New Afghanistan, Same Old Taliban

A Profoundly Changed Country Will Challenge the Hard-liners
Afghan women gather for a protest march in central Kabul, October 2021
Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

The international community reacted to the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15 by freezing $9 billion of Afghan central bank assets and suspending the foreign aid that had funded 75 percent of Afghanistan’s public spending. Major donors—including the European Union and the United States—view aid as one of the few sources of leverage against the Taliban. They insist that these funds will not be released until the Taliban deliver on their commitments to establish an inclusive government, protect the rights of all Afghans, and sever ties with terrorist groups.

The Taliban in turn have doubled down on their hard-line policies, insisting that they have won the war and that the West must recognize it. They have drastically curtailed women’s rights, eliminating the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and reinstating the Ministry for Vice and Virtue, which enforced a severe interpretation of Islamic law under the last Taliban regime. With the second round of appointments to Afghanistan’s interim government on September 21, the Taliban increased the number of senior officials on the United Nations terrorism sanctions list from 18 to 21. While Tajiks, Uzbeks, and a Hazara were named deputy ministers, slightly improving minority representation, women and members of the previous government were again excluded. Most female public-sector employees are still prohibited from returning to work, and girls in much of the country have yet to return to secondary school.

Yet these measures reflect more than simply a refusal to accede to the demands of the United States and much of the rest of the international community; they also reflect a refusal to acknowledge the reality that contemporary Afghanistan is a fundamentally different country from the one the Taliban governed until 2001. This new Afghanistan poses both a profound challenge to the Taliban—and an opportunity for the United States and its partners to rethink their approach.

Even as they continue to insist that the United States and its allies must accept them on their own terms, the Taliban today control a crumbling economy, a population on the brink of starvation, a collapsing public health system, and a decimated professional workforce. Meanwhile the international community, frustrated to see its demands so flagrantly ignored, has remained steadfast in its refusal to release aid funds or Afghan government assets to Taliban control. While several major donors have recently pledged to provide emergency assistance, it is a temporary solution at best. If this standoff continues, the results will be catastrophic for the people of Afghanistan.

TESTING THE TALIBAN

These challenges are likely to test the Taliban’s fragile coalition, widening the gap between the more pragmatic members of the group, who see the necessity of adopting a moderate stance to secure donor aid, and the hard-liners who remain committed to the group’s extreme ideology. Militant factions within the group may become even more hard-line, potentially attracting greater support from the global jihadi community and leading to the expansion of terrorist networks in Afghanistan.

The growing economic crisis is likely to lead to increasing popular resistance to the Taliban government. The Taliban and their allies may dismiss such a scenario because they were recently able to seize the country with little opposition. But they are underestimating the potential of growing dissent. There have already been signs of trouble. Within days of the Taliban’s military takeover, they clashed with protesters in Jalalabad and Khost. Throughout the country, courageous women, increasingly joined by men, have been carrying out demonstrations, defiantly demanding their rights and their inclusion in the government. Such opposition is likely to grow as frustration sets in over the Taliban’s brutal policies and abuses, the dire economic situation, the lack of governance and service delivery, and growing insecurity.

As frustration with Taliban rule increases, the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), which has already escalated attacks around the country, may be able to mobilize greater support, particularly among youth and other groups feeling the brunt of Taliban restrictions. In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State (or ISIS) succeeded in recruiting sectarian groups and women by harnessing their frustrations and projecting messages of resistance and empowerment through contributions to ISIS.

Afghanistan’s economic crisis is likely to fuel popular resistance to the Taliban.

To stave off further instability and protect the Afghan population from greater suffering, the Taliban and regional and international powers must engage in greater diplomacy, take risks, and make difficult compromises. There is no moral high ground in policies that lead to the starving of the Afghan population.

The Taliban must consider the fact that many Afghans don’t subscribe to their way of seeing the world. Over 65 percent of the country’s population was not yet born when the Taliban last held power, and women have made enormous strides in almost every sector of society. Afghanistan 2.0’s population has internalized the freedoms and promise of the past era and is unwilling to accept being governed by Taliban 1.0’s top-down, repressive approach. Even without the institutions that until recently sustained their rights, many Afghans have internalized the progress and cultural changes of the past 20 years.

