The Taliban retaking Kabul has been inevitable for almost the entirety of the 20 year war, and certainly since Barack Obama announced the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011. And yet the manner in which Kabul has fallen, with images of despair and the Taliban’s unopposed march to the presidential palace, heralds a global tectonic shift. For Islamist militia, regardless of their orientation, it signifies jihad’s biggest win of the decade.
Jihadist outfits from Africa to the Middle East and South Asia, including groups that have been facing off against the Taliban in Afghanistan, will bask in the ‘triumph of Islam’. The Taliban’s win will also be widely interpreted as the fulfilment of the jihadist prophesy of a ‘Muslim army defeating infidels’ in a decisive battle in Khorasan, a historical region which includes parts of modern-day Afghanistan.
The likes of Isis, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, who have faced recent losses, will have to settle with the Taliban becoming the face of radical Islam. This will especially be the case in South Asia where jihadist factions, having gravitated toward Isis, will likely begin operating again under the more lucrative Taliban umbrella. Elsewhere, jihadist groups will try to imitate the Taliban’s modus operandi in what will soon be recognised globally as an Islamic Emirate.
Pakistan recently completed fencing its border with Afghanistan, just in time for the fall of Kabul – more than hinting that Islamabad knew when the Taliban would take over – which means that most of the Afghan exodus is likely to go westward via Iran. This would allow jihadist groups to once again infiltrate refugees rushing towards Europe.
After the sudden takeover of Kabul, groups like Boko Haram and Isis know that like the Taliban they just need to bide their time, incentivise influential warlords in their regions, and wait till foreign powers retreat. On cue, Isis is bracing itself for the US to hand over its operations to Iraqi forces, while the French withdrawal from the Sahel will encourage jihadist militia in Africa.
Before the Taliban unveiled its model for ruling the country, a radical blueprint had already been imposed on Islam’s birthplace and holiest sites. The Al-Saud family’s rule in Arabia, which was cemented by tribal warfare, is as legitimate as the Taliban’s. The Western powers concerned about human rights abuses under the Taliban regime have for decades bowed down to and even strengthened the al-Saud family which implements the same gory sharia codes upheld by jihadist groups.
‘Stability’ has pushed the West to prop up autocratic rules in the region, and that is all the Taliban and any jihadist group needs to know. If Boko Haram in West Africa, or Isis in Iraq, can prove beyond any doubt that only they can be in charge, they’ll eventually find a seat at the United Nations table – Saudi Arabia was even on the UN Human Rights Council. Where oil wealth helped Saudi and Gulf monarchies toy with the West, stability itself is worth billions — the war in Afghanistan has cost the US at least £1.5 trillion alone.
The Taliban will be able to generate its own wealth. With increasing influence over South Asian jihadist factions, the group can become guarantors of China’s new economic corridor in the region. The £1.4 trillion Belt and Road Initiative along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border continues to be targeted by jihadists and nationalist militia in Pakistan. The Taliban will also have over £0.7 trillion worth of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to offer firms in China, which unlike the US will not have to worry about pretentions of democracy and human rights. In addition to supporting China’s brutal crackdown on Uyghur Muslims, the Taliban will likely feign indifference in Kashmir to keep India on side.
The Taliban are willing to work with anti-Muslim regimes to establish their legitimacy. And today, radical Islamist groups crave nothing more than legitimacy, which will now be the focus of global jihad.
In this quest, these groups will be emboldened by the narratives surrounding the Afghan Taliban. Islamist demagogues like Imran Khan are congratulating the Taliban for ‘breaking the shackles of slavery’, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already said that he will invite the Taliban for talks, and Saudi Arabia is bolstering the Taliban’s Islamic credentials by issuing advice to the group. Meanwhile, some in the West are seeking to legitimise the Taliban by suggesting they are a ‘decolonising’ force.
Just as the Taliban’s success would not have been possible without the support of a large chunk of Afghanistan’s population, other groups will capitalise on the jihadist ideology to further erase religious minorities, women, LGBTQ people and all kinds of dissidents at home. The new jihad will be pragmatic enough not to declare war on the next superpower. In return the West will be even more accommodating towards Islamist regimes’ domestic abuses.