The Taliban victory in Afghanistan inspires the “forever dream” of Islamic states in Asia

By Greg Barton, Professor, Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation – Deakin University

The military victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has far-reaching consequences for Australia’s immediate region, writes Greg Barton. Its inspirational influence promises to shape and drive the growth of jihadism across Southeast Asia, and globally, in pursuit of the “forever dream” of Islamic states.

With international forces finally out of Afghanistan, 20 years after they invaded in response to the 9/11 attacks, it is tempting to declare the war on terror — the forever war — to be finally over. Such an end has been long anticipated.

On 23 January 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a speech to launch a new national security policy and declared: “The 9/11 decade is ending and a new one is taking its place … We will shape the world in our interests and values not just respond to events as they arise”. To be fair, in her speech Gillard also acknowledged that “terrorism remains an enduring threat”.

“Global terrorism showed us on 9/11 that it has the capacity to surprise us and surpass our worst fears,” she added. “It could do so again, so we will always be vigilant.”

Little did the Australian prime minister, or indeed other world leaders, then know that less than eighteen months later ISIS would occupy territory across Syria and Iraq the size of Great Britain and declare a caliphate that would take an international military coalition years to defeat. And as late as January 2014, in the wake of the fall of Fallujah, President Barak Obama dismissed ISIS as being a “JV” — Junior Varsity — team, in response to being asked why, in the 2012 campaign, he had made so much of Al-Qaeda being “decimated” in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death.

When Prime Minister Gillard said in January 2013 “our work in Iraq has been completed”, few people were aware just how many foreign fighters were streaming from across the world, including from the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, to join jihadi terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

When Abu Bakar Baghdadi stood in the old mosque of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on 29 June 2014, to announce the formation of the caliphate, he captured the attention of millions of Muslims drawn to the utopian dream of an Islamic state. The fact that the vast majority of the world’s 1.9 billion Muslims rejected Baghdadi’s claim to be their caliph, and his cruel distortion of their faith, did not stop tens of thousands leaving all behind to be part of making history, and hundreds of thousands more rushing to support it from afar.

The Islamic State (IS) caliphate in Syria and Iraq is finished. But today the global IS network of jihadis fighting in local insurgencies across Africa, the Middle East and Asia more extensive than ever. And Al Qaeda, with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 jihadi insurgent fighters in its global ranks has grown vastly stronger than it was when at its nadir a decade ago.

Ruins of Sinjar
Destruction left in the wake of Iraqi forces' battle with ISIS, Sinjar, Iraq. Image credit: Levi Clancy, Wikimedia.

Now, whatever happens next in Afghanistan, the comprehensive military victory of the Taliban is set to have far-reaching consequences not just for the region but for global jihadism around the world. And whilst the impact might not be immediately seen in Australia, it is already being felt in Southeast Asia and will grow substantially over the coming decade.

The future is uncertain but there are four factors that will clearly contribute to the development of jihadi extremism in Southeast Asia.

The first factor is that the Afghan Taliban, the world’s largest jihadi militia, has won. The Taliban might well struggle to govern Afghanistan but they have, unambiguously, achieved a comprehensive military victory. They have won after two decades of confronting a high-tech international coalition of the US and its western allies that has spent trillions of dollars working to defeat them. And they have achieved it on the back of a stunning, nation-wide, blitzkrieg that caught the world’s most powerful military by surprise.

The inspirational impact of the Taliban’s mujahideen remaining true to their cause, even after losing 70,000 fighters in decades of relentless fighting, and triumphing over the crusading, Christian, global superpower of modern America, should not be underestimated. Technical explanations and political justifications made by the leaders of the retreating forces do nothing in the eyes of supporters of jihadism everywhere to counter the narrative of divine vindication.

The power and extent of this inspirational achievement in terms of influence upon jihadi groups in Southeast Asia cannot, and should not, be measured in terms of immediate action. For them, the inspiration is not to rush to launch terror attacks or attempt to gain territory but rather to be confirmed in their long struggle to Islamise society and, step by step, including though means of violent jihad when the time is right, establish first a local Islamic state, and eventually a global caliphate. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is, potentially even more than the IS caliphate, the ultimate demonstration of divine approval and the concrete manifestation of what they are struggling for. In one form or another the Emirate is set to prove to be a more enduring, and therefore consequential, inspirational model.

