A number of religious groups and members of the political elite in Indonesia seem to be rejoicing at the success of the Taliban military organization in reclaiming power in Afghanistan. They are also urging the Indonesian government to act immediately to show its support for the Taliban regime. I don’t understand what is in their minds. In actual fact, the Taliban have a notorious history in geopolitics and governance that has plunged the Afghan people into fear and suffering. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been struggling to flee the country since the Taliban took power shows what or who the Taliban really are.

It is evident that the Afghan people remain traumatized by the previous rule of the Islamist-fundamentalist Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, which was awash with barbarism and inhumanity. With Afghanistan falling back into the hands of the Taliban, the people are watching the nightmare and horror unfolding before their eyes.

During the previous Taliban rule, with had the support of Pakistan and Al Qaeda, Afghanistan (the Taliban named it the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan after the 1996 fall of Kabul) turned into a horrifying “hell on earth”. Massacres occurred everywhere, not only against ethnic and religious minorities like the Hazara Shia minority, but also any group, rivals and enemies the Taliban considered a threat to their power.

Even North Korea was much better back then than Afghanistan under the Taliban. Poverty, famine and malnutrition were rife while violence continued unabated. Civil war among Islamic factions and tribal groups raged. Massacres occurred everywhere, not only against ethnic and religious minorities like the Hazara Shia minority, but also any group, rivals and enemies the Taliban considered a threat to their power.

It is important to note that the Taliban regime not only committed human genocide, but also wiped out their spiritual and cultural heritage (Raphael Lemkin referred to this as “cultural genocide”) such as works of art, historical monuments and archaeological remains. They also aimed their wrath at the houses of worship they accused of being the houses of “heretic infidels”, unreligious and erosive to the purity of the creed and fundamental teachings of the type of Islam they held to and believed in.

Under their reign, Afghanistan was cut off from the world. The Taliban regime also shut out UN food aid for millions of starving citizens. They barred the media and prohibited public activities that they deemed potentially interfering with their power. Various cultural activities were labeled as haram, including music, photography, painting, film, and dance.

Women received the brunt of the impacts of the regime’s atrocities. They were forced to wear full-body burkas, barred from going out in public without being escorted by a muhrim (a male relative they may not marry under religious laws), and banned from working in the public sector. Health workers such as doctors and nurses were the only exceptions because male workers were not allowed to attend to female patients. Girls were denied access to school. And there were many more tragic stories. If they violated the rules, women would be flogged publicly.

The Taliban implemented scorched-earth warfare, a strategy to win a war by destroying infrastructure that favored the opposing side. The Taliban also destroyed farmland and burned residential areas. As a result, widespread destruction was inevitable across public facilities, economic resources and industry centers in all regions. The Taliban also destroyed farmland and burned residential areas.

The regime collapsed in 2001 due to the US military offensive following the 9/11 terror attacks, but did not stop the Taliban from waging violence. They incessantly carried out terror bombings and heinous acts in a bid to destabilize the government for the past 20 years (2001-2021), which claimed thousands of lives and caused enormous damage to the country’s infrastructure.

Their terror attacks, usually in the form of suicide bombings, targeted not just security forces or government officials, but also anyone (civilians, journalists, children, women, etc.) and anything (including madrasas and mosques). They were also suspected of being behind the recent attack on the crowds of people flocking to the Kabul airport compound in a desperate attempt to escape the regime.

Greedy for power

Why did the Taliban implement totalitarian and indiscriminate politics that plunged Afghanistan into the depths of suffering and chaos? It is simply because they don\’t understand how to manage a pluralistic population and govern a country.

They lack the knowledge, insight, strategy, and skills to govern and manage the nation and state. They only reveal a lust for power. In an attempt to instill public compliance and make citizens submissive and obedient, what they do is terrorize and threaten the people with harsh regulations and punishments under the pretext of enforcing sharia law. Thus, the Taliban are essentially “bandits in religious robes”.

The Taliban is not a group of intellectuals with broad insights on governance, politics, economics or culture. Historically, the Taliban was a political-religious movement consisting of a group of madrassa students. The schools are typically very strict, rigid, closed-minded, and extreme in their understanding, interpretation and practice of Islamic teachings and tenets.

