One Year of Taliban Rule in Afghanistan: A Predictable DisasterTeun van Dongen, Joshua Farrell-Molloy 26 Aug 2022
Keywords: Afghanistan, Taliban, security, counter-terrorism
One year ago, the Taliban established themselves as the sole rulers of Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, the weeks after the takeover saw a flurry of commentaries, op-eds and think pieces about what Afghanistan’s future would hold. One thing that clearly stood out in these analyses was the pervasive sense of pessimism. While not all criticised the decision to leave per se, few observers believed it would do Afghanistan much good. Some feared the Taliban’s brutal repression, while others questioned the group’s ability to govern the country adequately, or expected that Afghanistan might become a safe haven for terrorists and criminal networks.
Now, a year on, this Perspective will assess the accuracy of five such predictions and consider whether things turned out as badly as many journalists, scholars and analysts believed they would. The predictions we will cover, pertain to the Taliban’s repression, their openness to strike compromises about human rights with potential external donors, their ability to run the economy, the impact of the takeover on organised crime, and the impact on the terrorist threat. For each prediction, we will briefly outline the consensus and then, drawing on a year of extensive journalistic and government reporting on the situation, give an assessment of its accuracy. As each prediction covers a vital aspect of Taliban rule, the five assessments together give us an overview of how the situation in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has developed. Sadly, this overall picture is quite bleak. The year since the takeover has brought what many have predicted, and little of it has been good.
The Taliban will impose a harsh rule domestically
The takeover of Kabul initially sparked fears that the repression and brutality seen during the 1990s could return. Initially, the Taliban made some efforts to appear a more moderate force than before, and proclaimed an amnesty for former government officials, and sought to reassure women that their rights would be protected.
Although the Taliban’s promises were dismissed by many as a charm offensive, there were some reasons for hope. On the local level the Taliban in the past have been willing to accommodate the wishes of ordinary Afghans. They responded to discontent from the population by turning a blind eye to the home schooling of girls or to people owning a TV-set. They also set up complaint mechanisms for people who were victimised by the group’s violent campaign, and later expanded its mandate to include complaints about grievances the Taliban caused during their civilian governance activities. Indeed, the Taliban have made compromises after the takeover as well. For example, in Herat, a lack of female staff forced Taliban officials responsible for enforcing gender segregation in universities to allow elderly male teachers to teach women.
But any hopes that instances like these might become the rule rather than the exception were dashed shortly after the Taliban took Kabul. One of their first orders of business was the removal of women from public life, which included an immediate ban on education for girls older than eleven, and the removal of billboards with pictures of women. Women’s rights have continued to be severely restricted since, and despite the Taliban’s assurances the girls could resume education, they still refuse to allow girls over eleven years old to go to school.
The Taliban proved similarly unreliable in their treatment of former government officials. Despite the group’s aforementioned promises of an amnesty, a recently released UN report reveals widespread killings, detentions, and human rights abuses inflicted upon former government officials. The report asserts that journalists and former members of the security forces are subjected to this form of repression as well.
After the fall of Kabul, some were hoping for a somewhat more democratic political structure as the best possible outcome. The reality, unfortunately, is that those who feared a reign of terror have largely been proven right. Admittedly, there is some regional variation, as local mullahs have been allowed some autonomy in their regions. But while we should not minimise what that means to ordinary people trying to live their lives, it does little to change the overall picture: the evidence of human rights abuses is piling up and the Taliban’s promises to the contrary have been empty words.
The Taliban will not be open to compromises with Western powers and international organisations
Noting Afghanistan’s poorly functioning economy, some observers believed Western countries and international organisations, such as the World Bank, would have leverage over the Taliban after the takeover. They believed (or hoped) the Taliban would be in need of international legitimacy, which would open up the possibility of making humanitarian aid and economic assistance conditional on respect for human rights. Others were sceptical, arguing that the Taliban have other options and do not depend on Western aid. It is this latter position that turned out to be much more accurate, as the Taliban’s preferred partners are countries that will not make their ties conditional on concessions over human rights.
This does not mean, though, that the Taliban do not have to make compromises. Their most likely trade allies are China and Russia, but both countries have yet to officially recognise the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan. The Kremlin hosted a Taliban delegation for talks, but also insisted, together with Pakistan, China, and the US, that the group sever their ties to terrorist groups. Indeed, Russia and China’s willingness to work with the Taliban is conditional on the group’s ability to keep jihadist activities from spilling over to Chinese and Russian border regions.
Interestingly, while there has been little movement on the part of the Taliban to assuage external donors with strong respect for human rights, the group has proven themselves willing and able to overcome ideological constraints to establish ties with China. In an obvious attempt to win over their superpower neighbour, the Taliban removed Uyghur militants from eastern Afghanistan, where some members of the Uyghur resistance movement in China were based.
