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Five Barriers: Taliban’s Psychology and Challenges of Transforming into a Government

When attempting to change their mental image or cope with surrounding developments, extremist groups and organizations are generally faced with considerable challenges, including primarily the frequent discrepancy between their attempts to change and the quest for establishing credibility with their followers, supporters, and members. 

In addition, there is the “extremist-personality” challenge related to the personalities of supporters and members of those groups and the extent to which they accept change, particularly given the established negative relationship between extremism and resilience. 

While individual differences do exist between members of these groups, they are driven by a collective mindset and united by the group’s values and axioms, nonetheless. As such, any attempt to question or revisit these values may threaten the group’s cohesion, viability, and ability to recruit new members. This crisis becomes so evident when dynamics dictate a reconsideration of these axioms that are firmly rooted in the mentality and logic of the organizations, which would give rise to deep divisions and fissures within their internal structure of these organizations. 

But, is this the case with the Taliban?

Understanding Taliban’s Psyche

 The Taliban was founded upon a religious extremist ideology and tribalism, blending together, and giving rise to a group that, compared to its counterparts, has its peculiarities. Hence, it is a religious group that has tribal roots and a military wing and strives to be involved in politics. 

This characterization reveals the group’s special nature that sets it apart from other traditional terrorist organizations or Islamist groups. Obviously, the Taliban can’t be considered the sole group based on tribalism, irrespective of the fact that the majority of its members are Pashtuns. A proper assessment of Taliban’s endeavors to change its mental image, a thorough understanding of its psyche, and the accurate prediction of its current and future orientations isn’t possible without a careful examination of this definition.

The complex psyche of the Taliban renders its members largely fanatical and extremist, notwithstanding the individual differences between them. This brings into question the ability of the Taliban to deal with this fanatical mindset and extremist ideology. 

Indeed, Taliban’s early reassuring speech amounts to an attempt to convince the world – and itself – that it is capable of showing tolerance for dissent and flexibility when dealing with problematic issues. Clearly, this is the political direction Taliban is taking but the question is: Which will dominate? Pashtun Taliban, Taliban Al-Qaeda, or Taliban’s government? The answer to this question remains contingent upon the Taliban’s ability to overcome the psychological barriers that prevent this from being achieved. The psychological barriers indicate the personalities and cognitive structures of the group’s leaders, members, and supporters, signifying the need to legitimize any changes that need to be introduced to its doctrine to ensure consistency with its political aims without harming its credibility.

With all of these dynamics in mind, Taliban’s success hinges on its ability to change its mental image and gain recognition and international legitimacy without reconsidering its ideology or abandoning its tenets, meaning to have resilience to change – a major challenge that Taliban faces; so, will it be able to rise to it?

In a televised interview with Al-Ghad TV, when asked about whether the Taliban has changed, Mohammad Naeem,[1] Spokesman for the Taliban’s Political Office, stated that change is underway, indicating that it is the experience the Taliban gained and the alternate reality that made the difference between the past and present. However, he said that some axioms are unchangeable and non-negotiable. 

Indeed, the group is currently sidestepping several questions posed by the media. The Taliban’s spokesperson stated that they were surprised – just like the entire world – by their swift entry and takeover of Kabul. Whether they are honest about this “surprise” or not, there are apparently some issues that the Taliban is still in two minds about and its vision is difficult to contemplate. Seemingly, the Taliban is only striving to establish common understandings that guarantee its survival in the upcoming period amid the keen anticipation of the international community. 

Can the Taliban Overcome the Psychological Barriers?

Currently, the Taliban faces several psychological challenges to achieving its goals and gaining credibility both in Afghanistan and abroad. These challenges include: 

1. Flexibility: Groups that have a hierarchical structure and extremist ideology are at large characterized by what psychologists call “cognitive closure”. This is a state in which individuals tend to avoid complex mental processes and deep thinking and lean toward formulating a long-standing position on issues. Cognitive closure offers extremists some kind of “cognitive protection” against uncertainty and doubt that may promote a feeling of personal and social threat. This simplifies the basis of the extremist ideology which hierarchical-structure based groups like the Taliban adopt. Members of these groups are necessarily inclined to believe in clichés and show absolute and unqualified compliance with the group’s norms and defend them to death. As such, changing the mentality of members of these groups is not easy, requiring – leaders as well as members – to be open to the other, tolerate diversity, and most importantly integrate into the community. There is a mental hurdle, and any improper dealing with it may backfire. In sum, Taliban’s efforts to change its mental image will not pay off before its members are able to overcome the “cognitive closure”.

