Who Are the Taliban Now?

Steve Coll

Hassan Abbas’s book surveys the second Islamic Emirate’s ideology and leading personalities and probes its internal tensions.

The New York Review of Books

June 22, 2023 issue

The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan After the Americans Left

by Hassan Abbas

Yale University Press, 286 pp., $26.00

Nearly two years after the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul, the UN refers to the regime only as “the de facto authorities,” to avoid any hint of formal recognition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban call their government. By any name, the Taliban today control Afghanistan’s territory, as well as federal ministries and local administrations. They also preside over a nation in severe crisis. Food insecurity haunts at least half of the population; a country shattered by more than four decades of war again faces the shadow of famine.

A succession of edicts by Taliban clerics has disrupted the delivery of vital international aid. The Taliban have forbidden girls and women from attending school beyond sixth grade and from working for NGOs, prompting dozens of international aid groups to suspend or reduce operations. In April the Taliban extended their work ban to the four hundred Afghan women employed by the UN, a decision that threatens about $3 billion in annual food, medical, and other humanitarian assistance. (The US and other wealthy donor nations funnel their Afghan aid mainly through UN agencies, to prevent the Taliban from controlling the funds.)

The Biden administration and European governments have many quarrels with the Taliban, but the regime’s policies denying education and work to women lie at the heart of the current emergency over international aid. “This extreme situation of institutionalised gender-based discrimination in Afghanistan is unparalleled anywhere in the world,” Richard Bennett, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan, and Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, chair of a UN working group on gender discrimination, reported in May, after an eight-day visit to the country. The Taliban’s practices amounted to an “apparent…crime against humanity,” they concluded.

The Taliban’s position is that their gender policies are an internal matter and that shielding Afghan women from foreign-run workplaces is necessary to prevent sin.

During the Taliban’s earlier stint in power, from the mid-1990s until their overthrow after September 11, the movement banned women from working outside the home for NGOs, the UN, universities, and most government agencies, although it did allow women, under restrictions, to work for private businesses and occasionally in occupations such as midwifery, as it does now. Movement spokesmen say that the bans on female education are temporary while the regime works out acceptable forms of supervision and gender segregation in classrooms. Yet in view of the authorities’ tightening of restrictions, and the Taliban’s history of denying education to women and girls, it is doubtful they will ever adopt policies acceptable to the West.

These days, triumphant after their defeat of America and “half-believing” that they don’t need international aid groups at all, the Taliban see foreign-run organizations as “an even greater threat,” as Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network wrote recently. The movement’s policies toward women and girls have left the UN and its aid delivery partners with only terrible choices, she noted: comply with discriminatory rules that may violate international law, ignore or finesse the rules and put local employees at risk of Taliban punishments, or withhold food and medical aid from a population in acute need.

Is there a way to prevent yet more suffering by the Afghan people under Taliban rule? The questions of who the new Taliban are, what makes them different from the regime of the 1990s, and how the world should manage them are subjects of Hassan Abbas’s The Return of the Taliban, which surveys the second Islamic Emirate’s ideology and leading personalities while probing its internal tensions. Abbas, a Tufts-educated scholar and former senior Pakistani police officer who wrote an illuminating earlier book about the Taliban,

invites us to take them seriously, and the questions he explores are difficult and important. They are also largely ignored in the US, where the Biden administration and the Republican Party have turned their backs on America’s painful failure in Afghanistan, or else mined the disaster’s controversies for partisan talking points that have little bearing on the present situation.

The Taliban have established their second emirate on the rubble of the Islamic Republic constructed and defended by the United States and NATO allies after September 11, a project that exacted an enormous cost in lives and resources. After the US-led invasion of 2001, war against the Taliban and terrorist groups sheltered by the movement killed more than six thousand American military service members and contractors, and roughly 165,000 Afghans, including about 50,000 civilians. Military operations and reconstruction cost more than $1 trillion.

Initially vanquished, the Taliban used sanctuary and support in Pakistan to mount a gradual comeback as a guerrilla force, drawing NATO into a grinding stalemate that proved politically unsustainable. The Trump administration negotiated an exit of US forces in exchange for minimal concessions by the Taliban, and when Joe Biden announced a final departure in April 2021, the Islamic Republic collapsed even faster than the most pessimistic analysts had forecasted. In August 2021 President Ashraf Ghani fled by helicopter, and the US evacuated personnel and at-risk Afghans amid infamous scenes at the Kabul airport.

