An Assessment of Taliban Rule at Three Months

VOLUME 14, ISSUE 9
By Andrew Watkins

Abstract: In spite of the evolution in Taliban shadow governance over the past decade and the group’s growing sense of military and political momentum, the first three months of the reinstated Islamic Emirate revealed the group’s struggles with the responsibilities of national sovereignty. The Taliban have busied themselves consolidating control, reacting swiftly and harshly to perceived threats. They have not clearly defined the scope or structure of their state, nor have they shared long-term plans for their rank-and-file, many of which continue to operate as they did before August 15, 2021. Taliban leaders have demonstrated the continued primacy of maintaining internal cohesion, a longstanding trait that will likely stunt the group’s response to Afghanistan’s impending economic and humanitarian crises.

On August 15, 2021, after sweeping through most of Afghanistan in a blistering campaign initiated earlier that spring, the Taliban approached and entered Kabul on the same day, largely bloodlessly, after it was abandoned by government leadership and practically all security forces. The collapse of the Western-backed Islamic Republic was swift and expansive, and even as the United States and other allies scrambled to complete a chaotic evacuation, the Taliban immediately stepped into the vacuum.

In some ways, the Taliban have transitioned their leaders and fighters into officials of a still-forming government with incredible speed. In less than two months, the Taliban extracted oaths of fealty or at least gestures of tacit acceptance from most political leaders who remained in the country; appointed a caretaker government (or at least the façade of one); established a harsh, at times abusive, but largely orderly new security regime in cities; maintained firm control over borders and set customs to account for economic hardship; engaged in regional diplomacy with neighboring states; swiftly and brutally put down an attempted resistance in a mountainous province; and increasingly devoted resources to rooting out security challenges, including a bloody campaign against the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) branch but also retribution against a number of former security officials.

Yet in many ways, the group has revealed the slow conservatism underlying the leadership’s consultative, consensus-building decision-making—a modus operandi that was key to the insurgency’s resilience but may pose a critical threat to effective, responsive governance on a national scale.

Much of the Taliban’s behavior, even acts the group has claimed were unsanctioned or that observers point to as evidence of discord, has adhered to several themes and characteristics that have continued to define the group amid its transition into power.

1) The Taliban, at both an organizational and an individual level, are guided by threat perception: over two decades, survival and strengthening their insurgency required constant awareness and resolution of potential threats. The identification, pursuit, and then elimination or cooptation of threats has been and still is the core occupation of most Taliban members.

2) When the Taliban’s leadership debates policy or determines a strategic course of action, it has a consistent track record of choices that prioritize and ensure the maintenance of internal cohesion —or at least the outward appearance thereof. Despite factional jostling for power, radicalized views among younger fighters, an ideological challenge by ISK, and a lack of technocratic capacity, the Taliban since taking power have thus far managed to retain the cohesion they nurtured so intently throughout their insurgency. But the cost to the people of Afghanistan has been steep; the movement’s focused determination to prevent its ranks from splintering has guided decision-making at each turn, even at the risk of alienating a hungry populace or failing to secure funding sufficient to sustain a modern state.

3) Finally, the speed of the Islamic Republic’s collapse and the totality of the Taliban’s takeover obscure the fact that on August 15, the group was in quite a tenuous position, and consolidating its grip over the country was a line of effort likely considered necessary.

In its first three months in power, the insurgent group has scrambled to begin functioning according to the contours of a modern state not too dissimilar from the one it overthrew—or, when unwilling/unable to do so, to at least give the appearance of functionality. The overarching narrative of the Taliban’s first weeks of rule may be one of the former insurgents grappling with a wide range of challenges and crises, plenty of which they lack the funds or capacity to effectively resolve. Figures and fighters from every stratum of the Taliban have told journalists and Afghans repeatedly that the country’s problems will take time to solve. That incapacity has prompted the Taliban to revert back, in many ways, to a default wartime style and operational mode, placing harsh restrictions on civilians and in some cases, committing human rights abuses, disappearances, and killings.

This article examines the arc of those first three months, with a focus on governance and security. The first section examines the transition of power after the Taliban entered Kabul. The second section identifies the key themes and characteristics of Taliban rule as the group has moved to cement its power. The third section then examines the group’s government formation and governing style in detail. The fourth section evaluates the group’s approach so far to security, including how it has responded to the challenge posed by the Islamic State. The fifth section looks at the social restrictions that have been imposed by the group over the past three months, including how it has approached the issue of female education. It also examines the Taliban’s delivery of social services. The final section offers some conclusions.

The author conducted remote interviews (and received testimony when formal interviews were disrupted by security concerns) with several dozen Afghans and foreigners who remained in multiple regions of Afghanistan after August 15. This article cites international and Afghan media reports where details are offered, and also draws from the author’s previous research on Taliban perspectives on peace negotiations and political ideology, along with the group’s long history of prioritizing cohesion.

A note: This article largely refers to the Taliban as a unitary actor and analyzes it as such (even though attention is paid to factional and individual behaviors throughout). This characterization is not intended to discount or minimize the complexity and diversity of the Taliban’s many entrenched interests, camps, tribal confederacies, and schools of thought; their familial cliques; or their intra-personal (and at times transnational) networks. On the contrary, this choice is as epistemological as it is stylistic: even at the height of U.S. and foreign military engagement in Afghanistan, the Taliban managed to keep the death of their leader a close-held secret for close to two years, a metric of obfuscation and opacity that should perennially humble any foreign observer of this movement. The past three months have thrown so much into flux in Afghanistan. The coming months are likely to remain just as fluid, meaning any outsider’s perceptions of the Taliban’s various demographics and the dynamics between them—already almost certainly incomplete—are likely to be rendered obsolete.

1. The Two-Week Transition
In the two weeks after the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, 2021, evacuation of U.S. forces, internationals, and a range of Afghan partners and affiliates continued amid a precarious standoff in Kabul, wherein the Taliban quickly moved to assert order over the capital while deferring control of much of the airport to U.S. troops. The two actors, previously only ever having come face to face in Afghanistan as military adversaries, entered a tense yet functional two-week phase of coexistence in close proximity, even after an Islamic State bombing at the airport prompted both sides to elevate security postures.

Successive waves of Taliban forces streamed into Kabul from across the country as leadership figures arrived piecemeal by air and overland travel. The patchwork of fighters from nearby provinces and more distant regions was dizzying, their chain of command impossible for outside observers to track with precision, but it was clear that the insurgent movement was resourcing as stable—and as obvious and overwhelming—of a takeover of the capital as possible. As the Taliban’s ranks in Kabul swelled and the international presence steadily shrunk, U.S. military and government officials say the group began asserting its authority over agreed-upon terms and conditions of the evacuation process, delaying or denying evacuation attempts seemingly at random. Coordination between the U.S. and Taliban forces stationed at the airport, to include sharing manifests of Afghans and foreigners destined for upcoming flights, was often clogged by Taliban commanders’ insistence on new requirements, additional information, claiming inaccuracies and various other hang-ups—in what one U.S. official characterized as “a power flex.” There was little discernible pattern to manifests that were delayed versus those that were not; in hindsight, this interference seems to have been a display of the Taliban’s increasing degree of control over Kabul and their leverage in the situation.

Consolidation of its vast newfound gains and attaining supremacy of authority seemed to guide the group’s behavior on a spectrum that spanned from brutally violent to surprisingly clement. Taliban fighters opened fire on one of the country’s first anti-Taliban demonstrations, killing three in Jalalabad, at the same time their leaders met publicly with powerbrokers of the Islamic Republic, gently coaxing oaths of fealty—or at least messages of tacit cooperation—from former foes. As the Taliban’s flag for their Islamic Emirate began sprouting on rooftops and spray-painted walls, Kabul’s denizens began stepping back into the streets and resuming some functions of daily life (among men, at least, with many women sheltering out of sight, and not counting the tens of thousands who swarmed the airport’s gates in hopes of fleeing the country). Similar scenes played out across Afghanistan’s other major cities, where Taliban fighters flooded in from the surrounding countryside and began taking up residence in former government police stations and offices, conducting constant patrols and periodic raids, and directing traffic, as a number of “essential workers” from the former government and sectors like public health were encouraged to return to work.

Within days of Kabul’s fall, a National Resistance Front, joined by deposed First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, announced armed opposition to the Taliban in the province of Panjshir. The Taliban reportedly engaged in negotiations with figures gathering in Panjshir, but also swiftly organized a large-scale force to brutally quash the resistance. Though the fight briefly expanded into nearby Baghlan province, where partisans took up arms and seized several districts, by the last days of August 2021 the Taliban had already moved deeper into the Panjshir Valley than they ever had in the 1990s. By August 31, the last of U.S. and international forces had departed, leaving just as the Taliban attained as much of a monopolization of force as they may have ever possessed in Afghanistan.

