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What will the Taliban do now – Laurent Marchand

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A great specialist on Islam, Olivier Roy believes that the Taliban have evolved politically and are now seeking international recognition first and foremost. In this lengthy interview, the political scientist expresses his views on the strategy and stakes of their recent takeover.

Was the violent deterioration of the situation in Kabul foreseeable? Have we underestimated the Taliban?
The rise of the Taliban was foreseen and predictable and was even accompanied, as the Americans negotiated with them with the idea that they would have a majority in the next government. What surprised everyone, starting with the Americans, was the collapse of the Afghan army in a few days. We know why this happened, but the speed of this process was a surprise.

Why did he collapse?
It happened a bit like France in 1940: from the moment a whole system begins to collapse, the rest comes by itself.

But have we underestimated the Taliban strategy?
Yes. Basically, we thought that they were essentially aiming at a usury technique, and that they had no offensive strategy. Who preferred simply to exploit the collapse of the regime and the departure of the Americans. And that they would accept a political transition that cost them cheaper and that would save them the effort of war. We realized that they had a strategy when, a few weeks ago, they began to occupy the border posts and close some gates. In an intelligent way. They have conquered all the positions through which the supplies of Afghanistan pass. In a coordinated way. In Kandahar, Herat but also on the border with Tajikistan. Then they began to conquer, one by one, the provincial capitals.

By bribing local militias.
It is another aspect. And not necessarily corrupting them, by the way. The matter is more complex. They consulted with the leaders they knew. We are talking about a chaotic society, of course, but one that is structured. People have relationships, neighbors, marriages, tribals, clans and so on. The Taliban exploited the dynamics of the collapse by guaranteeing an honorable exit for the other actors. Promises of money, amnesty, co-optation. It worked because it already worked like that, in reality. There are no bad Islamist terrorists on the one hand and the poor martyred Afghan population on the other. There is a society that has its own rules, where people kill themselves but also in which a system of alliances works that do not correspond to ideological rules.

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However, this is a bitter defeat for the whole West.
Yes, the defeat is in the impossibility of building a stable state in Afghanistan. This is the fundamental defeat.

We knew it …
Yes, the whole question is there. Why didn’t we realize that this would be the case? There are two possibilities. Either military intelligence wasn’t working, and the Americans didn’t realize that the Afghan army didn’t exist. Or they knew perfectly well but, for political reasons, they decided not to declare it.

Do you prefer this second hypothesis?
Yes, it is a classic. From below come very lucid reports which, for political reasons, are passed over in silence.

Have the Taliban evolved?
They have evolved politically, but sociologically I don’t think so. There is continuity in the ruling class because all today’s leaders were already there in the time of Mullah Omar, twenty years ago. On the contrary, it is reasonable to believe that they have evolved politically. In 2011, in Paris, there were some negotiations between Afghans and I was part of the French delegation. The Taliban were present at the last meeting. They were keen to participate in the negotiation. Because they have drawn some lessons from 2001.

In fact, in 2001, it was September 11 that brought about their defeat. Otherwise they would still be in power. Contrary to popular belief, we did not intervene to save Afghan women, but to avenge 9/11 and kill Bin Laden. Later it was necessary to avoid the return of the Taliban and create a stable state. But the failure was clear from the start. One of the main reasons is corruption.

At all levels?
It is a corruption of enormous proportions. The United States has poured billions of dollars into one of the poorest countries on the planet. It’s easy to imagine what happened… US commanders were parachuting into Afghanistan with suitcases full of dollars. Everything was for sale. A corrupt political class has taken over the country. We know that former President Hamid Karzai was part of it. The current president has not, but he has not fought against this scourge.

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What lessons would the Taliban draw from the point of view of the terrorist threat, especially for us Westerners? Is Afghanistan again a refuge for terrorist organizations or not?
No, indeed. The Taliban understood, in my opinion, that this was the condition of their normalization. They won, sure, and they could easily ignore all the promises they made. But, in my opinion, they won’t. They aim for international normalization, they want to be recognized as a legitimate government. This is why the comparison with Saigon and the escape from Vietnam does not work.

What do they ask for?
The Taliban are asking the ambassadors to stay. If they undertake not to welcome international terrorist organizations, then their government will be recognized. And Afghan women will end up in oblivion. I therefore believe that they will make some concessions on security issues, to have freer hands in Afghanistan.

What role does Pakistan play today?
He has supported the Taliban from the start. Keeping the Taliban in power in Kabul has been an obsession of the Pakistani intelligence services for 25 years. I don’t want to go too far, but it would not surprise me if the plan to close the borders and conquer the provincial capitals was conceived by the Pakistanis.

And isn’t the porosity with the Pakistani border a source of terrorist danger?
Sure. But the Pakistanis have a problem with their own, the Taliban. In any case, no one will control the border area.

Do you share the image of Afghanistan as the tomb of empires?
It’s right. It is a very particular country, with warrior traditions. The paradox is that what makes this country strong is also its weakness. All its tribal, clan, geographical, family divisions make it a country that can be governed only through a flexible relationship between the center and the periphery. The Afghan monarchy, between 1933 and 1973, had succeeded. There have been forty years during which it has managed to find this balance. It was actually the Cold War that upset him, the tensions between the Americans and the Russians. Later the Russians made the mistake of invading and, after them, the Americans made the same mistake. No one has managed to create a stable central power.

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Won’t the Chinese invade?
Absolutely not! The Chinese want two things. That the Afghans do not support the Uighurs, and I believe they have all the guarantees of the Taliban in that regard. And then they want the raw materials: copper and more. They bought huge concessions. But the reasoning of the Chinese is that it does not matter who governs in Kabul, the country is still not controllable.

Is Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in danger again?
In fact, yes. Not because of the iconoclastic tendencies of the Taliban, who I think will be more cautious. But for simple neglect. The pre-Muslim past does not interest them. They will let the looting continue, as has been the case since 2001.

Will the Taliban have a free hand over much of Afghanistan or should we expect relentless guerrilla warfare?
There are two possibilities. The first is a similar situation in the late 1990s, when the Taliban failed to control opposition strongholds, particularly Panshir. If this region resists, they will have no major problems encircling it. All the more so as no country will parachute weapons to Massoud’s successor. Russia only wants one thing, that the Taliban guarantee the border with Central Asia, and they will. The second is that the Taliban be overtaken on the right, by even more radical groups. Like those who claim their belonging to the Islamic State group, which are already present in the territory. It can be believed that the Taliban will do everything possible to crush them, because they cannot accept competition. But at the same time the Eastern Pashtuns risk setting up new areas of refuge for terrorism on the territory.

And then to threaten us directly?
Yes, but paradoxically, the Taliban would be on our side.

Will they be able to keep Kabul?
There is a lot of poverty in the capital, but the city has become very westernized. Society is modern, there is the internet, unlike in 2000. If the Taliban resume their old ways, the city will be a tough nut to crack.

(Translation by Federico Ferrone)


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