Do the Taliban Have Transnational Ambitions?

In May 2022, the Taliban released a 312-page manifesto titled “Al Imarat al Islamiah wa Nizamuha,” which translates as “The Islamic Emirate and Its Nizam” (“nizam” means administration, system, institutions, or order). The manifesto attempts to provide the Taliban with a grounding document by answering two questions: what an Islamic Emirate is, and how to run one.

The manifesto, which is essentially a how-to manual for establishing a godly state on earth, divides the path to this ultimate goal into two stages. First, the continuation of jihad as an unending endeavor, and second, the establishment of an Islamic Emirate. The manifesto is primarily concerned with the second phase. It addresses various aspects of the Taliban’s Sunni Hanafi interpretation of Islam, including their interpretation of an Islamic state (“state” and “emirate” are used interchangeably) and implementing Islamic laws in various aspects of state and institution building in modern times. About one-sixth of the book is about women and their place, rights, and responsibilities in a society that the movement calls “Islamic.”

Most interestingly, the manifesto is written not in any of the languages of Central and South Asia, where the Taliban are geographically located, but in Arabic.

Key Takeaways

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Below is a brief summary of the key points of the manifesto.

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The Islamic Emirate envisioned by the Taliban is governed by divine law rather than man-made law. The leader of the Islamic Emirate will be chosen by Ahl Al-Hall wa Al-Aqd, or a council of Islamic scholars. The general public has no role or say in this process, and modern elections are obsolete because they have no precedent in Islam.

The Islamic Emirate’s army is first and foremost an Islamic army trained to carry out God’s will on earth. The Islamic Emirate is obliged to protect the Islamic Emirate’s and Muslims’ assets, such as people’s property, madrassas, mosques, and the Muslim community’s borders; however, jihad remains the army’s primary duty and obligation.

Islamic education (madrassa education) is wahjib (mandatory) for both men and women in the Islamic Emirate. Modern education (school education), however, remains mubah (merely permitted) for both sexes. Islamic education should be given twice as much time as modern education.

The document discusses the rights and roles of women and girls at some length. In terms of education, women and girls should study subjects deemed appropriate for their gender. These include anything related to the domestic realm, such as home sciences, elderly and child care, or embroidery.

Women in the Islamic Emirate should only work in fields deemed necessary for them, such as medicine (to treat women) or education (only for girls). Women should not travel long distances without a mahram, a close male relative, nor should they take jobs or participate in educational activities that require them to travel for more than three days. Women cannot hold senior leadership positions, but they can work if they are separated from men in the workplace. Women must always wear the hijab (currently full facial coverage).

Talibanism to Define the Core of Islamism

The manifesto is the first of its kind to codify and immortalize the Sunni-Hanafi Islamist ideology of the Taliban in the liturgical language of Islam, Arabic. The choice of language elevates the Taliban’s writing, which is usually limited to Pashto and Persian, transcending the group’s traditional and linguistic boundaries of the Af-Pak region. While the author of the manifesto, Sheikh Abdul Hakim Haqqani, the chief justice of the Taliban, justifies the use of Arabic to make referencing other Islamic texts easier, it is hard to imagine that writing in Arabic is meant for a limited regional readership.

Moreover, the author has gone to great lengths to make the manifesto as scientific-looking as possible by providing extensive references and footnotes. Besides historical references, the four main authoritative sources of references are the Quran, the Sunnah, the Ijma, and the Qiyas. According to the preface, the manifesto has been peer-reviewed by the Taliban supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, and a group of other religious leaders.

The manifesto is basically a 21st century manual for erecting a puritan Islamic State/Emirate based on divine law, complete rejection of any kind of people-based government, and exemplary exclusion of women from social and political life, as seen in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Notably, however, it is not necessarily specific to Afghanistan; the document provides the necessary flexibility and also a level of abstraction to be adapted to the different cultural and geographic contexts.

