I was sitting in a Starbucks in Doha staring at the water in the middle of a leafy park when I patted my son on the leg and pointed at a group of men for an early morning stroll. “It’s the Taliban,” I said.
He looked at me in disbelief but I assured him it was them. They were unmistakable and frequent in the capital of Qatar.
I had seen Taliban members in the local supermarket and in hotel lobbies. It was then that Donald Trump was negotiating with the militants to withdraw American troops.
The Taliban negotiating team had set up operations in Doha, like any other diplomatic mission. Then, the discussion focused on the sharing of power, the Taliban and the Afghan government negotiated by the United States with the help of Pakistan and Qataris.
Of course, we now know that the Taliban was playing a longer game; slow down the time before we can retake Afghanistan. They knew they could push back the Americans and that the Afghan forces would not be an obstacle.
As the Taliban saying goes: you have watches, we have time.
Good or bad Taliban?
The talks ended at an impasse, as one would expect. US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad raised his hands saying the Taliban wanted the lion’s share of power.
There you go, America is gone and the Taliban are back. But which Taliban? Is this a replay from the 90s when it imposed its harsh version of Sharia law?
Will music be banned? Will women be ordered behind doors, girls banned from school? Will the religious police monitor behavior under the threat of severe penalties?
Will men be ordered to grow their beards to a mandatory length? Will we see flogging and public executions?
In short, will they be the “good Taliban” or the “bad Taliban”?
Seriously, that’s how activists are described. I first heard this phrase at the height of the war in Afghanistan when I interviewed Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Quereshi. Pakistan was fighting the bad Taliban advancing on the country’s capital, Islamabad, at the same time as Pakistan was supporting the good Taliban in Afghanistan.
This told me two things: the Taliban are not a monolithic organization, they are torn by factions and deadly rivalries, and local commanders could become thugs; and countries like Pakistan will make whatever deals suit their interests.
It made the bed mates uncomfortable. Pakistan was comfortable getting along with the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar, even offering him refuge inside Pakistan. This is the same Mullah Omar who protected Osama bin Laden as the leader of Al Qaeda plotted the September 11 attacks against the United States that sparked the war in Afghanistan.
It was then that Pakistan also embarked as an ally of the United States in the “war on terror”. Pakistan was taking US money to track down and kill the Taliban leader it was hiding.
Enemies and friends
Mullah Omar, for his part, tried to impose order on his own renegade infantrymen. At one point, he sent one of his closest lieutenants to issue a new code of conduct. Among other things, it prohibits sexual assault on boys and prohibits the killing of Pakistani civilians.
I interviewed Mullah’s envoy Omar in a secret hideout heavily controlled by Taliban fighters, a cap and dagger operation where our film crew was prohibited from filming the man’s face.
The same man was one of Pakistan’s most wanted fugitives, having fled the country to Afghanistan after a bloody shootout with Pakistani forces in a mosque in Islamabad.
The plot within the plot. Enemies who befriend enemies. Good Taliban and bad Taliban.
Pakistan has always had a tiger by the tail. Now the United States is joining in this deadly game.
The head of the American central command, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, this week described the Taliban as “very pragmatic and very pragmatic”. It sounds like good Taliban rhetoric again.
Imagine any American general speaking like this about the Taliban 20 years ago. There is no doubt that the Taliban – eager to gain legitimacy – were on to what constitutes their best behavior as the United States prepared to leave.
A story of two groups
But has the Taliban changed? The United States has already begun to craft the narrative of the Taliban locked in a deadly battle with rival Islamic State terrorist group Khorasan.
Indeed, the United States and the Taliban have sometimes teamed up in operations against IS-K.
It is true that the Taliban and IS-K the fighters clashed. The rival group – an offshoot of the Islamic State group – has significantly stepped up its attacks inside Afghanistan over the past year.
IS-K denounced the Taliban for negotiating with the Americans. It presents itself as an Islamist group even harsher than the Taliban.
The United States is far from choosing its side in this battle, but if it had to, it wouldn’t be IS-K.
This suits the United States as it seeks to regain its credibility after such a humiliating loss and withdraw from Afghanistan to portray the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.
But keen observers warn against such assumptions. The Taliban and IS-K have deep ties. Taliban defectors formed the IS-K and it has close ties to the Haqqani group, a militant wing that operates on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani group, is also the deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban.
Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, who has long studied militant Islamist groups, told ABC TV’s Exit America special this week that the Taliban and IS-K are married into the family of the other.
This rivalry can indeed be a family dispute. Both groups share the same ideology and seek to recreate a strict Islamic caliphate.
They also share an enemy: America.
The Starbucks test
The idea of the good Taliban / bad Taliban may well be an indistinguishable distinction.
Yet it is the best hope that Afghanistan will once again become a terrorist hotbed. Afghans, especially women and girls, certainly hope for a good Taliban.
In Doha, where the Taliban have settled, Sharia law prevails. Islamic customs and rituals determine the order of society. It is too much to say that it is a model of liberal democracy, but women study, work, play sports and serve customers – men and women – in stores.
Call it the Starbucks test: in Doha people are free to linger in cafes.
If, or when, Starbucks opens in Kabul, maybe we can really say that the good Taliban have won.
Stan Grant presents China Tonight Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel and 10:30 p.m. on ABC TV.