By August 15, 2021, the Taliban had seized control of Kabul followed by the capture of Panjshir Province on September 7. Faced with marginal resistance, the group has ruled the country with uber-conservative clerics holding sway over its policies, especially toward women, their rights/roles and gender interactions. Despite these concerning policies, the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is of little interest to the great powers and multilateral organizations alike because of their preoccupation with the Russia-Ukraine war. This piece will review the Taliban two years on since its capture of Kabul, particularly looking at key aspects of the group’s dynamics as well as its domestic and foreign policies.
Mullah Omar, the group’s founder and maiden emir was succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mansour and after his assassination, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada succeeded him as the Taliban’s emir. Mullah Yaqoob, Omar’s son, is Afghanistan’s defense minister while Sirajuddin Haqqani holds the Ministry of Interior portfolio. His father Jalaluddin Haqqani was one of the Taliban’s founding commanders. The council of clerics, which has the final say over the group’s ideological and policy matters, is dominated by veterans of the first Taliban rule that ended in late 2001. The Taliban has managed internal differences remarkably well as evidenced through its efficient replacement of Acting Education Minister Noorullah Munir; no reason was given for this change and other reshuffles. The group’s discipline despite ethnic, jurisprudential and political differences and pressures has negated the prospect of factionalism and infighting.
On the domestic front, the Taliban has hardly faced any resistance from the Northern Alliance; the West had pinned its hopes on this alliance after the fall of Kabul. The Taliban reneged on its pledge of amnesty and killed over 200 former Afghan soldiers and officials. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that the period from the Taliban takeover to June 30, 2023 presents a sobering picture of the treatment of individuals affiliated with the former government and security forces of Afghanistan. “Even more so, given they were assured that they would be not targeted, it is a betrayal of the people’s trust,” according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has positioned itself as a rival to the ruling regime whose sporadic terror attacks have been spectacular but with little damage to the Taliban’s control. The Taliban government has managed to trace ISKP safe havens and weaken its manpower and capabilities to pose a challenge. Since August 2021, the Taliban has held control over the resources and military arsenal of Afghanistan that ISKP has not been able to trounce. ISKP’s strength of a few thousand fighters lacks the public support that the Taliban enjoys across much of the country. Drone strikes, armed clashes and suicide bombs are not commonplace in Afghanistan. The country has some semblance of peace, albeit with the spread of fear and poverty.
The Taliban regime faces a noteworthy challenge from Pakistan, which has been wary of its policies since its Kabul takeover and accuses it of harboring terrorists who use Afghanistan’s soil to launch attacks on Pakistani territories. Not only have Pakistan and Afghanistan engaged in bloody border skirmishes resulting in the loss of lives but Islamabad has also resorted to surgical strikes inside Afghan territories. Since the Taliban government is reluctant to sever ties with its militant brethren in Pakistan’s border regions, tensions will continue to rise with Islamabad and they could turn bloodier. Nonetheless, Islamabad has not hampered the supply of basic commodities, medical services and machinery to Afghanistan. Pakistan faces an uphill task of controlling smuggling on its western border from Afghanistan and Iran.
Unlike its first stint, the Taliban’s relations with Iran could be characterized as smooth and functional. The flight of dollars to Iran as well as smuggling have been controlled significantly and bilateral trade has remained steady. The border clashes with Iran have been bloody but not as frequent and intense as with Pakistan. The recent water-sharing dispute, which led to the most serious border clashes between the two neighbors, could potentially occur again. In May, armed clashes along the Helmand-Balochistan border involved automatic machine guns, artillery and rocket fire while Iran even resorted to the use of gunship helicopters and drones. The water dispute is due to Afghanistan’s construction of dams on the Helmand River in recent years. Iran insists on strict compliance with the Helmand River Treaty of 1973, which was signed by the Iranian shah. In reality, Iran has not installed enough hydrometric stations to measure the water flow from Afghanistan. The Taliban’s position on this matter is identical to the ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s.
The Taliban’s ties to foreign militant outfits, especially al-Qaeda, remain in the spotlight. The group was hosting al-Qaeda’s last leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, in the heart of Kabul until the United States discovered his presence and eliminated him via a drone strike on July 31, 2022. The Taliban still denies that Zawahiri was in Kabul as well as its ties to al-Qaeda. Whatever appetite was present in Afghanistan’s neighboring countries and major powers to work with the Taliban government vanished quickly after the undeniable proof of its deep ties with the notorious transnational terror organization. Even countries like China which continues to invest in Afghanistan are suspicious of the Taliban hosting foreign militant groups.
The Taliban government has so far outperformed expectations on the economic front. It is a sea-change from its handling of the economy in its first term. However, the low-level economic equilibrium that the Taliban government has worked to maintain cannot make the Afghans prosperous nor can it really kick start the much-needed reconstruction process in the country. Inflation stands at 20% while the value of the Afghan currency is relatively stable. Taxes are vigorously collected and corruption has largely been curbed as has been the flight of US dollars and the cultivation of opium. The Taliban’s efficient revenue collection, issuance of licenses for mining as well as for imports and exports have helped it to pay staff salaries and run meager development projects. The group has wisely not carried out purges in the Ministry of Finance and the State Bank. Since the takeover, Kabul not only lost control of the country’s $9 billion reserves but also of $8 billion in foreign aid. Owing to its international isolation and policies that breach human rights norms, the Taliban was also deprived of access to global financial networks and systems as well as of NGO assistance.
The Taliban cannot be left to its own devices. The last time when the world tried to isolate Afghanistan before and after the Khost missile attack on Osama bin Laden in 1998, the world received a rude awakening on September 11, 2001. The group is comfortably governing a country without foreign aid as well as pressure. The religious hardliners at the helm were hosting al-Qaeda’s chief not long ago. One scenario could be that a country would extend covert financial and technological assistance for one or more 9/11-like terror attacks in Europe and/or the United States. Even if this does not happen, the risk of the implosion of Afghanistan and a civil war breaking out among Taliban factions or conflict on sectarian or ethnic lines is a real prospect. Pragmatic engagement with the Taliban is the only option for Afghanistan’s geographical neighbors, the Arab Gulf states as well as for the West.