The second factor influencing the development of jihadism in Southeast Asia is the creation of an opportunity space for the radicalisation and training of visiting mujahideen. The Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda are deeply interlinked. This is most evident in the intertwined leadership ranks of the Haqqani network, which dominates the recently announced ‘interim’ government of Afghanistan, and the leadership of Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda can be expected to exercise patient restraint in developing and extending training camps. It is not in their interests to garner attention or cause embarrassment in Kabul or Islamabad, nor in Washington or Beijing. And the Taliban government will avail itself of every opportunity for plausible deniability, ambiguity and ambivalence, with respect to the presence of foreign mujahideen in Afghanistan. A UN report in June this year suggested that there were already as many as 8,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters assisting the Taliban in the military campaign.

The key jihadi groups in Southeast Asia were either formed, in the case of Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group, or transformed, in the case of Darul Islam, through the mujahideen experience in camps in Afghanistan in and Pakistan in the late 1980s and earlier 1990s. This was then multiplied and extended through mujahideen training in camps in Mindanao in the mid to late 1990s, led by Afghani alumni.

Mujahideen 1985
Mujahideen descend Saohol Sar Pass towards Sao village on the Kunar River, Afghanistan - August 1985. Image credit: Erwin Franzen, Flickr. 

A third factor that will shape and drive the growth of jihadism in Southeast Asia is that interactions with the Taliban state will serve to radicalise another group of Southeast Asians who engage with the Taliban government not as mujahideen but as technicians, technocrats, professionals, businessmen and educators.

To the extent that the new Taliban government succeeds in establishing a degree of normalcy and respectability it will do so as a hybrid regime that engages with both Afghan civil servants, professionals and businessmen and international visitors. Many who visit will do so for reasons of genuine humanitarian concern, or because of opportunities for business or professional development. Some will come because of the Taliban and their theocratic government. Others will come despite the Taliban. And some will be transformed by their engagement. To the extent that the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines formally recognise the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan it will be difficult to deny their nationals opportunities to openly engage. In this liminal space, recruitment and radicalisation will be difficult to monitor, much less control.

To the extent that the Taliban government flounders and fails to govern and maintain full control of Afghanistan there will be different openings for visitors from Southeast Asia to engage with local jihadi groups, and to be transformed by conflict and contestation.

The fourth factor influencing the development of jihadi groups and networks in Southeast Asia is that the American and European capacity to contribute to local counterterrorism programs in Southeast Asia, and around the world, will be diminished, at least in the short to medium term. Diminished political will, risk appetite, resourcing constraints and, to some extent, diminished legitimacy and credibility will limit the ability of, for example, the US military to contribute to counterterrorism in the Philippines. And if the Biden administration recklessly presses ahead with over-the-horizon counterterrorism drone strikes in Afghanistan it is likely to further diminish the willingness of the Malaysian and Indonesian governments to cooperate in counterterrorism programs.

Two decades on from 9/11 we are facing a threat from global jihadism that has metastasised. Today the threat is more extensive and more substantial than it has ever been before. Our collective capacity in counterterrorism intelligence and policing, and the array of community efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, are better than they have ever been. But there is now very little support for fighting terrorism with military means. Fatigue and debt, in the wake of a cascading series of unintended consequences mean that there is little appetite or prospect for military interventions. In that sense, the forever war is over.

Outside of conflict zones and failing states terrorism is not, and never has been, an existential threat. In the dozens of insurgencies across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, that IS and Al Qaeda fighters are enmeshed in, global jihadism has, however, become a crippling, parasitic, presence. In those ungoverned spaces, jihadi terrorism verges on constituting an existential threat.

Thankfully, that is not the case in Southeast Asia. There is no place, however, for complacency. Even in the most trouble parts of the region, such as western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, the situation is not as dire as it is West Asia or West Africa. But for jihadi groups in the region, whether aligned with IS or Al Qaeda, or entirely locally focussed, the forever dream of achieving an Islamic state remains vitally alive and, directly or indirectly, developments in Afghanistan will continue to influence the long struggle.

Greg Barton is Professor of Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. He researches and works on responses to violent extremism in Southeast Asia. His coedited book, Countering Violent and Hateful Extremism in Indonesia: Islam, Gender and Civil Society, is being published by Palgrave Macmillan next month.

Banner image: Taliban fighters, Kandahar, Afghanistan - April 11, 2011. Credit: ResoluteSupportMedia, Flickr.