Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Unplugged on September 10, 2021.
Across America today, intense arguments and quarrels that flared up during the urgent removal of all American forces from Afghanistan — abruptly announced by President Joe Biden on Aug. 16 — are still roiling. The angry uproar increased when retrospectives began to appear as Sept. 11 approached. This included poignant reminders that al-Qaida, under Osama bin Laden’s direction, orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. It is well known that al-Qaida remains a Taliban ally today.
Intense arguments will continue to rage following the U.S. military’s departure from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, as most refugee flights remain grounded, heroic rescuers search for thousands who remain endangered, left behind to the mercy of the Taliban. Stranded individuals and families — some are calling them hostages — include American citizens as well as U.S. green card holders, wartime translators and other experts who assisted the American military. Feminist activists have been left behind, too, having risked their lives to seek equal rights for women and girls in Afghanistan’s profoundly patriarchal society.
Today, innumerable dangers are posed by the radical Islamist beliefs of the Taliban. And yet, in more than a few reports and discussions, terrorism is noted while the profoundly religious nature of the new Afghan government remains unaddressed. A quick look in history’s rearview mirror offers some perspective.
The final 9/11 Commission Report stated that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were not best described as a “War on Terror” but rather as a war with terrorists who harbored a specific origin and agenda, deriving from “a radical ideological movement (commonly known as Islamism or radical Islam) in the Islamic world … which has spawned terrorist groups and violence across the globe.”
The Taliban, although not formally recognized as a terrorist group, are allied with al-Qaida even today. In an April Congressional Research Service report, United Nations monitors assessed that al-Qaida and the Taliban continue to maintain strong ties:
“The Taliban reportedly issued orders in February 2021 barring their members from sheltering foreign fighters, but otherwise do not appear to have taken tangible steps that might constitute a break in ties with Al Qaeda. AQ sympathizers have celebrated the Taliban’s takeover and the Taliban have reportedly freed prisoners, including AQ members.”
The Taliban’s new cabinet picks
A look at Afghanistan’s new caretaker government, as reported by the New York Times, provides “the clearest indication yet that the group sees power as something to be shared exclusively among the victors, rather than fulfilling their promise of an inclusive government that factored in the reality of a changed Afghanistan where women and ethnic minorities were represented in decision making.”
For example, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the new interior minister, is the son of the mujahedeen commander and Haqqani network founder Jalaluddin Haqqani. “His (Sirajuddin’s) Haqqani network, known for its close ties to the Pakistani intelligence service, was the most dogged opponent of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. It was responsible for hostage-taking, targeted assassinations and suicide bombings, including some of the huge truck bombings that killed civilians in Kabul,” the Times reported.
“The Haqqanis sit at the nexus between the Taliban and Al Qaeda — they are one of the key bridges,” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and senior editor of the group’s Long War Journal, told the Times.
Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s new intelligence minister, was one of the five Guantanamo Bay prisoners released in exchange for the last U.S. prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. According to the New York Times report, Wasiq’s interrogation files from his time in Guantanamo accused him of close ties to al-Qaida, including arranging for the terrorist group to provide training for intelligence agents of the Taliban government.
The Taliban’s religious views
The Taliban’s religious views are based on a Deobandi brand of Islamic thought, which according to Indiana University scholars Sohel Rana and Sumit Ganguly, “adheres to orthodox Islamism, insisting that the adherence to Sunni Islamic law, or sharia, is the path of salvation. It insists on the revival of Islamic practices that go back to the 7th century — the time of the Prophet Muhammad. It upholds the notion of global jihad as a sacred duty to protect Muslims across the world, and it is opposed to any non-Islamic ideas.”
The Taliban are well remembered for their earlier oppressive rule. And following their recent seizure of power as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, terror struck the hearts of many Afghans who were aware that the same Islamist ideology would immediately be enforced. This led to panicked efforts to flee the country and resulted, in part, to the deadly chaos at the Kabul airport.
The Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate and the Taliban continue to be at war, and the former is said to have sponsored the suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. military personnel in Kabul. What is the primary difference between them? IS groups are focused on global caliphate — a traditional form of Islamic rule — while at this time, the Taliban’s full attention appears to be on ruling Afghanistan. However, it bears noting that these two radical Islamic groups share a number of beliefs and practice the same deadly tactics against those who reject their severe interpretation of Sunni Islam.
Both groups kidnap, enslave and forcibly marry women and girls. Both viciously torture and kill those who disagree with their ideology or resist their control. Both take pride in publicizing their most atrocious killings. This was evident in IS’ carefully produced video of its beheadings of Christians on a Libyan beach in 2015. Similarly, the Taliban’s amputations and executions of their convicts in a Kabul soccer stadium and the public torture and killing of women have been widely circulated.
As we assess the failures of the U.S., the future of Afghanistan, and the very real risks that lie ahead, it is essential that we remain focused on the religious nature of America’s present threats. According to bin Laden, America was attacked on 9/11 because of radical Islamic ideology. Likewise, today’s circumstances in Afghanistan are not primarily based on territorial disputes or political disagreements but are deeply rooted in profoundly religious dogmas. And those dogmas inspire and motivate Islamic organizations like al-Qaida, IS and the Taliban.