Last week, The New Yorker published “The Other Afghan Women,” a penetrating report on an unlikely source of support for the Taliban during their stunningly quick reconquest of Afghanistan: the country’s rural women. While the Taliban’s recapture of Kabul sparked panic among residents of that city, the response of women in Afghanistan’s countryside—home to the majority of the population, and the site of much of the violence of the two-decade U.S. occupation—was more complicated. Reporting this spring and summer from the country’s southern Helmand Province, the writer Anand Gopal encountered relief and outright support among some local women, despite the Taliban’s harshly repressive treatment of women when the group last ruled the country, and in the areas it has controlled more recently.
Very few foreign journalists have spent as much time with members of the Taliban as Gopal has. A finalist for a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for his book on Afghanistan, “No Good Men Among the Living,” Gopal was on his way back to the country when I spoke to him recently for The New Yorker Radio Hour. In our conversation, Gopal discussed the Taliban’s long-term prospects for staying in power, whether their recent pledges of change can be trusted, and how young Afghans view the September 11th attacks and the subsequent U.S. occupation. Our discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Anand, many of the young Taliban members who recently surged into Kabul and into cities and towns all over Afghanistan—they weren’t even born when 9/11 happened. I wonder, when they talk about 9/11, when they think about 9/11—this is an event that fundamentally shaped their lives, and they have no memory of it—how do they talk about it?
Well, David, the remarkable thing is that most of them don’t even know about 9/11, and many of them have no conception of it or the foggiest notion of it. You know, they’ll say, Yeah, there was some attacks in the U.S.A., but they don’t really link 9/11 to what’s happened in their country for the last twenty years.
Why do they think the United States came to Afghanistan, invaded Afghanistan, in the first place?
You know, it’s interesting. I often ask Taliban members and non-Taliban members, Why do you think the U.S. is here? And they give all sorts of reasons, from, you know, “Oh, we have minerals here and, you know, the Soviets wanted our precious metals, and now the U.S. does, too.”
You know, “They just hate our way of life,” which always struck me as interesting because that was the frame that we’re using on 9/11 here in the U.S. And, of course, it’s different when you get to the edge—you know, the sort of more élite Taliban who, who follow the news—but I’m, I’m talking about the rank-and-file Taliban. They really don’t see their conflict, or their struggle, as having anything to do with September 11th.
Now here we are in late summer 2021, and a Taliban spokesman recently told the New York Times, “We want to build the future, and forget what happened in the past.” Now, having spent so much time in areas that are controlled by the Taliban, what would you say is the likelihood of all that happening? Earlier this week, we saw the Taliban use force to break up a women’s-rights demonstration in Kabul, and while they speak of a kind of new policy, whether it’s about women or education or any number of other things, how much has the Taliban changed?
Yeah, I think we should be very skeptical of these sorts of claims from the Taliban leadership. I mean, if you look at the point of view of your typical rank-and-file Taliban member, these are people who’ve really never left their village or their district. They’ve mostly seen war and violence, and, if anybody’s under the age of twenty-one who’s in the Taliban, that’s all they’ve known, is fighting in war. Now, you can imagine, from their perspective, there’s a number of family members who’ve been killed. There’s friends and comrades who have been killed, and what they’re thirsting for is revenge, first of all. Secondly, from their perspective, they say, We won this war. We marched into Kabul. We took this outright. We don’t need to concede anything to anybody. And so, from that milieu, there’s really a sense that the Taliban should be trying to return to the nineteen-nineties and reinstate that government that was there in the nineteen-nineties, without sharing power, without making any concessions towards women’s rights. And I’m afraid that probably that element is the majority of the movement. There’s a minority of the movement who say all the right things, who are a little bit more polished, who spend time outside the country, but they don’t really have the power on the ground.
In other words, these were the people that spent time in, you know, the Ritz-Carltons of the world, making agreements and having diplomatic meetings with all kinds of Western countries. But the people on the ground, who are gonna make policy, are not much different.
Well, I’m literally right now in a Ritz-Carlton, waiting to interview Taliban officials, so yes. [Laughs.] In Doha. So exactly. These are people—I mean, I was thinking, as I was walking through the corridors of this hotel today, If any Taliban members on the ground in Helmand could see the complete splendor that their officials are living under, you know, you’d wonder if the movement would even hold together.
The Taliban just named a number of people to top government posts, and, among them, the head of the Haqqani network was named acting minister of interior. What do you read into these kinds of appointments?