2. Identity: Clearly, the Taliban needs to reformulate – not change or distort – its identity by establishing a “common social identity” that its members share with the wide spectrum of Afghan society. Any close observer of the statements of the Taliban leaders lately would see a change in the language the Taliban uses. There is no longer talk about the Islamic caliphate and a religious state and the term “nationalism” was brought to the forefront. An analysis of comments of the Taliban’s leading figures reveals that nationalism is the recurring word the Taliban make use of to raise above tribalism and win the loyalty of other tribes by introducing the concept of “Afghan nationalism”, an all-encompassing identity that fully absorbs differences and reduces tribal disparities. Taliban’s success in applying this new concept of identity remains a major challenge that is difficult to overcome, but not impossible to deal with.

3. Collective Mindset: While the Taliban had previously rose to the helm of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it ruled it as an emirate led by an emir, not a state led by a president. Now, the Taliban are required to make the shift from the “Taliban movement” to the “Taliban government” which necessitates possessing a different mindset to respond to surrounding dynamics. 

Taliban’s transition from a government to a state will entail a change in its leaders’ mentality and behavior from being emirs of a group to being leaders of a state who are required to think pragmatically, behave as required by political imperatives, make compromises, and most importantly avoid the uncontrolled release of their previous stockpile of emotions, gripped by the desire to respond violently with revenge from opponents and enemies.

A report issued by Chatham House on 17 August addressed this hurdle and pointed out that “the Taliban must transform from an insurgency to govern.” [2]

This “shift in mindset” could prove feasible at the leadership and front line level but not at the grassroots level where a “collective mentality” had been well established and members share a legacy of common values and a dominant ideology that is difficult to eradicate or even change due to the resilience hurdle referred to above. 

This idea was highlighted in a Vox report where the author pointed out that the Taliban’s political leadership realize the need to speak to the world and get international recognition which ensures that a degree of pragmatism will guide the group’s action. However, there are thousands of leaders and troops in the Taliban who don’t share the same view. These different groups have different priorities and it would be difficult to tell whether they will side with their leadership or not. So, ideological divisions within the Taliban can’t be ruled out. [3] This view is consistent with the decentralization that characterizes Taliban’s structure where these discrepancies are projected to become so evident within groups that are in firm control of Taliban’s affiliates and are expected to be less tolerant.

4- Unifying the Concepts of State and Movement (Talibanistan): The Taliban makes no separation between its existence as a movement and the existence of the Afghan state. For them, the link between nationhood and movementhood are inseparable. As such, Taliban’s moves will be likely driven by this notion. This has been evidenced by Taliban’s move toward replacing the Afghan national flag with that of Taliban’s, a step that gave rise to angry protests. Seemingly, the Afghan constitution will be milder than the Taliban’s constitution of 2015. This unification will, undoubtedly, make integration and acceptance of the other more difficult.

5. Extreme Simplification: Oversimplification is another mental characteristic of extremist organizations in general. Extreme simplification is based on what psychologists call “cognitive closure”, meaning concepts such as freedom, democracy, and other similar notions that the Taliban started to approve have different interpretations from familiar ones. Taliban’s notions of the state and institutions are oversimplified. This explains Taliban’s confusion about many complexities and issues that the movement still doesn’t have clear vision on, due to the entrenchment of the “Islamic Emirate” concept rather than that of the state.

Overall, when assessing Taliban’s moves, a distinction must be made between “acceptance” and “belief”. The movement’s acceptance of some practices that are more tolerant or better aligned with its hoped-for image and what is demanded by the international community does not reflect the movement’s belief in these ideologies or practices being the right way, but rather the secure way momentarily. As such, turning on these concepts isn’t inconceivable and maybe very likely. 

Perhaps this explains why there hasn’t been a fundamental change in Taliban’s practices following its fall. In other words, the Taliban remained the same and its practices in Afghanistan weren’t any more flexible. Rather, throughout these years, the movement denied girls’ education and targeted those siding with its opponents, particularly the US. So, the movement hadn’t slowly changed over 20 years as some analyses indicated. The reality is that this ostensible change turned up out of the blue when the Taliban found itself facing the world after making substantial gains it feared losing, which forced it to use a discourse that is different from its tenets and real objectives.

references

[1] An interview with the Spokesman for the Taliban’s Political Office, Mohammad Naeem, on Al-Ghad TV, 16 August 2021. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c64aft1xd0w 

[2] Hameed Hakimi, Taliban Must Transform from an Insurgency to Govern. Chatham House, 17 August 2021. Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/08/taliban-must-transform-insurgency-gover 

[3] Jen Kirby, Who are the Taliban now? Vox, 17 August 2021. Available at: https://www.vox.com/22626240/taliban-afghanistan-baradar 

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