Signalling that such gestures may indeed pay off, China, Pakistan, Russia and Turkmenistan have recognised Taliban diplomats, and Russia entered into a trade agreement with Afghan officials. In addition, India has appeared willing to do business with the Taliban as well. Meanwhile, the World Bank and the UN have started making payments for humanitarian aid and disaster relief, but did so on the Taliban’s terms. The latter eliminates the need for the Taliban to heed human rights, so if the group proves willing to make compromises, it will likely be in an attempt to win over non-Western powers.
The Taliban will be unable to run the economy
The Taliban did not seize power in a flourishing country. Unemployment, malnutrition, and stalling trade were already major problems in August 2021. Against this background, several observers expressed doubts that a group of former guerrilla fighters with no institutional economic experience, and whose experience in service provision is limited to the local level, would be up to the task of getting the Afghan economy up and running.
With Afghanistan’s economy currently even further in disarray than it was in August 2021, it is clear that such concerns are warranted. The country’s GDP dropped by 34 percent in 2022 compared to 2020, the World Bank saw a 60 percent decrease in government spending, and prices for food, fuel, and other crucial goods have risen dramatically. Import and export are hamstrung by a paralysed banking system, and UN data show that some 90 percent of all Afghans are malnourished.
Part of the problem is that the Taliban’s post-takeover cabinet consists of religious hardliners from the group’s inner circle, none of whom have economic or formal governance expertise. Remarkably, the Taliban seem to understand they have a problem. They reached out to several officials from the former government to solicit their help in getting the economy back on track. But while some high-profile former government officials have recently returned to the country and were granted immunity, the Taliban have not indicated that they will be allowed to participate in governance.
Moreover, the group is displaying a preference for policies that serve their own political and religious purposes rather than the well-being of the country. One telling example is the ban that keeps women from holding jobs. This is estimated to cost Afghanistan five percent of its annual GDP, but the Taliban are upholding it nonetheless. They are doing so out of conviction, but possibly also out of fear of losing members to Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K), the ISIS branch in Afghanistan that is presenting itself to their (and the Taliban’s) potential support base as the more credible and religiously pure alternative to the Taliban.
Equally damaging to the economy, the Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation is depriving many Afghan farmers of their only remaining opportunity to make a living. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s allies are largely exempt from the ban, and now have the market to themselves. With the Taliban engaging in such self-serving practices, they may not only be unable, but also unwilling to run the Afghan economy in a competent manner.
The takeover will lead to an increase in organised crime
Shortly after the fall of Kabul, several observers predicted a spike in organised crime. One immediate concern related to organised crime and the drug trade. With Afghanistan responsible for over 80 percent of the world’s opium production, UN and US officials understandably feared that a Taliban takeover could lead to a boom in production. Another concern was that the Taliban’s capture of billions of dollars of government arms and military equipment would turn Afghanistan into a regional arms bazaar, fuelling conflicts and terrorism in neighbouring countries.
A year later, it is fair to say that these fears have materialised. The Taliban takeover sparked an increase in the opium trade, and the Taliban’s vows to rid the country of drugs and to impose a ban on opium poppy cultivation ring hollow in light of the soaring narcotics trade. The Taliban leadership has taken an ambiguous stance on this, with some commanders being complicit in the trade while others are trying to clamp down on it. Part of the acquiescence of some Taliban fighters may have to do with the fact that, in the words of an Afghan farmer, “[t]he big [Taliban] commanders have a share in the business with the big traffickers.”
The arms trade is also booming, with the Taliban leadership taking an equally inconsistent approach – some are trying to stop the flow of arms, whereas others are participating in fuelling the proliferation of arms. As a result, the US-made weapons that Afghan government forces abandoned when they more or less dissolved a year ago, are now in the possession of illegal traders who are selling them in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, the fall of the Afghan government may have indirectly fuelled the ethnic and sectarian conflicts in neighbouring Pakistan.
The takeover will increase the terrorist threat
One of the most serious concerns voiced by Western observers was that under the Taliban, Afghanistan would become a haven for transnational terrorist groups who could use the country as a base to plan and commit terrorist attacks in Europe and North America. But while many raised the possibility, there was no consensus as to how realistic such concerns were. For some, the transnational threat appeared relatively low, while others believed the coalition’s withdrawal made an attack much more likely.
A year on, a transnational attack in the West from Afghanistan appears unlikely, but there are certainly reasons for concern. A UN intelligence report from June 2022 concluded that al-Qaeda has established a foothold in the country and has an “increased freedom of action.” The report also warned that Afghanistan could once again become a base for international attacks. The drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul seemed to prove these points. It appears the Taliban allowed the al-Qaeda-chief to live in Afghanistan’s capital, where he had become noticeably more active in releasing videos.
At the same time, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines claimed that while al-Qaeda continue to aspire “to conduct attacks in the United States”, their attack capabilities have been “degraded.” Additionally, while the Taliban may grant al-Qaeda room for manoeuvre in Afghanistan, they are also likely to oppose any bold actions that may trigger a Western military response. After 9/11, the Taliban, which had been unaware of al-Qaeda’s attack plans, were quickly swept out of power by the US-led coalition. Given this history, they will likely not allow al-Qaeda to blindside them again.
