Are the Taliban overstating their surge in Afghanistan?

The group may be using the tools of media and diplomacy to exaggerate its battlefield successes

The Taliban’s attempt to portray themselves as credible future rulers of Afghanistan have been thoroughly undermined by accusations that they have committed war crimes during their latest offensive to seize control of the country by force of arms.

From the outset of their military offensive, which began earlier in the summer, the Taliban have attempted to maintain an effective propaganda campaign to demonstrate that they are ready to assume power at the expense of Afghanistan’s democratically elected government. Apart from posting videos on YouTube and social media channels claiming to show they have captured key areas of the country, the organisation has also embarked on a diplomatic charm offensive, dispatching high-level delegations to Russia, China and Iran in the hope of gaining legitimacy.

At the heart of the Taliban’s public relations offensive is an attempt to persuade the outside world that the movement has moved on from the uncompromising Islamist militant organisation that first seized power in Kabul in 1996 in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of the country in the 1980s.

During the Taliban’s spell in government until it was overthrown by the US-led military intervention in 2001, the organisation gained international notoriety for the brutality of its rule, and its appalling treatment of women, who were denied education and employment and were dictated how to dress on the rare occasions they were allowed to venture outdoors.

The Taliban’s courtship of China is especially important in terms of the movement’s quest for global legitimacy, with the delegation making last week’s visit to Beijing being led by the Taliban's second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

A key issue in the talks concerns the Taliban’s long-standing ties with radical elements within China’s Uyghur population, some of whom have in the past fought alongside the Taliban and established training bases in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. To reassure Beijing, the Taliban have committed not to let the Uyghurs operate from Afghan soil in future. In response, Beijing has reportedly promised to consider big investments in energy and infrastructure projects, including the building of a road network in Afghanistan.

Mr Baradar has previously met for face-to-face talks with former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and the more face time the Taliban leader can get with senior world figures, the more the organisation believes its attempt to gain acceptance among world leaders is paying dividends. But the Taliban’s attempts to acquire the legitimacy they crave have now been totally undermined following allegations that they have committed multiple war crimes during the course of their latest offensive.

Nor are their claims that they have mended their ways in any way reflected by their conduct in rural districts where they have already seized power, mainly in the country's more religiously conservative countryside, where their repressive conduct bears a striking resemblance to how they previously behaved.

In addition, senior western military officers have openly questioned the Taliban’s claims that they are making gains in their attempts to capture key Afghan cities, while reports that Al Qaeda fighters are joining the movement will do little to allay concerns in the West that, under Taliban rule, Afghanistan would not once more become a safe haven for Islamist terror groups.

The accusations of war crimes, though, are proving to be most damaging, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly expressing his concern over the allegations. "We've seen these reports of atrocities committed by the Taliban in areas that it's taken over that are deeply, deeply troubling and certainly do not speak well to the Taliban's intentions for the country as a whole," Mr Blinken said as the US approaches its August 31 deadline for completing the withdrawal of all its military forces from Afghanistan.

The American and British embassies in Kabul earlier this week raised specific allegations that the Taliban may have committed war crimes in southern Afghanistan by carrying out revenge murders of civilians. The US mission tweeted a statement accusing the Taliban of killing dozens of civilians in the area of Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar province, the scene of heavy fighting. The statement also was tweeted by the British embassy.

"These murders could constitute war crimes; they must be investigated and those Taliban fighters or commanders responsible held accountable," the US embassy tweeted. In a second tweet, it added: "The Taliban's leadership must be held responsible for the crimes of their fighters.” Taliban officials have denied the claims, saying the accusations were "baseless reports".

As for the question of Taliban's claims of military successes, General Nick Carter, the head of British Armed Forces, told the BBC that the Afghan security forces were perfectly capable of defending the Afghan government, even when they no longer have support from allied warplanes, which will be the case after the US withdrawal is completed at the end of the month.

“Afghanistan is a very different country to the one that we entered in 2001,” Gen Carter said. “It’s got a burgeoning civil society, it’s got a media that is remarkable in many ways. And of course they’ve got an education system now. And actually the Taliban recognise that. So again I think we’re very quick to suggest this is going to go to hell in a handcart. It’s too early to suggest that.”

Another clear sign that not everything is going the Taliban’s way took place this week when Afghan citizens in several major cities, including Kabul and Kandahar, took to the rooftops shouting “Allahu Akbar” in support of their government forces fighting to keep the Taliban at bay.

So while the group may have proved very good at waging an effective propaganda war, it is a long way from being matched by their performance on the battlefield.

Published: August 6th 2021, 4:00 AM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National