When the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, some observers suggested that their approach to governance might prove more moderate this time around. Twenty years had elapsed since the group was last in charge. The country had transformed dramatically, and with the fight against the United States over, tasks like collecting garbage and keeping the lights on now seemed largely nonideological in nature.
The Taliban’s initial actions in office, however, quickly dashed those hopes. The group has embraced a narrow, repressive rule, barring more than one million girls from school and reinstating the notorious Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—one of the Taliban’s most powerful institutions of social control–on the premises of the now-defunct Ministry of Women’s Affairs. This should come as no surprise, given the movement’s past record and the means by which it returned to power. The departure of U.S. troops, followed by the Afghan government’s abdication, cleared the way for the Taliban to assume control without conceding much of anything.
The Afghan people will pay the steepest price for this draconian, regressive rule. But foreign governments should not assume they are immune to events on the ground. Civil war could be possible, and the ensuing chaos could create a breeding ground for still more militant extremism. It is also worth remembering that it was on Afghan soil, under Taliban control, that Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks. Having defeated the world’s most powerful state, the Taliban have begun their second reign in a position of extraordinary symbolic strength. If they consolidate their power, even for a little while, Afghanistan may become an even more formidable sanctuary for extremism than it was in the 1990s.
Clerics in Charge
The Taliban’s rise can be traced to 1989, when the mujahideen resistance forces expelled the Soviets and eventually toppled the communist regime in Kabul. The resistance, however, proved incapable of cohering into a viable government, and the country collapsed into a vicious civil war. Out of this anarchic mess emerged the Taliban. From their earliest origins, the Taliban embraced religious zealotry. The group’s founding leader, Mullah Omar, is said to have risen to fame when he and a group of talibs, or students, avenged the abduction and rape of two girls in Kandahar in 1994. This episode of vigilantism would come to exemplify the Taliban’s governing credo. So, too, would Mullah Omar’s brazen act of political theater in 1996, when he seized a cloak believed to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad from inside Kandahar’s Kirka Sharif shrine. Waving it in the air to calls of amir al-mu’minin (commander of the faithful), he quite literally wrapped himself in the mantle.
That same year, the Taliban established rule over most of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s so-called emirate departed in nearly every way from past Afghan regimes, whether communist, republican, or monarchical. The group instated a despotic social code anchored in regressive conceptions of vice and virtue, conflating the roles of cleric, governor, and police into one terrorizing force. It banished women from public life, which became, for the men who remained, a narrow space marked by little more than prayer and punishment. Even as the group expanded its reach across the country, its rank and file remained largely reflective of a slim demographic: uneducated, ethnically Pashtun, and rural young men, many of whom had been raised in refugee camps and radicalizing madrasahs, or religious schools, over the border in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban’s foreign relations proved equally limited, amounting to a small web of ties with the Pakistani security establishment, the Saudi elite, and al Qaeda. Isolated from the rest of the world, the regime’s grip on the country was tight but brittle.
After 9/11, of course, the Taliban’s role in hosting al Qaeda spelled the government’s demise. When they refused to hand over the masterminds—including bin Laden, who was sheltering in the country—mujahideen fighters, backed by U.S. air power and special forces, retook the country’s major cities within weeks. By December 2001, an interim government led by Hamid Karzai had been installed. But because the Bush administration’s “war on terror” defined the enemy as including all Taliban—even those who sought to surrender—any effort at peace or reconciliation between the new government and its vanquished predecessor was out of the question. Instead, the U.S. military engagement would persist. With time, Taliban elements regrouped over the border with Pakistani support and came to form the virulent insurgency that besieged the Afghan state and its foreign sponsors for years.
From their earliest origins, the Taliban embraced religious zealotry.
By 2006, the Taliban were regaining territory, first in their spiritual heartland of southern Afghanistan, and eventually, well beyond. Across the country, these now-rebels expanded their rule, taking an approach quite distinct from other insurgencies around the world. Some rebel groups, such as Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS), established elaborate forms of bureaucracy to deliver services and instantiate new politics in the areas they occupied. What little the Taliban did to address local needs involved commandeering the ongoing work of other providers. Other insurgents—such as the El Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the Syrian opposition’s Local Councils—felt compelled to legitimize their rule through elections. The Taliban, in contrast, showed no such inclination to submit themselves to the popular will.
Instead, the Taliban focused, once again, on the cultivation of a stripped-down form of law and order, and on that score, they largely succeeded. Their courts resolved local disputes while advancing the Taliban’s ideological project through the imposition of sharia law. Moreover, the provision of swift justice served as a powerful foil to the government’s anemic legal system as well as the more devastating effects of the Western military campaign. To finance themselves, the insurgents established various taxation schemes, including on the flourishing opium trade, and siphoned off government revenue where they could.
Through more than 15 years of fighting and multiple rounds of leadership succession, the Taliban maintained an unusual degree of internal cohesion. They did so by balancing discipline from above with freedom for those below to manage themselves as they saw fit. That cohesion paid off, bolstering the Taliban’s push to victory, not only against the Afghan government but also the United States and its allies.