The Taliban must come to terms with the fact that Afghans accepted their rule in the 1990s because it seemed preferable to the anarchy they experienced under the mujahideen factions that preceded them. This time, it will be much harder. The population has grown to expect not only greater freedoms but greater access to public services. Despite the deep flaws and corruption in the public sector and its heavy reliance on international aid, public services—particularly in education and health care—have been greatly expanded since 2001. In 2020, over eight million were enrolled in school, of which 39 percent were girls. Between 2003 and 2018, access to health service delivery multiplied threefold and, with the support of nongovernmental organizations, was extended into remote areas and underserved communities.

Today, the Taliban have taken control over a crumbling economy, with nearly half of the population on the brink of starvation, a collapsed health-care system, and a decimated professional workforce. To end the four decades of war, the Taliban will have to genuinely work toward a political settlement and enact measures to allow the unfreezing of donor funds. This will entail doing more than nominally adding ethnic diversity. That may have been sufficient for a military takeover in Afghanistan, but it will not be enough to govern the country, accommodate ideological opponents, and get the buy-in of people who hold different views from those of the Islamic Emirate. The movement will have to govern as the rehabilitated Taliban that so many of their allies have touted, while delivering on their commitment to establish an inclusive and more tolerant political order. This will require replacing some of the most controversial sanctioned appointees and including representatives, creating mechanisms for consulting women in deliberations about their rights and inclusion, reassuring women and minorities and the broader workforce by meaningfully including them in the government, and implementing a more tolerant approach to women’s rights, culture, and media.

To make such an outcome even remotely possible, the internal power dynamics within the Taliban will have to be rebalanced. Mullah Baradar and the more practical Talibs who have expressed at least in rhetoric their commitment to inclusivity have clearly been overtaken by the Haqqanis and other hard-liners in the militant wing of the Taliban. There are already reports of infighting among the various factions. Evidence from other conflicts supports the conclusion that insurgencies where the political wing has the upper hand over the military wing are more than twice as likely to end with negotiated agreements.

A NEW APPROACH TO ENGAGEMENT

Regional actors will be critical of these efforts. They must move beyond the illusion that their bilateral deals with the Taliban will prevent instability from spilling across their borders and recognize that the current Taliban government is inherently unstable. Pakistan, which has the greatest leverage with the Taliban, should use its influence to support such rebalancing rather than believe that the Haqqanis will be a reliable client.

Convenings by some regional actors and calls for the Taliban to implement greater inclusivity have been useful, but they have failed to adequately highlight women’s rights as an essential component of inclusivity. They also need to do more to hold the Taliban accountable for the current situation—rather than simply blaming the West—and support robust UN mechanisms to advance diplomacy, protect vulnerable Afghans, and engender confidence among the population.

The United States and Europe should also go beyond limiting engagement with the Taliban for the purposes of evacuating their citizens and allies and coordinating humanitarian access. Humanitarian aid alone will not prevent the collapse of the economy or forestall further radicalization and instability. While they should continue to withhold recognition, they must redouble principled yet practical diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, working in concert with the UN and regional actors to leverage the full arsenal of political, economic, and human rights tools necessary to address the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan. They should take a seat at the table in regional convenings on Afghanistan and work with the UN to try to find common ground among UN Security Council members and regional actors on Afghanistan.

The hard work of diplomacy toward an inclusive and rights-based political settlement remains the only viable path out of a perilous situation for Afghanistan and the region. If Afghanistan descends into a civil war, it will widen the space for extremism, destabilize an already volatile neighborhood, and unleash a devastating humanitarian crisis that will once again arrive at Western shores.

  • RINA AMIRI is a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, where she directs the Afghanistan and Regional Policy Initiative. She previously served as Senior Advisor to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
New Afghanistan, Same Old Taliban