The power of the Afghan people

The Taliban’s own brutality will no doubt be reshaped by the popular reaction to the Kabul attack by another terror group.

An Afghan national holds a candle during a vigil in memory of the victims of the Kabul explosions in New Delhi, India, Aug. 27.

In the past six years, deaths from terrorist attacks have declined year by year. That fact, however, can hardly be a salve for the current sorrow and fear from Thursday’s suicide attack in Kabul. The high death toll of Afghan civilians and U.S. service members has instead led to calls for retaliation by the United States against the local branch of the Islamic State group that claimed responsibility for the attack . Yet in this tragedy, as in similar attacks of recent years, lies an insight on why terrorist killings are falling.

The Taliban that now control most of Afghanistan do not get along with the group called Islamic State Khorasan. The two differ in tactics, goals, and ideology. As a result, they not only compete directly against each other; they also compete for the support of Afghan civilians. Even within the Taliban are factions that often tangle. The widespread disgust among Afghans over the Kabul airport attack will not be lost on Taliban leaders. They might decide to lessen their own savage violence.

This would not be new in the recent history of jihadi terror. Muslim societies often silently withdraw or openly oppose violence they see as opposite to Islamic teachings. Al Qaeda in Iraq, for example, lost popular support after a series of beheadings of civilians. Within Al Qaeda itself, top leaders were divided over such tactics.

After the Islamic State took over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, it began to lose internal support because of its inhumane killings. When the Iraqi military and Western forces attacked in 2017, the victory was made easier by the errors of the militant caliphate and the loss of civilian backing.

Groups that conduct cruelty toward civilians contain the seeds of their own demise. Even in Iran, a country known as an exporter of terror, the people have power to soften a regime’s ruthlessness. On Tuesday, the head of the notorious Evin prison in Tehran had to apologize for the brutal treatment of prisoners. A video had been released showing guards beating and dragging inmates, many of whom are political prisoners. It created popular outrage in Iran. An official probe of the incident has been ordered.

“Regarding the pictures from Evin prison, I accept responsibility for such unacceptable behavior and pledge to try to prevent any repeat of these bitter events and to deal seriously with the wrongdoers,” the prison chief posted on Twitter.

The world has only begun to adopt a patient expectation that evil acts can create their own undoing. As an old Arab saying goes, “Leave evil and it will leave you.” 

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