Afghanistan: The Glory And Misery Of The Taliban Regime – Analysis


From 2001 to 2021, Western-style democracy was forcibly introduced in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani’s Afghan government, which the Taliban fought against, was weakened by deep internal divisions, infighting and rampant corruption.

The democratic government had strong support from the international community, but the results were very modest. Billions of dollars have been invested in Afghanistan’s democracy. The US Congress alone allocated more than 146 billion dollars for the reconstruction of the country and the establishment of a democratic order. Although progress has been made in almost all fields, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.

The situation on the eve of the Taliban takeover of power

The Trump administration retained 2,500 US troops ahead of the full military withdrawal the US committed to under the US-Taliban accord of February 2020. US officials pledged to continue providing financial support to government forces. At the same time, the Taliban were arguably at their strongest since 2001.

Weeks after new President Joe Biden confirmed that international forces would leave Afghanistan by the fall of 2021, Taliban troops began conquering large swaths of the country. The Taliban’s advance was achieved through struggle and negotiations. While the Taliban faced strong resistance from government forces in some areas, others were captured with minimal resistance. Often, the Taliban secured the surrender and departure of government forces by paying bribes or through local elders who wanted to avoid bloodshed.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose seven-year tenure has been marked by an electoral crisis, pervasive corruption and a gradual weakening of the military, fled the country on August 15 for the UAE. On the same day, Taliban fighters began entering Kabul, taking control of the entire country. Today, a year and a half later, the most significant characteristics of the Taliban regime can be listed.

“Caretaker government”

On September 7, 2021, the Taliban announced the establishment of an “interim government” to rule Afghanistan. The Taliban call their government, as they have done before, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban, who did not adopt a constitution during their first rule, announced that they intended to rule according to Islamic law (Sharia), although they remained vague.

Haibatullah Akhundzada, the leader of the Taliban, has held supreme power as an emir since 2016. He had only a few recorded public appearances. Almost all members of the government are former officials from the previous government in the 1990s or longtime loyalists. All are men, the vast majority are ethnic Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group in the country) and most are from southern Afghanistan.

More than half of the government’s members are under US or UN sanctions for links to terrorism, including Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. The State Department has for years offered a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to his arrest. Haqqani is the head of the Haqqani Network, an Islamist organization designated as a terrorist organization by the US for carrying out numerous attacks on US and other international targets in Afghanistan.

In the early days of the new regime, some observers hoped that the Taliban might turn to former Afghan government officials or others outside their movement in line with their promise to establish an “inclusive government.” The Taliban, however, have not fulfilled that promise and are filling positions in the government and ministries with military or religious figures with little professional experience, worsening the already bad situation in the country.

There are also strong internal frictions and tensions that threaten additional destabilization. Points of tension exist between politicians (such as First Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Baradar) and its military leaders (Haqqani et al) over who deserves the most credit for the victory. Tensions are strong between the leadership that strives for stability and ordinary fighters who want to adapt to post-war life, but also between those with different ideological perspectives and different ethnic identities. In a speech in February, Haqqani criticized the “monopolization of power” within certain Taliban circles, prompting other Taliban figures to say that criticism should be made in private.

Systematic discrimination of all minorities

Discrimination and violence against minority communities in Afghanistan are not new, but under the new Taliban regime, minorities suffer the most. Under Taliban rule, minority groups in Afghanistan experience systematic discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, language and religion. The Taliban are Sunni Muslims and have a long history of persecuting minority religious groups including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Shia Muslims. The Taliban are mainly members of the Pashtun ethnic group and speak the Pashto language. Minority ethnic groups include Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks, many of whom speak the Dari language. There have been reports of extrajudicial killings of minority groups across the country. The Taliban, both legally and illegally, kill members of minority groups, especially Hazaras and Tajiks.

Afghan human rights fighters, especially women, face arbitrary arrests and torture, abductions, gang rapes, psychophysical abuse, house searches, and physical threats of violence against family members. Public space is tightly controlled by the Taliban, who have overturned the Constitution and turned to a radical interpretation of Islamic law.

In November 2022, judges were ordered to begin enforcing Sharia law, which includes public floggings and executions. The absence of a judicial system leaves no guarantee or space for citizens to exercise their social and political rights through protests. The Taliban intimidated journalists and restricted press freedom, leading to the closure of more than 200 news outlets.

In the list of 50 countries that oppress Christians the most, Afghanistan ranks high in 9th place. After the Taliban took over, Christians found themselves in extreme danger, as accurately described by the US government’s religious agency. Many fled and sought asylum, while those Christians who remained in the country reported that they were hiding from the Taliban’s actions. The Taliban falsely claim that there are no more “Christians” in Afghanistan. There are probably around 10 to 12 thousand of them. The former first lady from 2014 to 2021, Rula Ghani, is a Maronite Christian from Lebanon. Child marriage rates have also increased.

The difficult position of women and girls

Although the Taliban’s takeover has reduced the high levels of violence that characterized the war, the Taliban’s return to power has had a significant negative impact on Afghan women and girls. In a September 2022 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan said: “In no other country have women and girls disappeared so quickly from all spheres of public life, nor are they disadvantaged in every aspect of their lives “.

After taking power, the Taliban closed down the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which was part of the former Afghan government, and re-established the Ministry of Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vices, as in the 1990s. The ministry has issued guidelines that impose new restrictions on women. The December 2021 restrictions include a ban on driving long distances or flying without a male guardian. The May 2022 decree prescribes penalties for male relatives of women who do not wear a full-body hijab. The November 2022 decision prohibits women from entering public parks and swimming pools.

The Taliban banned girls from attending secondary schools. The education of girls is a matter of contention within the Taliban leadership. Some hardliners like Akhundzad support it while Baradar and Haqqani support secondary education for girls. The influence of traditionalists and reluctance to make pragmatic decisions is visible, which shows that the international community has limited influence on the Taliban’s decisions. Some Afghan women continued to provide informal education to girls in clandestine schools.

In December 2022, the Taliban banned girls from attending college. In the same month, the Taliban also banned women from working for national and international NGOs, threatening NGOs that did not comply with this decision. In response, an estimated 94% of Afghan NGOs have completely or partially ceased operations, and 11 American NGOs have suspended operations in the country. The ban was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council. Women are mostly prohibited from working, which according to the UN will lead to a 5% drop in GDP.

Economic decline and humanitarian crisis

It is the economy that is the cancer of Afghanistan. The return of the Taliban has exacerbated one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, as Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries dependent on foreign aid. International donors provided billions of dollars annually in support to the former Afghan government, financing more than half of its annual budget of $6 billion and as much as 80% of total public expenditures.

Much of that development aid was cut off in August 2021, causing the nation’s GDP to drop by as much as 35% in 2021 and 2022. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan said in December 2022 that “the Taliban’s economic governance was more effective than expected”, due to lower corruption, higher revenue collection and the relative stability of Afghanistan’s currency. However, the economy continues to rely on international donations, including the UN, which sent $1.8 billion in humanitarian aid in cash between December 2021 and January 2023.

The economic situation in the country was bad even before the Taliban due to war, drought and the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Taliban’s incompetence further worsened the situation. More than half of Afghanistan’s 39 million people faced acute food shortages in October 2021. Human Rights Watch reported in November 2021 that Afghanistan is facing widespread hunger due to an economic and banking crisis.

Experts from the UN agency World Food Program stated at the beginning of this year that 90% of Afghans do not have enough food to live on. The vast majority of Afghans live in poverty. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 26.1 million Afghans received at least one form of aid in 2022 and that “the outlook remains poor” given the predicted droughts and high commodity prices.

Armed opposition – NRF

Although the Taliban’s takeover of power in August 2021 was swift, their triumph, according to many analysts, reflected not so much popular support for the movement as a lack of support for the former government. Many elements of Afghan society, particularly in urban areas, appear to view the Taliban with skepticism, fear or hostility.

A small number of citizens nonviolently demonstrated advocating their rights and expressing opposition to the regime. The Taliban violently dispersed these protests and openly suppressed dissent. The regime is currently facing armed resistance from two very different groups. The first is the National Resistance Front (NRF), made up of people associated with the overthrown democratic government. NRF leaders have appealed for US and international support and have maintained a representative office based in Washington.

It is interesting that, unlike some other leaders dear to the West, such as Juan Guaido, the leader of the NRF, Ahmad Massoud, did not receive the explicit public support of any foreign country, let alone the recognition of the leader of the government in exile. This is due to the Taliban’s relatively strong military position and the Taliban’s close ties to regional powers, including some that previously opposed them in the 1990s, such as Russia and Iran.

In addition, strategically speaking, Taliban Afghanistan is not something that worries the Americans who knew very well what would happen when they withdrew their army. The NRF has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on Taliban fighters, mostly in and around the northeastern province of Panjshir. However, the NRF appears to have neither the military capabilities nor the broad popular support needed to seriously threaten the government in Kabul.

Armed opposition – ISKP

Another group, undeniably militarily more dangerous, consists of the local branch of the Islamic State – the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), also known as ISIS-K, a longtime opponent of the Taliban. The ISKP has opposed the Taliban since its founding in 2015 because it is bothered by the Taliban’s nationalist political project focused on Afghanistan, which is opposed to ISIS’s universalist vision of a global jihad that should ultimately lead to the Vatican becoming a Muslim place, as Bosnian Islamist Bilal puts it Bosnian.

Since the Taliban took over, ISKP ranks have grown to as many as 6,000 fighters despite the Taliban offensive. At least 16 terrorist attacks were carried out by the ISKP between August 2021 and September 2022 against the Hazara minority Shiite community in mosques, schools and workplaces, killing more than 700 people. An attack was also carried out on a Sikh place of worship, which undermined the Taliban’s assurance that it would provide security to all ethnic communities. Attacks on the embassies of Russia (September 2022), Pakistan (December 2022) and a hotel housing Chinese diplomats and executives (also December 2022) make a mockery of the Taliban regime’s security arrangements that seek to provide security for the few remaining foreign embassies in Kabul. There were also cross-border rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In the morning hours of March 9, in the country’s fourth largest city, Mazar-i-Sharif, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the office of Mohammad Dawood Muzammil, the Taliban governor of Afghanistan’s Balkh province. The ISKP claimed responsibility for the assassination of one of the highest-ranking figures in the Taliban administration. Muzammil, in his capacity as the governor of Nangarhar, led the fight against ISKP and was transferred to Balkh in late 2022.

Prior to this, ISKP killed Abdul Haq Abu Omar, the Taliban police commander for Badakhshan province and a Taliban judge in Jalalabad. These killings introduced the conflict between the Taliban and the ISKP into a completely new phase. Since coming to power, the Taliban’s response to the jihadist threat has ranged from denying the ISKP’s presence on Afghan soil to portraying the group as insignificant. The Taliban regime refused any outside help to solve this problem.

Almost every ISKP attack is always followed by a Taliban counter-attack on ISKP hideouts in Kabul and elsewhere during which the alleged perpetrators of the attacks are liquidated. For example the killing of Qari Fateh, the alleged ISKP intelligence chief, during a Taliban raid in Kabul in February this year, was highlighted as a successful retaliation for attacks on Russian, Pakistani and Chinese diplomatic missions.

At the beginning of January, eight ISKP members were killed in Kabul and Nimroz province. A government spokesman claimed that those responsible for the attacks on a hotel in Kabul, the Pakistani embassy, and the airport in the capital were liquidated. In any case, the Islamic State of Khorosan represents an existential threat to the government in Kabul and represents a wider global problem that should concern foreign diplomats and intelligence officers.

Relations with neighboring countries

Relations in the region directly affect the development of events in Afghanistan, which has no access to the sea or any special natural barriers on its borders, and therefore throughout its history it has been constantly subject to interventions by its neighbors and superpowers.

Events in Afghanistan also have consequences for neighboring countries. Pakistan is the most important neighboring country that supported the Taliban regime in the 1990s and their subsequent guerrilla struggle. Many analysts (at least initially) saw the Taliban takeover as a triumph of Pakistan’s regional politics. Senior Pakistani officials held numerous meetings with the new Taliban government, both in Kabul and Islamabad.

