Kabul has fallen. With Ashraf Ghani having fled the country and several Afghan officials fleeing to Pakistan and other nearby countries, the iconic images of the US helicoptering out officials from its embassy have made their impression across the world, evoking memories of their devastating defeat in Vietnam. Yet another story for the history books.
The story of the fall of Kabul is not just the story of Afghanistan, however. It may have started there, but that’s the thing about stories. They’re retold, they spread, they capture minds, and create narratives. Some stories, by their very nature, are infectious.
Those among us celebrating the Talibanization of Afghanistan are missing this crucial point; the Taliban’s story is already being told to Pakistani ears. Ears which are particularly amenable to this violent message thanks to its gild of religiosity.
The story of the Taliban, literally meaning students, in Afghanistan is a story so infectious that the pandemic we are suffering through already pales in comparison. It is a story that has held a knife to the throat of the region for decades now. It is the story of religious fanaticism. The Taliban victory boosts the message of their story. It shines across the region as a beacon, showing those that believe in the power of extremism that they are right. That their ideology of mass violence can and will work. That they will be able to commit the same atrocities that the Taliban have, from denying women education, to murder, to sexual crimes and everything brutal. “You were right,” it tells them. “Your fight is just.”
Those among us celebrating the Talibanization of Afghanistan are missing this crucial point; the Taliban’s story is already being told to Pakistani ears. Ears which are particularly amenable to this violent message thanks to its gild of religiosity. You can control people from crossing a border, but you cannot stop an idea. Already, the Taliban have support from the mainstream Pakistani population. Social media comments, political commentators, influential politicians, and even students in Pakistan have openly shown support for the Taliban and congratulated them on their victory.
Whether these people are in support of a weak and unstable Afghanistan, or if they truly believe in the Taliban’s policies, it does not matter. The former will soon find out that they are playing into the hands of the latter. These “pragmatic” commentators pushing for strategic depth are serving as nothing more than enablers, throwing open the gates of Pakistan’s collective psyche and allowing Talibaniyat to rush in and fill all the gaps. This continued normalization of a bloodthirsty and violent ideology in the region will only allow the rot of violence to spread further in Pakistan than it has already.
Ironically, just a day after Independence Day, the fight for a truly free Pakistan, one in which women are free, one in which religious minorities are free, one in which we are afforded our basic rights, and one in which fanatics do not dictate the state, has gotten that much harder. Pakistanis who dream and fight for a better country must now step up to the challenge, they must be prepared to find the right words, discover the right vocabulary, and create the right narrative that will allow them to counter the dangerous message emanating from Afghanistan. They must be prepared to pit idea against idea and hope the damage can be minimized.
If not, then soon our chickens will come home to roost, soon the fanatics in our country will rejoice. And soon, when the sound of bombs, guns, and angry mobs fill our ears again, those of us chasing strategic depth will be the first to wonder what went wrong.