This interview was conducted on 24 August 2021 and has since been updated slightly to reflect recent developments.
The Taliban have been speaking of inclusive forms of governance with women able to work according to Sharia law, but there are also credible reports of violence and human rights violations by the Taliban. What are you seeing happening on the ground?
The Taliban took Kabul, and with Kabul the country, much faster than they thought they would so they are scrambling to catch up. At the same time, they are trying to portray to the rest of the world that they are in control of the country and that they are establishing stability, fighting crime, and fighting a lack of discipline in their own ranks. They are appointing government officials, governors and deputy governors, police chiefs and department heads and posting a lot of pictures of meetings on social media to show work being restarted, as any governing entity struggling with legitimacy does.
But what is it going to look like? The Taliban are saying they will respect the rights of women and minorities within the frameworks of Islam. Several of them have also said that, while in the past they forced people to follow certain rules, now they want to invite them to do it out of their own free will and that they want to do it more gently.
At the same time, we hear reports from Kabul and the rest of the country which clearly go against that. On one hand there are differences of opinion within Taliban ranks of what the rules should be, for example, when it comes to punishing people for how they dress or how they behave or sending people home from their jobs. On the other hand, we see local men holding guns making the rules on the ground, since they have not been clearly communicated yet.
You also see people trying to create more space where they can. When the new Taliban head of the higher education department in Herat told the staff the university could reopen and both men and women could study but they must be in separate classrooms and taught by teachers of their own gender, the staff pushed back saying there were not enough female teachers. They then reached a compromise that elderly male teachers could also teach women. We don’t know whether this will hold or whether what we are seeing is a brief window of relative freedom and room for debate and, once there is clarity there will be a clamping down, or whether there will be regional differences, depending on what is discussed with local representatives. There are small pockets of things that were not possible under the past Taliban regime and that are possible now, but they might just be remnants. For example, people have reported that certain radio stations still play music. This may represent a divergence from the past, but it also might just be something not worth clamping down on yet.
So, we need to see which battles the Taliban will fight and who gets to decide. For instance, while the spokesperson and the head of the cultural commission said all flags are permitted and respected, and leaders are seen in formal meetings with the national flags on display, protests and processions with the Afghan national flag on Independence Day were met with violence. Here, you really see a difference between what the leadership says – and in this case probably means, at least for the time being – and what happens on the ground, with the forces on the ground responding violently to what they saw as the flag of the old regime. It is very much still the beginning where everyone who can, everyone who has influence, tries to shape it in a way that will make space for what they hope happens.
With regards to reports of the Taliban looking for people by name and going from house to house, it is not always clear which visits are indeed menacing and really targeting people and which are just to see who is living where and if there are weapons and government cars they can take. But in the midst of the noise and uncertainty there are strong indications that people are being personally sought and reports of violence, particularly further outside the cities where there are less people paying attention. There will be a reckoning, there is likely to be revenge, as with every turn of power. There will also be a lack of discipline. The Taliban leadership will need to rein in the unruliness. We have heard reports of criminal networks posing as Taliban, particularly in the cities, as well as internally displaced people (IDPs) who had fled earlier American and government attacks in the provinces declaring themselves Taliban.
At the same time, the Taliban are trying to figure out what their government setup is going to look like, who is going to be in charge and which principles will guide what they do. I am not saying things are good, at all, but for a takeover this sudden, it is not overly chaotic. The question is then, should you compare it to how much worse it could have been, and for how long, or to how you want it to be? This will be a recurring dilemma, for instance with a subject like freedoms for women. What to do, if it could be worse, but is still not at all how many people want it to be.
Finally, the thing about following the situation on the ground from a distance, as most of us are doing now, is that there are a lot of people trying to shape the narrative which really muddies the water. Many of us rely partly on using social media – wanting to be careful about contacting people as long as we don’t know what the consequences might be. But there is a lot of noise and, both unintentional and intentional, misinformation.
Much of the international attention has been focused on evacuations but are there other concerns to be aware of?
