After waging a twenty-year insurgency, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan on 15th August 2021. The US military withdrew from the country on Aug 30, a day ahead of schedule, ending its 20-year military presence in Afghanistan. NATO, a key ally of the US-led intervention in Afghanistan, also decided to leave the country around the same time. With the departure of Western troops, Afghanistan, ravaged by over four decades of war and instability, was - as BBC Journalist Lyse Doucet put it - turned “upside down and inside out”.[i] Since then, other global issues, especially the Ukraine crisis, have moved the Afghan issue to the back of the world’s conscience. As the Taliban regime completes one year in power, this Issue Brief looks at the key developments in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s return to power. It then provides a broad overview of Afghanistan under the new regime and the challenges it faces currently.
A) The Taliban Takeover: The Immediate Aftermath
From May to August 2021, amid rising levels of insecurity, targeted killings and attacks targeting civilians, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan through a military offensive that swept across the country, reaching the capital city on 15 August. By the evening of the fateful day, former Present Ashraf Ghani fled the country with his allies and the ‘victorious’ Taliban captured ARG- the Presidential palace[ii] and several government offices in Kabul and declared the “war is over.”[iii] They announced that, “We have reached what we were seeking, the freedom of our country and the independence of our people”.[iv] The international military forces took control of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport from 15th August , until the departure of the US personnel on 31st August. The situation at the Kabul airport was chaotic, with thousands of people gathering in its vicinity hoping to get access to flights in order to flee Afghanistan. The footage of Afghans clinging on to a United States Air Force plane in a desperate bid to flee the Taliban rule will remain a defining image of the decades-long military intervention by Western powers. On 26th August, ISIL-KP carried out a suicide attack outside the airport killing 72 civilians and injuring several others.
Amidst this chaos, there were some talks about an ‘inclusive’ government, although it was not clear why the Taliban would want this, since it has already emerged as the ‘victorious’ side. In the Taliban leadership, the people who were flighting on the ground were different from the people who were negotiating with the Americans in Doha. The head of the political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was declared deputy even in the lifetime of Mullah Omar; did not have a prominent presence in the Taliban structure, to the surprise of the international community. The faction that was most active was the armed faction- the Haqqani group being the foremost among them. Within the next few months, several fault lines became apparent.
Firstly, the faultline between the Taliban and the rest of the country- majority of whom who did not want the Taliban. Resistance took various forms be it flag protests, where Afghans had objected against the removal of the Afghan flag[v] –as a symbol of Afghan pluralism, protests by women who want their right to work or protests in favour of education for girls. Secondly, the clash between the Taliban and the anti-Taliban groups such as the National Resistance Front (NRF), which is military alliance and is continuing armed resistance in certain areas under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, son of Legendary Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. New groups such as Afghanistan Freedom Front and the Afghanistan Islamic National & Liberation Movement have also made claims of providing resistance in small pockets in the past months.[vi] The third faultline can be seen in the clash between the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Taliban. Following the Taliban takeover, ISKP continued its attacks, this time targeting the Taliban not as insurgent competitors, but as illegitimate governing authorities.Finally, the factionalism within the Taliban movement- reportedly the movement leadership is currently divided into at least three groups. The first group is the Doha groups consisting of the US peace negotiations team led by Mullah Baradar, the second the military wing led by Molavi Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar and the third is the Haqqni Network wig led by Sirajuddin Haqqani.[vii] The most significant and potentially influenced dispute is the disagreement between Haqqani and Yaqoob, which some reports indicate has led to fighting between the two parties.[viii] However, it is important to note that despite consistent rumours about the rifts, the Taliban have managed to put up a consolidated front, as of now.
