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The Taliban don’t know what to do about Afghanistan’s problems

October 11, 2022

A version of this article appeared in the Nine Dash Line Journal in September 2022.

Last March, I was preparing to grudgingly welcome the Taliban’s long overdue opening of Afghanistan’s education system to girls and young women. I was intending to advise caution: educational privileges for women could be stopped at any time, and receiving a viable curriculum would depend on many other factors that the Taliban still controlled, such as resources, subjects, access, chaperoned movement, and appropriate teachers. At the last minute, the Taliban reversed their decision, offering little clear articulation for their sudden change of plan and demonstrating spectacularly poor management of policy and presentation.

Afghanistan’s parlous state

After twelve months of Taliban rule, it is no surprise to find that Afghanistan remains in a parlous state. The Taliban inherited a weak and war-torn state (largely caused by themselves), and 75 per cent of their government budget is dependent on international community handouts. Although they had twenty years to come up with a concept of governance, the Taliban have flailed — they are cautious, incoherent, ineffective, lacking in transparency, and entirely devoid of inclusivity. They appear more concerned with maintaining internal cohesion and enforcing ‘morality’ than with establishing a competent government.

Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian challenges have already been well-documented — unemployment, famine, and population displacement. Poverty levels have led to desperate measures, including selling children and body parts. Now, flash floods are compounding this tragedy. Although the information is harder to verify, ‘ugly’ stories concerning the impact on society (particularly the Taliban’s vision of the role of women) are also emerging, telling of suicides, self-immolation, disappearances, murders, rapes, and forced and child marriages.

A collapse back into civil war is not inevitable, but the Taliban are clearly struggling to move from an insurgency to a government.

Traditional approaches from the international community — offering aid in exchange for engagement and human rights concessions — have made little headway. Sanctions are hurting the population. The Taliban’s reprehensible approach to human rights has made dialogue difficult. The Taliban’s response to internal dissent has been brutal. Female demonstrators, protesting the education ban, are dispersed by whip or by gun, or, more ominously, have simply disappeared. Journalists are harried, beaten, and killed. There are multiple credible reports of killings of previous government members and of civilians suspected of supporting anti-Taliban groups. Armed resistance to the Taliban is developing in two forms: indigenous forces, such as the National Resistance Front (NRF), and international terrorist forces, such as the Islamic State. Neither yet controls significant numbers of fighters or territory.

A collapse back into civil war is not inevitable, but the Taliban are clearly struggling to move from an insurgency to a government. The implied direction of the country so far is not encouraging, but it is hard to make firm judgements. Analysis of conditions remains difficult: journalism is extremely hazardous, and the Taliban regime has harassed or violently targeted much of the Afghan media. Think tanks, NGOs, aid agencies, and other groups that might normally provide valuable and credible information are also experiencing difficulties operating. The Taliban have always been an exceptionally opaque and difficult-to-penetrate organisation — in that regard, nothing has changed in the 12 months since August 2021. The American drone strike that recently killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul reminded the Taliban leadership that they are never entirely safe, which is likely to keep them somewhat reclusive for purposes of self-preservation.

The Taliban’s approach to governance resembles a religious dictatorship. Women are not included in any form of public office. Religious credentials and status within the Taliban appear to be the key determinant of ministerial appointment or other positions of power. There is little evidence of development in terms of technology, modern skills, or experience in the government ministries, with the possible exception of technologies of intelligence and control (i.e., ID cards and biometric databases) and military capabilities (i.e., restoring the air force).

Factors in the Taliban’s favour are time-sensitive

Certain factors are operating in the Taliban’s favour. Fighting is largely absent across the country. They control the reins of government and 99 per cent of the country’s territory and borders. They are, for the moment at least, able to suppress anti-Taliban forms of protest and media. The Taliban look to find favour among parts of the population by placing blame on the international community, and the Americans in particular (e.g., twenty years of devastation, lack of humanitarian aid, and lack of financing for the Afghan banking system). These factors are, however, time-sensitive.

The Taliban’s religious dictatorship comes with a distinct set of problems. The regime appears reliant on a supreme leader, about whom little is known. His accessibility is closely guarded, surrounded by a narrow clique of ‘worthy’ Taliban members in Kandahar, from which he rarely ventures. Such a narrow authoritarian structure will be constantly looking over its shoulder to identify and suppress manifestations of dissent and protest, both within the ranks of the Taliban and across the wider population. Although the Taliban will press on with developing its intelligence service’s ability to monitor, trace, and target anti-Taliban sentiment, it currently relies on crudely violent, and often indiscriminate, forms of social control. Reaching out to the population through reason and conciliation looks beyond the Taliban.

Internal struggles

The Taliban’s self-representation as representing the infallible will of God prohibits doubt or uncertainty. The internal debates of the Taliban remain largely hidden. The Afghan ulema — religious scholars, mullahs, and mawlawi — may have a key role to play in moderating some of the Taliban’s harsher edicts and allowing engagement with the international community. A gathering of around 4,500 Afghan ulema took place in late June 2022, but it seems no real decisions were made, making the effort more of a rubber-stamp exercise to endorse the Taliban’s authority.

There are indications of division between hardliners and moderates, although the nature of the debates is unclear. Some — perhaps many — Taliban believe that women should receive an education. Many Taliban actually send their own daughters to school. There are many highly educated and respected Islamic scholars, inside and outside of the country, who could engage in forms of religious diplomacy to help broker constructive debate. But for the Taliban, to be perceived as losing a religious argument (about the hijab, women’s education, human rights, or application of Sharia law) would damage their credibility.

Religious performativity

This may explain some of the paralysis, caution with decision-making, and failure to explain themselves to the population. Perhaps this is why much of the Taliban’s religious engagement has varied from province to province and has focused on the ‘performative’ aspect — men with guns and whips, harassing, threatening, and beating the population for their choices of clothing, hair length, and music.

There is no evidence yet of a serious attempt to re-work the constitution or to implement Sharia law nationwide. The risk for the Taliban in moving towards their vision of Afghanistan under Sharia law is that they will place themselves at odds with Islamic scholars and Islamic extremists (for example, on the issue of the hijab, women’s education, or human rights in general). The Taliban’s interpretation of Islam (and their ability to explain and justify this interpretation) may be found wanting if they hold it up to public scrutiny. Perhaps this explains why the Taliban have been slow to move on substantive religious issues, focusing instead on beard lengths and clothing.

Over the next year or two, the risks of resistance to the Taliban rule appear to come from six possible directions. Ordered from most to least likely, these are:

  • The National Resistance Front and other provincial armed resistance groups
  • The Islamic State
  • Passive/peaceful popular protests, with women’s protests as a key subset
  • Organised political movements — protests organised around individual leaders may rally sizeable local portions of the population on given issues
  • Breakaway Taliban groups
  • A US (or other) external intervention, such as drone strikes or internal opposition support

At this stage, none of these poses a direct or imminent threat to the Taliban’s control. The absence of nationwide conflict is still greatly in the Taliban’s favour. If the Taliban could come up with a plausible compromise on the issue of women’s education, they might suddenly find themselves with a sizeable chunk of political breathing space. However, if the Taliban’s inertia and inabilities continue to manifest, and the default response to criticism remains brutal, they could be contending with various forms of popular resistance, both peaceful and violent, sooner rather than later.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 11, 2022 1:48 pm

    The CIA World Factbook estimates that in 2022 there are 4.62 children born per woman (average, of course, and it includes all women). Also the percent of population aged 0 – 14 is a fraction over 40%. What can a young person look forward to in such a country? How can the Taliban accommodate the youthful energy, or control it?

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