Well, I think, you know, I was looking at the ministry, the list of cabinet members, and what’s striking about them is that almost every single one had held a position in the nineteen-nineties government. Many of them have had experience dealing with the international community, so there’s a lot of the Taliban sort of network that was in Doha that was negotiating with the U.S. A lot of them have ended up in ministerial positions. The same with the Haqqanis, the Haqqani network. They’re very close to the Pakistanis and the I.S.I.
This is Pakistani intelligence.
Pakistani intelligence, exactly. They’re, of all the Taliban factions, the closest to Pakistani intelligence. But what’s interesting about this ministerial list is that the most powerful members of the Taliban, the ones who were really running the insurgency for the last twenty years, aren’t on it, which leads me to think that there’s a kind of a shadow government [that] is going to be behind this government. It’s going to be the real power behind the throne, as it were. And this is kind of a government on paper.
What kind of leverage does the United States have, any longer, in Afghanistan, among the Taliban?
Afghanistan is what political scientists call a rentier state: it’s a state that gets almost all of its revenue from abroad. So that’s where the leverage exists. The problem, of course, is that that current within the Taliban is only one current. There’s also the other current that says, Well, we won this war and, [in] the nineties, nobody recognized us. We had no support in the international community and, you know, we’re going to do the same thing again.
What is the future of the relations between the two countries, the United States and Afghanistan, with the Taliban in charge? Will the U.S. send an ambassador? Will we recognize the Taliban? Should we recognize them? Can we negotiate with the Taliban in any effective way?
You know, I think, given that there are different currents within the Taliban, the extent to which the international community tries to engage with the pragmatic current, that could empower that pragmatic current against the hard-liners. The real danger is that if Afghanistan is isolated, that is going to feed into the discourse of the hard-liners, and then we’re going to see, I think, a much worse turn than what we’ve already seen, and I think the U.S. recognizes this. I mean, the problem right now is, of course, this has been a pretty catastrophic defeat for the U.S., and to rush to recognize the Taliban now, I think, politically, would not make sense. But there are continuing back-channel contacts between the State Department and the White House and the Taliban leadership, and there is in a few days a conference being called by the United Nations to look at how to deal with continuing aid to the country, because there’s a recognition that, if aid is cut off, we’ll see a complete economic collapse, a massive refugee crisis beyond which we’ve already seen, and, you know, a spiral downwards.
We hear talk about a potential civil war, yet again, in Afghanistan. What is the potential for that, and, if it happens, what would the lineup be? What would the sides be?
So, you know, the Taliban is very different today than it was in the nineties—where, in the nineties, it was really like this hardcore clique of mullahs or, or religious clerics, from Kandahar and Helmand, these southern provinces, and it’s really broadened and diversified in the last twenty years, so it includes Uzbeks and even some Hazaras and other ethnic groups. It’s really a coalition today of tribes and clans and villages, and what really held that coalition together over the last twenty years is that they all felt one way, that they were marginalized from the post-2001 order for various reasons. So that was the cohering factor. But now that factor is gone because now they’re in government. So now they actually have to do a much harder thing, which is to actually govern, to distribute revenue fairly among these various groups, to distribute ministerial posts and patronage among these groups, and I think that is where the fault lines are probably going to emerge, where there’s groups that said, O.K., we were opposed to the previous Afghan government, but now we’re joining this government. We don’t want to be dominated by people from Kandahar—Pashtuns from Kandahar—for example. So there are real fault lines. There are already some signs that some of the ethnic minority groups within the Taliban are disaffected, so this is one potential way in which the Taliban could break apart.
Anand, one point that your article makes crystal clear is that members of the Afghan Army and Afghan militias that we supported for a long time, and armed, were responsible for arbitrary killings and all kinds of horrendous human-rights abuses, and the United States itself is responsible for the deaths of many, many Afghan civilians. Is there likely to be any form of accountability for this? Where should it come from?
You know, one of the kind of tragedies of what happened with the evacuation, for example, is that there’s thousands of Afghans who are just translators or who even were American citizens—dual American citizens and Afghans—were not able to get onto the evacuation flights, but then those who had the most blood on their hands, who worked directly with militias that were under the control of the C.I.A., have been able to get out of the country. Many of them are now already in the United States, and so, I think, unfortunately, it’s unlikely that there’s going to be any accountability for any of this.
Is there any way to predict what Afghanistan is going to look like ten, fifteen years from now?
I’m not very good at predictions. It’s hard to say. I would be very surprised if there was a Taliban government in power ten, fifteen years from now. I just don’t think the movement has a broad enough social base or enough experience in administering a modern, bureaucratic state to be able to survive.