The Taliban of 2023 are not the same as the Taliban of the 1990s. Many of the movement’s cadres under arms today were toddlers or not yet born at the time of the September 11 attacks. They grew up as part of South Asia’s smartphone and social media generation, even as they fought to overthrow the US-forged Kabul republic, whose donors made digital technology available across Afghanistan. During the 1990s the Taliban banned cameras, tape recorders, and other modern gadgets. After September 11 they modified those doctrines and embraced online media as a propaganda vehicle. Taliban leaders today retain large Twitter followings and benefit from a sophisticated social media presence.

The rise of the digital Taliban may be ironic, but it should not be misunderstood as evidence of some new accommodation of global norms. “I will not let the disbelievers implement their rules on us,” Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s emir and supreme leader, who is in his mid-seventies, told a gathering of clerics and tribal leaders in July 2022. “Now is the time for us to take complete control. We do not want to live according to others’ expectations nor will we deal with them even if they use an atomic bomb on us.”

That month the chief justice of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, Abdul Hakim Haqqani, published a book entitled The Islamic Emirate and Its System, a manifesto for Taliban governance with an introduction by Hibatullah. The work “brims with fear and insecurity,” Abbas writes, as well as misogyny and intolerance of minorities. Crucially, the volume affirms the emir’s absolute power and a religious obligation to obey him.

Hibatullah is the third Taliban supreme leader and the one most obviously concerned with Islamic jurisprudence. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the deceased founding emir, was a conservative rural cleric, but he also gained renown among his followers as a guerrilla fighter who lost an eye battling Soviet forces during the 1980s. His successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour—who was killed in Pakistan in May 2016 by a US drone strike—was a more worldly figure, a hefty former aviation minister who reportedly ran sanctions-busting endeavors, frequented Dubai, and maintained ties with Iran. By comparison, Hibatullah is self-isolating and scholarly. He served as deputy chief justice on the Supreme Court during the 1990s. After the US-led invasion of 2001 he followed other Taliban leaders to safety in Pakistan, where he supervised a madrassa and joined the Taliban’s ruling council. According to Abbas, following Hibatullah’s appointment as emir, he got rid of Mansour’s team. He governs today mainly from Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.

In 2018 Donald Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, to negotiate with the Taliban for a withdrawal of American forces. Khalilzad was one of a number of international diplomats who saw promise in the attitudes of Taliban negotiators who represented the movement at a political office in Qatar. These men (all men, of course) included Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, now a deputy prime minister. According to Khalilzad, Baradar expressed openness to a deal in which the Taliban might share power with non-Taliban Afghan leaders, and it was certainly Baradar who helped to seal the Doha Agreement of February 2020, whereby the US pledged to pull out its military forces from Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for Taliban counterterrorism pledges.

Since the Taliban took power, their policymaking has been dominated by Hibatullah’s harsh, idiosyncratic ideas about Islamic law and society, even as Baradar and other figures from the Qatar office have taken positions in the new cabinet. Looking back, we can see—as Afghan and other skeptics of the Taliban’s diplomacy warned at the time—that Hibatullah used his Doha negotiators as American presidents often use State Department diplomats in treaty talks: they were not making decisions but rather cultivating international credibility while talking and maneuvering their way to the best deal possible. As Abbas notes, “At the end of the day, Hibatullah and Baradar made a great team for the Taliban.”

Hibatullah’s leadership has reaffirmed that the Taliban’s cohesion depends on the authority and supremacy of the emir and the advice of his favored religious scholars. The supreme leader’s views on female education are rejected by many international scholars of Islamic law in Muslim-majority countries. Yet in Afghanistan today, only Hibatullah can change the rules, and he does not show any sign of doing so.

Supreme though he may be, Hibatullah is not the Taliban’s only powerful figure. The costs Afghanistan is enduring because of his edicts have given rise to persistent rumors of splits within the government—and even, this year, some notable if fleeting public evidence of internal dissent. In addition to threatening humanitarian aid, Hibatullah’s policies all but guarantee that neither the US nor European governments will formally recognize the emirate, help to fund the Afghan economy, or ease travel sanctions on Taliban leaders.

It is a measure of the worldwide unacceptability of the Islamic Emirate’s gender policies and other forms of extremism that, despite Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and crossroads location, not a single nation has yet formally recognized the government, although about a dozen countries—including Russia, China, and Pakistan—have accepted Taliban diplomats. It is fair to ask, as Abbas does, how long pragmatic Taliban leaders who have economic interests or who seek influence beyond Afghanistan’s borders will put up with Hibatullah’s decisions.