2. Key Themes / Enduring Characteristics
Stress on Internal Cohesion

The Taliban’s urge to consolidate and to project monopolized authority is one of several themes that have manifested throughout their first three months as the country’s new rulers. Another theme illustrated in Taliban behavior since August 15, 2021, has been, in fact, a foundational, defining characteristic of their movement: a sharp attentiveness to any potential threats to their organizational cohesion. The careful balancing act of allotting governance authority and activities across the organization appears to have alleviated potential tensions between different Taliban camps. But the diffusion of authority has clogged some basic daily interactions that Afghans, especially urban Afghans, have with their new rulers—the sort of administrative congestion that plagued the previous Afghan government, to the Taliban’s propagandistic benefit. The Taliban’s insistence on maintaining cohesion can serve as a useful metric for observers: any external pressure or policy choice that could fragment the group is effectively a ‘red line.’ This is one of the only reliable lenses for assessing a movement that often obfuscates its own positions and regularly amplifies the ambiguity of its public messaging.

Ambiguity

As noted above, ambiguity in policy and public messaging, another characteristic that has long defined the Taliban, has been a theme of the Taliban’s early days in power. The Taliban’s media wing—which has spawned a multiplicity of spokesmen since August 15, issuing occasionally contradictory edicts—wields a polished set of talking points that appear crafted to mollify international audiences, yet continues to issue unapologetic celebration of violence and destruction in the name of its insurgency. Three months after assuming power (and more than two years of speculation that it might return), the group has yet to clearly demarcate the scale, scope, and mandate of the state it has begun to establish. The Taliban do not appear yet to have tackled some of the core dilemmas of state-building posed to every ruling actor in Afghanistan’s modern history. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the Taliban’s professed ideology, which suggests that social order stems from a strong centralized authority and absolute obedience to the Emir ul-Mu’minin, which actually contrasts with the high degree of decentralized local authority the movement permitted field commanders throughout the insurgency (a flexibility that undergirded the movement’s expansion across Afghanistan).

Threat Perception, to the Point of Paranoia

Finally, the Taliban’s fixation on cohesion and their priority of consolidating control both correspond with a perspective that appears to remain predominant among their rank-and-file and leadership alike: a perspective defined by threat perception and suspicion, borne out of the considerable risks posed during two decades as a guerrilla insurgency against a technologically superior military superpower. There are few actions taken by the group’s members, however harsh, seemingly predatory, or just perplexing, that cannot be traced to some Taliban expression of identifying and confronting a perceived threat.

The centrality of threat-perception in motivating Taliban behavior suggests how deeply rooted many members’ thinking may remain tied to militancy: violence as the default/preferred means of dispatching with threats. The Taliban’s young generation of fighters, many now tasked with mundane patrol or guard duties, is not only conditioned and habituated to the daily use of violence, but they also have been conditioned by indoctrinated expectations (studies suggest they prefer more ideologically rigid conceptions of a future state). The movement’s leadership seems keenly aware of how strongly the attitudes and mindsets conditioned and cultivated over years of war may remain entrenched; more than one set of comments from the chief spokesman, voice notes and videos from all three deputy emirs, and a written message from Amir Haibatullah himself have touched on the need for the movement’s fighters to exercise discipline or restraint in newly taken-over areas.

In the context of the suddenness of the former government’s collapse and the Taliban movement’s ascension, it may read as obvious to observe that former insurgents remain largely anchored in mindsets of violent struggle. But this feature has far-reaching implications for the future of Afghanistan’s government and how it interacts with the population. Given the Taliban leadership’s tendency to steer clear of forming or changing policy in ways that might trigger dissent within the ranks, prevailing paradigms will almost certainly shape how much and how quickly the Taliban will be able to pull its organizational culture and individual fighters’ behavior out of insurgency and into the realm of responsible governance—or even regime survival in the face of impending economic catastrophe.

3. Government Formation and Governing Style

The Taliban’s head of government and a dozen key ministers, characterized as an interim “caretaker” cabinet that consisted entirely of their senior leadership, were not officially named for three weeks, even after chief spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed claimed a new government would be stood up within days of entering Kabul. The date of the press conference, September 7, 2021, closely followed rumors of rifts between influential figures over appointments and a highly visible Kabul visit by Pakistan’s intelligence service chief, reportedly meant to mediate. Much was made of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar—deputy emir, head of the political office in Doha during their negotiations with the United States, and now appointed deputy prime minister—disappearing from public view in the wake of the cabinet announcement, which many observers perceived as a demotion; in all of the various rumors about infighting, an aggrieved Baradar was at the center. When Baradar resurfaced in Kandahar, days after media and social media speculation that he had been hurt or even killed in an internal dispute, it was to film him reading a prepared statement denying all rumors and affirming the Taliban’s unwavering unity.

Political debate and jostling for power seem almost certain to have taken place—and are very likely to continue. The next notable incident took place two months after the supposed dust-up over government formation and reflected a much different aspect of internal jostling. On November 7, 2021, unverified reports surfaced that Taliban affiliated with Kandahari figures (who traditionally have made up the movement’s most powerful leadership base and hold sway over many of its resources) stormed the offices of the national cricket board. The acting prime minister had issued an order to replace the long-controversial coach of the national team—who had been recently reinstated by the Taliban and happens to be Kandahari—a move the reports suggest was instigated by the Haqqanis, a group that has been accused domestically and internationally of seeking to maximize its share of power in Kabul.

Details remain unclear as of the time of publication, and the catalyst may seem inconsequential, but whatever took place, the incident reflects a very real tension. The Taliban’s equilibrium of power among different elements, though carefully calibrated over the years, has always remained tilted in favor of certain cliques and cadres; some of these are tribal but others are more interpersonal, stemming back to relationships with the group’s founder, Mohammad Omar. The vacuum left by the previous government opened up new arenas for Taliban figures and factions to assume new authorities, creating new flashpoints as different elements seek to gain greater influence or to redress perceived imbalances in the Taliban’s traditional dynamics. In essence, the Taliban’s victory brought on a sudden bout of growing pains for the movement. However, this is not the only instance of similar internal struggle, and the style of conflict resolution that has sustained 20 years of insurgency—a combination of leadership mediation and persecution of defectors and dissenters—remains a key feature of the movement.

While struggles over allotment of power surely played a role, the delay in forming a government might be best chalked up to the overwhelming nature of the Taliban’s sudden takeover—or more precisely, a lack of preparation for it. Senior figures confessed their shock at the rapidity of Kabul’s fall, and the group does not appear have laid much groundwork for a formal assumption of power. The Taliban had a number of urgent tasks and pressing concerns: the stabilization of cities, the standoff over the Kabul airport, and uncertainty over how widely elements of the former government might resist. It is easy to discount the impact of this uncertainty in the aftermath of the swift defeat of the resistance mounted in Panjshir province, but the reality is that the Taliban had stretched their fighting force far thinner than ever before. Considered in conjunction with the group’s historical emphasis on the sovereignty and independence of its future Afghan state, another key factor in the timing of announcing its government was likely a desire to do so unchallenged, either by the lingering presence of Western troops or the impression of armed opposition from the former government.

In this context, the Taliban’s decision to form a government consisting entirely of their own leadership was unsurprising, even amid persistent calls from donor states, regional powers, and Afghan civil society to achieve some degree of “inclusivity.” Maintaining internal cohesion was also a prevailing concern, both in terms of ensuring that various camps within the Taliban felt they had been allotted some share of power but also by adhering to the ideological expectations of their own membership.

Some analysts have noted that former President Ghani’s flight from the country did not prevent the Taliban from entering into a transitional government that included former Islamic Republic political leaders (in spite of Taliban statements suggesting otherwise); they could have entered the same arrangement reportedly being facilitated by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad right up until August 15. While true, the vacuum created by Ghani’s departure posed an internal dilemma that the group may not have faced otherwise. Compromising and sharing power with adversaries in order to reach Kabul was one proposition; sharing power voluntarily, after already having marched victoriously into the capital and assuming an unchallenged position of authority, was another entirely. Most members of the Taliban may have been persuaded, under the assumption that seizing Kabul might require a lengthy siege or bloody urban warfare, to accept the former. But power-sharing likely would have encouraged speculation that their leadership was allying itself with the ‘corrupt,’ ‘puppet’ political leaders of the Western-backed Islamic Republic, or worse, that they were caving to the demands of foreign states.

As clear as the Taliban’s leadership was in demonstrating that its priority lay in appeasing its own ranks, ambiguities as to the exact nature of the Taliban’s new government emerged as soon as it began to take shape. In the first press conference that announced initial cabinet officials, the emir’s role was not officially announced or explained, nor was it clarified whether or not the caretaker government would be titled the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the name of the Taliban’s first government, which the group has referred to itself as over the course of its insurgency). But Taliban figures gave remarks after the press conference ended that affirmed the new government was indeed the emirate with the emir at its head, and written decrees have been distributed in Emir Haibatullah’s name since then. Though some suggested this obfuscation might signify an intent to mollify or deceive international audiences given the notoriety their movement earned in the 1990s and that 20 out of the 33 senior-most officials are on the United Nations’ sanctions list; the Taliban have not shied away from the nature of their cabinet.

