By Abdulkader Sinno*
Afghanistan has largely returned to Taliban rule after 20 years of US-led occupation. There are still bastions of resistance to undisputed Taliban control from the local branch of the so-called Islamic State militant group (IS-Khorasan or ISK), Panjshiri forces, Hazara militias and urban women protesting in the hope of preserving the limited emancipation they regained in the past two decades.
What will the future hold for a Taliban-led Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is on the brink of economic collapse. Some Western leaders are threatening sanctions. Western media are largely talking of a Taliban threat. Neighbouring countries are hurriedly considering how to deal with Afghanistan’s new regime.
The Taliban are managing their transition to power in a strategic manner but have also made mistakes. Their blanket amnesty toward opponents — with some exceptions — facilitates their transition by pre-empting further conflict, preserving some state institutions and increasing popular support. It also frames them as legitimate leaders continuing a longstanding Afghan tradition. Taliban cooperation with the Biden administration’s large-scale evacuation in late August 2021 was an effort to cast themselves as responsible actors who should be recognised by other states as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers.
The Taliban also maintain a first-rate communications strategy. When Western media reported objectionable Taliban behaviour in some areas, their spokesman quickly explained that such acts are due to lack of discipline rather than Taliban policy.
The Taliban’s attempts to present a reformed image are undermined by the interim government’s failure to include non-Taliban members. Only a handful of cabinet members are not Pashtun: three Tajiks and one Uzbek out of 24 cabinet members in a country where the Pashtun make up about 40 per cent of the population. Including a few non-Taliban members would have demonstrated that they are more inclusive than they were in the 1990s.
The Taliban will likely sideline ISK because the terrorist organisation has become largely irrelevant. ISK was formed by Taliban defectors who felt that the former Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was uncommitted to jihad against foreign occupiers. Now that the Taliban has won the war against these foreign occupiers, there is no compelling reason for ISK to exist. Recent ISK terrorist attacks against Hazara Shias are an indication of weakness, not strength — this is how ISK is trying to appear relevant.
The Panjshiri resistance was formed by previous Mujahideen, their children and previous regime operatives from the area, but it now appears rather weak. Still, resistance could accelerate if the Taliban mistreat civilians in Panjshir province.
Shia Hazara militias, who have often been on the receiving end of mistreatment by Pashtuns, will likely resist the Taliban in the future. Iranian recruitment of Hazara militias to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan against Sunni Muslim forces also hardens Taliban views toward the Shia minority. A lack of trust and Iranian support for Hazara militias may result in a more forceful Taliban occupation of the Hazarajat region, the traditional home of the ethnic group.
The Taliban are less likely to tolerate protests by urbanites, including educated Afghan women. Any concessions on women’s rights in the short term will be symbolic. The Taliban have already acknowledged some protester demands by accepting the principle that women could participate in government below the ministerial level, though none were actually appointed.
The Taliban have committed to educate women as long as education is segregated by gender. They indicate that they will not ban secular education, only remove elements in the curriculum they believe clash with their faith. Of course, these are matters of interpretation and the Taliban could become more restrictive.
Tension already exists on some of these issues among the Taliban — the acting minister of education has made statements about limiting access to secular content while the acting minister of higher education has made more conciliatory statements. More recently, the Taliban chancellor of Kabul University committed to banning female education on campus but the Taliban official spokesman indicated that his words do not reflect official Taliban policy.
Unlike their previous rule in the 1990s, the Taliban seem very serious about maintaining functioning ministries and services. They assured civil servants about their safety and encouraged most of them to return to work. They also replaced the corrupt courts of the previous regime with their own Sharia courts. On the other hand, they replaced Afghanistan’s Women’s Ministry with their infamous Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a hallmark of their previous rule.
The Taliban will continue to face serious challenges governing the country. These include a severe brain drain from the educated managerial class and the need to reform the corrupt institutions they inherited from the previous regime. The Taliban must also work to dismantle patronage networks and navigate a looming economic crisis with the reduction of foreign aid that helped keep Afghanistan’s economy afloat.
Despite its challenges, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan benefits from a fairly favourable international environment. China seems willing to invest in Afghanistan, and the United States is more concerned about ISK than the Taliban. Even Iran seems bent on improving ties with the Taliban, despite the tensions between the Pashtun group and the Shia Hazara minority. Pakistan has long been a supporter of the Afghan Taliban and will likely recognise their government early. Russia and its allies in Central Asia have already learned that there is little to gain from intervening in Afghanistan.
It is not reasonable to measure the future accomplishments of the Taliban by the yardstick of gains made by stable, advanced and industrialised societies. It will be impressive enough if they provide Afghanistan with a measure of unity, stability, independence, security and peace — something the country hasn’t experienced since 1979. The best thing the West can do in the meantime is to leave Afghanistan alone.
*About the author: Abdulkader Sinno is Associate Professor of Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum