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Afghanistan expert, Hamid Khan, says the Taliban never really went away

Afghanistan mountains
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Hamid Khan is a Judicial Education Attorney at the Federal Judicial Center. He's also an expert on a wide range of Islamic issues and teaches courses on them at the University of Michigan Law School. Mr. Khan is also a graduate of Worland High School and the University of Wyoming. He joins Bob Beck to talk about the situation in Afghanistan and what the future holds.

Bob Beck: Mr. Khan, first off, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I think the place I would like to start is your read on what happened when the U.S. said it was going to leave and how it got into such a mess?

Hamid Khan: The answer to that question is both long and telling. It was more about timing. The United States had, as a matter of policy, telegraphed to the Afghan government and to all the region that they were leaving at some point in time. And I think that there was a reluctance on the part of many underground—in fact, the former government in Kabul, as well as those in our government-- to realize that it was going to happen and happen rather suddenly. I think that there is a lot of discussion and sort of navel-gazing, if you will, about the timing and the way the withdrawal [went]. But I think there was no uncertainty, beginning with the Obama administration through the Trump administration and with the current administration, that we were going to withdraw.

BB: So was the Taliban just sort of kind of waiting it out and getting ready?

HK: Absolutely. Their leadership not only bided their time, they understood, both implicitly, with respect to the U.S. commitment, and explicitly to their rank and file, that all they needed to do was wait. And, again, in part, because we had telegraphed our sense of withdrawal and the inevitability of that withdrawal, it gave them the solace they needed to bide their time.

BB: I heard you do another interview and I wanted to ask you about this. If my interpretation of what you said is correct, you said the Taliban really never left. They were around Afghanistan in a number of these communities and they were providing services to people and there are fans of the Taliban that remained in existence and that was part of the reason they were able to take over. Could you kind of explain that to us?

HK: Well, as you point out, one of the previous comments, and I think it's a foregone conclusion, first and foremost, the Taliban have always been Afghan; they are predominantly Pashtun. They have always remained in this area of the world. And whether the government was headed by President Karzai, or President Ashraf Ghani, in Kabul, the vast majority of that country still had a significant Taliban population. And when I speak about service provision, we have to remember that when we speak about the Taliban, one of their promises was, one, promising harmony against the backdrop of so many different conflicts, incursions, invasions, and the intervention of outsiders. And secondly, the delivery of services and especially in the form of what they describe as justice. Now, in the immediate period after the Soviet occupation and withdrawal, there was a great deal of chaos, largely based on the predilections of warlords and others, and that led people into harm's way. The Taliban assured that promises would be kept and that peace would be established. One of the other key principles of the Taliban's ideology is combating corruption. And one of the foremost critiques, whether it be our government or governments abroad or the international community, including many Afghans, was that the current regime or the regime that had been overtaken in Kabul was inherently corrupt. There was very little that was being seen on the ground. And so when we talk about the Taliban's delivery of services, one of their assurances was that they would restore not only order, but they would eradicate corruption as a process.

BB: What's your read on what's happening there now? Is it settling down or is it bad for folks?

HK: I think it's a mixed bag. I think that there is concrete evidence that the Taliban have engaged in targeted killings of individuals, largely focused on the previous regimes' armed forces, intelligence services and the like. However, at the same time, those targeted approaches are in sharp contrast to the realities on the ground. Afghanistan has to contend with a modern economy, it has to contend with an enormous population that it did not have or contend with, in the 1990s. And they have to now govern, which is in sharp contrast to serving as an insurgent group and a militant group where a force of arms alone is not going to deliver bread on the table. It's not going to be able to provide jobs, especially to a young emerging population. We all know the various stories, whether here or abroad, that young people without jobs, without prosperity, always become a way to undermine a society.

BB: Where do you see this all going? Is this something that with the Taliban in charge that it could work out? Or is there going to have to be some change in that government?

HK: I think that the jury's still out. The Taliban have at least indicated a willingness to meet with other former government officials and they've done so in concrete ways. It remains to be seen whether they can do so on a consistent basis. But let's be frank when we're talking about Afghanistan, and whether we're talking about the historical arc of Afghanistan, we are talking about a landlocked country, we are talking about difficult terrain and we are talking about a country that is very difficult to govern. So the assurances that the Taliban somehow can achieve what other countries or what other empires or the like have been unable to achieve, I think that you're kidding yourself. But at the same time, they also have to recognize that the various ethnicities, the various peoples, the language, the population, and the sheer swath of populations means that they're going to have to bring in and compromise on governance or they will meet the same fate as so many others who tried to run the country.

BB: There's almost rules to operate that they're going to have to follow, whether it's religious or just normal rules that all countries have to follow?

HK: Yeah, whether it's religiously based or not, you know, as a larger subset of history there have been numerous Islamic empires that have had to run large swaths of territory, the Ottoman Empire being the last in the 20th century. So whether or not you want to put that in the silo of Muslim empires that have had to rule in the past and those rules of governance, or whether you're speaking about the modern international regime, the rules are still the same. Governance still requires mutual benefit, it still requires the delivery of services, common defense, and the providing of taxation and the delivery, ultimately, for the individual person. So that's what the Taliban are going to have to deal with.

BB: Should the U.S. have pulled out?

HK: I think the United States probably should have pulled out at some point. The question is that throughout the past 20 years, we were never always clear about what our aim was. And the focus today has always been on our military involvement. But I think there were missed opportunities to also have a clear commitment on whether or not development was actually gonna take place in the country. In many cases it was met with fits and starts, it was met with inconsistency. And ultimately, when the pullout did occur, I think it took everybody by surprise. But militarily it was only one component of any nation's involvement with another.

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