The white flags of the Islamic Emirate proliferated across Kabul and the country within days of the Islamic Republic’s fall, as if to render the Taliban’s lack of clarity on the government’s title moot. In one of the first days after U.S. and international forces completed their withdrawal, the Taliban broadcast a victory military parade on the state-run televised news agency, prominently including trained suicide bombers. This demographic was further honored in October 2021 in a high-profile audience with Sirajuddin Haqqani—one of the Taliban’s three deputy emirs, leader of the notorious U.S.-blacklisted Haqqani network, and newly appointed minister of interior—where he promised families of fallen suicide attackers generous pensions and property.  And yet, weeks later, the Taliban announced that the issuance of passports would resume—without changing the imprinted title of the former government. The group has since issued tens of thousands of these passports, bearing the seal of the erstwhile Islamic Republic. And while Taliban fighters have beaten protesters who carry it, the Taliban have not formally banned the tricolor flag of Afghanistan’s previous government.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Taliban’s government formation was one of the most under-discussed: by naming members of its movement to head and to staff senior positions in all but one of the former government’s ministries (the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was subsumed into the restored Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Propagation of Virtue), the Taliban have tacitly accepted the scope of the modern Afghan state as defined by the previous Western-backed government. This was not a foregone conclusion.j There is much within the history of Taliban governance in the 1990s and their insurgency ‘shadow government,’ as well as the intellectual debates that have taken place recently among Taliban supporters, that suggests a strong philosophical preference for minimalist government, one rooted in the strict maintenance of public order and implementation of a harsh form of justice. Perhaps the most striking example of this acceptance and the shift it connotes was the Taliban’s naming of a mullah to head Afghanistan’s Atomic Energy Agency, which the previous government erected in 2011.

The Taliban have accepted, for now, the expansive reach of a state that at least some officials quietly admit they have little formal experience in running, yet insist they possess the capacity to manage. One of the less commented-on features of the Taliban’s caretaker cabinet is that, for all the speculation over which factions within the movement received what proportion of positions, the most privileged demographic seemed to be figures within the leadership who had previously held ministerial rank in the 1990s. For a movement that has been dominated by the interests and imperatives of its military command for the past 20 years, from the prime minster down, selections appear to have favored prior experience in ‘governance.’ Even more quietly, a number of ministries have summoned former technocrats and subject-matter experts back to work or for mandatory consultations. When probed on the challenges of administering the government, Taliban spokesmen seem to have settled on a narrative of scapegoating, with a heavy dose of denial regarding Afghan perceptions of their movement. Had the United States and other evacuating nations not instilled fear without cause, as the Taliban put it, among many ministry employees who sought to flee the country, the bulk of the ministries’ former staff would have simply remained in place and smoothly transitioned to continued civil service under the new order.

Perhaps the greatest remaining ambiguities surround the question of how the Taliban plan to transition the structure and the personnel of their fighting forces into the hierarchy of their fledgling Afghan government. Newly appointed officials, including the acting minister of defense Mullah Yaqoub (the son of founder Omar), have made a number of speeches declaring the Taliban will stand up a strong, independent national army, accompanied by a stream of videos of newly uniformed Taliban fighters marching with military discipline in government facilities that have been taken over. The Taliban claim they will work to reintegrate former government troops, but little detail has been shared otherwise; one journalist, surveying Taliban commanders in several provinces in late September and early October 2021, found that they had still received no guidance from leadership in Kabul as to which ministry they fell under, interior or defense. On November 7, 2021, the Taliban finally named a slate of provincial-level governors and police chiefs, a major step in transitioning the movement’s hierarchy into the offices of the state. Yet the degree to which their insurgency-era organization of fighters will be adapted or overhauled into state security forces remains unknown.

Other evidence has emerged that suggests ministries may be adapting their portfolios less along traditional institutional lines and more in line with the purview that Taliban ministers previously held in the movement. One example was Yaqoub’s announcement that the Ministry of Defense would take responsibility for the security of the long-delayed TAPI gas pipeline, meant to run through the country from Turkmenistan into South Asia. In Afghanistan (and many other states), the ministry of interior would normally be responsible for infrastructure protection, but in the Taliban insurgency’s military commission, Yaqoub shared responsibility over the Taliban’s forces with Sirajuddin Haqqani based on a geographic split. It seems as if Yaqoub is still de facto overall commander of Taliban fighters in the south and west of the country, where the pipeline is meant to be built.

In one sense, the Taliban’s reliance on their insurgency-era framework of command and control in their first weeks in power was a necessary transition mechanism. But the longer that fighters continue to hold sway as they did during the insurgency, which always has been complicated by a dual track of authority between the formal hierarchy and the informal interpersonal networks that anchor the Taliban’s organizational culture, the greater the risk that in practice the authority of state ministries will be hollowed out, with the state governed by an opaque “shadow government” of the real powerbrokers within the Taliban. In Kabul, testimonies from foreign aid organizations and Afghan business owners suggest that a Byzantine status quo has already begun to settle in: they tell a story of the Taliban ping-ponging simple requests and administrative hurdles back and forth between officials sitting within ministry headquarters and those wielding influence unofficially, rivaling the headaches—if not yet the corruption—of the previous government’s bureaucracy.

Over the longer term, such opacity might render disputes over cabinet ministries less salient, but could open up space for individuals or camps within the Taliban to vie for power behind the scenes. Even if the group manages to contain internal struggles, it seems likely to sustain its organizational features of leadership councils and interpersonal networks outside of the organs of the state, an approach that appears rooted in contingency planning that could sustain the movement even in the event of another foreign invasion or a targeted killing campaign. The odds of the Taliban bringing Islamic Republic-era politicians into government in positions of prominence are low—and if they do so, it may well be a signal of the Taliban shifting their authority into parallel power structures.

Taliban officials attend a news conference on October 5, 2021, in Kabul, Afghanistan, where they announced they will start issuing passports to its citizens again following months of delays. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

 

4. Security and Repression

In spite of the shocking totality of the Taliban’s military victory, when their fighters stepped into Kabul the group’s grasp on the country was quite tenuous in a number of ways. As noted above, its fighting force rarely had been stretched so thin. A Taliban commander appointed as a prominent district police chief in Kabul noted that his previous command consisted of “three fighters” and a network of part-time informants. One Afghan former senior official, expressing frustration at the previous government’s lack of a strategy to combat the Taliban’s offensive this past summer, noted that major border crossings seized by the Taliban (a crippling blow in terms of fighting morale, legitimacy, and sovereignty, as well as vital customs revenue) were only defended by handfuls of their fighters, as the bulk of their force continued to press the battlefield advantage on rapidly shifting frontlines. The Taliban’s promise of general amnesty to the entirety of government security forces, even granting safe passage to notorious units such as the CIA-trained Khost Protection Force, left the newly victorious insurgents vulnerable to resistance anywhere across the country, albeit from a just-disarmed and disorganized, demoralized force.

In the months before their takeover, the Taliban worked to dampen potential resistance with a spectacular campaign of disinformation, coercion, and persuasion, the extent of which only became gradually apparent to international observers after they returned to power. But despite the offer of general amnesty, they have also gradually begun to ramp up an unacknowledged wave of extrajudicial raids, detention, and, in smaller numbers, killings of former members of security and intelligence forces—in a highly targeted manner that suggests extensive use of surveillance, informant networks, and exploitation of data left exposed by the government’s sudden collapse. The extent of this campaign is impossible to measure, though local testimonies across the country suggest house searches varied widely from one area to the next (some reports ascribed motivations that seem more criminal or personally motivated than purely driven by the perception of potential resistance).

But two things are clear: Firstly, this campaign of searches, interrogations, and in many cases detention and disappearances began even before the Taliban reached Kabul, which may have been prompted by Taliban seizures of personnel rosters and private data stored at major regional military facilities in July and August 2021—and it continued below the surface, targeting specific individuals in an as-yet undiscernible pattern (though anecdotes suggest efforts were made to track former special forces, commando, and intelligence personnel).

Secondly, August’s declarations of armed resistance in the Panjshir valley, a historic stronghold of anti-Taliban resistance all through the 1990s, not only prompted a swift Taliban military response, headed by commanders selected from their ranks of northern, non-Pashtun fighters, but it also seems to have accelerated Taliban house searches and raids in Kabul, particularly in areas of the city home to Panjshiri communities.

This dragnet differs somewhat from another, distinct category of Taliban reprisal violence against former adversaries, one in which local drivers of conflict have played a predominant role; but concerns about potential threats hang over both. Some of the most publicized reports of Taliban fighters carrying out summary executions have taken place in areas where intra-tribal animosities, land/water disputes, ethnic tensions, and track records of violence and vengeance have spanned four decades of war. The Taliban’s leadership has not proven willing to hold accountable and publicly punish fighters who have been credibly accused of committing atrocities, in spite of internal and external messaging condemning it. This reluctance is almost certainly based in part on the continued vulnerability of the Taliban’s thin veneer of control across the country, especially in areas where simmering local grievances are especially acute (prime areas for anti-Taliban resistance to spring up).

