Afghanistan: One year of Taliban rule

Even if Afghanistan does not fall back into outright conflict, there is no end in sight to the suffering of the Afghan people.

Expert comment
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Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

One year after the Taliban’s ascent to power in Afghanistan, the plight of Afghans is worsening. The economic situation is dire, malnutrition rates are increasing, women’s rights are being curtailed, there is continuing migration and internal displacement, and the health care system is crumbling – the already high maternal mortality rates are thought to have increased four-fold.

Since seizing power, the Taliban claim they have achieved full territorial control, established security and removed ‘islands of illegitimate power’. However, while physical security has improved by some measures – aid agencies report enhanced access to some provinces – a significant rise in attacks by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) targeting Shia and other minorities is one of many reminders that Afghanistan is far from secure. In addition, targeted killings of high-profile Taliban supporters and members, some claimed by the IS-KP in suicide attacks mimicking Taliban tactics, underline the vicious nature of the ongoing conflict.  

The recent killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a US drone attack drew international attention to the Taliban’s inability or lack of willingness – perhaps both – to break with Al-Qaeda.

The West, led by the United States, had hoped that their threat of reduced financial support would help influence the Taliban’s behaviour, in particular to ensure that women’s rights are protected and that international terrorists are not given sanctuary in Afghanistan. The demand for women’s rights was simply ignored while the demand about cutting links with international terrorism was provided lip service. The recent killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a US drone attack drew international attention to the Taliban’s inability or lack of willingness – perhaps both – to break with Al-Qaeda. The fact that Al-Zawahiri was residing in the heart of Kabul’s upscale diplomatic neighbourhood in a house that is reportedly owned by a top aide of the de facto regime’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani – himself the subject of a $10 million US bounty – seems to confirm earlier warnings by the UN that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda ‘remained close’.

An economy on life support

The Taliban inherited what was, at best, an already weak state.

The catastrophic economic cost of the Taliban takeover has arguably had the most profound impact on ordinary Afghans. Mass unemployment, a collapse of the housing market, and increased rates of malnutrition are only some of the many tangible signs of an economic catastrophe. But the Taliban inherited what was, at best, an already weak state. Even before events in August last year, Afghanistan ranked at the bottom of several socioeconomic indices, such as the Human Development Index, was ravaged by conflict, dependent on aid and plagued by weak institutions. Government spending on development projects had also fallen in recent years as spending switched to security in anticipation of expanded Taliban onslaughts.

Over the past year, Afghanistan’s economy has been on life support. Crippling sanctions against senior Taliban leaders have paralysed the banking sector and prevented Afghanistan from engaging with the international financial system and its institutions. The value of its currency, the afghani, has plummeted, raising the cost of imports and exacerbating inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. The civilian government institutions that were previously the country’s largest employer are now unable to pay salaries even to the reduced number of remaining personnel. To make matters worse, Afghanistan’s agriculture sector has been affected by drought and natural disasters, such as flash floods and the June 2022 earthquake. 

How does the Taliban govern?

The Taliban largely works through the remnants of the structures and state institutions it inherited, with the exception of entities it dissolved such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commissions and offices dedicated to the management of parliamentary affairs, as the Afghan parliament has been dismantled.

If the alleged rifts and apparent schisms among the Taliban intensify, it is highly unlikely that a transition to a more inclusive government will ever take place.

Following the political and military transition of 2014, when most US and NATO troops left Afghanistan and the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) was formed, the Taliban adapted their tactics in the rural areas where they held influence. A key aspect of this change involved intervening in local dispute resolution mechanisms, such as resolving land disputes. Since seizing power, the Taliban has continued to rely on a heavy-handed approach towards matters of justice and dispute resolution. However, there is no evidence that the regime has a penal code, a functioning judiciary or that it has provided the necessary guidance to Afghanistan’s few remaining judges. Everyday matters relating to the rule of law are mostly about ‘morality’. The Taliban has reinstated its Ministry of Vice and Virtue to oversee such matters, which range from severe restrictions on women’s role in society to a ban on music and dress code for men and women.

The current de facto regime, announced in September 2021, is supposed to be an interim administration. But there is no timeline or clarity on a potential transition to a more permanent set-up. Crucially, if the alleged rifts and apparent schisms among the Taliban intensify, it is highly unlikely that a transition to a more inclusive government will ever take place. Recent Afghan history bears painful reminders. In 1992, Mujahideen factions failed to establish a broad-based government after creating an interim administration, leading to a brutal civil war that ultimately paved the way for the Taliban to seize power in 1996.

Regional engagement

The West’s strategy of aid conditionality has clearly failed.

Regional actors and Afghanistan’s neighbours have attempted to engage with the Taliban.  Several countries, such as Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia, have kept their embassies open to enable active channels of engagement with the Taliban regime – without giving it formal recognition. The killing of Al-Zawahiri and the failure of the Taliban to demonstrate it had cut ties with Al-Qaeda will undoubtedly make it harder for the regional actors to do so, raising the likelihood of greater tension between the regime and the outside world. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is also affecting the security situation for its neighbours. Taliban’s closest ally, Pakistan, is facing increased activity by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an insurgent group allied to the Afghan Taliban.

Since August 2021, the Taliban’s main focus has been maintaining internal unity and this is unlikely to change in the near term. Paying their fighters and soldiers, maintaining harmony between hardliners and more pragmatic elements, and ensuring territorial control remain central to Taliban rule. Against the backdrop of economic collapse, the Taliban will seek to extract a share of any aid flows into the country.

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The West’s strategy of aid conditionality – asking the Taliban to moderate their behaviour on women’s rights and other issues in return for funding – has clearly failed. It is imperative for the West to develop mechanisms that prevent the Afghan population from being punished for the Taliban’s takeover, while not formally affirming the Taliban’s de facto government.

Afghanistan’s history over the past half a century suggests that alternative fronts resisting the regime in power do not take long to emerge. It also demonstrates a tendency for external actors to support their proxies in Afghanistan. But even if the country does not fall back into outright conflict, in the short term there is no end in sight to the suffering of the Afghan people.