A photo of the trilateral conference which saw Muslim scholars from Indonesia, Afghanistan and Pakistan on 11 May, 2018. (Photo: Press Bureau of the Presidential Secretariat via Presiden Joko Widodo/ Facebook)

A photo of the trilateral conference which saw Muslim scholars from Indonesia, Afghanistan and Pakistan on 11 May, 2018. (Photo: Press Bureau of the Presidential Secretariat via Presiden Joko Widodo/ Facebook)

Indonesia and Taliban-Led Afghanistan: Treading with Caution

Published

Indonesia has been cautious in granting diplomatic recognition to the new Taliban regime in Kabul. There are good reasons for doing so.

In December 2021, Indonesia reinstated its representative office in Kabul to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. This was a subtle way of getting involved in the country without granting diplomatic recognition to the new Taliban government.

Jakarta is not standing still. At an extraordinary ministerial meeting of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in late December 2021, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi laid out the conditions that would pave the way to improving diplomatic ties. These included the formation of an inclusive government, respect for human rights, including those of women, and ensuring that the country would not become a breeding ground for terrorism.

It is clear that the Indonesian government is treading with caution in terms of engaging with Taliban-led Afghanistan. It needs to ascertain that the new Taliban government is significantly different from its former self, and that engaging with the Taliban will not inspire the growth of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia.

During the first Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996-2001), Indonesia did not have significant engagements with the regime. At that time, Indonesia was embroiled in the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis and its aftermath, including a political transition with the fall of Suharto. Moreover, Indonesia’s brand of Islam was very different from what was promoted by the Taliban, even though both are Muslim-majority countries.

Upon seizing power, the first Taliban regime had imposed a strict sharia state that deprived Afghan citizens of their civil and political liberties, including the repression of women and minority groups. In contrast, Islam as practiced in Indonesia is more diverse, inclusive and tolerant, and in recent years has been branded as a prominent example of ‘moderate Islam’.

Interestingly, it was after the Taliban regime was deposed by US-led forces in 2001 that Indonesia became more deeply engaged with Afghanistan under the banner of facilitating the peace-building process. Some key milestones included: the involvement of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, in negotiating for the release of South Korean hostages held by the Taliban in 2007; the establishment of the Indonesia Islamic Center in Kabul in 2010 under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono; and the setting up of a branch of the NU in Afghanistan in 2014.

The first signaled the affinity between fellow Islamists from Afghanistan and Indonesia. Through the latter two, Indonesia sought to build on the bilateral rapport to promote a more moderate form of Islam in Afghanistan. However, such attempts at introducing the Indonesian model to Afghanistan have had very limited success, as evidenced in the absence of Taliban-affiliated ulama in a trilateral conference involving Muslim scholars from Indonesia, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2018. Given Indonesia’s patchy relationship with the Taliban prior to its takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, there is cause for the Indonesian government and civil society to be cautious in their engagement with the new Taliban government.

It is clear that both government agencies and mainstream Islamic organisations in Indonesia remain suspicious of the Taliban and are unable to shake off its decades-long association with cultivating and exporting Islamic radicalism.

The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) supported the Taliban’s assumption of power in Afghanistan and has urged the Indonesian government to recognise the new government. But PKS is in the minority; other sectors of Indonesian society are more concerned with the growth of Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan and its potential influence on Indonesia.

Said Aqil Siradj, the general chairman of NU from 2010 to 2021, has issued a warning to all Indonesian Muslims about the potential of the Taliban regime in instigating Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organisation, has cautioned its members against jumping to conclusions concerning the comeback of the Taliban. Abdul Mu’thi, the secretary-general of Muhammadiyah, has advised members to be critical of the overwhelming amount of unfiltered information coming through social media. Syafi’i Ma’arif, a former leader of Muhammadiyah (1999-2005), suggests that Indonesian Muslims wait and see if the current Taliban is indeed different from its former self.

Indonesians have cause for concern, given the Taliban’s longstanding relationship with al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Since the 1990s, al-Qaeda has pledged allegiance to the Taliban, and the latter’s acknowledgement of the pledge implies endorsement of al-Qaeda’s agenda for global jihad.

Nasir Abbas, a former trainer with the Afghan jihadists and a leading figure in JI before being arrested and deradicalised by the Indonesian police, explained that the euphoria of the Taliban victory in August 2021 could have an impact on new recruitment for JI. Nasir argues that the JI can be very persuasive in portraying the victory as a triumph for Islam, and in turn draw on the affinity between Indonesian Muslims and their Afghan brothers in the faith.

The Indonesian Intelligence Authority (BIN) has also warned about the role that a reinstated Taliban could play in inspiring Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. In fact, many important figures behind the rise of Islamic radicalism and violent extremism over the last two decades in Indonesia, such as Ali Imran and Abu Tholut, had participated as jihadists in Afghanistan. In the wake of the Taliban’s victory, the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) has stepped up its surveillance of social activism and social media in Indonesia.

It is clear that both government agencies and mainstream Islamic organisations in Indonesia remain suspicious of the Taliban and doubt its ability to shake off its decades-long association with cultivating and exporting Islamic radicalism. If Indonesia has not been successful in introducing its own version of ‘moderate Islam’ to Afghanistan, it should at least fend off the form of sharia statehood propounded by the Taliban. How it relates to Taliban-led Afghanistan is not merely a foreign policy issue, but a matter with domestic implications for an Indonesia that embraces pluralism and inclusivity in its national ideology.

2022/101