The second most powerful person in Afghanistan today is probably Sirajuddin Haqqani, the minister of interior affairs and the leader of an eponymous network founded by his late father, Jalaluddin. The Haqqanis pledge loyalty to the Taliban’s emir but are seen as more of a coalition partner than a subordinate faction. The family has long had ties to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the major Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. (Jalaluddin was also a paid ally of the CIA during the 1980s, when he fought against the Soviets.) From their base in eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, the Haqqanis have commanded thousands of guerrillas, run businesses, and founded Islamic seminaries. During the US war, their network carried out ferocious attacks, suicide bombings, and assassinations that killed thousands of Afghan civilians. The US and the UN have designated Sirajuddin and other family members as terrorists.

Nonetheless, Sirajuddin has lately positioned himself as a practical figure seeking to normalize Afghanistan’s place in the world. Last year he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “We would like to have good relations with the United States and the international community based on rules and principles that exist in the rest of the world.” In February, without naming the emir, Sirajuddin hinted publicly at his network’s dissatisfaction with Hibatullah’s leadership. “Monopolizing power and hurting the reputation of the entire system are not to our benefit,” he said in a speech. “The situation cannot be tolerated.”

Not all Taliban leaders want to keep women and girls locked up at home. After the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, some movement leaders living in exile in Qatar and Pakistan, or underground inside Afghanistan, sent their daughters to secondary school and even university.

Today some Taliban ministers may recognize how Afghanistan changed during the US-led war, which poured tens of billions of dollars into the country and promoted urbanization. A phantasmagoria of images and ideas—including Western ones—enter Afghan homes on social media. Literacy rates for women and men have risen, and a generation of girls grew up with a new set of expectations. The Taliban, without yielding their extremely conservative principles, have already adapted some of their rules to accommodate realities of the digital era. Some cabinet-level leaders seem clearly willing to also update their policies to allow Afghan girls and women—not just those related to powerful Taliban figures—greater scope to study and work.

Another perceived Young Turk in the Taliban cabinet is the defense minister, Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid, who is in his early thirties and is a son of Mullah Omar. He told NPR’s Steve Inskeep last year that it was “obvious” that he wanted better relations with the US. As the rising scion of a well-known family, he belongs to a class of dynastic politicians familiar across South Asia. Photographed on an official visit to Qatar last year, he looked at ease aboard his government jet and during conversations with Qatari leaders. Earlier this year, following Sirajuddin’s speech, Yaqoob too made remarks that were seen as obliquely critical of Hibatullah.

Abbas’s take is that “the battle lines…are drawn” between “the relatively pragmatic Taliban in Kabul and their highly conservative counterparts” in Kandahar. Yet, he observes, the divisions have resulted only in “policy paralysis.” In fact, the movement is not likely to crack up violently over issues like female education, even if such policies cause international isolation. The Taliban have a long record of maintaining military and political unity under severe pressure. And it is not obvious why Sirajuddin or Yaqoob (who do not get on with each other, according to Abbas) would risk their power in a confrontation with the supreme leader over women’s rights, a favored cause of the very infidel powers that the Taliban fought for two decades to expel from Afghanistan.

Some sort of political transition in Kabul that tests the contours of Taliban factionalism seems more likely during the next year or two than an ideological split does. Mullah Hassan Akhund, the prime minister, who is reportedly in his seventies, “is believed to be quite ill,” Abbas reports, and in May Maulvi Abdul Kabir was named as a temporary replacement. Kabir participated in the Doha talks with the United States, but it is unclear whether his appointment portends a change in direction on access to education or work.

We should be very cautious about forecasting changes to the Taliban’s policies toward women or in any other field. Again and again in assessing the Taliban, American and European diplomats have assumed that its leaders will act as conventional politicians might, adjusting their doctrine to obtain funding and diplomatic legitimacy. But the Taliban’s empowered clerical leaders believe they have been called by God to wage an eternal war of ideas against devilish enemies of Islam and must remain vigilant. They do not describe this conflict as a material one or as a struggle to be managed through the give-and-take of international politics. As Hibatullah explained in his speech last year:

Infidels and foreigners were not fighting us for territory or money. They were fighting against our faith and beliefs to stop the practice of Islam and jihad. This fighting is still not over and will continue until the end of times…. We have not done any kind of consultations with them and will never do so in future.

