What the Taliban’s Defensive Public Messaging Reveals

In the nearly two years since the Taliban’s takeover, much of the Afghan population continues to struggle to meet basic daily needs amid a severe humanitarian crisis. The Taliban have imposed a raft of draconian restrictions on Afghan women and girls, effectively erasing them from public life. Yet, in a recent public address, the Taliban’s supreme leader, the emir Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, claimed his government has provided Afghan women with a “comfortable and prosperous life.”

Setting aside the controversy of the emir’s brazen claim, his address illuminates some trends that have emerged in the Taliban’s recent public messaging. These trends might shed light on the Taliban’s still-quite-secretive policymaking process, increasingly steered by their reclusive leader.

The Emir’s Eid al-Adha address

For much of the two-decade insurgency against the U.S.-led intervention and partner Afghan state, the emir’s annual Eid addresses (issued for both Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha) were the most significant formal public statements issued by the Taliban. The group’s public messaging capacity has grown steadily over the past decade, with a significant jump after the takeover of the country in August 2021, when they appropriated the former government’s state media apparatus. Yet while the Eid addresses are no longer so exclusive, they continue to stand as a some of the only public statements issued by the supreme leader.

As a regularly scheduled formal statement, the emir’s Eid messages have grown relatively repetitious in style and in content over the years. Therefore, new topics or shifts in tone suggest what the Taliban’s leader deems important enough to address.

Overall, the language of this latest Eid message is much more confident in how it describes the accomplishments of the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban refer to their government — even compared to this year’s earlier Eid message in April. It is more definitive, even celebratory, on how much progress the Emirate has made establishing an “Islamic system.” In previous statements, this had been described more as a work in progress, a still-aspirational goal.

As reported by global media outlets, the most notable new content is a lengthy bullet point arguing that the Emirate’s rule has improved Afghan women’s lives. It counters specific criticisms from Afghans and the outside world, citing new protections for women according to Islamic family law. The paragraph only vaguely refers to the drastic restrictions imposed over the last year, framing them as corrective measures: “the negative aspects of the past 20-year occupation related to women’s Hijab and misguidance will end soon.” A similar note is struck later in the message, on Taliban courts re-imposing Shariah across the country: “society is improving day by day and the evildoers are about to disappear.”

The statement also describes a process for reviewing and formalizing law and regulation. It said that ministries have been tasked to comprehensively review their portfolios for compliance with Shariah — which shall be reviewed by two separate commissions, one headed by the Taliban’s chief justice and the other by the emir himself. Though still quite vague, this may be the most substantive public explanation yet of the Taliban’s attempt to establish a regulatory framework for the state.

The Eid message contains nationalist language that is new for the emir’s office (though it has appeared in other Taliban leaders’ rhetoric, especially the acting minister of defense and son of the Taliban’s founder, Mohammad Yaqoub): “The independence of Afghanistan has been restored once again, brotherhood and national unity have been strengthened.”

Finally, in a bullet point that has been repeated since their takeover, on the Taliban’s desire to have good relations with the outside world, a small rephrase suggests a significant shift. Last year’s Eid al-Adha address specifically named the United States as a recipient of goodwill. This address only said that good relations were desired “with the world, especially with Islamic countries.”

Insights into Kandahar

What does the emir’s address tell us about attitudes and potential future actions among the Taliban’s leadership, especially those based close to the emir in Kandahar?

The confidence of the language extolling the Taliban’s achievements suggests the emir and his trusted circle(s) are much more comfortable with their control over the state, compared to a year ago. As USIP has assessed, many of the emir’s most controversial decrees have been motivated in part by the desire to clamp down on policy variation and potential disobedience. Bold statements on the implementation of Shariah may reveal Kandahar’s increased sense of “ownership” over the policy agenda, along with the emir’s adoption of starkly nationalist language.

More concretely, the proud claims of achievements and the rebuttal of criticism put to rest any hope that the Taliban’s gender-based restrictions will be reversed in the foreseeable future. If anything, the message’s tone carries a sense of triumphalism among the emir’s camp, which will likely drive the further advancement of restrictive social policy. This is reflected in recent edicts such as the impending closure of women’s beauty salons.