B) Afghanistan under the Taliban Regime
On September 7, 2021 the Taliban announced a 33-member, entirely male ‘caretaker cabinet’, which consisted of mostly Pashtun Taliban and Haqqani veterans, hardliners and loyalists; with only 2 Tajiks and 1 Uzbek, and no Hazaras, named in the setup.[ix] In November 2022 they have expanded their interim cabinet by adding 27 new members in compliance with orders from Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada[x], that however, did not alter the ethnic or gender balance of the cabinet. After seizing power in Afghanistan, the Taliban had declared an “amnesty” across the country. At a press conference, Taliban Spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid assured that Taliban sought no revenge and that “everyone is forgiven.”[xi] However, as months passed by there were several reports that suggested the opposite. According to UN, there were "credible allegations" of more than 100 extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan in the first four months of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with most blamed on the country's new rulers. In many of the cases, the bodies were publicly displayed as was done during their previous stint in power. Between August 15, 2021 and June 15, 2022, UNAMA recorded 160 extrajudicial killings, 178 arbitrary arrests and detentions, 23 instances of incommunicado detention and 56 instances of torture and ill-treatment of former ANDSF and government officials.[xii]
The treatment of religious and ethnic minorities under the new regime has been another area of concern. Discriminatory practices, extortion, extrajudicial killings, and forced displacement have all resumed. There have been many reports[xiii] detailing the forced displacement and systemic genocide against the Hazara population, targeted violence and eyewitness reports of the mass killings of 600 Tajik hostages and crimes against humanity in Panjshir.
Months after seizing power, the Taliban’s interim cabinet established a de facto Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (which took over the premises of the former Ministry of Woman’s Affairs, the latter having been abolished by the new regime), triggering a renewed concern for the human rights in the country, especially those of women. More recently, they also dismantled the Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. Imposition of restrictions has considerably affected the vibrant Afghan media landscape that existed in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover: arbitrary arrests, summons, torture, threats and warnings to journalists has been regularly used to control media. The U.N Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has recorded violations affecting 173 journalists, of which 163 were attributed to the Taliban regime.[xiv] Despite the new regimes promises to respect the rights of Afghans and provide amnesty for people who supported US efforts, the Taliban has largely failed to implement their promises into action.
There has been a massive rollback of women’s rights in Afghanistan. Till date, no woman holds any high-level political appointments, nor are women allowed any active role in political life. The Taliban have deliberately remained vague in their responses to questions pertaining to policies on women and have given a generic answer saying they “support for women’s rights under the Sharia law”. No further explanation was provided on what that meant in practice. Women have been largely barred from work. If there was any hope that the Taliban would pay heed to repeated calls from Afghanistan's civil society and the international community to uphold women's rights, the decree[xv] for women to cover their faces in public has dashed it. Afghan women have tried to fight back—taking to Kabul streets and protesting, even in the face of violence from the Taliban and attempts to ban protest. Amnesty International’s recent report describes the situation of Afghan women as “death in slow motion”.[xvi]
As they were in the 1990s, the Taliban are committed to establishing an Islamic State based on their interpretation of (Islamic) Shariah. Yet, the Taliban movement itself appears to contain diverse views about the forms that an Islamic order might take. Furthermore, Islamic constitutions in other countries, as well as previous Afghanistan constitutions, provide very different models, as well as insight into possible future evolutions. So far, Taliban leaders have not articulated a clear vision of how they plan to structure the state. Although the Taliban have banned secondary education for girls, they have softened their traditional rhetoric on some issues, such as girls’ primary education (which they did not allow during their previous stint in power), but have cautioned that implementation of policy commitments requires security, resources, and time.
C) Challenges faced by Taliban ruled Afghanistan
The manner in which the regime change happened in Afghanistan last year, it brought a lot of uncertainty to the country and forced it into multiple challenges both complex and interconnected.
