The Taliban seem to have the situation in Afghanistan under control for the time being. For now, the calm the Taliban are experiencing – outside Panjshir, where opposition to the Taliban continues – could actually be the calm before the storm, as is usually the case in Afghanistan. The challenges that the Taliban have inherited and the mistakes they made over the past month have undermined their legitimacy and will serve as a stumbling block on their path to rule over Afghanistan. The Taliban’s honeymoon will soon come to an end.
The Taliban’s recent mistakes
The Taliban’s first mistake was to release all prisoners after arresting state prisons and detention centers across Afghanistan. If the Taliban had only released their own members, this would have been defensible in the context of the conflict. However, the Taliban’s release of thousands of professional criminals and terrorists, such as the leader of the Islamic State (ISKP) Khorasan Province, Omar Farooqi and other ISKP members, cannot be justified. Now that large numbers of die-hard terrorists who pose a major security threat are at large, it is doubtful whether the Taliban have the ability or the will to arrest them again.
The second mistake the Taliban made was to attack Panjshir Province instead of trying to reach a negotiated solution with Panjshiris. Many Afghans do not understand why the Taliban negotiated with the Americans for two long years but not with Panjshiris for two weeks. Although the Taliban declared victory in Panjshir, their cheers are premature. The National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud, which is based in Panjshir and knows the terrain well, is still holding the mountains. Driving out the NRF is a monumental task in which the Taliban’s success is not guaranteed.
If the NRF continues to hold its ground against the Taliban, opposition to the Taliban is likely to spread to other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban lack support from non-Pashtun ethnic groups such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara and Turkmen, who have little interest in the Pashtun-dominated theocratic rule of the Taliban. So far, the Taliban have done little to appease the non-Pashtuns, who make up 55 to 60 percent of the Afghan population.
The third mistake made by the Taliban was that General Faiz Hameed, Pakistan’s general director of Inter-Services Intelligence (DG-ISI), appeared publicly in Kabul. Ordinary Afghans have long suspected that the Taliban are campaigning for Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. Although both Pakistan and the Taliban have denied these allegations, Hameed’s open visit to Afghanistan has seriously damaged the Taliban’s reputation and raised serious questions about the influence of the ISI on them. Whatever the purpose and motivation behind Hameed’s visit, it will take the Taliban some time (or perhaps a long) to recover from this blow.
The fourth and so far most serious mistake by the Taliban was the announcement of an almost mono-ethnic cabinet. The Pashtuns, who make up an estimated 40 percent – 45 percent of the population of Afghanistan, made up more than 90 percent of the cabinet positions. There are no women, no Shiites and no Hazaras in the cabinet. To appease their domestic and foreign critics, the Taliban have called their cabinet a transitional cabinet, which is said to be replaced by a more permanent body at some point. Given the Taliban’s track record in lying and breaking their promises, there is little hope that they will keep their word this time around.
The Taliban cabinet is not only mono-ethnic and Pashtun, it is also completely dominated by so-called semi-educated mullahs. Most cabinet members have no higher education, training, or education, let alone relevant education related to their portfolios. Even their religious references seem dubious, as most do not speak Arabic, the language spoken in madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and have historically had to use interpreters to communicate with their Qatari hosts. The Taliban’s cabinet looks more like a rural madrassa (if any) attendance list than a legitimate 21st century cabinet.
Challenges facing the Taliban
First of all, it is one thing to wage an insurrection, especially in Afghanistan, where the terrain is helpful, but it is another thing to rule and govern an ethnically and linguistically fragmented country like Afghanistan. The Taliban’s announcement of a mono-ethnic cabinet will certainly not help bring the fragile situation in Afghanistan under control. The desire for more rights and social participation of young Afghans, especially women, cannot be overlooked. For the time being, the Taliban can use violence to suppress dissent, but repression in Afghanistan often backfires with disastrous consequences for the oppressor.
Second, since Afghanistan has always had a weak state, its collapse did not cause widespread chaos. But Afghanistan is now on the verge of economic collapse. The freeze of Afghan assets in the United States and a sharp drop in international financial aid are challenging ordinary Afghans. Payments with debit and credit cards are rare in Afghanistan, for example. Almost everyone pays cash. As of this writing, Afghanistan’s banks, which are only accessible in Kabul and a few other major cities, limit weekly withdrawals to a maximum of 20,000 Afghans (around $ 250). With both banks and many Afghans running out of cash as a result of the freezing of Afghan assets, even Afghans who were wealthy under the Karzai and Ghani governments run into money shortages and economic problems.
In addition, many urban Afghans worked as day laborers in the past. If they didn’t earn anything during the day, they would have little to eat at night. Most day laborers who have been unemployed for over a month are now at risk of starvation. In addition, government employees, teachers and professors have not received their salaries since July. The Taliban’s summer offensive aggravated Afghanistan’s economic crisis and drove thousands of civilians to Kabul and other large cities, where the displaced can hardly afford anything and are contributing to increasing urban poverty. Despite ongoing economic hardship, Taliban fighters are forcing civilians to feed them for free.
The Taliban’s repressive government approach has so far been disheartening and has only contributed to the looming disaster. Severe droughts, Covid-19 and the ongoing conflict have all at the same time brought Afghanistan to the brink of complete economic collapse. Around a third of the Afghan population is currently at risk of starvation. The upcoming winter and heavy snowfall will make the situation worse. If aid is not provided immediately, especially in parts of Afghanistan where snow blocks the roads until next spring, thousands will starve to death.
Third, in early August 2021, the UN reported that there were more than 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan. It did so before the Taliban liberated hundreds (or maybe thousands) of additional foreign fighters from government-run prisons that they had arrested in August. The Taliban seem to have little control over these foreign fighters, especially the ISKP fighters who the Taliban consider their mortal enemies. In addition, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) will also test the Taliban’s skills and engagement.
Pakistan wants to prevent the TPP from launching attacks against it from Afghan soil and has obtained assurances from the Taliban to this end. It is unknown whether Pakistan is convinced that the Taliban will keep their promise that Afghan soil will not be used for attacks against Pakistan. Both the Taliban and the TTP – who have pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leader – come from the same ethnic group and fill their ranks with Pashtuns who cross the Afghan-Pakistani border. They share a similar ideology, aim to introduce and implement Sharia law in their respective countries, and their fields of activity overlap. In early July, Pakistan’s Army Chiefs General Bajwa and DG ISI Hameed told a group of Pakistani lawmakers that the Afghan Taliban and the TTP were “two faces of the same coin”.
Even if the Taliban violate the Pashtun custom of protecting those seeking protection by driving TTP fighters out of Afghanistan, it is questionable whether the Taliban would be able to carry out their intentions. The ragged troops of the Taliban are scattered across Afghanistan and can hardly afford a fight against the TTP. A long, costly military operation against TTP – especially when combined with military setbacks – will undermine the Taliban’s military credibility and perforate its claim to invincibility.
Fourth, the Taliban’s desire to rule Afghanistan with a strong central government from Kabul will soon backfire. Historically, Afghans outside of Kabul have shown little consideration for those in power in Kabul. Afghans are more loyal to their local, regional and tribal elders than those in power in Kabul and will therefore resist any top-down shift imposed by the capital. Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, the heterogeneous and diverse population, the history of weak and ultimately failed central governments and the Afghan people’s lack of loyalty and respect for the rulers in Kabul make decentralization and decentralization of power from the center necessary. However, the Taliban are moving in the opposite direction, laying the foundation for their own downfall.