The big issue we are all worried about is the humanitarian situation. Afghanistan is a very poor country that has received a massive injection of cash over the years, but there were immense differences between the rich and the poor. Some just became incredibly rich. The country has been heavily dependent on aid to run government services and is now in a period of turmoil where it is not clear whether aid organizations and foreign governments will continue to fund areas such as teacher salaries and the health system, where banks are still closed, where the country’s financial assets have been frozen – the IMF has just frozen the aid package for addressing coronavirus. It is understandable that governments want to wait and see what is going to happen on the ground, and they do need to make their aid conditional, but Afghanistan does not have time to wait for governments to take weeks or months to decide whether they are going to support aid programmes.
It probably also needs a lot less money than was being spent so far. Over the last two decades, an enormous aid apparatus was built which was far much more expensive than the country needed. To keep basic services running could probably be done at a fraction of the cost, if done differently. The question is whether donors and international organizations can make that switch, as well as who their counterparts on the ground will be with so many people leaving and it not yet being clear who is in charge where and what they know. This is a huge concern. And it cannot just be treated as a political point of principle, it is also a practical and logistical point. What can we keep running, how, and in partnership with who?
What about concerns that donors might be funding the Taliban?
In my mind, the Taliban are on the way to becoming the government of Afghanistan and so, if you want to deal with Afghanistan, you will in some way be dealing with its government. I can see why it is a switch which is difficult to make, because for so many years the Taliban have been portrayed, and have acted, as a terrorist group that we were fighting. But it is too early to be categorical. In the view of the Taliban, the way they behaved on the battlefield with attacks and assaults was part of the war against an aggressor and with the aggressor is gone, the war is over. Whereas the West sees it as a part of their identity, I think the Taliban saw it as part of their strategy.
In terms of whether to deal with the Taliban, and how, I lived in Kabul under the previous Taliban regime and these questions were very much alive at that time too. Only three countries had recognized that government and it made for an extremely miserable situation. I would not recommend a repeat of that, although I can understand the viewpoint. Collectively we know so much more about the Taliban now that it is not necessary to view them in these incredibly stark black-and-white terms. I don’t want to whitewash them, but I think it is better to respond to their actual behaviour going forward. I would say, that in the future there should at the very least be cooperation and communication with the Taliban, like humanitarian organizations do, who have always worked with all sides. This does not need to involve funding the Taliban, but there should at the very least be relations and ways to negotiate access.
In many areas where the Taliban was in charge over the last few years, there was already a hybrid system in place, particularly in the field of health and education, where the Taliban would oversee it and the government would pay for it. So, there are precedents, it is just that in the minds of many Western politicians it is difficult to accept, and difficult to explain to constituencies. Particularly with the dramatic scenes at the airport, it has really been embedded in people’s minds that there is this terrible regime now that everyone is trying to flee from. But in practice most people will stay behind and they will need help.
How did you view the evacuation effort? How would the Taliban have responded to an extension of the 31 August deadline?
I have incredibly mixed feelings about the evacuation. A lot of the narrative surrounding it was about the West taking out ‘our own’ and ‘our allies’, as if this were a clear-cut category. The situation on the ground is far more complicated than that. Some people indeed fear for their lives because of their direct links to the international intervention. For others it is because of a complicated mix of relationships and powerful people they have antagonized throughout the regimes. Often it is not just fear of the Taliban, but also of other powerful figures or even criminals who have now been released, because chaos provides opportunity for retribution. But the stories told around the evacuation have been quite simplistic.
A lot of people also wanted to leave, even if temporarily, because they did not know how bad and dangerous the situation might become. And because it was so sudden and panicked, people had to make decisions very quickly – huge decisions – without knowing where they were going to end up or under what circumstances. These were mostly people with lives and careers, who would have preferred to stay. So that this is the image of Afghanistan in the rest of the world now is really difficult and heart-breaking. It also confirms an idea the West likes to have of other parts of the world, of countries completely dependent on us, viewing it as: the West helped for 20 years, but now it is leaving people are desperate and want to leave too. It really flattens the story around Afghanistan, the intervention, and how it ended.
To evacuate beyond the 31 August deadline would have been tricky, particularly to keep US forces in the country beyond this date and particularly when President Biden initially suggested he would decide this unilaterally. The Taliban were nervous about the 6,000 troops in the country and would have been insulted if the US still treated Afghanistan as a country where it can do whatever it wants. At the very least it would have had to be negotiated, but I don’t think that the Americans were in that state of mind. The Biden administration had already decided to rip the band-aid off, no matter how much it would hurt. So this was a continuation of that.