Turning Back the Clock
In the seven months since Kabul fell, the Taliban have once again deployed their authority in the service of brutal, religiously justified totalitarianism. The fact that the group seized power through a military win, rather than painstaking negotiations, gave them berth to act this way. Negotiated settlements can bring international pressure to liberalize as part of internationally supported peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction. A rebel victory like the Taliban’s gives the victor a freer hand: in the short term, winners can skip the kind of bargaining and compromise that might otherwise mark postwar politics and focus on consolidating their regime toward autocratic ends. As was the case for the Ugandan National Resistance Army in 1986 and the Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1994, the Taliban’s cohesion as a fighting force has lent itself to this kind of top-down consolidation. This authoritarian impulse has been further enabled by the long-centralized architecture of the Afghan state, which the group inherited.
The Taliban are now reconstituting the same social dystopia they first enacted nearly 30 years ago. Recent edicts forcing women to cover their bodies and faces, have male companions while traveling, and stay home from secondary school and university recall how Afghanistan’s female population was forced out of civic spaces in the 1990s. The regime’s use of spectacular forms of violence—from the beheading of storefront mannequins and the ceremonial destruction of musical instruments to the disappearing of activists and the displayed corpses of alleged criminals—also evokes their past incarnation.
The Taliban’s achievements on the battlefield have positioned them to govern on their own terms, but the new regime is facing some serious challenges. Both its leadership and rank and file remain entirely ill-suited to operate the bureaucracies required to provide for a twenty-first-century citizenry. This government lacks the technical expertise, experience, or inclination to manage the quotidian matters of daily life, from banking to infrastructure management, as well as the more acute crises that plague the country, from food scarcity to the COVID-19 pandemic. These deficits are particularly stark because those with relevant expertise are no longer part of the government’s human capital. The Taliban sent home all female government employees while many male civil servants opted to emigrate rather than serve the new regime. Meanwhile, foreign aid workers and private contractors who complemented the local workforce have also left the country.
Beyond their institutional limitations, the Taliban have taken the reins of a country whose citizenry has transformed dramatically since the group was last in charge. The country’s population is exceptionally young, with the average Afghan having had no experience of life under Taliban rule. Moreover, while the insurgency’s center of gravity remained overwhelmingly rural, much of its postwar constituency is urbanized, ethnically mixed, educated, networked, and globalized. Millions suffered substantially at the hands of an insurgency that was not fighting on their behalf but in fact inflicted grave physical, social, and psychological injuries on their communities. At the same time, many Afghans benefited from the aid economy, access to higher education, and the emergence of new private, public, and social sectors that generated unprecedented professional and personal opportunities.
The Taliban are reconstituting the same social dystopia they enacted nearly 30 years ago.
The fact that the Taliban are threatening those gains has fed the resistance to their rule. Immediately after the republic fell, the militant opposition to the regime regrouped in the province of Panjshir, a longtime stronghold of the anti-Taliban mujahideen. The Taliban met some violent pushback from Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front, a grassroots movement battling the Taliban, as well as from members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces who sought to keep up the fight. This effort, which may be gathering momentum, is only one of a number of indigenous forms of opposition that, together, could meaningfully challenge the new government.
Prominent intellectuals and members of civil society have also mobilized in response to the Taliban takeover. In November, Faizullah Jalal, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University, confronted a member of the new government on national television, rejecting the credibility of those in charge. The regime jailed him in January but bowed under pressure and released him days later. Media outlets such as the newspaper Etilaat-e Roz and the television channel Tolo still chronicle the events of the day, including the problems the new government confronts. Although many journalists have emigrated, been detained, and in some cases even tortured, the reportage persists.
Social media also offers a space for political expression that threatens the Taliban’s narrative. In August 2021, as the group’s victory neared, a Twitter hashtag campaign #SanctionPakistan went viral, undermining the insurgency’s indigenous claims by framing it as a foreign occupation. When the new regime unfurled its policies on female dress and education, Afghan citizens—both inside the country and in exile—reclaimed their voice with popular hashtags like #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #LetAfghanGirlsLearn.
Perhaps most notably, groups of female activists maintained a sustained presence on the streets of Kabul and other major cities for months. And, this week, when the Taliban failed to reopen girls’ schools after the Nowruz holiday, women and girls took to the streets and social media to express their despair at being deprived of an education. Although feminist political thought has a long history in Afghanistan, this kind of coordinated protest is largely new. Taliban foot soldiers have responded with whips, gunfire, pepper spray, and arrests, but the protesters have adapted and the international community is paying attention. The fact that women are at the vanguard of Afghan civil disobedience serves, in and of itself, as a powerful retort to the Taliban’s ideological claims. Some insurgents-turned-rulers have parlayed success on the battlefield into electoral success: their ability to offer security in the wake of war won voters’ support in subsequent elections. This has held true even in cases when these groups have brutalized citizens: witness Burundi’s Forces for the Defense of Democracy and Iraq’s Sadrist Movement, both of which won a plurality in parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2018, respectively. The Taliban, however, have shown no inclination to subject their political authority to a vote, an irony given the possibility that the group could reap electoral rewards for its success as a fighting force.
