A Striking Paradox: The U.S. Engages Taliban But Isolates Myanmar

Taliban fighters stand guard outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 16: the White House has praised the Taliban for being businesslike and professional on evacuations.   © Reuters

Naypyitaw’s generals treated as bigger threat than the terrorists controlling Kabul

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

No sooner had the Taliban completed their lightning-quick conquest of Afghanistan than U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Washington was ready to work on “counterterrorism” with the same marauding Islamist force that has so much American blood on its hands.

No less shocking was the statement from the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, that it is “possible” the U.S. will coordinate with the Taliban to conduct counterterrorism strikes on other Islamist terrorists.

British Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Nick Carter called the Taliban — responsible for the killing of more than 2,000 American soldiers and hundreds of allied troops — “country boys” that “live by a code of honor and a standard.” Carter’s claim that the Taliban have “changed” and “want an Afghanistan that is inclusive for all” has already been contradicted.

The Taliban’s all-male regime of hard-core extremists is a who’s who of international terrorism, with 17 of the 33 cabinet ministers on the United Nations’ terrorism-related sanctions list, and four former Guantanamo Bay inmates and several others who remain U.S.-designated global terrorists. The regime is headed by Mohammad Hassan Akhund, a U.N.-listed terrorist and architect of the 2001 destruction of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The Anglo-American outreach to the Taliban stands in eerie contrast with U.S. and British efforts to isolate and squeeze another of India’s neighbors — military-ruled Myanmar. It is as if Myanmar’s military government is a bigger threat to international security than a Kabul regime run by some of the world’s deadliest terrorists.

Military rule is nothing new to Myanmar, one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries whose failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic insurgencies to fester. Directly or indirectly, the military has always called the shots in Myanmar, a factor stifling the resource-rich nation’s potential.Soldiers set up barricades in Yangon on Feb. 15: military rule is nothing new to Myanmar,   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Yet, after the latest military takeover on Feb. 1, the U.S. and Britain took the lead in slapping a series of sanctions on Myanmar, with America even suspending bilateral trade ties. Washington says its 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with Myanmar will remain suspended until the return of a democratically elected government, of which there is currently little hope.

The U.S.-led efforts to use economic and political levers to unseat the military regime have only emboldened insurgent groups to step up their violent campaigns. A shadow government formed by opponents of military rule recently called for taking up arms against the regime. More than 220,000 people have already been displaced by internal conflict since the military takeover.

Yet, the U.S. and Britain appear reconciled to a terrorist regime ruling Afghanistan. In an echo of Gen. Carter’s call to be “very careful about using the term ‘enemy'” for the Taliban, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has declined to call the militia an enemy of the U.S., saying, “It’s hard to put a label on it.”

In fact, Britain responded to the Taliban’s conquest by immediately announcing a doubling of its aid to Afghanistan. And U.S. President Joe Biden — not content with his Afghan surrender gifting troves of American-made weapons to the Taliban, making them the first terrorist group to acquire advanced air and land-based capabilities — is sending $64 million in aid to Afghanistan. As The Wall Street Journal put it, the Taliban “have overnight turned into a courted U.S. partner.”

The White House has praised the Taliban for being “businesslike and professional” on evacuations. They have certainly been businesslike and professional in detaining and executing perceived opponents, in ongoing ethnic cleansing and in their Pakistan-aided brutal assaults on the Panjshir Valley, the last resistance stronghold, where tens of thousands of residents have been uprooted amid widespread killings.

Meanwhile, Taliban death squads, going door to door, have been hunting down and killing those who assisted the previous government, including, in one documented case, first pulling out all the victim’s fingernails. The Taliban have been businesslike and professional too in their imposition of seventh-century Islamic practices from the Arab world that are alien to Afghan culture.

The Taliban have “changed” in one respect: In place of the blue burqa that women were made to wear during their 1996-2001 rule, they have now prescribed a full-body covering of a different color, black.

The U.S. outreach to the Taliban, including drawing specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists, is designed to soften the blow from Biden’s handover of a mineral-rich country to a militia that is a wing of the Pakistani deep state. But such an effort cannot camouflage the damage to America’s international credibility and standing.

More fundamentally, the Anglo-American courting of the Taliban highlights the selective, geopolitics-driven approach to combating terrorism, which is why the U.S.-launched global war on terrorism has yielded little even two decades after its launch. The scourge of transnational terrorism has only spread deeper and wider.

The Taliban’s rollback of civil, human and women’s rights, brutal executions, replacement of education and music with religious dogma, and enslavement of prepubescent girls through forced “marriage” to their fighters ought to spur a concerted global response.

The last thing the world can afford is condoning the Taliban’s medieval practices, misogyny and barbarity. Yet the West remains a mute spectator to the Taliban’s ongoing atrocities.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”