In order to demonstrate strength at a time when masses of fighters are committed to a select few major cities, in some areas the Taliban have reverted to the harshest possible punishments of criminal offenses, without formal trial or rule of law. In a sign of how deeply the group embraces a worldview in which harsh punishment of alleged criminality is necessary to enforce order, the Taliban have not condemned high-profile instances of public execution or decapitation, not even when speaking to international media; they have instead equivocated, claiming that such actions were not official policy and declaring that executions should not be carried out publicly, unless dictated by the nation’s top court. Such a decree also reinforces a core theme of the Taliban’s governance thus far: it is less focused on legal or political principles than the principle of centralized control, over society and over its own members.

In their first weeks in power, the Taliban reacted harshly to more than one form of opposition. The movement’s fighters responded to early protests against the Taliban that sprang up in Jalalabad, Kabul, Herat, and other cities, many of which were led by women, with intimidation, physical aggression, and violence. By mid-September 2021, the group had clamped down on the right to protest with a set of essentially prohibitive conditions. Major private media outlets continued to function (apart from the Taliban’s appropriation of state-run channels and sites), but at a fraction of the freedom of expression and total journalistic output as before the takeover. Taliban spokesmen have exhorted Afghan media to report “in accordance with Islam and national values,” the same ambiguous phrase often used by the Taliban when asked what standard determines a punishable criminal offense, suggesting the movement’s fixation on perceived threats to order extends to the public discourse. The Taliban have not immediately or completely clamped down on private media, but self-censorship is starkly evident among a range of outlets, and every behavioral pattern of the Taliban’s rule in areas they controlled as an insurgency suggests their influence over and intimidation of media coverage is likely to increase over time.

One of the most fascinating measures of the Taliban’s perspectives on security, a measure of their threat perceptions and/or how best to project an image of strength, is illustrated by the continued visible presence of personal security for high-ranking figures within the movement—even in gatherings that are limited solely to members of the Taliban. Images and video clips of speakers at podiums or roundtable meetings have included heavily armed guards hovering within arm’s reach. It was not until later in October 2021, nearly two months after the group seized power, that the group’s two more elusive deputy emirs (and new ministers of the security portfolio), Mullah Yaqoub and Sirajuddin Haqqani, began regularly attending high-profile televised meetings and events. Even after they did so, many Taliban-affiliated media outlets and social media accounts blurred out the facial imagery of Haqqani. More broadly, Taliban fighters have been warned to cease taking selfies and sharing photos on social media so as to not reveal “operational security” details to adversaries.

Analysis has varied as to the Taliban’s reasons for the above behavioral quirks, but they make sense from the perspective of a movement that has kept its leadership alive by keeping them in the shadows. Discussions the author had with sources close to the Taliban over the past two years of negotiations with the United States revealed that the group maintains an intense degree of suspicion as to the motives and the potential future engagement of the United States. From the perspective of many in the movement, the United States is just a single drone strike away from wreaking havoc and potential destabilization of 20 years’ worth of strategy and sacrifice. And the United States is not the only enemy the Taliban have cause to defend their leadership from. In August 2019, a mosque in Pakistan that Emir Haibatullah regularly preached from was struck by a suicide bombing of nebulous provenance; the emir was not there that day, but his brother was killed. Since then, Haibatullah has been absent from not only public view but even voice recordings distributed to followers, which has led to serious speculation that he may have died some time ago. Only on October 31, 2021, did reports emerge that the emir had spoken to a crowd at a Kandahar madrassa (under tight security, with no photo or videos allowed).

Another key element of security the Taliban attempted to recognize from the start, but failed to adequately prepare for, was the threat posed to minority religious and ethnic communities. In August 2021, Taliban officials consulted with elders of the Sikh community and provided protective escorts for processions and observances of the Shi`a religious holiday Ashura. Yet a wave of mass-casualty attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISK) began to target Shi`a mosques—including in Kunduz, where the group had rarely surfaced, and Kandahar, in its first attack carried out in the Taliban’s heartland. Combined with the harsh treatment by some Taliban of ethnic Hazaras, including several documented instances of reprisal killings and forced communal displacement where Hazara-Pashtun dynamics have long been hostile, a perception of the Taliban’s unwillingness to protect (or to actively harm) these communities has spread widely.

While ISK’s deadliest attacks since August 2021 have targeted Shi`a worshippers, the majority of ISK-claimed activity, smaller bombings, and attacks in this period have targeted members of the Taliban. Beginning in September, these attacks grew more frequent, especially in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar where ISK first established its bases of support in Afghanistan, but Kabul and other areas as well—including a complex attack on a military hospital that killed a notable Taliban commander. This has resulted in a heavy-handed security response by the Taliban, with reports emerging from Nangarhar in October of numerous targeted killings and disappeared persons, many of them reportedly adherents to the salafi current of Islam, a small minority among Afghans. The Taliban also employed a range of coercive and persuasive methods to combat the threat of a resurgent Islamic State in the east, drawing pledges of allegiance from major salafi clerics and consulting with community elders at a district and village level. This bore a strong similarity to their engagement with Afghan security forces this past summer, which was not a new approach for the Taliban; the movement has long proven adept at exploiting divisions between rival jihadi groups and government-aligned forces alike.

Unsurprisingly, though the Taliban have clearly ramped up their response to ISK’s activity, their public messaging has consistently minimized the threat the group poses to the Taliban’s authority, or to the Afghan public. The Taliban have stuck with this rhetoric even after several instances of downplaying the group’s threat in media statements were quickly followed by a sensational attack. Since 2019, the Islamic State’s propaganda has begun to appeal directly to sympathizers and discontents within Taliban ranks, decrying the Taliban’s leadership as sellouts making secret deals with the Americans, too focused on the pursuit of power and nationalism instead of pure ‘Islamic’ aims.

Yet history leaves little doubt that the Taliban’s response to ISK will remain harsh and well-resourced, even if it fails to extinguish the group. The Taliban dedicated immense resources to combating the Islamic State over the past five to six years, and have always responded swiftly and aggressively to signs of growing or reemerging ISK strength—perhaps most mercilessly in instances when members of the Taliban have defected and pledged allegiance to the group. ISK was not only a serious territorial threat in eastern Afghanistan for several years, but also posed a unique threat to the Taliban’s monopoly over the country’s jihadi ideological landscape, which the Taliban had spent over a decade carefully corralling under their tent.

The real question is not if the Taliban perceive the true extent of the threat ISK poses; the Taliban’s public marginalization campaign is almost certainly a propaganda strategy intended to deny the Islamic State the stature of a serious contender to the throne. Rather, what remains to be seen is if the Taliban elect to employ the Islamic State as a raison d’etre for keeping a good percentage of their fighting forces occupied—which would alleviate any near-term concerns the leadership might have about fighters left adrift without a sense of mission. However, it would also likely preserve an actively militant mindset among Taliban who continue to fight, a development that would ultimately stunt the Taliban’s organizational evolution into a political force and movement capable of governing—or encourage the development of their nascent government into a repressive police state.

Whether or not Taliban leadership attempts to rally its members, over time, to combat the perceived threat of the Islamic State may depend on its ability to hunt down and degrade that group’s ability to carry out frequent high-profile attacks. Early reports suggesting that small numbers of former security and intelligence forces have gravitated to cells of ISK, offering their services to the only extant armed group capable of striking their now-ascendant adversary. If that trend continues, the Taliban will not only be more likely to continue to fixate on and dedicate resources to ISK’s elimination, the Taliban’s ‘war on terror’ may become a smokescreen for retribution against former government forces, civilian officials, or any other dissenters.

5. Social Restrictions and Service Delivery

By the end of August 2021, the Taliban had yet to appoint their victors’ cabinet and still had a few senior officials from the Islamic Republic serving on an interim basis, including the mayor of Kabul and the minister of public health (both were replaced by Taliban appointees in September). Though brief, these interim periods of service reveal a pragmatism among the Taliban’s leadership, and an unspoken priority for upholding certain functions they consider essential to maintaining public order. Law enforcement has a place of primacy among these, and it is no surprise that the Taliban have dedicated a precious percentage of their fighting strength to the forces policing major cities.

Anecdotal observation suggests that the Taliban have appointed many of the police chiefs of districts in Kabul not in the style of “spoils of war” for the most accomplished battlefield commanders, but on the basis of experience in and knowledge of the capital; more than one district chief seems to have a background in remotely running informant networks and mounting terror attacks from Kabul’s outlying districts.These police chiefs now operate bearing the titles of a bureaucratic state, but in the absence of a fully staffed judiciary and a fully crafted legal framework, their daily functions resemble those of a rural Taliban commander or district governor. They issue rulings on a range of disputes that locals are bringing to their offices, have begun tackling perceived corruption among business owners neighborhood and powerbrokers, and hunt down elements of organized crime that have plagued Afghanistan’s cities for years.

