Now that the Taliban have consolidated control over Afghanistan and formed an interim government, the world will soon find out whether the victorious insurgents are actually capable of running the country they have reconquered — or whether they will run it straight into the ground. So far, the group has shown no inclination to temper the brutal austerity of its vision for an Islamic emirate, but the Taliban government also appears unlikely to maintain internal cohesion, domestic and international legitimacy, or any semblance of competent governance. What this means for the Taliban and for the Afghan people remains deeply uncertain.
The composition of the government announced earlier this month shattered any international expectations that the Taliban had become more inclusive or moderated its ideology. The interim cabinet is all male and overwhelmingly made up of Pashtuns, the predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. Most of its members are Taliban loyalists, including some old-guard figures from its last stint in power in the late 1990s. Some are notorious terrorists, such as interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the FBI’s most wanted list with a $10 million bounty on his head.
During their negotiations with the Trump administration last year and their rapid rise to power as U.S. forces withdrew, the Taliban have sought to project an image of legitimacy, rationality, and relative tolerance abroad, to assure world leaders that their return to power would not result in a total collapse of human rights and the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a cradle of terrorism.
Taliban leaders have been cagey, however, about just what they mean when they say, for example, that they will respect the rights of women “within Islamic law.” The pledges of moderation are contradicted by what is reportedly happening on the ground throughout Afghanistan following the militant group’s victory: girls’ schools being shut down; women being told to stay home from their jobs and restricted from leaving their homes without a male guardian; reports of forced marriages, harassment, and executions. Female middle and high-school students have been prevented from returning to school, universities are being segregated by gender, and the ministry of women’s affairs has now been replaced with the “Ministry for Preaching and Guidance and the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.”
All signs point to a Taliban that is no more enlightened than it was 20 or 25 years ago, even if its leaders are a bit more media-savvy and attuned to the value of optics. The group is ideologically opposed to democracy and does not plan to hold elections. It is still not clear how the Taliban plans to organize the legislative and judicial functions of government, but there is no reason to expect these institutions to be representative or inclusive.
The open question, then, is not just whether the Taliban plan to rule any differently than before (and they likely don’t), but whether they can govern effectively enough to hold onto power, and whether the pressures of governing will force them to make concessions and moderate their positions. Afghanistan in 2021 is not Afghanistan in 1996, when they last took control: While the country remains deeply impoverished and underdeveloped, with very low levels of literacy and internet penetration by global standards, the population has grown significantly, and Afghans today are better educated and connected with the outside world than they were a quarter-century ago (especially in the major cities). At the same time, the eyes of the world are trained on Afghanistan, whereas the country received little international attention before the 9/11 attacks. The challenge of obtaining and maintaining domestic and international legitimacy is much more daunting for the Taliban — indeed, the fact that they now seek international legitimacy at all is perhaps the one significant difference from the 1990s.
Already, the new Taliban government appears to be in disarray. The group’s supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has not been seen in public since the takeover, fueling speculation that he may be ill or dead. Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy prime minister, also disappeared from view earlier this month and was rumored injured or killed in a physical brawl among Taliban leaders, until he went on television last week to reassure everyone that he was alive and well. Other leaders, like Haqqani, are apparently in hiding out of longstanding fear that they might be targeted in U.S. drone strikes. Sharp divisions have reportedly emerged between more pragmatic and hardline factions within the senior Taliban leadership, including disagreements over the makeup of the cabinet. The hardliners appear to have prevailed for the time being, but these early conflicts do not bode well for the group’s ability to coherently govern a country of 38 million people.
The question of the Taliban’s ability to govern carries no small amount of urgency, as Afghanistan is facing economic and humanitarian crises that would test the abilities of even a stable, well-established government. The country is experiencing a severe drought that threatens to spiral into a famine, with 14 million Afghans at risk of “acute food insecurity,” according to the World Food Program. Millions could starve in the coming year without food aid, and long-term food and water security challenges loom beyond the immediate emergency. In the meantime, civil servants have not been paid, the nation’s currency has depreciated, and the economy appears to be collapsing.