Like al-Qaeda, IS-K is currently believed to be willing, but as yet unable, to commit attacks in the West. It is true that IS-K launched their first international attack, targeting Uzbekistan with rockets, in April 2022. Also, in the first known case of international recruitment for IS-K, two British citizens were arrested in the autumn of 2021 while travelling to Afghanistan in an attempt to join the group. On the other hand, intelligence assessments claim that the group will not be able to carry out transnational attacks before 2023. In addition, it is doubtful whether the case of the two British foreign fighters will be more than an incident. IS-K is harder to reach in comparison to previous foreign fighter hubs, as the group is based in remote regions in the country’s east, where it also endures sustained pressure from the Taliban.
To date, there have been no major plots linked to the country, but only one year has passed since the Taliban seized power. That may be too short to build the facilities and smuggling and recruitment networks that are necessary to wage a transnational campaign. The threat may increase as time passes. Moreover, Afghanistan’s regional neighbours and the international community are concerned that the Taliban may be unable and/or unwilling to take effective action against terrorist groups. All of this being the case, an increased transnational terrorist threat from Afghanistan cannot be ruled out in the medium- and long-term.
In assessing this threat, it is important to recognise that it is not only the West that is in the crosshairs of the jihadist groups operating in Afghanistan – the Taliban takeover was also predicted to provide favourable conditions to regional jihadist groups, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that threatened the security of neighbouring Pakistan. In this respect, things are not looking well either. A recent UN report stated that, of all the regional jihadist groups, the TTP “benefited the most,” as the group escalated its attacks against Pakistan and appears to have been energised by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. On the other hand, in June it was announced that the Taliban in Afghanistan had successfully played a mediatory role between the TTP and Pakistan, and helped secure a ceasefire, highlighting the role the Taliban could play in de-escalation. This appears to have been an isolated case, unfortunately, since another UN report assessed that the Taliban are not making a serious effort to curb the activities of terrorist groups, which now enjoy “greater freedom there than at any time in recent history”.
This latter assessment also applies to the Taliban’s main rival, IS-K, which is believed to have doubled in size since August 2021 from 2,000 to 4,000 fighters. Liberated from the pressure of the Afghan government forces, the group now poses the main military threat to the Taliban. To prove that point and undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban government, IS-K launched a spate of high-profile attacks against minorities in recent months.
Looking back at a year of Taliban rule, it is hard to escape the conclusion that many of the concerns that analysts and policy makers expressed shortly after the takeover have proven to be legitimate. The Taliban are brutally repressing the Afghan population, are running the economy into the ground, and are destabilising the region through their involvement in (or acquiescence towards) drugs and arms trafficking. In addition, they have turned Afghanistan into a safe haven for all kinds of jihadist groups. A disconcerting pattern that runs through all predictions reviewed above is the Taliban’s unwillingness or inability to do anything to improve matters.
This is not a hopeful message. The opportunity to influence the Taliban’s behaviour has now passed, which means that Western governments are now left with two unattractive possible responses to the country’s many problems. First, we can work with the Taliban in delivering aid on their conditions and risk strengthening them in the process. Second, we can withdraw from all efforts in Afghanistan entirely, which would mean that we would not help the Taliban tighten their grip on power. However, we would abandon the Afghan population while they are in dire straits and accept growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region.
The only shimmer of hope is that the Taliban’s current way of governing may not be sustainable. The literature on insurgent governance clearly states the importance of service provision to gain popular support. As the Taliban are doing a poor job in this regard, at some point, people may rise up, as already appears to be happening. Supporting such resistance may become an option if such resistance groups have become strong and trustworthy enough. But whether that will happen, is as yet hard to tell. Until then, we need to accept it is now even harder to improve the situation in Afghanistan then when the coalition forces were still there.
Teun van Dongen is a Senior Research Fellow and Programme Lead of Current and Emerging Threats at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT). In this capacity, he leads the ICCT’s efforts to monitor, analyse, and research various forms of extremism and terrorism, including the ideologies, structure, and modus operandi of groups and movements. Previously, he was a policy analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) and a Senior Researcher at the Verwey-Jonker Institute. He holds a PhD from Leiden University with a doctoral dissertation on counter-terrorism effectiveness. His published books include Radicalisering ontrafeld: tien redenen om een terroristische aanslag te plegen (Radicalisation dissected: ten reasons to commit a terrorist attack) (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and Te vuur en te zwaard: effectiviteit en overdaad in de westerse strijd tegen terrorisme (To fire and to sword: effectiveness and excess in the Western fight against terrorism) (Volt, 2020).
Joshua Farrell-Molloy joined ICCT as a research intern for the Current and Emerging Threats programme in February 2022. He is currently completing an International Master’s degree in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies with the University of Glasgow, University of Trento and Charles University Prague, where he continues to work part-time as a research assistant. His main research interests are on foreign fighters, online extremist subcultures and the far-right.
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