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October 14, 2021

By Scott Abramson

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The Israel Innovation Project’s three-part series on Afghanistan and the MENA region opened with a sprightly and learned discussion on the effects of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on the country itself and on the region as a whole. On the inherent strength of the Taliban’s renewed rule in Afghanistan, consensus united the views of the panelists, as all three agreed that the Taliban’s victorious resurgence in Afghanistan disguises certain weaknesses that threaten the Islamist group’s long-term hold on power. David Cook observed that the Taliban today lacks much of the “spiritual authority” it wielded in its first “emirate” in Afghanistan (1996-2001). No longer does the Taliban benefit from the charismatic spiritual leadership of its founder, the late Mullah Omar. Nor is the appeal of Islamist government today nearly as robust as it was during the era of the “first emirate.” To the world as a whole, Cook’s co-panelists, Bernard Haykel and Gilles Kepel, extended his observation about Islamism’s waning appeal in Afghanistan: “Islamism,” Haykel observed, “is on the decline globally,” while Kepel, referring to the MENA region in particular, remarked that “the ideology hasn’t changed, but the environment is different.”

The panelists further agreed that another challenge the Taliban faces in ruling Afghanistan is one of reconciling pragmatism and ideology. Nowhere is this clash between the demands of governance and the dictates of religion more apparent than in the realm of diplomacy. The panel agreed that, in breaking out of its international isolation, the Taliban is perfectly willing to subordinate religious purity to political expediency, particularly as regards relations with three of America’s rivals/enemies: Iran, Russia, and China. Haykel expects the Taliban to continue courting the support of China, never mind that the Chinese are “infidels” and persecutors of the Uyghur Muslims in northwest China. In the same spirit of realpolitik, Kepel believes that the Taliban is interested in a quiet partnership with Iran, its Shia neighbor and sectarian foe. For all the bad blood between the two on religious grounds, the Taliban and Iran have shown that the greater good of opposing the United States takes precedence over sectarian enmity. For his part, Cook thinks that these and other of the Taliban’s concessions to pragmatism could prove fatal to the group’s cohesion. He speculated that a faction of purist ideologues in the Taliban, discontented with the group’s “selling-out,” may defect to form their own splinter outfit or, instead, join Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS’ Afghan affiliate).

Watch the full discussion here: 

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