The Taliban stopped education for girls after primary school.
Instead, the new government’s appointments to the cabinet and to various subnational positions reflect a narrow demographic slice of the country at a time when their Pashtun leadership is showing fractures of its own. As a result, the Taliban have run into some of the same challenges the previous government encountered. In January, in the northern province of Faryab, for example, the group detained one of its own commanders, a member of the Uzbek minority. The arrest triggered a kind of insurrection on the part of non-Pashtun Taliban fighters in the region, which may well spread to other corners of the country. In a telling parallel, Ashraf Ghani—who became president in 2014 and fled the country after the U.S. withdrawal—met a similarly riotous response when he foisted a fellow eastern Pashtun governor on this same province in 2021. In both cases, a failure to acknowledge the ethnic and sectarian diversity of the Afghan population showed just how difficult it can be for a Kabul-based regime to exercise control beyond city limits.
The new government’s approach to policymaking, particularly in the social realm, creates risks as well. The Taliban stopped education for girls after primary school, an edict that threatened to reverse two decades of gains in female literacy and professional advancement. By the late fall, the regime eased this decree in select provinces where the demand for girls’ education had been particularly strong. But the government’s decision in late March to renege on its promise to reopen girls’ schools reflects a striking ideological rigidity in the face of local and international demands to moderate. Absent a greater degree of flexibility on issues such as education, employment, health care, and family law, the Taliban may well find their grip breaking. After all, the communist regime of the 1970s pushed a series of policies that were received as extreme in the opposite direction—including the requirement that all Afghan girls be educated—only to find itself confronted with a popular insurgency that would spell its eventual demise.
Staying the Course
Ultimately, the few Afghan governments that managed to hold on to power for extended periods did so by making room for rival actors and ideas. They also remained engaged with international states and organizations that could shore up their strength in the face of domestic unrest. Since the nineteenth century, the country’s rulers have required well-calibrated foreign relations and a steady flow of aid from abroad to maintain power. In contrast, the Taliban have followed the forcible capture of Kabul with a blatant disregard for international interests and norms. Rebel movements tend to invest in marketing themselves internationally, because diplomatic recognition represents a highly coveted asset. While some within the Taliban leadership did make the effort to rebrand as reconcilables, the organization had to do little to burnish its image once it became clear that U.S. President Donald Trump and then his successor, President Joe Biden, were committed to military withdrawal at all costs.
Today, the new regime faces near-total isolation on the world stage. The material effects of this isolation are stark, from ongoing sanctions to frozen assets. Humanitarian aid is flowing, but most experts deem this an inadequate antidote to a dire crisis. But the worsening situation on the ground has not, as of yet, provoked a shift in the government’s approach. In a November radio speech, Mohammad Hasan Akhund, the country’s new prime minister, assumed no responsibility for the tens of millions suffering from acute food insecurity; instead, he described famine as the punishment of an angry God. Meanwhile, the continued closure of girls’ schools has provoked a sustained outcry from Western governments, donor organizations, and the United Nations—all to no avail.
The emirate’s intransigence may well persist, especially if the global jihadist community lends the regime moral and material support. The presence of competing extremist forces inside Afghanistan, namely the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), may also push the Taliban into a sustained posture of confrontation with the West so as to avoid being outflanked ideologically by its competitors.
The Path Forward
If the Taliban persist on this path of absolutist consolidation, their days are likely numbered. An inclination to cater to a narrow political constituency and impose unpopular policies will almost certainly lead to more protest and revolt. An impulse to isolate internationally, furthermore, could trigger the country’s economic collapse. If the new government opts to ease its rigidity, there may be openings for domestic inclusion and foreign engagement that offer it more room for maneuver. But they will come at the cost of its credibility with its own hardcore constituency. Given their governing history, the Taliban may well bet they can and should prioritize the purity of their radical political project above all else, even if that undermines their tenure in the longer term.
For the United States, its Western allies, Afghanistan’s neighbors, and Afghans themselves, neither the Taliban’s collapse nor consolidation bodes well. The Afghan state’s failure has already created a humanitarian disaster. A renewed civil war would bring more starvation, disease, and displacement. Concerned outsiders find themselves with limited points of leverage: humanitarian aid can only address so much, but deeper forms of diplomatic, economic, and security engagement risk further regime consolidation and a depressed opposition. A more powerful Taliban, wrapped in unmatched glory, might make room for other extremists to flourish, just as they did in the 1990s. Ultimately, whether the Taliban fail or succeed, the fallout for the Afghan people and blowback on the international community will be substantial. Such is the nature of a revolutionary victory like this one.
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