On July 31, 2022, a missile fired by a US drone killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, as he stood on the balcony of a home in a comfortable quarter of Kabul. Al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, was a guest of the Haqqani network, according to the White House. The strike showed that the CIA could still assassinate an al-Qaeda leader even without American troops and intelligence officers in Afghanistan, a fact that offered credence to the Biden administration’s argument that the US withdrawal from the country wouldn’t sacrifice its counterterrorism goals. Yet it also offered vivid evidence of the persistent presence of globally ambitious terrorist groups in Afghanistan, and of Taliban collaboration with some of them.

The Taliban’s revived rule over Afghanistan has dramatically reduced violence in the country, yet an array of independent armed groups still operates there. Some, like al-Qaeda, whose presence in Afghanistan was the reason the US invaded in the first place, remain allied with the Taliban, but one formidable group, the Islamic State–Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, has battled the Taliban repeatedly. ISIS-K is a branch of the group that originated in Iraq; it emerged in Afghanistan around 2015. Since the Taliban’s takeover, ISIS-K has assassinated Taliban leaders, mounted attacks in a dozen provinces, and carried out devastating bombings inside Kabul.

During the US-led evacuation through Kabul’s airport, an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed eleven US Marines, a Fleet Marine Force corpsman, a US Army soldier, and more than 170 Afghans. Defeating the group is the most obvious interest shared by the US and the second Islamic Emirate. David Cohen, the CIA’s deputy director, met with Taliban leaders in Qatar last fall to discuss counterterrorism, and American advocates for greater engagement with the Taliban often place counterterrorism at the top of their agenda. In late April, the White House announced that the Taliban had killed the latest leader of ISIS-K. It is unclear whether the CIA and the Taliban today maintain contact or cooperate in any way against ISIS-K, but they might.

In addition to ISIS-K, former commanders of Ashraf Ghani’s security forces have mounted scattered armed resistance against the Taliban. The most visible group is the National Resistance Front (NRF), led by Ahmad Massoud, the British-educated son of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary anti-Soviet resistance fighter assassinated by al-Qaeda shortly before September 11. The NRF has fought the Taliban in and around Massoud’s former stronghold in Panjshir Valley, but it does not currently threaten the Kabul regime militarily. It is one of several groups operating mainly from exile that have embarked on political programs to establish a broad-based anti-Taliban opposition.

Shamed by defeat and focused on Ukraine and other priorities, US and European governments have taken little interest in the political potential of the evacuated Afghan diaspora—a fractured, struggling, and traumatized population whose leaders include figures from the Islamic Republic now discredited among their own people. In addition to the exiles, a sizable but largely unmapped population of Afghans inside the country either oppose the Taliban (judging by occasional daring public protests) or merely wish to have a say in their country’s governance and direction. The more the second Islamic Emirate acts as a dictatorship and excludes huge numbers of its people from opportunity and influence, the more important these non-Taliban Afghans are likely to become—whether or not international governments help them.

In The Return of the Taliban, Abbas provides a well-informed survey of the second Islamic Emirate through 2022. The book’s tone is oddly conversational, however, and the text is laced with exclamation points—more a professor’s riffing lecture than a narrative or well-organized argument. Abbas’s main conclusion is that the Taliban of today are adapting to governance and have “proven to be relatively pragmatic.” This is a hard judgment to accept, unless the standard of comparison is merely the pre-digital dystopia of the first Islamic Emirate. Since 2021, despite being urged by such Islamic allies as Pakistan and Qatar to form a government that includes non-Taliban figures and a fair representation of Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity, Taliban leaders—who are almost all Pashtun, members of the country’s largest ethnic group—have failed to do either.

Abbas argues forcefully for engagement with the Taliban regime, nonetheless, noting that this “does not in any sense equate with endorsement.” He writes, “Engaging with the Taliban will, at the very worst, result in the inflation of their egos—and at best will restore life to a nation and people who have long deserved peace and prosperity.”

In some respects, this argument is uncontroversial and is already accepted in Washington and European capitals. The US, Europe, and neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran have an interest in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan that might produce a total collapse of the state and yet more destabilizing emigration by desperate Afghans. Biden administration special representative Thomas West and EU and UN envoys have regularly engaged with the Taliban on humanitarian aid and technical efforts to improve the country’s banking system and private market.