But the emir’s sharp rejection of foreign condemnation also reveals that Kandahar has been paying close attention to what the international community thinks. The level of detail on policies toward women suggests he feels compelled to explain and defend his government’s actions to the Afghan people and to the world. Across the emir’s public remarks, including a rare speech in Kabul last year, he characterizes the United States and the West as inherently hostile powers, still actively seeking to prevent the Taliban from achieving their objectives. In other words, defiance is not the same posture as dismissiveness.

Conceptions of the emir as a recluse, cut off from the outside world, may be overly and unhelpfully simplistic. The emir’s attention to foreign relations was underscored by news in late May that he met with the foreign minister of Qatar — a meeting significant enough to be reflected in the Eid address. While it is unclear if the emir will engage in much more high-profile diplomatic exchanges, his trend of comprehensively seeking to consolidate control over the state suggests his influence over foreign relations will grow.

If this hardens the Taliban’s diplomatic posture in some ways, it could also render their government more predictable to the outside world. The past year’s most surprising political developments emerged in moments when the emir overrode his ministers, who were in much closer contact with foreigners and sending signals that were ultimately rendered null and void. With the emir more securely in control, there should be fewer policies he deems necessary to suddenly overturn.

Inconsistent Messaging, and its Impact

The emir’s Eid message is just one notable instance of increasingly defensive Taliban public messaging. Their reactions to recent headlines and official reports have been intense. As noted above on the Eid message, the Taliban’s defensiveness reinforces how closely they follow global media coverage, and how concerned they are by narratives that could undermine their own. While the Taliban’s media arm has long been hyper-attentive to critical press, foreign and Afghan alike, the past few months have marked a particular sharpness in tone.

This has perhaps been exacerbated by the see-saw nature of official reports and remarks from Western institutions: depictions of the Taliban and Afghanistan under their rule have varied wildly from one week to the next. Take statements and reports from the United States and various U.N. bodies, alone:

  • On June 5, the U.N.’s sanctions monitoring team released its annual report focused on the Taliban. Taliban spokesmen reacted most vociferously to the section of the report that alleged infighting and competition, underscoring their historical sensitivity to external perceptions of the group’s cohesion. The report painted the Taliban in such a harshly critical light that U.S. officials joined the Taliban in rejecting its findings — which some in the Taliban held up as evidence of their own legitimacy.
  • On June 19, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, presented his latest report, which characterized Taliban policies as gender apartheid and suggested they may constitute crimes against humanity. On the same day, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published its latest report, which the Taliban immediately labeled as “propaganda.”
  • Days later on June 21, the head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Rosa Otunbayeva, briefed the U.N. Security Council. She echoed the negative assessment of the Taliban’s gender policies, but also bemoaned inattention to “more positive achievements” taking place under their rule.
  • By July 3, in response to an after-action report about the 2021 U.S. evacuation from Kabul, President Joe Biden asserted the Taliban was helping remove al-Qaida as a threat. The Taliban held up Biden’s remarks as an “acknowledgment of reality.”

The United Statesallied donor states, and the U.N.’s global leadership are all seeking a more effective way to tackle challenges in Afghanistan, some of them directly posed by the Taliban’s posture. Since their takeover (and long before), the Taliban have been characterized often as obstinate and unwilling to bend to demands from the international community. The key to breaking through may lie within the Taliban’s kneejerk defense of their own legitimacy. This impulse is so intense that the group is willing to cite Western officials whenever they offer positive remarks, even at the expense of providing conspiratorial propaganda fodder to the Islamic State and many other Afghans with anti-Taliban sentiments.

Doing so, however, will require strategic thinking about communications from the United States and other key international institutions and stakeholders. Each of the above actors are a critical part of monitoring and holding the Taliban accountable. Clearly, their findings prompt a reaction from the Taliban — most obviously in their public messaging, but likely in less visible ways as well. While the independence of monitoring bodies should be preserved, that impact should be carefully considered and coordinated as much as possible.

What the Taliban’s Defensive Public Messaging Reveals