The Taliban have, to date, claimed that certain policies or social restrictions are temporary, and are being enforced simply due to security concerns (or other exigent circumstances of the takeover). This claim has been met with serious skepticism in terms of restrictions on women. Afghan women recall that the Taliban of the 1990s introduced their emirate as an “interim” or “caretaker” government, which never evolved. Many have observed that the Taliban attempted to justify their earlier restrictions on women due to the security environment at the time, which—though the group claimed improved under its rule—were never eased or lifted. In the Taliban’s first three months back in power, the numerous restrictions on women’s place in the public sphere have been perhaps the most contentious reflection of the movement’s catering to the most socially conservative flank of its membership. In one instance, the ministry of education instituted a de facto ban on girls’ school attendance in grades 6-12. Spokesmen claimed this was only until courts and officials could determine a properly ‘Islamic’ modality of implementing girls’ education, but the Taliban’s prioritization of other issues could leave the ban in place indefinitely.

The issue was muddled when Taliban officials in four different provinces that have (as a generalization) a relatively more progressive history of girls’ education announced, in early October 2021, that girls had resumed their attendance, that the appropriately ‘Islamic’ measures were fully in place (some of which, such as requiring women teachers for every segregated girls’ classroom, are not only impractical given gender imbalances in the education sector, like most sectors in Afghanistan, but would ironically require years of a concerted push to encourage and recruit more women to attend school and graduate university in order for a new generation to fill the ranks of public school faculty). These announcements gave some hope that the Taliban might either allow gradual progress or at least permit regional variation in the enforcement of social codes, but they also raise the specter every Afghan government has historically struggled with: permitting greater degrees of regional autonomy can potentially weaken the center. The Taliban’s ideological affinity for centralized rule suggests that a series of variations in policy, which could grow into an assertion of authority from peripheral commanders (or the communities they represent), likely will not continue without being contested eventually.

At the same time, some of the Taliban’s recent social restrictions have revealed the same cynical sort of pragmatism as they displayed in years of shadow governance as an insurgency. For instance, women in public health have been consistently encouraged to continue working across the country, one of the few sectors in which the Taliban have done so. Functional health facilities in friendly territory were also a military imperative in order to treat wounded fighters; once established in Taliban-controlled communities, the movement insisted that female staff be present in order for any women of the community to receive treatment.

This illustrates an obvious but potentially useful point for those international organizations and donors deliberating on how to best leverage the Taliban’s treatment of the Afghan population: the Taliban grow most pragmatic when the actor they are engaging with has something they badly need—and does not publicly pressure the group with any potential conditions. When they are unable to identify a critical benefit, or when the compromise necessary to obtain that benefit might offend and inflame the sensibilities of a large enough segment of their membership, threatening cohesion, they are prone to adopt a smokescreen narrative about themselves, posturing as defenders of all things truly ‘Islamic’ and Afghan. With domestic audiences, Taliban messaging often plays on the ambiguity of these dual pillars of values; when challenged about the ‘Islamic’-ness of a given policy or behavior they may claim that it is innately and traditionally Afghan, and when questioned about the Afghan-ness of it, they often default to uniquely exclusive interpretations of Islam.

This sleight-of-hand justification often obscures a more universal political dynamic: the Taliban play to their base, unless overwhelmingly compelled by tangible benefit (or allayed by a relative absence of risk). While there are numerous avenues for aid organizations, U.N. agencies, and wealthy states to persuade the Taliban to tweak social policy and treatment of civilians at the margins, one of the core grievances of Taliban rule is unlikely to waver: the movement’s leadership has almost never risked their organizational cohesion in order to challenge a commander or official’s harsh enforcement of draconian social codes, so long as that code is not wildly out of proportion with the most conservative segment of local norms. When the Taliban’s leadership does seek to move the needle on organizational policy, it often presents the issue to the movement’s clerical authorities for a theological ruling and justification.

One somewhat surprising service the Taliban have prioritized is the swift revival of passport and national ID issuance services; both had suffered backlogs in the tens of thousands in the months prior to the Taliban’s takeover. By late October 2021, the Taliban announced that more than 80,000 national IDs had been issued, along with a large number of passports. Rumors have spread among civil society activists and Afghans who have work experience with Western governments (or projects they funded) that anyone affiliated with the West is being detained and jailed, or worse, when they go to the passport office to pick up their documentation. These rumors have not been substantiated, but they may contain a kernel of truth: the department of passports is headed by Alam Gul Haqqani, a member of the Haqqani family, which controls the interior ministry and appears to be angling to use the ministry’s remit to assert outsized authority in urban areas (several of Kabul’s district police chiefs are reportedly affiliated with the Haqqanis). In any event, it is likely that the Taliban view the process of issuing identification as an intelligence collection operation as much as anything else. Much like their posture toward U.S. forces throughout August’s evacuation, the Taliban do not seem opposed in principle to Afghans at large, or even certain subsets of society, leaving the country. But they do prioritize control, and being able to regulate who receives travel documentation, being able to track who comes and goes, is likely valued by influential wings of the movement.

The Taliban’s nascent government is still nearly as incapable of delivering services as they were as an insurgency. The few exceptions, such as the current flow of electricity and uninterrupted cell phone signals across much of the country, are at risk of implosion due to the Taliban’s dire fiscal straits and the country’s unfolding economic catastrophe. Taliban representatives have privately conveyed to U.N. officials and some Western diplomats that they understand the scope and severity of the economic situation, even if they lack the resources or technocratic capacity to manage it (which has prompted their consultation with former Islamic Republic economists). In a variety of measures, the Taliban have sought to alleviate the crisis’ impact on Afghan citizens (or at least give the impression of offering relief); they have axed tariffs at customs revenue collection, which some Taliban believe might be the only potential source of the government’s sustainability, and have mandated price controls and regulations—later a full ban—on foreign currency.

In a more fundamental way, the Taliban continue to operate across much of the country as they did under the insurgency; ambiguity reigns over whether the basic functions of policing, judicial mediation, or tax collection are a function of Afghanistan’s new state or whether the fighters are acting on behalf of the movement alone. The ministry of agriculture announced in late October 2021 that the religious “charity donations” the Taliban traditionally collected from farming households, a percentage of their crop yield or marketplace profits, would be collected by and transmitted to the ministry. But it is unclear whether the practice of collection will look any different in the foreseeable future, from the perspective of the households being taxed. The Taliban who come to collect may still be armed, exuding a coercive air, un-uniformed, with the ‘police’ and the agriculture ministry official undistinguishable from one another.

The Taliban’s current resources appear insufficient to pay the salaries of civil servants in cities, a dilemma exacerbated by the United States and European nations’ freeze of billions of dollars of the former government’s liquid assets (though it should be noted that the Islamic Republic struggled to pay civil servants’ or security forces’ salaries in its final months, in a tangle of mismanagement that has not yet been fully unraveled). This crunch brings into clearer focus an infrequently analyzed point about the Taliban’s fighters: they were not paid, throughout the insurgency. Accommodation, board, and expenses were covered, and a wide variety of ‘part-time’ and overlapping arrangements existed whereby members of the insurgency could earn income for their families—including, in parts of the country where the Taliban had held sway for years, built up entrenched interests in local markets and, for senior leaders, reaped profits from involvement in the illicit trafficking of narcotics, other goods, and even people. Even if the Taliban secure funds to pay civil servants, how long will their members continue to serve the movement, in roles that have essentially transitioned into an armed enforcement wing of the state, without receiving salaries or material benefit themselves? And with that conundrum in mind, at what point will the Taliban’s leadership feel compelled to re-cast Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian disasters, which it has extremely limited capacity to influence, in a narrative that hues along the much more familiar lines of security threats and armed contestation?

Conclusions

The Taliban have entered their first months of resumed rule over Afghanistan confronted by staggering challenges on a number of fronts. They seem aware of many, and their leaders may even genuinely hope to resolve them, but the movement does not have the organic capacity or the resources to tackle the most pressing and the most widely impactful crises. Whether as a result or simply by default, the Taliban have spent most of their first three months in power positioning to appear in control, tackling with full force the sort of problems they are much more comfortable resolving, in the manner they are most practiced in: organized violence or the threat thereof.

But no amount of fixation on an imagined world full of security threats or of their propagandists’ spin can blunt the weight of the impending economic collapse. The challenges posed by ISK, the difficulties of keeping every element of their movement unified and coherent, and the simmering resentment of many Afghan urban dwellers are all overshadowed by the estimated impacts of an economic crash that may place more than 95 percent of the population in poverty by next year. The combination of the sudden halt in foreign assistance funding, the freeze of liquid assets, and the impact of mass displacement and other humanitarian crises (including the impact of the Taliban’s own military offensive) has constructed a situation from which the Taliban could not emerge without betraying the fundamental rallying ethos of their movement: eject foreign influence from Afghanistan. The Taliban inherited the shell of an aid-dependent state, and entering into any arrangement that even barely resembles a state of dependency would splinter their movement more assuredly than any other extant challenge.