To rescue the Afghan economy, the Taliban government will need to attract aid and investment from the international community, most of which is reluctant to do business with a despotic theocracy that subjugates women and persecutes ethnic and religious minorities. China has emerged as a potential lifeline, as Beijing is willing to look the other way at even the most egregious human rights violations. But even China, which would like to get its hands on some of Afghanistan’s $1 trillion in untapped mineral wealth, is not necessarily willing to invest in a country where it can’t safely send engineers or where the government may be providing a safe haven for terrorist groups that target China.
The new government must also contend with brain drain, as the Afghans who have fled the country since the U.S withdrawal and those who continue to look for ways out are disproportionately educated people with specialized skills. Afghans who assisted the occupying U.S. and allied forces or worked for the former government or foreign aid organizations have fled or tried to flee out of fear of retribution from the Taliban. It will be very difficult to provide public services if the people who know how to do that work have left: this is one reason why the Taliban tried to prevent would-be asylum seekers from reaching Kabul airport last month to be airlifted out of the country by the U.S.
At the same time, the Taliban are stupidly enforcing another form of brain drain by once again shutting women out of the workforce. The interim mayor of Kabul announced on Sunday that most female employees of the city government had been told to stay home pending a further decision — except those who could not be replaced by men. In addition to being morally outrageous, the choice to curtail women’s rights is a strategic mistake, as it will hold Afghanistan back by preventing half the population from participating in its economy and government. Relegating women to their homes will only hasten the country’s economic collapse.
While Taliban leaders are failing to keep their two-faced promises about women’s rights, they also have to deal with another gendered crisis: large numbers of unemployed young men. The Taliban foot soldiers who have waged the insurgency over the past 20 years have few skills other than warfare, and integrating these men into a peacetime economy will be challenging for their leaders. Do they just tell them to go back to their family farms or find jobs in the cities, try to organize them into a police force, or give them administrative jobs for which they are completely unqualified? In any case, who will pay their salaries? Meanwhile, many of these men are poorly educated and deeply ideological, having been indoctrinated into the Taliban’s extremist worldview. They expect to be part of a fundamentalist Islamic state and could become disloyal and troublesome if their leaders decide to make compromises. Already, in recent years, the Taliban has seen defections in its ranks to the more ideologically extreme ISIS-K, the local affiliate of the notorious terrorist group.
On one hand, the Taliban could earn international respect by including women and ethnic minorities in the government, by holding elections, or by welcoming their rivals into a unity government. Actions like these might also win them more popularity in Kabul and other major cities. On the other hand, the conservative, rural, male, Pashtun constituency from which they draw their core supporters would be outraged and could even revolt. The balancing act of maintaining legitimacy among the rural and urban, illiterate and educated, ultraconservative and more cosmopolitan segments of Afghan society may prove an impossible task for this government.
Speaking of the rural/urban divide, what experience the Taliban do have in some form of civil government has been in the countryside, where the former government in Kabul exercised little real authority, the population is sparse, and there is little civilian infrastructure to manage or maintain. Managing the sprawling metropolis of Kabul, with over 4 million residents, or even smaller cities like Herat or Jalalabad, is a much taller order. The Taliban loyalists now in charge of the government, as well as the interim mayors appointed to the cities, have none of the expertise they need to do the jobs they are now expected to do. To cope with this responsibility, the Taliban would need to accept help from former adversaries who actually know how to do these jobs. It would also help if they appointed officials based on competency, rather than loyalty or seniority within the Taliban — but they’re probably not going to do that.
History provides few examples of successful insurgencies transforming into successful governments. The skills honed in guerrilla warfare don’t translate easily into the peacetime work of political power brokering, legislation, monetary policy, urban planning, or trash collection. At the moment, the Taliban government does not appear up to the challenge of governing Afghanistan — a notoriously difficult country to run under any circumstances. Perhaps, if the Taliban fail miserably, their regime will collapse and what follows in its wake will be better. Or perhaps the country will plunge once again into anarchy and civil war. In any case, the world should be prepared for the possibility that, for better or worse, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is as destined for debacle as the state which preceded it.