These days, Suhail Shaheen is presented as the acceptable face of the Taliban. He’s the movement’s spokesman and part of its negotiating team in Qatar, soft-spoken and media savvy, who has pledged that Afghanistan's reborn Islamic Emirate won’t take out revenge on political rivals, won't stop girls from going to school, and won't enforce the burqa. He insists that the Taliban has learnt from some of its missteps when it was in power the first time round in the 1990s, and has promised “an inclusive government in which all Afghans will have participation”.
It’s almost twenty years since I met Suhail Shaheen. That was just a few weeks after 9/11. The American-led offensive was underway against Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where the al-Qaeda attacks were planned and where Osama bin Laden had taken refuge.
‘A Very, Very Long War’
Shaheen was the head of the Taliban’s only remaining embassy — in Pakistan. The movement's last diplomatic outpost held regular news conferences on the grounds of its mission in Islamabad. These were chaotic events, with camera crews jostling for the best spot and a PA system that sounded as if it was on life support. But they served the Taliban’s purpose, allowing its message of defiance to reach a global audience.
Perhaps emboldened by the profile and attention these news conferences attracted, Shaheen agreed to be interviewed — one of the most memorable interviews I conducted in more than three decades as a BBC journalist.
He was everything that you don’t expect a Taliban representative to be — calm, courteous, composed, and willing to answer questions and enter into conversation rather than simply ram home a message. You can hear the interview online. And he was unnervingly prophetic in predicting a “very, very long war”.
The Writing Was on The Wall All Along
At that time, the Taliban was still in power in Kabul. But Shaheen indicated that its fighters were preparing for a guerrilla-style conflict. “We have preparations for when Kabul is in our hands and when it is not in our hands”, he told me. “We have our own preparations to fight.”
He prophesied that the Americans would “not be able to exit” once their local allies took control in Afghanistan. “You’re talking about Afghanistan as another Vietnam?” I asked. “Yes,” Shaheen replied. “The war will not end with the capture of Kabul. Capturing Afghanistan is easier than maintaining a presence there, maintaining an occupation ... It doesn’t mean the war will cease. It means that the war will enter another phase.”
That “phase” lasted two decades, but the Taliban has now declared that the war is over. What this means for the people of Afghanistan, for the region, for the fortunes of jihadist groups around the world, we won’t know for quite a while, but there is every reason for concern.
Can One Really Trust an Ally Like America?
Suhail Shaheen was not looking into a crystal ball back in 2001. It was readily apparent that evicting the Taliban from power would not in itself lead to political stability in Afghanistan or to the development of democratic institutions and the establishment of an effective army and police.
In some areas — the development of the media and the increasing scope for women in public life — Afghanistan had witnessed far-reaching and positive changes over the past twenty years. Advances which, tragically, are now likely to be surrendered.
The Taliban has proved to be more strategically sure-footed than the world’s foremost power.
In the United States, President Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan remains popular. Americans are tired of the cost, in lives and money, of military interventions overseas. But the mood could change quickly if the Taliban perpetrates human rights abuses against its citizens, or if its return to power encourages acts of jihadi terror.
The perception of the United States being humbled by an insurgent force in Afghanistan is deeply damaging to America’s international authority. What faith do you put in an ally that is so willing to walk away? What confidence can you have in an intelligence service that couldn’t see what was coming?
The return of the Taliban marks an end of sorts to what George W. Bush declared — in the days immediately after 9/11 — to be the “war on terror”. It’s certainly not the outcome that Washington had wanted or expected. I suspect that Suhail Shaheen will have quite a bit to say about that in the weeks ahead.
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent. He is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)