Much of the international community’s discussions about the Taliban’s first months of rule have orbited the proposition of whether or not the group can be persuaded or leveraged by external pressure. Potential donor governments have puzzled over which mechanisms or what persuasive approach might convince the Taliban to meet certain conditions in exchange for a level of aid that could sustain their state. But in spite of the millions of lives at stake, the Taliban are facing a series of potential outcomes that are easily weighed against one another, from their perspective: accepting aid that might sustain their state would prove worthless if doing so fueled a fissure within their own organization. The Taliban would become the very thing their origin story professes they rose up to eradicate and replace: a fractious constellation of militant bands. To put it another way, if Afghanistan’s compounding crises pose the Taliban with the prospect of either failing to provide for the desperate needs of the Afghan people or their own potential fragmentation, the Taliban will put their own organization first.

 

Substantive Notes

[b] Similar to the Taliban’s public relations campaign that attempted to amplify what was really an anemic COVID-19 response, the group has publicized ministerial meetings, decrees, and activities across the provinces—little of which appears to represent an initiation of comprehensive, sustainable service delivery. On its pandemic response, see Ashley Jackson, “For the Taliban, the pandemic is a ladder,” Foreign Policy, May 6, 2020.

[c] A rare exception to the Taliban’s prioritization of stability and maintaining order was the mass prisoner release as the Taliban seized the notorious Pul-e Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul, the same day the capital fell.

[d] In late August, the Taliban even declared that women in Kabul should remain home and off the streets on account of the potential that their own fighters might harass or assault them. See Maggie Astor, Sharif Hassan, and Norimitsu Onishi, “A Taliban spokesman urges women to stay home because fighters haven’t been trained to respect them,” New York Times, August 24, 2021.

[e] The International Crisis Group noted that compared to the previous government, this was the shortest timeframe in which a cabinet has been formed in Afghanistan in the 21st century. On this point, as well as analysis of the group’s decision to exclusively name its own leadership as cabinet officials, see Ibraheem Bahiss and Graeme Smith, “Who will run the Taliban government?” International Crisis Group, September 9, 2021.

[f] Baradar delivered the message awkwardly, which inspired further gossip that bordered on wishful thinking. If Taliban leaders had been involved in any argument that escalated to the point of a physical altercation or gunfire, it is difficult to imagine a greater display of organizational discipline than an absence of further incidents between those leaders or any of their armed followers.

[g] The Taliban’s repeated insistences that had Ghani not fled they would have agreed to a transitional government, including figures such as former president Hamid Karzai or Abdullah Abdullah, underscore their lack of preparation. Even if this message has been crafted as post-facto historical revisionism (the group’s aggressive summer military campaign is difficult to reconcile with such generous claims), it also amounts to an implicit Taliban admission that the manner in which they came into power was disorderly (as a result of disorganization). See Giti Rahimi, “Collapse of former government harmed country: Mujahid,” Tolo News, October 24, 2021. On surprise at the speed of Kabul’s fall, Baradar said in a message to followers on August 15, “The way we achieved this was unexpected. God gave us this victory.” See Jessica Donati and Margherita Stancati, “A Taliban leader emerges: Hunted, jailed and now free,” Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2021.

[h] Calls for inclusivity in Afghan politics, especially from foreign powers, have had a problematic history over the course of Western intervention since 2001. Encouraging inclusivity has served as a euphemism for bringing powerbrokers, even allegedly corrupt or criminal figures, into government—under the logic that they will do less harm from within the state than outside of (and possibly opposed to) it. These calls have also had the effect of encouraging anti-democratic or extra-constitutional political dealmaking, particularly amid contested election results (in particular the results from 2014 and 2019, when “inclusivity” alluded to the prospect of Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah reaching a compromise). Inclusivity has also signaled specific demands from Afghan civil society as well as donor states, particularly in terms of women’s and minority community representation. For a critique of the term as applied to Afghan politics, see Ahmed-Waleed Kakar, “How ‘Inclusivity’ Is Manipulated in Afghanistan,” Afghan Eye, October 26, 2021.

[i] This balancing act, and the likely domestic political considerations at play, are illuminated in the following anecdote: In late October 2021, an outspoken Taliban figure criticized members of the country’s national cricket team for politicizing their stature as public figures, specifically referring to Afghanistan’s former and current flags. In response, a member of the Taliban’s Cultural Commission said, “We have some emotional friends who are antagonistic toward the tricolor flag. It is their opinion and we respect that, but it’s not the official policy,” and went on to express unqualified support for the cricket team. See Siraj Khan, “Afghan cricket team draws Taliban ire over flag comments,” Saama News, October 30, 2021.

[j] Granted, this acceptance may still change; in the moment, the Taliban had compelling reasons to ‘step into’ the ministries of the former government. They had various camps and factions that likely expected representation in whatever form the initial cabinet took, a juggling act made easier with a large number of ministries; it is also possible the Taliban did not disband or temporarily shutter some government offices out of concern it would implicitly admit their movement did not possess the technocratic capacity to run them. Yet with figures and factions now entrenched in a ‘caretaker’ government arrangement, any reduction of the state’s breadth according to political or theological principles will likely foment tension among the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ when it comes to cabinet seats.

[k] Another curious instance of Taliban openness to accepting a more modern conception of the state came via the announcement from acting chief justice Abdul Hakeem that the new government would temporarily adopt measures of the 1964 constitution, enacted by monarch Zahir Shah, that do not contradict ‘Islamic’ law. Taliban officials have said little on the subject since, in spite of the many questions raised (especially the document’s embrace of parliamentary representation). See Ayaz Gul, “Taliban say they will use parts of monarchy constitution to run Afghanistan for now,” VOA News, September 28, 2021.

[l] The Taliban’s approach to gaining territory throughout most of their insurgency was gradual and piecemeal, in large part to avoid U.S. aerial bombardment to the greatest extent possible. Doing so included tactical innovations such as a growing reliance on the exploitation of populated areas/human shields, but also often saw the Taliban limit the number of major offensive drives they would institute at any given time, even during the opening weeks of their declared ‘annual offensives,’ meant to overwhelm the government’s security forces. With the absence of U.S. bombardment that had long deterred or pushed back large-scale Taliban offensives, the group’s blitz through much of the country from April to August 2021 was unprecedented. Author’s unpublished research, 2018-2021.

[m] Much of the messaging was coordinated by the National Resistance Front headed by Ahmed Massoud, son of the legendary anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud (whom even the Taliban hail as a ‘national hero’). But it also included messages issued by former First Vice President Amrullah Saleh in which he claimed to be the legitimate successor to the presidency of the republic. Both Massoud and Saleh fled to and remained in Panjshir until early September, when they fled (allegedly via military helicopters) to neighboring Tajikistan.

[n] Some figures cited by journalism watchdogs showed a sharp reduction in the number of women who continued to work for Kabul media outlets (roughly only 100 out of 700 before the takeover), while the total number of independent outlets across the country has shrunk at a comparably dramatic rate. See “Fewer than 100 of Kabul’s 700 journalists still working,” Reporters Without Borders, September 1, 2021.

[o] While bodyguards accompanying senior officials are a common feature of governments around the world, the Taliban have repeatedly positioned guards in highly visible positions during televised or photographed events, and moreover, have drawn attention to their status as security figures (dressed in uniforms, outfitted with long-barrel weapons). This may also stem from a sense of prestige or other factors unrelated to security concerns, such as visibly demonstrating the legitimacy and professionalism of Taliban fighters, but such symbolism cannot be divorced from accounts of intensely strict security that surround the movement’s top officials, even after August 15.

[p] The blurring of facial photos is less likely a serious measure of operational security, given the near certainty that adversarial governments and actors have other means of identifying Taliban leaders (and the Taliban’s awareness of this capability), and more of a reflection of pervasive collective attitudes that continue to emphasize threats.

[q] Not all ethnic Hazara are Shi`a Muslims, but a majority of Hazara are Shi`a. Though precise population surveys have not been taken in decades, Shi`a Hazara are believed to make up the largest ethnic community of Shi`a in Afghanistan. Hence, patterns of attacks that target Shi`a or Hazara communities often overlap strongly. Perceptions of Taliban hostility and violence toward the Hazara community have sharpened intensely over the past year, as the U.S. intention to withdrawal from Afghanistan became increasingly clear. A campaign sprung up decrying a genocide against Hazara, in which the Taliban stand accused among several Afghan actors stretching back more than a century. See, for context, Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary, “Why the Hazara people fear genocide in Afghanistan,” Al Jazeera English, October 27, 2021.

[r] ISK (as with other branches of the Islamic State around the world) draws its recruitment base from salafi communities, but that does not mean all or even a majority of Afghan salafis are affiliated with or sympathetic to ISK. The same eastern provinces in which ISK garnered the most local support also happened to host longstanding salafi communities (which had always held tense relations with the broader Taliban movement), but ISK’s strength in the eastern border regions is due to a number of other factors as well.

