Is international pressure enough to curb human rights abuses and terrorism by the ruling Taliban?

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Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash.

Before 13 U.S. service members were killed in a terrorist attack in Kabul last week, long before the last U.S. plane departed Afghanistan on Monday, readers of the New York Times must have been shocked to see the following headline: “To Save His Presidency, Biden Must Tell the Truth About Afghanistan.

The implications, that President Joe Biden was not only deliberately misleading the public on the subject of Afghanistan, but also that his presidency was suddenly in need of saving, were hard to miss.

President Biden, who has only been in the Oval Office for 8 short months, certainly doesn’t deserve to bear all the responsibility for 20 years of U.S. military failures in Afghanistan. To what extent the botched withdrawal, which likely could have been handled better, will damage the Biden presidency, and legacy, there is no shortage of opinions on the matter or journalists willing to express them.

On the other side of the Afghanistan disaster, if indeed we are on the other side, will U.S. voters be sufficiently relieved to finally be out of Afghanistan as to forgive the Biden Administration for any mistakes?

Or will the photos and heartbreaking stories continuously pouring out of that beleaguered nation contribute to Democratic losses in 2022, and a wave of Republican electoral retribution in 2024?

Thus far, the news from Afghanistan has been mostly grim. The new kinder, gentler Taliban seems to be just like the old Taliban; well known for brutality, torture, mass murder, human rights abuses and other heinous crimes too numerous to mention.

Enemies of the Taliban, which is quite a long list, are understandably terrified.

Comedians, folk singers, girls who want an education, women who want to work outside the home, women who work inside the home, religious minorities, gay people, and anyone who worked for or helped the now-deposed Afghan government; all are living under a death sentence.

There have been credible reports of Taliban kill squads going house to house in the hours since the last U.S. plane departed.

A murdered man was definitely filmed hanging by the neck from a U.S. BlackHawk helicopter as Taliban fighters paraded their grisly trophy, and warning, around the skies of Kabul for all to see.

Of course Americans and American allies left behind who have, in the Taliban’s estimation, occupied the country for 20 years, subjecting their people to Western ideals and teachings contrary to everything Taliban leaders hold sacred, are also on that list.

Some of the Taliban’s fellow co-religionists are on the list, too, or will be just as soon as the Taliban finishes taking complete control of the country, terrorizing the Afghan citizens into submission, and probably, shutting off the internet before many more days have passed.

The Taliban might not want the world to see what happens next.

On the other hand, they might. There was that helicopter, after all. The U.S. and the world can only rely on international pressure to keep the Taliban in line. Whether this will be enough, as U.S. Secretary of State Blinken told reporters on Monday it would, remains to be seen. “The international chorus is strong and it will stay strong,” Blinken said.

If this strategy doesn’t work, the worst fear of American lawmakers might be realized. It’s the internet age. Will the world be subjected to livestreams of Taliban public beheadings of American citizens and allies left behind?

Or Taliban leadership might be savvy enough to recognize an unmissable good-cop opportunity when they see one. If their real goal is to conquer the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, to separate them utterly from the U.S., from dreams of democracy and westernization, there has never been a better opportunity.

Afghanistan is a young country. Many men of fighting age died during the last period of Taliban rule 20 years ago. As a result, the majority of people in Afghanistan today are under the age of 25. That means most Afghans have never known anything but U.S. occupation and reconstruction.

Which means there are likely a great many heartbroken, angry and disillusioned young people in Afghanistan today- thousands. And that’s before the Taliban propaganda minister really gets to work on them. These young people are also soon to face an economic event so catastrophic, “recession” or “depression” doesn’t begin to cover it.

What happened in Afghanistan over the past two weeks was very likely an economic extinction-level event.

That toxic combination- unsuccessful “nation building” which made things worse instead of better, abandonment of commitments to allies, lack of any viable economic opportunity whatsoever- is how religious extremists are born. Nothing swells the ranks quite like it.

A few months of that, who wouldn’t join the Taliban?

What choice do they have? It’s service to the Taliban, and adherence to life under the strict rule of religious extremists or a brutal, protracted and public death. “If you can’t beat them, join them” isn’t a pithy joke about social norms; it’s about war and it’s a survival mechanism.

After the dust settles on the recent events in Afghanistan, the world is likely to find the plotters of terrorist attacks around the world emerge more powerful than ever.

Emboldened by what they perceive as a great victory over world powers, those wishing to spread their strict religious fundamentalism by force are better armed than they have perhaps ever been.

One hope for Afghanistan, and for all peace-loving people of the world, is perhaps the Taliban’s recent talks with China. Afghanistan joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative might be a good thing. Allowing the country to descend into chaos and madness isn’t likely to be good for business; a stable country, with a stable economy, could feed mineral hungry China for decades.

On the other hand, many of the Belt and Road agreements China has made with emerging nations have land and mineral rights concession clauses. If Afghanistan doesn’t live up to its loan and in-kind obligations, China may assert a legal, if questionable, right to seize land and natural resources from that no-longer sovereign nation.

It is a process some have referred to as “creditor imperialism”.

The Taliban may want to play nice with their new business partners in China. Unlike the U.S., the Chinese Communism Party has a ruthlessly effective, totally gloves-off approach to stamping out religious extremism.

And even the notoriously violent Taliban may be surprised at its brutality.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)