Since Hibatullah has reaffirmed the Taliban’s ban on university and secondary education for women and girls, and tightened work rules, the Biden administration has pulled back some, but it remains committed to providing humanitarian relief through UN agencies—assuming that the UN can find a way to work under the Taliban’s gender restrictions.

The questions get thornier if diplomatic engagement ranges beyond emergency aid into areas such as counterterrorism, economic reconstruction, and counternarcotics. (Afghanistan has been the source of about four fifths of the world’s opium, but the Taliban announced a ban on poppy cultivation last year, though it isn’t clear how effective the ban will be.) Opponents of further engagement argue that to talk and bargain with the Taliban on matters beyond humanitarian aid is to implicitly legitimize their gender and human rights policies, and their tolerance of terrorists.

In any event, the language of professional diplomacy typical in this sort of sustained negotiation—the search for “leverage” to fashion a “quid pro quo”—seems misplaced. All of the Taliban’s leaders, whether perceived as extreme hard-liners or not, are under the impression that they won a great and historic military victory over the world’s superpower, a victory ordained by God, and they are not likely to be moved by US leverage or enticed by promises of financial investment, if this would require them to compromise the values that underpinned their triumph.

One problem with Abbas’s argument about engagement is that it is too narrow. Afghanistan is not only the Taliban. The Afghan diaspora includes politically active women flown out of the country by the US and European governments for their protection. They and many thousands of younger people seek a voice in their country’s future, judging by their social media postings. For the US and Europe, engagement with this other Afghanistan—supporting the diaspora’s new and unexpected lives as refugees and empowering them to argue about Afghanistan’s direction—is surely as important as engagement with Hibatullah’s regime. The Biden administration—led by Thomas West and Rina Amiri, the US special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights—has done this by continuing to fund Afghan civil society groups since the withdrawal, even if they must work from exile. Yet the US and its major allies have developed no meaningful political strategy to challenge the Taliban’s monopoly on power in Kabul or nurture credible alternatives to them.

The Biden administration allowed the Afghan embassy in Washington to close in March 2022, depriving both the Taliban and their opponents of access to the building—a telling sign of the administration’s caution. Infuriatingly, it has botched the one part of Afghan policy it has the greatest power to control—clearing the enormous backlog of visa applications by the tens of thousands of eligible Afghans who served the US after 2001 but were left behind in the 2021 evacuation. These people remain at risk of Taliban persecution. The administration insists that it is speeding up visa paperwork, but its record to date is indefensible.

How, exactly, to support Afghan exiles who seek to end or change Taliban rule is a fraught subject. The Soviet invasion of 1979 ignited more than four decades of civil war exacerbated by outsiders—not least the US—who have fostered violence in the name of Afghanistan’s “liberation.” Neither the Biden administration nor any other government currently advocates arming the Taliban’s opposition. But there are unsettled debates over how severely to sanction Taliban leaders and whether to more actively support a political opposition—for instance, by setting up a political office in Qatar similar to the one the Taliban enjoyed. If Hibatullah’s policies on women’s education and work do not change, international human rights advocates and exiled Afghan women, buoyed by global public opinion, will surely challenge the status quo in American and European political strategy—as they already have since 2021, by pushing the Biden administration to empower Amiri’s role at the State Department and by helping to place gender rights consistently at the top of the UN and EU agendas. The Taliban are a fact of life in global politics, but so are international law and the worldwide movement to improve the status of women and girls.

There is something repetitive, performative, and self-deluding in America’s search for leverage over the second Islamic Emirate. Yet abandoning Afghanistan to its fate is not a moral or self-interested choice for either the US or Europe. A further collapse of the government might cause another wave of mass migration toward Europe, which would strengthen the continent’s nativist and far-right political parties. Ignoring groups like ISIS-K and al-Qaeda would risk repeating the policy errors of the 1990s, which helped set the stage for September 11. For the foreseeable future, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will present a nightmarish diplomatic challenge: to deliver emergency aid under acceptable conditions while pressing for an end to the Taliban’s practices of gender discrimination. In early May UN Secretary-General António Guterres met with international envoys to Qatar to “reinvigorate the international engagement” and find a “durable way forward,” as a UN spokesman put it. Guterres did not invite the Taliban, saying that it was not the right time to include them. If the experience of the 1990s is any guide, UN aid agencies will manage the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s work by muddling through. Meantime, the Afghan population finds itself in the familiar position of being victimized by a conflict in which every party claims to be fighting on the people’s behalf.

Steve Coll is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (June 2023)

Who Are the Taliban Now?