However, according to some developments, it seems that the Taliban’s return to power could pose a challenge to Pakistan. The victory of the Taliban provides an injection of moral support, and perhaps a material boost, to Pakistani Islamist terrorist groups, including the so-called Pakistani Taliban – TTP.

TTP attacks on Pakistani security forces increased after August 2021 and reportedly prompted the Pakistani government to seek mediation from the Afghan Taliban. The TTP continued to attack Pakistani targets, including an attack in January 2023 that attacked police officers and killed more than 100 people. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are further complicated by the presence of over one million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, as well as a long-running and ethnically colored dispute over their 2,500 km interstate border. Afghan and Pakistani border forces have occasionally clashed on it during the past year.

Iran, with which Afghanistan shares a western border, opposed Taliban rule in the 1990s but has now maintained diplomatic relations, emphasizing the need to represent in power Afghan ethnic and religious groups with which Iran has close ties. More precisely, it is about the Tajiks who speak a variant of Persian and the Khazars who are mostly Shiites. There are still disputes over water sources and refugees with occasional border clashes.

Neighbors in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan) reacted in different ways to the Taliban in power. The governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan appear to prioritize economic ties, including the planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, and have held official meetings with the Taliban. Tajikistan, on the other hand, opposed the Taliban and offered sanctuary to the anti-Taliban NRF. This is a consequence of the Tajik authorities’ struggle with Islamist militants, as well as ties with Afghan Tajiks (the country’s second largest ethnic group), some of whom are opposed to Taliban rule.

Relations with China are a separate story. China, which played a relatively limited role in Afghanistan under the former government, made some economic investments in Afghanistan (particularly in the development of minerals and other resources) before taking over from the Taliban, but large projects did not materialize due to instability, lack of infrastructure and other constraints. Despite concerns about Islamist terrorist groups based in Afghanistan because of its problem with the Muslim population in Xinjiang, Beijing has tacitly accepted Taliban rule. During a visit to Kabul in May 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that China “respects the independent elections of the Afghan people.”

How to help the Afghan people and not the regime?

The question of all questions is how to help the Afghan people and not the regime? The US has provided over $1.1 billion in humanitarian aid since the Taliban took over. Such aid differs greatly from the previous aid amounting to over $5 billion annually between 2019 and 2021 (in addition to helping the people, the funds were used to pay the salaries of civil and military officials and made up a large part of the national GDP).

The two elements of US policy that have the greatest impact on the humanitarian situation are sanctions and monitoring of the reserves of the Central Bank of Afghanistan (DAB). US sanctions against the Taliban (in force in various forms since 1999) remain, but it is unclear to what extent they are affecting humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban took power, the US Treasury Department has issued several statements saying US sanctions against the Taliban do not prohibit aid and has authorized some humanitarian payments.

The US government froze the assets of US-based DAB days after the Taliban entered Kabul. Taliban and some foreign leaders have called on the US to unfreeze these assets, which total about 7 billion dollars. In September 2022, the US government announced the establishment of the “Afghanistan Fund” (based in Switzerland) to pay $3.5 billion in aid to the Afghan economy. At the time of writing in March, no payouts have yet been made. The other half of the funds ($3.5 billion) is also held by the US government, but it is assumed that it will be transferred to a fund account in Switzerland after a federal court in New York recently ruled that the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack are not entitled to this money as compensation for attack.

A good aid plan was presented by the UN in 2022 under the name Transitional Engagement Framework. The plan is based on providing basic services to the people, including deliveries of basic necessities and medical assistance. The plan calls for the UN to establish a minimally functional relationship with the Taliban. In short, the plan proposed by the UN involves unprecedented financial, political and human risks, as well as creating new potential for corruption. The Taliban already have experience in trying to use humanitarian aid to strengthen their rule. At the beginning of this year, the UN approved a humanitarian aid appeal worth $4.6 billion, and time will tell the results: how much donors will donate and what the effects will be.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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