Afghanistan highlights link between religious soft power and Gulf security
By James M. Dorsey
When Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed Abdulrahman Al-Thani this week described the Taliban’s repressive policies towards women and brutal administration of justice as “very disappointing” and taking Afghanistan “a step backwards,” he was doing more than holding Qatar up as a model of Islamic governance and offering the militants cover to moderate their ways.
Sheikh Al-Thani was seeking to shield the Gulf state from criticism should Qatari efforts fail to persuade the Taliban to shave off the sharp edges that marked their rule 25 years ago before they were toppled by US military forces and characterize their governance since they retook control of Afghanistan in mid-August with the US withdrawal.
The minister was implicitly referring to the Taliban’s refusal to allow Afghan female secondary school students to resume their studies two weeks after schools opened for boys and hanging the bloodied corpse of a man accused of kidnapping on a crane in the main square of the western Afghan city of Herat. Elsewhere in the city, three other men were also strung up for public viewing.
Sheikh Al-Thani’s effort to position his country as a model of Islamic governance was not only an effort to offer the Taliban an alternative but also a bid to garner brownie points in a competition with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for religious soft power in the Muslim world and international recognition as an icon of an autocratic, yet ‘moderate’ interpretation of Islam.
Sheikh Al-Thani’s remarks constituted his first sharp rebuke of the Taliban and have gone further than statements issued by the kingdom and the Emirates that so far primarily urged the group to ensure regional security and stability.
“We have…been trying to demonstrate for the Taliban how Muslim countries can conduct their laws, how they can deal with the women’s issues,” Sheikh Al-Thani said. “One of the examples is the State of Qatar, which is a Muslim country; our system is an Islamic system (but) we have women outnumbering men in workforces, in government and in higher education.” The minister warned that the Taliban risked misusing Sharia or Islamic law.
Hoping for Taliban moderation may be wishful thinking. "Policies are pitched at the group's lowest common denominator to preserve concord. That makes it difficult for the Taliban to change," The Economist reported.
Against the backdrop of the rivalry, the stakes are higher for Qatar’s religious soft power rivals to be seen as distancing and differentiating themselves from the Taliban. To be sure, the UAE competes with Qatar in having made significant progress on women’s rights while Saudi Arabia has substantially enhanced women’s professional and social opportunities since the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Yet, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were alongside Pakistan the only three countries to recognize the first Taliban government in 1996. Saudi Arabia, moreover, together the United States, created the Taliban’s cradle by funding and arming the mujahedeen who forced the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
“In the name of common decency as well as political expediency, the Gulf states must exert their maximum leverage, whether financial, political, or moral, on the Taliban to dissuade them from reimposing the barbarous regime of twenty years ago. Through their financial support of the mujahideen, the Gulf has been inextricably linked with Afghanistan from the beginning of its troubles in the 1980s and own what happens now,” said former US ambassador to Qatar Patrick Theros.
While the same could be said about the United States, Mr. Theros’ remarks appeared to include a dig at Saudi Arabia and the UAE despite an agreement in January to end a 3.5 year-long diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar led by the kingdom and the Emirates. To be fair, Mr. Theros buffered his criticism of Gulf states by noting that they needed to bury their differences to confront the threat posed by Iran.
Mr. Theros is a strategic adviser for the Washington-based Gulf International Forum, a Qatar-linked thinktank, launched in 2018 days after the U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, an annual series of bilateral meetings between high-level U.S. and Qatari officials was inaugurated.
Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, in a bid to distance Saudi Arabia from the Taliban, recently distinguished Wahhabism, the kingdom’s ultra-conservative strand of Islam, and Deobandism, another ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith that originated in India and constitutes the theological wellspring of the Taliban.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed’s social reforms have shaved off sharp edges of Wahhabi practices but have not involved attempts to tinker with Islamic jurisprudence that justified them. Likewise, decades of Saudi theological influence and funding shaped the evolution of Deobandism in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan.
Media reports suggested that Prince Turki secretly met Taliban leaders in August. Prince Turki reportedly seemingly unsuccessfully sought to convince the group to moderate its policies and put flesh on the notion of a changed Taliban 2.0.
As head of Saudi intelligence from 1979 to 2001, Prince Turki dealt with the mujahedeen during the war against the Soviets and sought to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden after Al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
The need to distance Islam as practised in conservative Gulf states from the Taliban’s interpretation of the faith takes on added significance amid doubts about US reliability reinforced by the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the United States rejiggering its commitment to guaranteeing security in the region. It is where religious soft power meets defence and security policy in a court of public opinion that may not delve into the nuanced differences between Wahhabism and Deobandism.
“The unsavoury reputation of Gulf regimes’ human rights practices has lessened the American public’s appetite for committing troops to their defence over the past decade. The Gulf states must come to grips with the possibility that the US willingness to fight Iran in their defence has significantly declined and may well disappear over the coming years… If the intellectual and political elite of the region do not start thinking about how to manage the future, it will turn and bite them,” Mr. Theros said.
Most immediately, Saudi Arabia fears that Houthi rebels in Yemen may take a page out of the Taliban playbook and fight the war in Yemen till victory while paying only lip service to a negotiated end to the war.
US President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, met on Monday in the kingdom with Prince Mohammed to discuss the war 6.5-year-old Saudi intervention in Yemen. It was the first encounter between a senior official of the Biden administration and the crown prince, whose image has been severely tarnished by the 2018 killing in Istanbul of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.