when the Taliban resumed their military operations. This was entirely in character for the insurgents, whose rise to power in the 1990s was characterized by the opportunistic making and breaking of deals. Biden, a Washington foreign-policy veteran, can hardly be unaware of the Taliban’s history of duplicity and doubletalk.
Nor can he miss the message being sent right now by the tens of thousands of Afghans who are fleeing the country, despite the Taliban’s promises of amnesty and tolerance. They remember, if he doesn’t, what happened when “the students,” as the insurgents are known, first conquered Kabul in 1996: Promises of peace and order, and amnesty for Afghans who had served in the government of President Mohammad Najibullah, were swiftly broken. The score-settling started at the top: The president was castrated and hung from a Kabul lamp post, his genitals stuffed into his mouth.
As Biden noted in his interview, the Taliban have, for the most part, restrained themselves from attacking Americans since their second triumphant return to Kabul. But the city fell sooner than the insurgents had expected, and they didn’t have the numbers to directly challenge the U.S. military, especially after 3,000 additional Marines were flown in to manage the evacuations.
The Taliban have themselves been reinforced, and the security in the capital is now under the charge of the Haqqani Network, the most rabid and refractory of the group’s many factions. How long they will observe the previously agreed niceties is anybody’s guess. The Haqqanis won’t have forgotten that they are designated a terrorist organization by the very country whose president now expects them to guarantee safe passage for its citizens and allies.
One potential flashpoint is coming soon: Even as Biden acknowledged that the evacuation might take longer than expected, the Taliban said they would not budge on the Aug. 31 deadline for the final withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the Haqqanis are conducting door-to-door manhunts across the city, seeking to avenge themselves on those who worked against them. Girls and women are already being dissuaded from returning to school and work. Gunmen flanked imams during last Friday’s prayers. If there is an existential crisis in Afghanistan, it is being felt with those Biden has abandoned to the Taliban.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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