This is especially alarming for large parts of Asia and southern Europe, home to large Hanafi Muslim majorities. From the Xinjiang region of China, to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in South Asia, to Syria and Iraq in the Middle East, to Central Asia and the Caucasus stretching into Turkey and the Balkans, all face Islamist threats either from within or from the fringes of their societies.

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National or Transnational?

In the two years leading up to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the United States and the rest of the Western world made increasing efforts to portray the Taliban as an Islamo-nationalist Afghan group. This portrayal of the Taliban was in part an effort to justify U.S. troop withdrawal. Yet looking at the very nature of Afghanistan’s social fabric – home to sizable minorities spread across national borders, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Hazaras – the reality is that the Taliban and their activities are anything but limited to Afghanistan.

In his speech on July 2, in the cleric assembly in Kabul, Hibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the Taliban (who also claims to be the amir al-muʾminin, meaning the leader of the entire Muslim community worldwide), emphasized that the world is divided into Muslims and non-Muslims. In his portrayal, the Taliban’s struggle against the non-Muslims is a continuous one that is not going to come to a halt any time soon.

Moreover, feeling emboldened by their victory over the United States and in possession of an entire country – something Taliban contemporaries such as the Islamic State, Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and al-Qaida continue to strive for but have not yet achieved – the Taliban are engaging in a game of carrots and sticks with regional powers. The group has maintained excellent relations with regional terrorist outfits, something the Taliban seek to use to their advantage as they continue to increase their bargaining power with regional states.

Since they took control of Kabul in August 2021, the Afghan Taliban have exerted pressure on the Pakistani Taliban twice by using the influence that they have over their counterparts in Pakistan. On the northern front, the Taliban have already established potential launchpads into China and the Central Asian republics by strategically continuing to host a multitude of Central Asian and Uyghur extremist groups in northern Afghanistan. These groups include spin-offs of the notorious Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, including the Katibat Imam al-Bukhari group; the Islamic Jihad Union; the Jamaat Ansarullah of Tajikistan; and, the Central Asian military wing of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

To counterbalance the leverage held by the Taliban, Islamabad has begun providing support to the Islamic State’s local branch in Afghanistan, while Tashkent has decided to conduct business with the Taliban and New Delhi is taking one step forward and two steps backward. Meanwhile Beijing, Tehran, and Moscow are perplexed and flabbergasted at their miscalculation, and as a result are engaging the Taliban with great caution.

Fluid Ties Between the Taliban and Islamic State in Afghanistan

While the Taliban continues to portray itself as a bulwark against the presence in Afghanistan of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), particularly for Russians, Iranians, and Central Asian republics, the reality of Taliban-ISKP ties is murkier and more opportunistic than it is antagonistic. Although the Taliban label targeted or extrajudicial killings as part of their fight against the ISKP, when faced with a common enemy, an external threat, or Shia uprising, the Taliban and the ISKP are expected to join forces. The Taliban and ISKP have worked together before in Kabul and parts of northern Afghanistan against the former Afghan government, which was backed by the United States.

Recent reports and videos of Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan going after a Shia minority group that helped the Taliban’s only Shia-Hazara rebel commander, Mawlavi Mahdi, show that animosity toward the Shia community is a common factor among the Taliban and the ISKP.

Furthermore, there is a history of informal communication between the Islamic State and the Taliban, with IS requesting that the Taliban join forces with them in 2015. In 2021, when the Taliban took control of Kabul city, they released more than 4,000 ISKP members, as most of them were disgruntled Taliban members.

While the Taliban and IS/ISKP follow different schools of Islamic jurisprudence – the Taliban being Hanafi and the ISKP being Salafi Muslims – in terms of grand strategy, both envision resurrecting an Islamic empire ruled by either an Islamic Emir or a Caliph. But, unlike IS, the Taliban have a whole geography as well as political, economic, and military means to prepare for their vision, leaving Afghanistan in many ways worse off 20 years after the attempt at Western liberal nation-building.