Taliban means “students” and refers to those affiliated to the Deobandi schools, which are found in many areas in South Asia known to be the bedrock of literalist-revivalist conservatives. The schools are typically very strict, rigid, closed-minded, and extreme in their understanding, interpretation and practice of Islamic teachings and tenets.

The Taliban is a movement that combines the Deobandi schools’ typical revival-conservative Islamic teachings, Al Qaeda-style militant Islamist ideology, and Pasthunwali social norms, the traditional customs of the Pasthun ethnic community from which the majority of the Taliban hail. The Taliban as a movement was formed in 1994 by Muhammad Umar (1960-2013). Known as Mullah Umar, the former Deobandi madrassa student was only 34 years old at the time and a member of the Mujahideen militia in the Afghan-Soviet war (1979-1989).

The Taliban managed to take over Afghanistan by exploiting the domestic chaos that resulted from bickering among Islamic factions, as a result of the failure of the Afghan political-religious elite in reaching an agreement over the national government in the aftermath of the pullout of the Soviet’s Red Army.

The internal conflict between Islamic groups and the political-religious elite then drew Afghanistan back into a massive and devastating civil war. Six Islamic factions (Hizbul Islam Gulbuddin, Jamiat Islami, Ittihad Islam, Harakat Inqilab Islam, Hizbul Wahdat, and Junbish Milli) vied for power even as they were embroiled in accusing each other of betrayal and killings.

In fact, these Islamic radical groups, with US support, had united as mujahideen fighters against the Soviet invasion. Once the Soviets had been repulsed, they started fighting amongst themselves for power. After the civil war left Afghanistan in chaos, the Taliban emerged as the “dark horse” that succeeded in pushing their forces to control two-thirds of the Afghan enclaves, declaring the new government of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan in 1996.

Did their declaration bring an immediate halt to civil war? Of course not. Civil war continued to rage between the rival groups, including the “Northern Alliance” formed by warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud that consisted of ethnic communities like the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Turks, and Pasthuns.

Beware of “Indonistan”

So the story of the Taliban elite violating a clause of the peace agreement with the then Afghanistan government (and the US), as observers have suggested, is not new. The ongoing power takeover by the Taliban after 20 years of guerrilla warfare is just a repeat of the old story.

Anyone who has studied the history of Afghanistan will know that this country that spans Central and South Asia is rife with conflicts, wars, and power struggles against not only external (non-Afghan) groups, but also fellow citizens of different Afghan communities. Ambushes, killings, fighting between groups, whether religious, ideological, ethnical or tribal, and infighting among familial clans (for example, northern vs. southern Afghanistan) are common. Long before Islamic groups emerged on the Afghan political scene, communal conflict over power was deeply ingrained.

What lessons can we learn from the “horror drama” of Afghanistan and the militant Taliban regime? One thing that should not be ignored is that we must not underestimate radical-conservative religious groups. These groups may initially operate only in non-political areas such as preaching religious morality and creeds, but when the opportunity arises with the support from outsiders, they can turn into a violent religious-political militant group that are extremely savage and radical in their political and religious approaches.

Taliban members may not exist in Indonesia. However, there is quite a large group of Muslims that lean towards a Taliban-like mindset. They are insidious towards political parties, mass organizations, educational institutions, and religious institutions, even the government. The government and those people who are concerned about the future of peace, tolerance, and the diversity of the Indonesian nation and state need to be vigilant over their movements. Members of law enforcement and security forces should not lapse in their vigilance. If this Taliban-leaning group is not handled prudently and thoroughly, it could transform into an “Indonesian Taliban” and turn this country into “Indonistan”.

Note: this article was translated and published by Kompas

Artikulli paraprakProspects of Interreligious Relations in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia
Artikulli tjetërStudying Secular Sciences in the Middle East
Antropolog Budaya di King Fahd University, Direktur Nusantara Institute, Kontributor The Middle East Institute, Kolumnis Deutsche Welle, dan Senior Fellow di National University of Singapore.


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