Signs suggest this isn’t the Taliban of old

MK Bhadrakumar

There is immense curiosity about the Taliban’s first moves after their dramatic return to Kabul after two decades. The big question on everyone’s mind is whether the Taliban have “changed” since the 1990s.

Opinions vary. But so far at least, there are no signs of a return to repressive authoritarian rule.

The stunning press conference on Tuesday in Kabul by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid distinctly exuded an air of moderation and tolerance to dissenting voices.

The fact that local journalists could ask such provocative questions and get away with it has been widely noticed. Mujahid patiently answered. The following quotes speak for themselves:

We seek no revenge and “everyone is forgiven.”

We will honor women’s rights but within the norms of Islamic law.

We want private media to remain independent but the media should not work against national interests.

Afghanistan will not allow itself to harbor anyone targeting other nations.

Afghanistan will be a narcotics-free country.

In particular, Mujahid said women would be allowed to work and study and “will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam.” Similarly, his assurance that “everyone is forgiven,” referring to former soldiers and members of former president Ashraf Ghani’s government, has made a remarkable impression.

“Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,” Mujahid said. Two other specific remarks by Mujahid were of far-reaching consequence to any open society:

The Taliban will not allow Afghan soil to be used against other countries.

Private and independent media could continue but they should abide by the cultural norms.

Why did Mujahid do such a risky thing? One, he came prepared to say what he said. Most certainly, he acted under instructions from the leadership to put the above positions on record right at the outset even before forming a new government, as a confidence-building measure. By the way, the press conference was open to the international media as well.

Tuesday’s press conference will put the “Taliban-baiters” who are barely surviving on fake news about Taliban’s “excesses” – largely based on hearsay and rumors – in some distress and confusion.

The point is, it is becoming difficult to hold on to stereotyped notions as if time stood still for the Taliban since they vanished from Kabul overnight in the winter of 2001.

To my mind, however, the really striking thing is that the Taliban have presented to us certain firm benchmarks against which they expect us to hold to account the Taliban rulers’ actions in the period ahead. Clearly, the press conference was called precisely for this purpose. Doesn’t that mean something of immense relevance?

Equally, the visit by the top Taliban leader (and a scion of the powerful Haqqani Network), Anas Haqqani, on Wednesday to the residence of former president Hamid Karzai must be noted carefully.

Karzai has taken the initiative to form a coordinating group of himself, Abdullah Abdullah and mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to clear the pathway for forming an inclusive transitional arrangement. Haqqani’s mission was in this connection. Abdullah was also present at the meeting. It stands to reason that Haqqani plays a key role in government formation.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threw some light on the state of play in government formation. Talking to the media while on a tour of Kaliningrad, Lavrov said: “Just like all other countries, we are not in a hurry to recognize them. Just yesterday, I spoke with Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi. Our positions overlap.

“We are seeing encouraging signals from the Taliban, who are saying they want to have a government with the participation of other political forces. They said they stand ready to continue the processes, including the ones that involve education, education for girls and the functioning of the state machine in general, without shutting the door to the officials who worked under the previous government led by President Ashraf Ghani.

“We are observing positive processes on the streets of Kabul, where the situation is fairly calm and the Taliban are effectively enforcing law and order. But it is too early to talk about any unilateral political steps on our part.

“We support the beginning of an all-encompassing national dialogue with the participation of all Afghan political ethnic and religious forces. Former president Hamid Karzai and Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah have already spoken in favor of this process. They are in Kabul. They came up with this proposal. One of the leaders of northern Afghanistan, Mr Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has joined this initiative as well.

“Literally these days, as I understand, maybe even as we speak, a dialogue with a Taliban representative is going on. I hope it will lead to an agreement whereby the Afghans will form inclusive transitional bodies as an important step towards fully normalizing the situation in this long-suffering country.”

At a briefing on Wednesday in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian echoed what Lavrov had stated the day before. Zhao said: “It will be possible to talk about whether China will establish new diplomatic relations with Afghanistan only after a tolerant and open government is formed there that would sufficiently represent the country’s interests.”

He added that Beijing’s position on Afghan issues “is clear and unequivocal. We will wait and recognize the new government after it is formed.”

The template that is dramatically surfacing on the Afghan chessboard is the close coordination between Moscow and Beijing to steer events in Afghanistan toward the formation of a representative, inclusive, broad-based government that includes the Taliban.

This needs separate analysis, as it is an unprecedented development in regional politics historically.

My sense is Pakistan is on board. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi again spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi after hosting the Northern Alliance leaders in Islamabad.