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Are the Taliban’s problems only just beginning?

August 18, 2021

Summary: Now the Taliban are “administrators” of a complex, modern country that is extremely hostile to them. This is likely to be less exciting and much more difficult than being a resistance fighter. Do they have any of the skills necessary?

No one can claim that the Taliban had it easy over the last twenty years – crushing defeat, exile, slow, hard fought and vicious insurgency battles, with a steady attrition of fighters.  Only in the most recent years did they start to experience the heady excitement of possible military victory.

But now they are high profile and public officials – administrators – under the intense and largely hostile scrutiny, thanks to twenty years of advancement in social media technology, of the Afghan population, the neighbouring countries and the international community.  They are no longer resistance fighters hiding in the shadows.  It will presumably no longer be sufficient to blow something up and declare it a “victory”.  With painful irony, they will now have to grapple with the widespread destruction of infrastructure that they were largely responsible for destroying.

Running an entire – and relatively modern – state is a job which they performed very badly a quarter of a century ago.  They were entirely unsuited then and will likely struggle in many ways now.   Here are a few quick and dirty bulletpoints (welcome any comments):

Taliban challenges:

  • Establishing a credible government – how “inclusive” will it be?  Will there be representatives from other ethnic groups and minorities – Hazara?  Women?
  • Achieving international recognition/removal of “terrorist” status
  • Lack of legitimacy – having taken the government by force
  • Distrust from almost every ethnic and social group in the country
  • Controlling the excesses of their fighters – looting, rape, revenge killings – and other looters/criminal gangs and opportunists (some may even be masquerading as Taliban)
  • Convincing international community to provide aid
  • Unlocking national bank reserves funds – held in US?
  • Expressing/explaining in specific detail their thus far extremely vague concepts of Islam and Sharia – what is “appropriate Islamic behaviour”? What will the punishments be for non-compliance?
  • Establishing credible law and order – at the moment no army or police, just thousands of armed fighters on the streets
  • Disarming, demobilising and reintegrating potentially hundreds of thousands of fighters (both Taliban and ex-ANSF) who have suddenly become unemployed.  Idle gunmen may drift towards crime, warlords or other insurgent groups (e.g., but not exclusively, Islamic State)
  • Frictions and splinters within the Taliban – moderates and extremists, young and old. As the Taliban leadership is forced to finally take a formal (and perhaps uncomfortably pragmatic) position on many issues – amnesty for government workers, Sharia, constitution, women, education – it may turn out that there are fundamental disagreements. 
  • Running a modern state – you need real expertise to deal with the economy, employment, education, electrical power grid, fuel distribution, food, road and communications infrastructure, population displacement, law courts, police, telecoms, international, national and local government issues and the infrastructure of governance – this expertise is currently fleeing the country (or was assassinated by the Taliban)
  • Demonstrating “popular support” – no evidence that the Taliban have the majority of popular support, despite their assertions. What would the Taliban do if it was clearly and peacefully demonstrated that they were neither popular nor desired? (is a question that journalists could ask them…)   
  • Responding to criticism, popular protests and intense questioning from journalists and the population.  Social media advances mean that the younger, better educated and aware Afghan population can see immediately what the Taliban are doing, expose it and criticise it
  • Relationship with Al Qaeda
  • Tackling the Islamic State presence in eastern Afghanistan
  • The issue of refugees and people fleeing the country. It is never a good look for a new government if everyone is trying to leave. Likely many of the skilled and educated people that know how to run a modern country have already left in fear of their lives.  How to develop confidence such that the “brain drain” slows and reverses?
  • Continuation of the civil war?  Already seeing reports of former First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh decamping to the Panjshir valley and declaring himself “caretaker President”, a statue of a Hazara leader blown up in Bamian and a demonstration in Nangarhar waving the Afghan national flag.   Dostum and Atta escaped north, most likely nursing wounds and plotting.  Doubtless many other former government and military officials will turn up elsewhere – US? India?  Iran? Europe? Doesn’t mean anything necessarily at present (and I think even the fiercest opponents of the Taliban may be enjoying the lack of fighting over the last few days). But the country is in a volatile state and at real risk of small flashpoints escalating into larger problems.  Well-armed but perhaps less well trained and educated Taliban fighters may not be the best at crowd-control and defusing situations.  In the longer-term – 6, 12, 24 months? – perhaps we will see more organised rebellions and bids to overthrow the Taliban
  • I have kept the most cynical point for last.  If the Taliban are now the Kabul government, everyone knows where they live.  They can no longer hide in caves or neighbouring countries.  They will be much more easily reached by air, IED, missile or drone strikes in future.    
2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2021 12:55 pm

    Tim,
    Your list offers me optimism. I had not thought of the consequences of ‘victory’ (in the country as a whole) by and to the victors. And, I had not thought of (or kept myself informed about) the Western and other ideas and values that the younger generations have been exposed to, and affected by.
    I don’t see the ending paragraph as ‘cynical’:
    “If the Taliban are now the Kabul government, everyone knows where they live. They can no longer hide in caves or neighbouring countries. They will be much more easily reached by air, IED, missile or drone strikes in future.”
    This brings to mind the adage: be careful of what you wish for; you might just get it.
    Thanks for keeping us so thoroughly informed and tuned in.

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  1. The problems the Taliban faces in governing Afghanistan, from Isis-k and food shortages to an economic crisis – Uber Turco News

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