The widely accepted perception of the term ‘Taliban’ around the world is rather a grim one, bearded men with AKs in traditional Afghan clothes with somewhat radical religious views entailed with the concept of political Islam. To some extent, this grim perception of the Taliban was most probably true in the context of the 1990’s Afghan civil war when the Taliban regime ruled Kabul. Islamic Sharia law governed the country, women’s rights such as the right to education and job were a subject of negligence.
But twenty-plus years after that bloody era ended, the ground reality seems to have taken a 360-angle turn. The Americans are long gone from Afghanistan, the Ghani regime and the Afghan National Army (ANA) have collapsed like a house of cards and the Taliban have established a de-facto government in Kabul, a new dawn has emerged in Afghanistan. Taliban members are seen as diplomates, ambassadors, and spokesmen rather than militants or ‘terrorists’ that once fought the American occupation in Afghanistan.
Twitter diplomacy of Taliban
Before and during the peace negotiations, the Taliban used online platforms like Twitter and other social media websites to convey their perceptions and narratives to the international community. We often heard the name of Zabiullah Mujahid as the spokesperson of the Taliban movement portraying the Taliban narrative all across Twitter. He never reviled his true identity for twenty years as for that some even thought he was a fictional character that the Taliban created to disseminate their propaganda via Twitter and other online platforms until he finally emerged on 17th August 2021 addressing the first press conference after the fall of Kabul.
However, the Twitter handle of Zabiullah Mujahid tweeted on latest developments in Afghanistan, Taliban military achievements against rival forces, counter western propaganda, and later on highlighted every latest development regarding the US-Taliban peace negotiations through tweets and official Taliban press releases in Pashto, Dari (Persian) and especially English for their western audiences.
Taliban official and non-official accounts on Twitter adopted several strategies. One of those strategies was of portraying a narrative that was unheard of. The narrative opposed and challenged the western perspective on the whole rhetoric of the Afghan war. Some of the arguments that the Taliban gave were the human rights violations committed by foreign armies via artillery bombardments, carpet bombings, and drone strikes which have a high probability of collateral damage meaning civilian deaths. They used hashtags like #warcrimes to further disseminate their messages across the internet.
Another strategy, a rather diplomatic one included showing a positive image of the Taliban which were already demonized all over the world even among the Afghan society itself. They showed Taliban authorities showing solidarity to the families that lost their loved ones to drone strikes and collateral damage. The fact of the matter was that the use of Twitter and other online platforms to represent the Taliban narrative in a somewhat diplomatic framework was a success.
Who are the Taliban diplomats?
People are getting familiar with some of the prominent Taliban personalities. It seems on the contrary to general perception more and more educated people are being seen in the Taliban movement. During the early peace negotiation meetings, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai was often seen on television screens. He was the head of Qatar political office and headed meetings with the American delegation in Qatar. He is a former lieutenant from ANA, he has trained from the prestigious Indian Military Academy, studied Political Science from the University of Kabul, and currently gaining a master’s degree.
He is fluent in English, Urdu, Pashto, and Dari. He has given multiple one-on-one interviews to international media organizations such as BBC and Russia’s RT. Although representing a militant group, his answers to difficult questions from international journalists were in the framework of international relations standards and diplomatic principles.
Another well-known Taliban diplomate is Mullah Sohail Shaheen. He has previously served as the deputy ambassador to Pakistan in the 90s. Shaheen has studied at Islamic International University Islamabad and Kabul University. He is also known to be a prolific writer and fluent in English, Urdu, and Pashto. On 20th September 2021, he was nominated to become Afghanistan’s official envoy to the UN. Other key Taliban figures include Abdul Qahar Balki the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. His first appearance was on 17th August with Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid.
Abdul Qahar seems to have a perfect English accent and judging from his interview with Al-Jazeera on 22nd August, he has extensive knowledge of international relations and how diplomacy works. Dr. Mohammad Naeem Wardak is another surprising Taliban figure who obtained his Bachelor’s degree from Nangarhar University and later did his master’s and Ph.D. from International Islamic University Islamabad in Arabic language. He is the spokesman of the Taliban Qatar office.
Taliban seeking international recognition
Even before the peace agreement, the Taliban delegation started a long series of international diplomatic visits to neighboring and regional countries to present their side of the narrative and to ensure friendly relations in the future. Taliban delegations have been seen repeatedly visiting Russia for intra-Afghan peace talks since 2018. After seeing this regular engagement between the two, one can confidently speculate that Russians seem to be on good terms with the Taliban authorities.
Other countries that the Taliban delegation has visited are central Asian republics. This region is of great strategic importance to Afghanistan plus central Asian states have serious security concerns from Afghanistan. In August 2019 Taliban delegation visited Uzbekistan to discuss future relations between both countries. A large number of Uzbek communities in the north of Afghanistan also makes Uzbekistan even more important to Afghanistan. Later in July 2021 Taliban and Uzbek officials held meetings discussing trade issues, economic interaction, border security, and cooperation in energy, transportation, and international cargo.
In July this year, the Taliban delegation paid an important visit to Ashgabat the capital of Turkmenistan and met with the officials of the Turkmen foreign ministry. According to Dr. Naeem, the two sides discussed bilateral economic and political ties, as well as border security issues. In response to the Taliban visit the foreign ministry of Turkmenistan stated that “Thanks to the brotherly ties between the two neighboring countries and their peoples, the Turkmen-Afghan border is the border of friendship and cooperation”.
With Pakistan however, the Taliban always had non-official back door means of communication if not openly. Pakistan officially recognizes the new interim Afghan government but stresses an inclusive one for the future. There have been several high-level meetings between Pakistani and Taliban officials even at the level of Prime Minister. Most recently the Afghan foreign minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi visited Pakistan and met with Pakistan government officials. The Pakistani government also has security concerns from Afghanistan which the Taliban authorities have assured. For the first time, Pakistan has opened its air trade route for commercial cargo destined to Afghanistan to help the Taliban government deal with the economic crisis. The Pakistani government also eliminated the sales tax on fruits imported from Afghanistan to encourage Afghan traders and farmers.
The security concerns regarding East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is something China is very serious about but China too is very keen to build future relations with the new Taliban government. In July this year, a high-level Taliban delegation headed by Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar visited Beijing. There is an increase in regular engagement between Taliban officials and Chinese officials. Reports suggest that China is in the process of investing immensely in mining activities in Afghanistan, adding parts of it to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
A great challenge for the Taliban government is how to deal with India. Although the Taliban have made it categorically clear that they want to have good relations with all the neighboring and regional countries but bearing in mind the negative role of India, using Afghan territory against Pakistan, the Taliban has a great diplomatic challenge to face. Taliban government’s future relations with India will be dependent on its official stance on the Kashmir issue. Nonetheless proving to the world that the Taliban are going to honor their promises that are written in the peace agreement and to ensure security to the neighboring countries in order for a legitimate recognition is a strenuous diplomatic challenge. This is a war of narratives and perceptions that the Taliban can only win by diplomacy.