[s] One conflict monitor shared data with the author on all violent incidents across Afghanistan: In some months of 2019, the Taliban’s clashes with elements of the Islamic State actually outnumbered incidents where they fought government security forces. According to the author’s sources, the Taliban levied fighters from 11 different provinces to contest the Islamic State’s territorial control in Nangarhar that year. On defections from the Taliban to ISK, one of the deadliest single clashes in the last two decades of war took place in 2015 in Zabul, when newly created Taliban ‘special forces’ surrounded and massacred a breakaway rogue Taliban faction along with a number of Central Asian-origin militants, after they pledged loyalty to ISK. See Fazelminallah Qazizai, “The special units leading the Taliban’s fight against the Islamic State,” New Lines Magazine, September 3, 2021, and Andrew Watkins, “Taliban fragmentation: A figment of your imagination?” War on the Rocks, September 4, 2019.

[t] It should be noted that the Taliban do not perceive al-Qa`ida figures present in Afghanistan, or many other regional and global jihadi groups that seek sanctuary in the country, in anything close to the same category as they do the Islamic State. This topic has been covered thoroughly elsewhere, especially by Asfandyar Mir in this publication recently; suffice it to say that the Taliban have not visibly altered their stance on al-Qa`ida in their first three months of rule. For Mir’s article, see “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Terror Threat from Afghanistan Post the Taliban Takeover,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[u] Such policy variations are already prolific, in minor yet daily aspects of life such as hygiene and grooming. See “Taliban’s ‘new’ governing style includes beatings for beard shaving,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 6, 2021.

[v] One recent exception that proves the rule was an instance in late October 2021 of several gunmen, claiming to be Taliban, who entered a wedding in Nangarhar where music was being played and opened fire on the attendants. The Taliban made a point of publicly announcing the detention of the perpetrators and disavowing their crime. Short of wanton violence that a given area’s most conservative village elders might consider unjustified, the Taliban’s hierarchy will often refrain from outright condemnation, and very rarely punish the use of violence in ‘law enforcement.’ See Mushtaq Yusufzai and Saphora Smith, “Gunmen kill 3 after fight about music playing at wedding party in Afghanistan,” NBC News, October 31, 2021.

Citations
[1] On the insurgents’ 2021 campaign, see Jonathan Schroden, “Lessons from the Collapse of Afghanistan’s Security Forces,” CTC Sentinel 14:8 (2021).

[2] On the targeting of former security officials, see Yogita Limaye, “Amid violent reprisals, Afghans fear the Taliban’s ‘amnesty’ was empty,” BBC, August 31, 2021.

[3] See Andrew Watkins, “Taliban Fragmentation: Fact, Fiction and Future,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 2020.

[4] See, in one instance, Ayesha Tanzeem, “What’s next in Afghanistan: VOA speaks with a Taliban footsoldier,” Voice of America, October 21, 2021.

[5] See, for instance, “Afghanistan: Taliban abuses cause widespread fear,” Human Rights Watch, September 23, 2021; “Four women slain in Afghanistan after phone call ‘to join evacuation flight,’” France 24, November 5, 2021; and “Afghanistan: 13 Hazara killed by Taliban fighters in Daykundi province – new investigation,” Amnesty International, October 5, 2021.

[6] Author remote interviews, U.S. military and State Department personnel based in Kabul, August 2021.

[7] Author remote interviews, U.S. military and State Department personnel based in Kabul, August 2021. On U.S.-Taliban list-sharing, see Lara Seligman, Alexander Ward, and Andrew Desiderio, “U.S. officials provided Taliban with names of Americans, Afghan allies to evacuate,” Politico, August 26, 2021.

[8] On the protest in Jalalabad and the Taliban’s reaction, see “Three dead after anti-Taliban protests in Jalalabad-witnesses,” Reuters, August 18, 2021. On Heshmat Ghani’s embrace of the Taliban, see Joanne Serriyeh, “Video allegedly shows Afghan President Ghani’s brother pledging support to Taliban,” Al Arabiya, August 21, 2021.

[9] Author remote interviews, conflict analysts, human rights monitors, and local journalists, Afghanistan, August-September 2021.

[10] See Carlotta Gall and Adam Nossiter, “Budding resistance to the Taliban faces long odds,” New York Times, August 25, 2021.

[11] See “Afghan resistance prepares for conflict but prefers negotiations,” AFP, August 22, 2021.

[12] See Thomas Ruttig, “Have the Taliban Changed?” CTC Sentinel 14:3 (2021). See also Watkins, “Taliban Fragmentation: Fact, Fiction and Future.”

[13] See “Taking Stock of the Taliban’s Perspectives on Peace,” International Crisis Group, August 11, 2020. A key finding of this report was that by mid-2020, after more than a year of U.S. efforts to initiate peace talks to end the war, the Taliban had failed to establish what sort of future Afghan state they sought—or even begin substantive internal debate to that effect.

[14] On state-building dilemmas in Afghan history, see Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002) and Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[15] See Michael Semple, “Rhetoric, Ideology and Organizational Structure of the Taliban Movement,” U.S. Institute of Peace, December 2014, as well as Watkins, “Taliban Fragmentation.”

[16] See Fazelminallah Qazizai and Benjamin Parkin, “Afghanistan’s young Talibs: ‘No compromise with the enemy of our martyrs,’” Financial Times, September 17, 2021. See also for background, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created (London: Hurst, 2012) and Ruttig, “Have the Taliban Changed?”

[17] See Susannah George, “After 20 years of waging religious guerrilla warfare, Taliban fighters in Kabul say they miss the battle,” Washington Post, September 19, 2021.

[18] See Naveed Siddiqui, “‘Don’t worry, everything will be okay’: ISI chief during Kabul visit,” Dawn, September 5, 2021.

[19] On those dynamics, see a still instructive piece from Borhan Osman, “Toward fragmentation? Mapping the post-Omar Taleban,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, November 24, 2015. See also an overview of where Taliban camps sat just after Kabul fell in Ibrahim Moiz, “A tricky path from insurgency to Emirate,” TRT World, August 27, 2021.

[20] See Ab. Sayed, “The Taliban PM Mullah Hassan replaced the @ACBofficials director @AzizullahFazli with a well-qualified & ex-Afghan cricketer…”, Twitter, November 7, 2021. Further details obtained via author’s remote interviews, journalists and researchers, Afghanistan and other locations, November 2021.

[21] See Abdul Sayed and Colin Clarke, “With Haqqanis at the helm, the Taliban will grow even more extreme,” Foreign Policy, November 4, 2021.

[22] See Theo Farrell, “Unbeatable: Social resources, military adaptation, and the Afghan Taliban,” Texas National Security Review 1:3 (2018). See also Andrew Watkins, “Taliban fragmentation: A figment of your imagination?” War on the Rocks, September 4, 2019.

[23] Author remote interviews, locally based security analysts and journalists in Afghanistan, August-September 2021. For a reflection of how thinly the Taliban’s members have been spread, even 10 weeks later, see Stefanie Glinksi, “Twelve Million Angry Men,” Foreign Policy, October 28, 2021.

[24] On the Taliban’s calculus regarding internal cohesion and government formation, see Haroun Rahimi, “Taliban Caretaker Government: Good for Internal Cohesion, Bad for Governance,” Diplomat, September 9, 2021.

[25] See Laurel Miller, “Nothing is stopping them from reaching out to Afghans who did not support them …,” Twitter, October 25, 2021.

[26] See Andrew Watkins, “Five Questions on the Taliban’s Caretaker Government,” U.S. Institute of Peace, September 9, 2021.

[27] See “Taliban holds ‘chilling’ victory parade,” WION News, September 4, 2021.

[28] See “Taliban praise suicide bombers, offer families cash and land,” Reuters, October 20, 2021.

[29] See Amy Cheng and Haq Nawaz Khan, “Hundreds of Afghans gather outside passport office as Taliban resumes issuing travel documents,” Washington Post, October 6, 2021.

[30] Author’s archives of Taliban public messaging. See also Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri, “Insurgent bureaucracy: How the Taliban makes policy,” U.S. Institute of Peace, November 19, 2019; Borhan Osman and Anand Gopal, “Taliban Views on a Future State,” New York University’s Center for International Cooperation, July 13, 2016; Semple.

[31] See Tom O’Connor, “With naming of new atomic chief, is a nuclear Taliban possible?” Newsweek, September 29, 2021.

[32] See Ibraheem Bahiss and Graeme Smith, “Who will run the Taliban government?” International Crisis Group, September 9, 2021.

[33] Author remote interviews, former Afghan government civil servants and senior officials, September 2021. See also Samya Kullab, “With the economy on the brink, Taliban rely on former technocrats,” Associated Press, October 19, 2021.

[34] See, for instance, “Exclusive interview with Islamic Emirate Spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahed,” Tolo News via YouTube, October 25, 2021.

[35] See, for instance, Sayed Mohammad Aref Musavi, “In Balkh, MoD official urges troops to guard the nation,” Tolo News, October 19, 2021.

[36] See Franz Marty, “Afghanistan: What will the Taliban do without an enemy to fight?” Deutsche Welle, October 11, 2021.

