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Just who are the Taliban? That is the single most important question as the world watches the Islamic militant group return to power in Kabul.

As spokesmen offer assurances about its readiness to govern humanely, the Taliban’s record encourages deep concern. Foreign governments have limited leverage to moderate its darkest impulses but they must do their utmost to ensure that the Taliban keep their word.

Days after retaking Kabul, a Taliban spokesman said that the group would forgive domestic rivals, abjure retribution, respect women’s rights and seek good relations with former foreign enemies. “Nobody will be harmed in Afghanistan,” he promised, although he added that the protection of women’s rights would be “within the framework of Islam.”

Skepticism is in order. The Taliban are committed to a deeply theological society, even if it means turning the clock back hundreds of years, and is determined to propagate its views throughout the region and the world. The result was a human rights nightmare when it first ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Women were forced to live medieval lives, heads covered, education denied and confined to the household. The sanctuary the Taliban provided terrorist groups led to their downfall when the United States sought justice for those who launched the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks from Afghan soil.

After losing power, the Taliban never lost the will to fight nor the desire to retake Kabul. Twenty years of struggle says a lot about the determination of the group and its members. Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat who served as ambassador to the United States, warns that it is unlikely that a group with such all-consuming purpose will moderate its beliefs when it prevails over internal enemies and the foreign foe that drove it from power.

Even if some members are prepared to adopt a more enlightened view, it is not clear how far that thinking extends throughout the movement. Power lies with the religious authorities, not political leaders, and they are far less likely to moderate their views. In addition, Afghanistan has long been a fractured country, and the greater the distance from Kabul, the more latitude a local leader has to rule as he prefers.

In truth, the world has limited means to influence the Taliban’s behavior. Diplomatic recognition is one lever, and several governments have said that they will condition any decision on the new government’s treatment of women and its policy toward extremists. A far more effective instrument is likely to be the provision of aid. Despite their readiness to reject modernity, the Taliban know that their country is desperately poor and needs help. Money may be a corrupting force, but it can also be used to sustain the regime.

That support is likely to be more forthcoming from governments that are indifferent to the Taliban’s human rights record and instead prioritize security concerns, in particular the readiness of the new government in Kabul to prevent other groups from using its territory to export terrorism and radical Islam to them.

The group offered sanctuary to militants during its first term in office, but it has promised neighboring governments and other concerned powers that it will keep a lid on militants and not provide support or sanctuary to foreign fighters. Taliban representatives have reportedly explicitly told Chinese officials that the government will not complain about Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur population if aid money is on the table.

While China is widely viewed as one of the chief beneficiaries of the U.S. withdrawal, that is an oversimplification. China has extensive investments in Afghanistan and sees the country as a good fit for its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing is unlikely to fill any vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal; a larger role for China will make it a larger target as well.

Greater influence for Beijing is also likely to worry Moscow, which sees Central Asia as part of its near abroad and is not prepared to cede its position to China. Moscow and Beijing will first focus on shared security concerns — controlling and eliminating extremism, terrorism and separatism — but each will be wary about the other’s long-term goals and ambitions.

For some, the U.S. withdrawal is more troubling than the developments in Afghanistan itself. They worry that collapse is proof that Washington cannot be trusted to honor its defense commitments. While there are grounds to criticize the Biden administration’s handling of the situation — although the initial confusion appears to have lasted just 24 hours, the images will linger — allies should see in the determination to proceed a long overdue refocusing on national priorities. When he announced the date for the troop withdrawal, U.S. President Joe Biden argued that the U.S. has more important strategic concerns and had to eliminate unnecessary distractions and drains on its resources. He repeated that grim fact in his speech Monday night addressing developments in Afghanistan.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan now allows the U.S. to focus on real threats. Beijing’s gleeful warnings to U.S. regional partners and allies about an unreliable ally betray its real anxieties: A regional rival with more focus and one less distraction.

That does not mean that the U.S. or other like-minded governments can wash their hands of Afghanistan. Some 60 nations, Japan and the U.S. among them, released a joint statement last weekend warning that “Those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan bear responsibility — and accountability — for the protection of human life and property, and for the immediate restoration of security and civil order…. The Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity.” If they can, that will tell us much about who the Taliban truly are.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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