International responses have arguably been hasty, ill-thought through and reactive – what useful role can international actors play?
We will need close monitoring and we need countries that say to the Taliban, this is what you say you are doing but this is what is actually happening. And to be able to do that effectively, there needs to at least be the possibility of a constructive relationship. There is a tendency for Western countries to want to yell at the Taliban and tell them what to do. But the Taliban see themselves as the legitimate government now, or at least the ones who will form a government, and they want to be treated as such.
While recognition of the Taliban government obviously should not be a given, the possibility should at the very least be on the table if we want to be able to deal with them. And, depending on how they behave, we will probably need to deal with them, because there is no real alternative. To isolate the people who, we hope, are trying to run the country is going to be incredibly miserable for Afghanistan. The world needs to watch whether they will indeed try to govern, will try to rein in their fighters, disarm them, have discipline, that they will have rules – or try to look for rules – that allow as many people as possible to live how they want to live. If they do none of this, the world may well shun them, but it will be disastrous for the population.
Amrullah Saleh, the vice president, and Ahmad Massoud hope to cultivate a resistance from Panjshir valley – how likely are they to attract support? What will be the main challenges for them on taking on the Taliban, especially if the Taliban gain international recognition?
It is still early days, but we can map what this possible resistance might look like. Amrullah Saleh, even before the Taliban took over, has always been belligerent, insisting that he will fight the Taliban and not back down. Ahmad Massoud is different. On the one hand, he has been courting international media attention, projecting himself as the successor to his father as the leader of the resistance and asking for ammunition, weapons, and support. On the other hand, he has been talking with the Taliban – or at least there have been talks with the Taliban on his behalf – about the status of Panjshir, about whether to be part of a unity government.
There is also a group of northern leaders in Pakistan, who left Kabul just before the president fled. They thought they were going to Pakistan to negotiate on behalf of the transitional unity government and then Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban. Several of them were in the Northern Alliance which originally fought the Taliban in the 1990s. They have not come out in support of Ahmad Massoud’s resistance and are advocating for continued talks around Panjshir and the unity government. They have also said if they cannot come to an agreement and the Taliban misbehave and it all goes wrong, in the end, they will have to fight, but that resistance is not yet on the cards.
The appetite for resistance within Afghanistan seems rather limited at this point, and Ahmad Massoud’s bid has mainly been welcomed among parts of the Afghan diaspora and in the international media. He is photogenic, and it is a great story. It has the whole mystique of his father and the Panjshir. But Ahmad Massoud is not a national figure and Saleh is not very popular. Even within their own Panjshiri and Jamiati ranks, they don’t have the whole group behind them.
Even if the resistance gets outside support, funding, and weapons, it will still be difficult to supply the Panjshir without holding territory around it. The area could well become a gathering place for army units who are angry they were not able to fight and for leaders who the Taliban may antagonize in the future. But in general, I think the appetite for more war is very low at the moment. A lot of people prefer to wait and see how bad it is going to get, or whether it is going to be bearable.
The resistance could become an irritant for the Taliban, forcing them to fight continuous little battles. This could also happen in other parts of the country where local commanders have linked themselves to the Taliban but might just as easily disassociate themselves again. A lot of commanders went back and forth between the Taliban and the government over the last 10 or 20 years and could do that again in the future. This would weaken the Taliban and distract them from governing. But I think the question a lot of people inside the country will ask themselves is: what is the point of a resistance if you will not be able to overthrow the government or to replace it with something else? Do we really want to keep fighting, particularly because it is not yet clear if it is needed?
There is talk of imposing sanctions on Afghanistan? How useful is this as leverage? Or is it more likely to just negatively impact ordinary Afghans?
If no efforts have been made to establish relationships with the Taliban at all and it is also not clear what they need to do to have them lifted, it will purely look punitive. I would think that conditional aid, or the conditional unfreezing of assets, would be much more useful. I am also not exactly clear what the sanctions would be for, maybe because they were told not to take the country by force, not to take the government by force.
But as far as we can tell, they were not planning to. They were just outside Kabul, waiting for negotiations to start about a transitional unity government when, suddenly, the sitting government dissolved and there was the threat of chaos – which you could say is an excuse, but it was an actual problem. Someone needed to step in. So, it needs to be clear what the sanctions would be a response to, why they would be sanctioned, and what they should do to have them lifted.