[37] See “Taliban appoint members as 44 governors, police chiefs around Afghanistan,” Reuters, November 7, 2021.

[38] See Muhammad Jalal, “Minister of Defense Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoob Mujahid in his address to the Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan …,” Twitter, October 30, 2021.

[39] See Jackson and Amiri; Ruttig, “Have the Taliban changed?” and Watkins, “Taliban Fragmentation.”

[40] Author remote interviews, aid officials and Afghan business owners, Kabul, August-October 2021. For a portrait of the multiplicity of Taliban elements that massed into Kabul and the confusion it contributed to, see Fazelminallah Qazizai, “The Taliban’s struggle to control Kabul,” New Lines Magazine, August 26, 2021.

[41] Author remote interviews, Kabul, September 2021. For insight into the Taliban’s continued training of suicide bombers and the motivations for doing so, see Hollie McKay, “Inside the Taliban special forces’ ‘Suicide Squad,’” New York Post, September 9, 2021.

[42] Sudarsan Raghavan, “Afghanistan’s war is over, but the Taliban faces a new hurdle: Enforcing the law — and protecting Afghans from ISIS,” Washington Post, October 19, 2021.

[43] Author remote discussion, former senior Afghan government official, October 2021.

[44] Author remote interviews, Western diplomatic and security officials, Afghan researchers, former government security officials, Afghanistan, August 2021.

[45] See Susannah George, “How Afghanistan’s security forces lost the war,” Washington Post, September 25, 2021.

[46] See Matthew Rosenberg, “Hunted by the Taliban, U.S.-Allied Afghan Forces Are in Hiding,” New York Times, August 19, 2021, and “Taliban conducting ‘targeted door-to-door visits’: UN document,” Al Jazeera, August 20, 2021.

[47] Author remote interviews, Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, Herat, Ghazni, and Kandahar provinces, August-October 2021.

[48] Author remote interviews, Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, Herat, Ghazni, and Kandahar provinces, August-October 2021. See also Eileen Guo and Hikmat Noori, “This is the real story of the Afghan biometric databases abandoned to the Taliban,” Technology Review, August 31, 2021.

[49] See Haq Nawaz Khan and Kareem Fahim, “Taliban fighters tighten grip in rebellious Panjshir region with killings and food control, witness says,” Washington Post, September 10, 2021.

[50] See “Afghanistan: 13 Hazara killed by Taliban fighters in Daykundi province.” For deeper context on the multiplicity of local motivations that drive Afghanistan’s conflict, see Mike Martin, An Intimate War: An oral history of the Helmand conflict, 1978-2012 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[51] See “Taliban’s latest diktat: No public executions unless directed by top court,” Asian News International, October 16, 2021. On these instances of violence, see Yuliya Talmazan, “Taliban hang bodies of alleged kidnappers in Afghan city of Herat,” NBC News, September 26, 2021.

[52] See Sudarsan Raghavan, “As an Afghan newspaper struggles to survive, a brutal beating — and a Taliban apology,” Washington Post, September 17, 2021.

[53] See Roshan Noorzai, “What Taliban’s publishing, broadcasting directives mean for Afghan media,” VOA News, October 1, 2021.

[54] See “You Have No Right to Complain,” Human Rights Watch, 2020, and refer back to Jackson and Amiri, “Insurgent Bureaucracy,” in which the authors demonstrate that the Taliban would often treat populations more gently in earlier phases of gaining influence in a given location. Once authority is solidified, the Taliban would often implement stricter policies and practices across daily life.

[55] See Michael Scollon and Mustafa Sarwar, “Blurred images of interior minister Haqqani raises questions about what the Taliban has to hide,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 26, 2021.

[56] Saeed Shah, “Afghanistan’s Taliban warn foot soldiers: behave, and stop taking selfies,” Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2021.

[57] See Gul Yousafzai and Abdul Qadir Sediqi, “Brother of Afghan Taliban leader killed in Pakistan mosque blast,” Associated Press, August 19, 2021.

[58] See “Taliban supreme leader makes first public appearance in Afghanistan,” France 24, October 31, 2021.

[59] See “Afghanistan: Surge in Islamic State Attacks on Shia,” Human Rights Watch, October 25, 2021, and “Taliban pledge to step up Shia mosques’ security after suicide bombing,” New Arab, October 16, 2021.

[60] See ExTrac, “6. Enter #ISKP, which has been doing all it can to undermine the #Taliban’s new rule of late …,” Twitter, October 31, 2021.

[61] On ISK’s bases of support in the east, see Borhan Osman, “Descent into chaos: Why did Nangarhar turn into an IS hub?” Afghanistan Analysts Network, September 27, 2016, and Obaid Ali and Khalid Gharanai, “Hit from many sides (2): The demise of ISKP in Kunar,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 3, 2021. On the complex attack in Kabul, see Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Sami Sahak and Taimoor Shah, “Dozens killed in ISIS attack on military hospital in Afghanistan’s capital,” New York Times, November 2, 2021.

[62] See Abubakar Siddique, “Taliban Wages Deadly Crackdown On Afghan Salafists As War With IS-K Intensifies,” Gandhara, October 22, 2021.

[63] Ibid.; author remote interviews, journalists and researchers, Jalalabad and Kabul, October-November 2021.

[64] See series of case studies by Obaid Ali, “Non-Pashtun Taleban of the North,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, 2017-18.

[65] See “Mapping Extremist Communications in Afghanistan,” ExTrac, November 2020.

[66] See Thomas Ruttig, “The Other Side: Dimensions of the Afghan Insurgency,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 14, 2009.

[67] See Yaroslav Trofimov, “Left behind after U.S. withdrawal, some former Afghan spies and soldiers turn to the Islamic State,” Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2021.

[68] See Shaista Lami, “Kabul mayor keeps city running after Taliban takeover,” VOA News, August 24, 2021.

[69] Author remote interviews, conflict monitors, Afghanistan, August-September 2021. See also Sayed Mohammad Aref Musavi, “‘Mansouri’ special unit created in Balkh province,” Tolo News, October 19, 2021.

[70] See Saeed Shah, “Taliban commander who launched bombings in Kabul is now a police chief in charge of security,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2021, and Raghavan, “Afghanistan’s war is over.”

[71] Ibid. See also Abdul Raqeeb Sail, “Corrupt individuals to be dealt with under Sharia law: Mayor,” Pajhwok News, August 30, 2021, and on urban crime trends, see Ashley Jackson and Antonio Sampaio, “Afghan cities become key battlegrounds,” War on the Rocks, April 9, 2021.

[72] Author remote interviews, civil society activists in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, September-October 2021.

[73] See Emma Graham-Harrison, “Taliban ban girls from secondary education in Afghanistan,” Guardian, September 17, 2021, and see also “Taliban spokesman says girls to return to school ‘soon,’” AFP, September 21, 2021.

[74] See Christina Goldbaum, “Taliban allow girls to return to some high schools, but with big caveats,” New York Times, October 27, 2021.

[75] See “Taliban say Afghan women health service staff should go back to work,” Reuters, August 27, 2021.

[76] This conclusion stems from a number of unpublished studies and confidential research conducted by humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan.

[77] Author archives of Taliban public messaging.

[78] See Maroosha Muzaffar, “Every Afghan citizen has right to a passport, says Taliban official,” Independent, October 21, 2021, and “Electronic ID card center reopens in Kabul,” Tolo News, October 16, 2021.

[79] On Haqqani control of the passport office, see Bill Roggio, “Sirajuddin Haqqani’s Ministry of Interior has begun issuing Afghan passports,” Long War Journal, October 5, 2021. On the police chiefs, see Raghavan, “Afghanistan’s war is over,” and Shaw, “Taliban commander who launched bombings.”

[80] See Josh Boak, “Taliban took Afghanistan but face cash squeeze,” Associated Press, August 20, 2021. On the disastrous economic state, see William Byrd, “Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian crises turn dire,” U.S. Institute of Peace, October 14, 2021.

[81] Author remote interviews, U.S. and European diplomats and U.N. officials, September-October 2021.

[82] Author remote interviews, U.S. and European diplomats and U.N. officials, Afghan former officials, September-October 2021. See also “Taliban bans foreign currencies in Afghanistan,” BBC, November 3, 2021.

[83] See “Afghanistan dispatches: ‘The Taliban Ministry of Agriculture is setting new rules to collect Islamic taxes,’” Jurist, October 22, 2021.

[84] See Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour, “The Khalid Payenda Interview (2): Reforms, regrets and the final bid to save a collapsing Republic,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, October 9, 2021.

[85] See David Mansfield, “A taxing narrative: miscalculating revenues and misunderstanding the conflict in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, October 2021.

[86] “97 percent of Afghans could plunge into poverty by mid 2022, says UNDP,” United Nations Development Programme, September 9, 2021.

 

Andrew Watkins is a senior expert on Afghanistan with the United States Institute of Peace. He has previously lived in and worked on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, the United Nations, humanitarian organizations, and the U.S. Department of State, and as an independent researcher. His work focuses on insurgency, organizational culture, and regional diplomacy.

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