Connecting Regions of Asia.

The Great Taliban Image Coup


Did you hear about the big coup this week? I bet you did not. The sentiment had been brewing for a while. The ground was rife with speculation and discontent. The defences had been melting away, the foot soldiers refusing to fight, often joining hands enthusiastically with the opposing side. When the final blow came, the establishment collapsed not with a bang, but a whimper.

Nick Carter, the chief of defense staff for the British military, explained it in these words:

“I think people need to understand who Taliban actually are. They are a disparate collection of tribes people… They are country boys and the plain fact is they happen to live by a code of honor which has been their standard for many years …. They are bound together by a common purpose that they don’t like corrupt governance. They don’t like governance that is self-serving. They want an Afghanistan that is inclusive for all.”

All these years, all this fighting and all for nothing. Because, apparently, the real problem was that of understanding. People did not understand these honest country boys, their code of honor and their deep impulse towards building a welfare state free of corruption, with liberty and justice for all.

In framing that last sentence, I borrowed some of the words from the pledge of allegiance, recited daily in public school classrooms by millions of American schoolchildren. Perhaps because Carter made the sentiments sound so similar. Incidentally, most Americans like to add the phrase “under God” when they say the pledge. I will bet the Taliban won’t have much of a problem including that either.

The Taliban’s big coup was not that they took over Kabul. Afghanistan was always going to collapse. The Taliban’s real coup was the way they won over the entire global liberal elite within a span of two days. Everyone is now gushing about how much the new Taliban is into respecting the rights of women, about how free-flowing and honest their press conference was and more. In flagship Western publications, there are now opinion pieces on how the Taliban faces dangers from “Islamist insurgents.”

There is a new enemy in town, and it is those of us who happen to remember last week, back when the Taliban themselves were considered “Islamist insurgents.” The most elite “fact-checkers” for big news organisations have been pressed into service to make sure there is no misinformation on social media that defames the Taliban. Has anyone coined the term ‘Talibanophobia’ yet? I don’t know, but the signs are all there.

In the coming days, we may even see activists against Talibanophobia. There might be academic conferences about this threat, college degrees given out in understanding it. And people making careers out of fighting it. There might be compulsory sensitivity training about this at corporate workplaces. It always sounds like satire before it becomes all too real. The Taliban may have taken Kabul at gunpoint, but nobody put a gun to the heads of the global media and academic elite. The latter surrendered in much more embarrassing fashion than the Afghan national army.

In India, the rumblings among liberals have been similar. It began roughly around the time an Indian photojournalist working for Reuters was killed in Afghanistan. While the incident led to an outpouring of grief among Indian liberals, there was a deep reluctance in their reactions to call out the Taliban by name. Instead, they appeared overly eager to hear the Taliban’s side of the story and believe their excuses, if any. If there was anger, it seemed to be directed at BJP supporters for some reason. The latter were accused of being “Hindu Taliban,” a shocking and preposterous comparison that liberals have made common over the years.

This time, however, away from the spotlight of blue tick liberal handles on social media, a stranger and even more dangerous sentiment was unfolding. Their most committed liberal followers began objecting to the comparisons between BJP supporters and the Taliban. They began to argue that the Taliban is actually a force for good, while BJP supporters are not. It began as a fringe sentiment, but it gained quickly in numbers.

A few weeks later, the mainstream Indian liberals capitulated, along with their counterparts in the West. Now we have thought leaders, intellectuals, members of the media, even elected MPs, comparing the Taliban to India’s freedom fighters. Some are taking potshots at the current BJP government, challenging them to become as “liberal” as the Taliban. It is all surreal.

For people in India and in the rest of the world, what are the implications of this sudden change of heart? Because of the images coming out of Afghanistan, in particular those of the Americans vacating their embassy by helicopter, there is a temptation to compare the current situation to US withdrawals in the 1970s from Cambodia and Vietnam. But this is much worse because it is not just a military defeat. The Taliban has not just taken control of Afghanistan, they have converted the entire global liberal elite to start rooting for their cause. After the defeat in Vietnam, the US government did not accept Communism into their hearts. For comparison, US president Joe Biden just stated that IS in Afghanistan is the “sworn enemy” of the Taliban. The rehabilitation of the Taliban as a force for good is now complete.

We can only speculate about what comes next. How long before it is the turn of IS also to be incorporated thus as a force for good?

The question now is this. Can people anywhere count on the liberals any longer to take a stand in favour of civil liberties, the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ and so on? What about those editorials and headlines in Western newspapers that lecture India on what is right and what is not? What about the various indexes on freedom, democracy and gender equality published periodically in the West, which always seem to show India lacking. Their moral authority was always without basis, but now we know that the emperor has no clothes at all.

More specifically, how can they even pretend to understand our security situation in say Jammu and Kashmir? And how can we even pretend to take them seriously? For all we know, the liberal elites may say tomorrow that the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Jamaat-ud-Dawah of Hafiz Saeed are also feminist organisations.

The real danger right now is refusing to see the dangers of this newly minted ‘liberalism with Taliban characteristics.’ For anyone still sailing in the boat of global liberal elites, it is time to abandon ship.

The author is a mathematician, columnist and author. Views expressed are personal.

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