On August 15th, 2021, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, the Taliban swept into Kabul, and the Islamic Republic’s institutions collapsed. A few weeks later, on September 7th, the Taliban announced an interim government and the re-estalishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
One year after the takeover, this collection of essays aims at drawing up an initial assessment of the Emirate’s performance so far, engagement between the Taliban, Afghan society, and the international community thus far, what the country’s future might look like, and what can be done to avoid further suffering for the Afghan population. While many questions remain unanswered today, few points seem alarmingly clear, with the overall picture appearing bleak despite the significant reduction in civilian casualties all over the country.
After the Taliban’s takeover armed conflict indeed formally ended, «But structural violence in the form of endemic poverty, suppression of civil and political rights and humanitarian crisis continue to persist», writes Huma Saeed. While living conditions are difficult for everyone, and several reports list human rights violations and abuses with growing concern, «Afghan women are paying the heaviest price once again. The list of restrictions on women’s rights is long, mirroring the one imposed under the Taliban rule in the 1990s».
Moreover, although military violence has decreased, social conflicts have risen to such an extent that the country is crossing a thin line: «The de facto authorities, who want to impose their own interpretation of Sharia law, and Afghan society, which believes it has always lived under Islamic and Sharia norms and is capable of exercising fundamental human rights, including the right of girls to education, are clearly at odds with one another».
Shaped around the model enforced during the ‘first’ Islamic Emirate, the new ‘social contract’ imposed by the Taliban – that is, ‘security’ in exchange for personal freedom – no longer works for the young, dynamic Afghan society. Neither does their monopolistic, hegemonic interpretation — and abuse — of power.
The Taliban, argues Fabrizio Foschini, «Are overfocused on preserving their unity and cohesion and making sure that no degree of power is conceded to individuals or groups beyond the core of the movement», especially those who represent the old regime. While many of the Afghan politicians who fled the country have since kept a low profile, those who instead opted to stay in Afghanistan have become the Taliban’s ‘virtual prisoners’. Furthermore, «A third group of political and military leaders, including the former Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, coalesced around Ahmad Massoud and chose the path of armed resistance, forming the National Resistance Front (NRF)».
Receiving very little external support, the NRF does not pose, for now, a relevant threat for Taliban territorial control. However, the Taliban’s strict adherence to centralized control over political power, starkly reinforced by its cabinet composition, is inevitably backfiring: if Taliban military supremacy is still unshaken, «it is only a matter of time before such an imbalance takes its toll on the ability of the Taliban’s ability to rule, even by forceful means».
Overall, «the Emirate has at least managed to prevent foreign powers from extending support to domestic opposition», finds Antonio Giustozzi. Furthermore, at the leadership level «the Taliban have mostly been able to find a modus vivendi», though at the grassroot level «Deep contrasts continue to divide the followers of Serajuddin Haqqani», the de facto Minister of Interior, «and the Kandahar Taliban’s followers», the two main actors comprising the Emirate’s ruling coalition. Although «the Emirate has not performed too badly in terms of governance», and it has not imploded yet despite the collapsing economy, another divide has emerged «Between the ultra-conservative clerics of the south and the ‘policy makers’ and ‘politicians’ who have run the movement throughout their ‘jihad’». One year after the re-establishment of the Emirate, the Taliban «Are still struggling to find a formula to convert their polycentric structure — remarkably successful in the insurgency — into a blueprint for effectively running the country», and are deeply divided over resources and on the extent of the engagement with foreign countries.
The Taliban’s interim government has shown some pragmatism in working closely with the United Nations to address growing humanitarian needs. Among the doctrinaire Ulema, however, the idea that the Emirate can do without foreign states is prevalent. This vision is overwhelmingly at odds with the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis and structural dependency on foreign aid, which in previous years had accounted for 75% of government public expenditure.
According to Astri Suhrke and Arne Strand, «Western states and the UN aid system reacted to the Taliban’s assumption of power in August 2021 in essentially the same way they did in 1996-2001, when the Taliban first ruled from Kabul. There was no recognition, a series of sanctions were imposed, funds held by the Afghan state overseas were frozen, and no humanitarian assistance or other aid funds were channeled through the Taliban-controlled country».