Deep Humanitarian and Economic Crisis
The UN lists Afghanistan among the world's largest humanitarian emergencies, estimating that 18.9 million people - nearly half of the population - could be acutely food insecure between June and November 2022.[xvii] The Taliban takeover prompted Washington and other donor countries to swiftly suspend financial assistance for Afghanistan, isolate the Afghan banking sector and strictly enforce long-running sanctions on dozens of members in the male-only Taliban government. Both rural and urban areas of the country have been hit by income loss and have contributed to deterioration in food security. In addition to the challenges of COVID-19, natural calamities like drought and earthquake in Afghanistan have only added to the severity of the overall humanitarian crisis. The Taliban Foreign Ministry tried to leverage the disaster to secure the removal of international sanctions, return of frozen funds, and rendering more international assistance, but the international community tactfully evaded those demands while providing emergency relief to Afghan people. NGOs have yet to find a payment mechanism that can reliably transfer large volumes of money for the projects in Afghanistan from outside the country. They are also wary of the Taliban diverting relief funds to reward their fighters. According to reports, the Taliban has been trying to direct humanitarian aid to preferred beneficiaries.[xviii]
Over the past year, Afghanistan has been facing acute cash crunch due to the collapse of its banking sector. US President Joe Biden issued an executive order in February aimed at unfreezing half of the $7 billion for humanitarian aid to benefit the Afghan people. The rest would be held for ongoing terrorism-related lawsuits in US courts against the Taliban. Taliban has consistently urged Washington to lift the curbs and “unconditionally” release $7 billion of frozen Afghan frozen funds held in the US to enable the Taliban to deal with the country’s deepening economic and humanitarian crises. Although there are reports that the US and the Taliban have exchanged proposal to enable release of funds held in the US but no concrete step has been taken towards that due to serious differences between the two sides.[xix] The UN and foreign governments have injected almost 1 billion dollar of currency into Afghanistan, but cash shortages persist. The UN has recently launched a Humanitarian Exchange Facility (HEF)[xx] to trade dollars for Afghan currency while circumventing the Taliban regime- unsurprisingly, the Taliban authorities have resisted its implementation.
Despite several statements by the Taliban not to allow foreign militants to reside in the country, Al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic State Khorasan (ISKP), Tarik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and many other terrorist outfits have found safe haven in Afghanistan. It is evident that the departure of the US and coalition forces from Afghanistan have led to a more permissive environment for terrorist groups. The targeted killing of Al Qaeda Chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike at safehouse in Kabul[xxi] only highlight that the regime continues to harbour transnational jihadis which pose security threat to the region and beyond. The prominence of Haqqani Network-associated militants in the security apparatus of the new government merely exacerbates security risks. India, for example will be worried that Pakistan-aligned militant organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), might be allowed increased freedom to use Afghanistan for logistics, recruiting, and planning, in order to carry out possible attacks against India.
Over the past year, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which is the Afghanistan affiliate of the larger Islamic State group, has been carrying out frequent attacks and have become more deadly since the withdrawal of NATO forces. ISIS-K has carried out a series of bloody attacks in Afghanistan in Kabul, Kunduz[xxii], Kandahar[xxiii] and Nangarhar provinces. The group, has particularly targeted mosques used by the ethnic minority Shia Hazara community. The insurgents carried out bombings in areas where previously they had little presence. ISKP’s openly adversarial relationship with the Taliban, takes advantage of the new government’s weakness and its struggle to establish basic social services and preoccupations to bolster its own recruiting, fundraising, and territorial control within Afghanistan. ISPK fighters had launched missiles into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an effort to undermine the Taliban’s claim to control Afghanistan’s borders and territory and to gain more recruits from Afghan and Central Asian extremists.[xxiv] The US government estimated in October 2021 that ISKP could reconstitute its ability to conduct external operations against the US in six to 12 months.[xxv]The worsening security situation is only worsening the existing humanitarian crisis within Afghanistan.
Inclusive political settlement
The group is also being pressed by the international community to govern the country through a broad-based political system where all Afghan groups have their representation to ensure long-term national stability. The cabinet announced by the Taliban was a ‘caretaker one’ and is not inclusive in nature. In response to UN Security Council pressure to be more ‘inclusive, representative, and unified,’ the Taliban expressed that ‘we are ready for inclusivity but not selectivity’.[xxvi] However, no substantial steps towards that can be seen. While making a rare appearance at the Taliban’s ‘Great Conference of Ulema’ in the Afghan capital, the Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada in July 2022, expressed his displeasure with the interference of the world in Afghanistan’s “internal affairs” and hinted that Taliban is unwilling to take directions from the world about how to run the country.[xxvii] Despite changes in their policies on many other issues (especially after Ukraine crisis), neither China or Russia have substantially altered their policies on Afghanistan. Unlike Western powers, Russia and China have sought to focus on UNAMA’s mandate on economic and humanitarian problems rather than gender issues, human rights violation etc. and have formally described the Taliban as Afghanistan’s “de facto authorities”. To further their economic and security interests, Moscow and Beijing might consider deeper engagement with the Taliban regime but it is unlikely that they will break with the international consensus about the recognition of the regime.
