Main Image Credit Tear gas outside the US Capitol, January 2021. Courtesy of Tyler Merbler / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
The Taliban's victory in Afghanistan has re-energised extremist groups across the globe, albeit for different reasons.
The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has thrilled jihadists around the world. Perhaps surprisingly, it has also energised some far-right groups in the US. One white nationalist called the Taliban ‘epic’, while another found the group’s victory to be ‘unequivocally a positive development’. The US far right, barring concerns over a potential refugee influx and accusations of ‘wokeness’, appears to be positively energised, with some drawing inspiration and strength from the Taliban’s victory. In contrast, the Indian far right has been negatively energised. Far-right Hindu groups in India reacted to the Taliban’s victory with aggressively Islamophobic posts and comments. While their reactions are surprisingly divergent, both the US and Indian far right seek to capitalise on the Taliban’s victory to advance their own goals.
The Taliban and several US far-right groups, despite their differences, agree in some of their most fundamental principles. Both are misogynistic, anti-Semitic and homophobic, and reject liberal politics and values. The Taliban’s leaders have given assurances that their governance this time will be different from their previous rule between 1996 and 2001, during which brutal human rights abuses were committed. But the Taliban’s self-professed improved stance on human rights is still not anywhere near what most of the rest of the world would find acceptable. The Taliban’s deplorable track record on human rights – among the worst even within the family of Islamist terrorist groups – and the group’s propensity to renege on its promises of reform mean it is highly unlikely that the human rights situation will improve. Like the Taliban, far-right groups in the US are also strongly opposed to liberal principles. Some in the US far right perceive the defeat of the Western-backed Afghan government as a victory for the global conservative movement. While some could just be ‘trolling’, others find some of the Taliban’s ultra-illiberal positions palatable and comparable with aspects of their conservative principles, and to some extent even empathise with the Taliban.
The quick and rather unexpected turn of events in Afghanistan has also re-energised far-right conspiracy theories. It is through conspiratorial narratives that hardcore supporters of the far right make sense of historic real-world events and push their political agendas. According to proponents of the Replacement Theory, Democrats are engaged in an effort to reduce the white population in the US to permanently alter the makeup of the electorate in their favour. According to this theory, the fall of Afghanistan was deliberately orchestrated by the administration of Joe Biden to get more refugees into the US. Followers of the QAnon conspiracy believe that the collapse of the Afghan government is a false flag to divert attention away from an election audit in Florida, which they believe will show the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. This fresh set of conspiratorial narratives will deepen the far right’s conviction in its distorted political views, perhaps even pushing some to take violent action to correct perceived ills in the US political system.
In fact, some on the far right in the US garnered new inspiration from the quicker than expected collapse of the US-backed Afghan government to the comparatively poorly trained and ill-equipped Taliban. There are concerns that the Taliban’s swift victory could fuel the recruitment and propaganda of far-right groups in the US that seek to reinstate Trump through another insurrection. Drawing parallels between the collapse of the US-backed Afghan government and the 6 January insurrection on Capitol Hill, far-right groups seeking to reinstate Trump now have greater and renewed confidence in their ability to overthrow their own democratically elected government. To be sure, it is not love for the Taliban, but the humiliation of and accusations of weakness toward President Biden that underpin the malevolent joy expressed by some in the US far right. As such, it cannot be ruled out that US far-right groups may espouse a harder line on the Taliban in the future.
Unlike the US far right, the Indian far right’s reaction was unsurprising, but equally concerning. When compared with the US far right, which to a large extent is driven by white supremacy, far-right groups in India and other non-Muslim countries in South Asia are more religiously oriented. Right-wing extremism in India has gone mainstream in recent years, with Hindu vigilante organisations and the right-wing media emboldened by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Some far-right Hindu groups have deep antipathies and suspicions towards Muslim communities. The Hindu far right often portrays Muslims in the subcontinent as plotting a secret jihad to convert the Indian population or to forcibly take over the country through subversive tactics. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has reaffirmed these groups’ fear of Muslims and jihad-related conspiracies.
The increased Islamist terrorist threat after the Taliban takeover has provided more fodder for the Hindu far right’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Indian government has the most adversarial relations with the Taliban of any country in South Asia. Concerns over increased terrorist attacks targeting India are legitimate, as a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan – both as a consequence of the policies of the Taliban and due to general lawlessness in some regions of the country – is set to become a haven for terrorist groups. Groups such as the Haqqani network, Al-Qa’ida and pro-Pakistan and anti-India terrorist groups used Afghanistan as their base of operations during the previous period of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. With an adversarial Taliban regime back in control of Afghanistan and increased threats from Islamist terrorist groups towards India, Muslims in India will be further vilified as supporters of the Taliban. Following the Taliban takeover, #GoToAfghanistan became a popular Twitter hashtag in India targeted at secular activists and Muslims for being critical of Hindu nationalism.
Most consider the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan solely as a boost for jihadists the world over. But it is not just Islamist terrorism that should be of concern. Sadly, the Taliban victory has also energised the far right, both by reaffirming its anti-Muslim views and by providing ammunition to those angry at their own government in the US. The Taliban’s victory will resonate far and wide in the global extremist threat landscape.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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