How will the 'new' Taliban rule Afghanistan?
On the 15th of August, the Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and left the gates to Kabul wide open for the militants to enter.
A few hours later, the Taliban posed for photos behind Ghani’s desk at the presidential palace.
The Taliban’s surge into Kabul marked its second successful venture since the group’s birth in 1995, when the Islamist group banned music, television, and cinema while forbidding girls over the age of 10 from attending school.
This time around, Taliban fighters armed with seized US-supplied weapons posed for selfies and published video clips of their victory on social media.
"We have to recognise that there is abundant political continuity in the Taliban from the last time they were in power"
In the late 1990s, a woman walking outside without a legitimate male companion would likely have faced lashes from Taliban fighters. Now, its fighters and leaders appeared in interviews with female reporters as soon as they entered Kabul.
Recently, the Taliban’s new governor for Kandahar, Yousef Wafa, said that “no one will be threatened for [their] beard, hair, and listening to music. Religious clerics will guide them away from sins gently”.
The Taliban’s spokesperson in Doha, meanwhile, shared a photo on his Twitter account of young girls going to school.
However, most observers remain wary. Reports have emerged of Taliban fighters going door-to-door searching for former employees of the Afghan government and Western countries, with evidence of arrests, killings, and intimidation, including of the Hazara minority.
Days after their triumph in Kabul, female journalists were barred from returning to their jobs.
While there is cautious optimism that the Taliban may have changed, many fear their behaviour could take a turn at any time.
A new Taliban in the making
Two decades of fighting the Afghan government and its international partners, and years of negotiations with the US, have made the Taliban movement resolute in its cause.
Despite losing its founder Mullah Omar and other influential leaders in the past two decades, many of the old guard still holds sway.
“We have to recognise that there is abundant political continuity in the Taliban from the last time they were in power,” Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security scholar affiliated with Stanford’s CISAC, told The New Arab.
“Yes, there are some new leaders, but the political echelon of the Taliban today has many important leaders from the 1990s.”
The Taliban ideology has largely remained the same as when it reigned over most of the country from the mid-1990s. Since the start of negotiations with the US, the Taliban delegation has not divulged much about the type of governance system the movement sought.
“The core values of the Taliban remain the same: They are very committed to their Islamic Emirate; see their leader as more than a political leader, a supreme religious leader; reject elections and centre their favoured school of Islamic theology in their political vision for the country,” South Asia expert Asfandyar Mir told TNA.
In July, when the Taliban took control of Spin Boldak in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, rights groups say its fighters committed grave atrocities.
Hundreds of residents were detained and accused of working with the government, with some killed, despite announcements that they would be safe under the Taliban.
When the Taliban faced tough resistance in Lashkar Gah in southwestern Afghanistan, a Taliban affiliated Twitter account wrote, “the amnesty announced should be revoked for the remaining besieged slaves in Lashkar Gah and one by one they should be executed in revenge of the common people of Lashkar Gah”.
"Running the whole bureaucratic structure left behind by the Afghan republic is an enormous task. There is also the challenge of funding the government"
Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen has rejected reports of revenge killings.
However, the group seems to have modified its behaviour since capturing Kandahar and Helmand provinces. In Herat, for example, after capturing 75-year-old commander Ismail Khan many were surprised by the Taliban’s political maturity in dealing with the resistance leader and others in the province.
The real test
Most people are apprehensive about how the Taliban will rule, with governance one of the biggest challenges they face once the dust of their victory has settled.
“While they were absolutely miserable administrators and had no idea how to govern other than through intimidation, through years of having shadow governors in many provinces they have gained some skills in governance and have an actual scheme of an organisation for administering Afghanistan,” Thomas H. Johnson, a Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, told The New Arab.
By capturing Kabul, the Taliban gained a lot militarily. Millions of dollars worth of sophisticated military equipment enhanced their capability on the battleground.
However, as Afghanistan grapples with drought, Covid-19, growing poverty, unemployment and an empty government treasury, the group’s ability to govern and effectively administrate will be severely tested.
“As an insurgency, their shadow government used to provide services, so they have some experience. But running the whole bureaucratic structure left behind by the Afghan republic is an enormous task. There is also the challenge of funding the government,” Mir added.
Furthermore, the recent evacuation of thousands of Afghans puts forward another conundrum for the Taliban; a brain drain to the West. The majority of Afghans with modern administrative know-how and who “formed the backbone of the Afghan state over the last two decades are looking to leave the country - which will create a major capacity gap,” Mir added.
More than a week after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the banking system is completely shut and money wiring systems such as Western Union and the Hawala system are down.
The purchasing power of most people has diminished as most have run out of cash. How the Taliban would finance their administration is another dilemma that the militant group is faced with.
“For their insurgency, the Taliban have drawn on funds from the informal economy and donations from both inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. Running a government would require a lot more funds than them, including through international aid agencies and government,” Mir said.
Recently, the US announced that it had frozen assets of $9.5 billion belonging to the Afghanistan Central Bank. Although the Taliban has few financial resources to govern, “China may aid them financially”, expects Thomas Johnson.
But to access aid and financial resources and recognition from other countries, the Taliban “possibly may moderate some of the draconian policies and behaviour,” he added.
In the last 20 years, especially since the beginning of negotiations with the US and having access to an international stage, the Taliban have adapted both diplomatically and politically.
The deadline set by the Biden administration to withdraw US forces certainly helped them to buy opposing figures within the Afghan government.
"The core values of the Taliban remain the same: They are very committed to their Islamic Emirate; see their leader as more than a political leader...reject elections and centre their favoured school of Islamic theology in their political vision"
“They are also able to navigate internal politics of the country effectively. Over the last year, they have demonstrated that they can divide their rivals, court some and side-line others to forge ahead,” Asfandyar Mir said.
Diplomatically, the Taliban has also been given a platform on the international stage to develop relations with neighbouring countries.
With China, for example, the Taliban has refused to condemn the persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, instead assuring Beijing that they would not provide sanctuary to Uighur militants in the territory under its control.
But in negotiating relations internationally, such as accommodating to China’s Xinjiang policies, the Taliban may leave itself open to charges of hypocrisy and internal disagreement as it seeks to establish an Islamic Emirate based on Sharia law.
Sayed Jalal Shajjan is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. He covers post-conflict development and counter-terrorism operations
Follow him on Twitter: @S_Jalal_Shajjan