The past year has shown the world that the ideological contours of the Taliban, that is the fulcrum of their worldview; whether on issues related to gender, participation in public life, human rights, minority communities, issues of governance- how to deal with citizen-state contract- remain the way it has been in the 1990s. There may have been reduction in large-scale fighting and day to day insecurity in the country (as compared to the past decade) but that is primarily because the group that was responsible behind bulk of those attacks is today ruling the country. Discussions over the past twelve months have largely centred around the question of legitimacy from external powers. However, the regime’s crucial challenge lies in winning legitimacy from the people they govern. Disgruntlement with the Taliban rule – for lack of employment opportunities, food insecurity, lack of basic rights, the threat of summary execution or forced disappearance – could eventually translate into concerted civic resistance. There has been mounting evidence of active and passive resistance to the Taliban rule over the past few months- for example, there have been more protests in the past few months than in all the years of the first Emirate, especially by women. As far as, armed resistance in concerned, despite Taliban’s rigorous attempt to dismantle it, armed resistance exists in Afghanistan. However, so far, none of the armed resistance forces have managed to touch base with all the ethnicities across the country, as a result a ‘national movement’ that can counter the Taliban is largely lacking at present.
Security and counterterrorism will remain a concern for both regional and global powers. The assassination of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri by drone in Kabul demonstrate that the U.S. retains substantial capacity to take action against entities that pose threat to American interest even after the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan almost a year ago. For Afghanistan’s regional neighbors, the situation is trickier. Counterterrorism remains a key focus and regional connectivity another concern. Even though the specific interests of each neighbor may vary, they share concern over Afghanistan becoming a hot spot for terrorist and extremist groups. Which is why Afghanistan is expected to be consistent topic in Asian bilateral and multilateral discussions for the days to come. It is understandable that even a year after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, no foreign government has officially recognized the regime and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, however the statements, initiatives and engagements over the past year indicate that some sort of a working relationship with the group will be there. While it is acutely important for the international community to remain engaged in Afghanistan and not abandon the Afghan people, at the same time it is critical to ensure that their engagement with the Taliban do not end up strengthening the regime. The coming days are going to be crucial and the international community has to tread cautiously. The Taliban have proved their capacity of running a successful insurgency. Now they face the much more difficult and far more complex task of running a country.
* Dr. Anwesha Ghosh is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer:The views are of the author.
[i] BBC News (2021). “Will there be women in the Taliban's new government?” - BBC News, September 1, 2021 Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMgr7nkFLjo
[ii] “Taliban enters Afghan presidential palace after Ghani flees.” Al Jazeera, Aug 15, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/15/taliban-continues-advances-captures-key-city-of-jalalabad (Accessed on 2. 8.2022)
[iii] Afghan president Ashraf Ghani flees country ‘to avoid bloodshed’ as Taliban enter Kabul.”Independent 15, 2021. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/central-asia/afghanistan-taliban-ashraf-ghani-flee-b1902917.html (Accessed on 2. 8.2022)
[iv] “Taliban says Afghanistan war over as president flees: Live”. Al Jazeera, Aug16, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/16/taliban-says-afghanistan-war-over-as-president-diplomats-flee(Accessed on 2. 8.2022)
[v] “Deadly protest in Jalalabad against removal of Afghan flag, Al Jazeera, August20, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/18/at-least-two-killed-by-shots-fired-at-flag-protest-in-afghanistan (Accessed on 3.8.2022)
[vi] Masood Farivar, “Afghan ‘Fighting Season’ Ushers in New Anti-Taliban Groups”. VOA, April 27, 2022. Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/afghan-fighting-season-ushers-in-new-anti-taliban-groups/6542148.html (Accessed on 3.8.2022)