Struggling to find ways to provide aid –beyond strictly humanitarian aid – to a country whose government it does not recognize, the donors community is «deliberately bypassing the administrative machinery». Crucially, this move has the potential to deepen «greater dependence in society, encourage the Taliban to disclaim responsibility for providing basic social services, and make the transition to more normal aid cooperation more difficult».
In order to avoid what will be an untenable situation in the long term, the first step for the international aid community «is a broader engagement that entails cooperation with the administrative Taliban state». The second step «is to wind back sanctions» and «progressively un-shackle the constraints the US and its allies have put on both the Afghan state and the private sector».
Due mainly to President Joe Biden’s executive order on February 11th 2021 to seize all of the $7 billion of Afghanistan’s reserves in the US, Afghanistan’s Central Bank remains unable to access its foreign currency reserves, leaving the Afghan banking system isolated from global financial networks. Over the past few months, Washington and Taliban officials have held diplomatic talks to negotiate an agreement to allow the Central Bank of Afghanistan to resume some of its functions. However, the US’ airstrike this past July 31stand the killing of al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Kabul risk derailing the discussions. Furthermore, as it has been rightly noted, in the wake of the now indisputable evidence that the Taliban have been harbouring al-Qaeda, «It may become more difficult for the US and other donors to contemplate giving Taliban-controlled Afghanistan anything more than humanitarian aid».
In the face of Afghanistan’s regression over the past year, «The mission for politics and diplomacy is particularly challenging», as acknowledged by the current Italian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Vittorio Sandalli. As the international community’s interest is to stabilise Afghanistan, support the population, and avoid an economic and financial collapse, «Some forms of engagement with the de facto Afghan government could be developed in coordination with relevant partners, without this implying any form of recognition of the Taliban government».
Despite significant obstacles, some lines of action can be traced, argues Vittorio Sandalli. First, «It is necessary to strengthen multilateral action through the full implementation of the UNAMA mandate, with the aim of increasing pressure on the cessation of repressive practices». Second, «It is appropriate to continue focusing on the influence exerted on Afghanistan by Central Asian and other neighboring countries», while «The Organization of Islamic Cooperation ought to continue playing a substantial role».
Still, as Antonio Giustozzi notes, the Taliban’s internal struggle between regional factions, between Ulema and the ‘politicians’ is also reflected in the Emirate’s foreign policy, which is indeed shaped by many different approaches and tactical goals. Among the different factions, there is only one wide consensus: the need to maintain friendly relations with China, whose «Primary preoccupation with Afghanistan has always been security», writes Raffaello Pantucci.
Beijing’s presence in Afghanistan has increased, though «In many ways [it] is a reflection of the fact that China is one of the few big players still visibly present in Afghanistan. The Western withdrawal left a gap which has highlighted more clearly China’s activity (in the absence of everything else)». However, it is not clear how much «it has materially changed or increased to the level the Taliban government want». What is clear is that great power conflict is back in the country: Beijing is «Using Afghanistan as a stick with which to rhetorically beat the Americans on the world stage». A true shame for Afghanistan, «Which used to shine as a beacon of cooperation between the US and China», at least for some time.
While Beijing has visibly leaned into its relationship with the new rulers in Kabul, the West is still reluctant to make an overall political assessment of its debacle in Afghanistan. «Shortly after the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, the longest war in US history almost immediately vanished from international public debate», writes Andrea Carati. However, the public’s perception that something accidental and exceptional — without a critical impact on Euro-Atlantic security — went wrong in Afghanistan is misplaced. Critically, as Carati finds, the mission in Afghanistan represented «The last instance, and not merely an ill-fated campaign, of the post-Cold War model of Western interventionism». After Afghanistan, «The Western international community no longer has the political will, military resources, or sufficient self-confidence in that blueprint of large-scale interventionism».
Over the next few months, it remains to be seen whether the West and donor countries still have the political will to navigate the myriad of difficult choices that come when dealing with the de facto Afghan authorities: «One year after the Taliban’s takeover, politics and diplomacy are of the utmost importance to deal with developments in Afghanistan», concludes Ambassador Vittorio Sandalli.