[vii] “Challenges to the Taliban Rule and Potential Impact for Region”. Washington Institute, 9 Feb 2022. Available at: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/challenges-taliban-rule-and-potential-impacts-region (Accessed on 10.8.2022)
[viii] “Yaqoob and Haqqani factions fight over Taliban government.” The Hindustan Times, Sep 1, 2021. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/yaqoob-and-haqqani-factions-fight-over-taliban-government-101630474732128.html (Accessed on 10.8.2022)
[ix] “The Taliban announces new government in Afghanistan”. Al Jazeera, September 7, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/7/taliban-announce-acting-ministers-of-new-government (Accessed on 3.8.2022)
[x] “Taliban expand interim cabinet, 27 new members named”, Deccan Chronicle, Nov 23, 2021. Available at: https://www.deccanchronicle.com/world/middle-east/231121/taliban-expand-interim-cabinet-27-new-members-named.html
[xi] “Taliban Declares complete amnesty across Afghanistan. “The Economic Times, August 18, 2021. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/taliban-declares-complete-amnesty-across-afghanistan-says-everyone-is-forgiven/articleshow/85418061.cms?from=mdr (Accessed on 3.8.2022)
[xii] “Human Rights in Afghanistan 15 August 2021- 15 June 2022” UNAMA, July 2022. Avilable at: https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_human_rights_in_afghanistan_report_-_june_2022_english.pdf (Accessed on 3.8.2022)
[xiii] “Human Rights in Afghanistan 15 August 2021- 15 June 2022” UNAMA, July 2022. Avilable at: https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_human_rights_in_afghanistan_report_-_june_2022_english.pdf (Accessed on 5.8.2022)
[xiv] Human Rights in Afghanistan 15 August 2021- 15 June 2022” UNAMA, July 2022. Avilable at: https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_human_rights_in_afghanistan_report_-_june_2022_english.pdf (Accessed on 3.8.2022)
[xv] “How the Taliban are 'eliminating women' in Afghanistan”. DW, May 9, 2022. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/how-the-taliban-are-eliminating-women-in-afghanistan/a-61736998 (Accessed on 1.8.2022)
[xvi] “Afghanistan: Death in slow motion: Women and girls under Taliban rule.” Amnesty International, 27 July 2022. Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa11/5685/2022/en/(Accessed on 3.8.2022)
[xvii] “Taliban Tout Governance Gains, Urge US to Release Afghan Assets” Voice of America, July 26, 22. Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/taliban-tout-governance-gains-urge-us-to-release-afghan-assets/6674199.html (Accessed on 5.8.2022)
[xviii] “U.N. says Taliban interfering with aid, resisting cash plan” Reuters, June 24, 2022. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/un-says-taliban-interfering-with-aid-resisting-cash-plan-2022-06-23/
[xix] “US and Taliban exchange proposals for release of funds: Report”. Al Jazeera, July 27, 2022. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2022/7/26/us-and-taliban-exchange-proposals-for-release-of-funds-report (Accessed on 5.8.2022)
[xx] “U.N. aims to launch new Afghanistan cash route in February: U.N. note”. Reuters, Feb 11, 2022. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/exclusive-un-aims-launch-new-afghanistan-cash-route-february-un-note-2022-02-10/
[xxi] “Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri killed in US drone strike.” Al Jazeera, Aug 1, 2022. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/8/1/al-qaedas-ayman-al-zawahiri-killed-in-us-drone-strike-reports (Accessed on 10.8.2022)
[xxii] “Afghanistan: Dozens killed in suicide bombing at Kunduz mosque”. Al Jazeera, October 8, 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/8/blast-hits-a-mosque-in-afghanistans-kunduz-during-friday-prayers (Accessed on 10.8.2022)
[xxiii] “Afghanistan: Suicide attack hits Kandahar mosque during prayers.”BBC News, October 16, 2021. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58925863 (Accessed on 10.8.2022)
[xxiv] Richard Weitz, “Afghanistan adrift one year after the Taliban Takeover” Middle Eastern Institute, Aug 9, 2022. Available at: https://www.mei.edu/publications/afghanistan-adrift-one-year-after-taliban-takeover
[xxv] “Non-State Streat to Taliban’s Afghanistan”. Brookings Institute, February 1, 2022. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/02/01/nonstate-threats-in-the-talibans-afghanistan/ (Accessed on 10.8.2022)
[xxvi] “Ready for inclusivity, not selectivity”. Al Jazeera, Oct 9, 2021.Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/9/taliban-ready-for-inclusivity-not-selectivity-ahead-of-talks#:~:text=The%20Taliban's%20%E2%80%9CIslamic%20emirate%E2%80%9D%20is,for%20an%20inclusive%20Afghan%20government. (Accessed on 10.8.2022)
[xxvii] “Taliban supreme leader addresses major gathering in Kabul.” Al Jazeera, 1st July 2022. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/1/taliban-supreme-leader-addresses-gathering (Accessed on 10.8.2022)