Together with the morale and logistical collapse of the Afghan military caused by the US withdrawal from the country, the political leadership’s breakdown and ultimate flight precipitated the crisis and allowed the Taliban a swift and unopposed entry into Kabul in August 2021.
Many of the Afghan politicians who fled the country have since kept a low profile. This is particularly true for former President, Ashraf Ghani, and his entourage: discredited by their mismanagement during the last stages of the republican era and their sudden flight, they are unlikely to play a decisive political role in the near future. Former Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar has proved a partial exception, seeing as he has tried to hold together the network of Afghan diplomatic missions abroad. However, with the removal of Ghani and his cabinet from the official UN lists in February and the first closures of Afghan embassies in countries such as the US, his clout is diminishing.
Others among this political diaspora lack the means to effectively influence Afghan politics. Such is the case for a number of former MPs: over one-third of female MPs started regular meetings in their refugee country — Greece — in November 2021. Recently, other former MPs have announced the establishment of a parliament in exile. Lacking international recognition, however, these initiatives remain largely informal.
The fate of political leaders who instead opted to stay in Afghanistan may be epitomized by former President, Hamid Karzai, and former Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, who share a common condition as the Taliban’s ‘virtual prisoners’. Although they routinely meet visiting diplomats and members of international organizations and are active in communicating and advocating on social media, their movements are mostly restricted to Kabul.
A third group of political and military leaders, including former Vice President, Amrullah Saleh (who had sought to present himself as legitimate head of state after Ghani’s flight), coalesced around Ahmad Massoud and chose the path of armed resistance, forming the National Resistance Front (NRF). After September 2021, they were forced to largely retreat abroad, with the group resorting to hit and run tactics while trying to galvanise visibility and support among the Afghan diaspora and international stakeholders. Crucially, the difficulty of taking on the Taliban militarily is exacerbated by the little outside support that an armed struggle against the Taliban attracts. Regional players such as Iran or India, who actively supported the anti-Taliban United Front in the 1990s, are still waiting to see what the Emirate rule will mean for their interests: meanwhile, a range of international powers are focused on other priorities.
Since May, however, the NFR has stepped up the pace of its military activities and actual fighting has been reported from Panjshir and Andarab valleys, the movement’s main hotspots. The Taliban reacted by sending reinforcements and targeting local communities suspected of aiding the NFR. The involvement of local religious figures shows that, if the Taliban military supremacy is still unshaken, the moral ground is much more contested.
Besides benefiting from a strategic territory for military operations, the NRF has also refined its political stances, rejecting conservative Taliban choices in matters of women and civil rights on top of advocating for a decentralized state system. Former United Front stalwarts Ismail Khan, Atta Muhammad Noor, and Rashid Dostum have expressed support for the NRF, though no opposition activity has yet been registered in their home turfs. Other anti-Taliban groups have appeared as of late, although none seems to match the NRF.
NRF proposals to form a transitional government were rejected by the Taliban. However, the Emirate’s failure to at least coopt a number of figureheads among the previous political elites has disappointed many. Though the Emirate has called for exiled politicians to come back and, in March 2022, created a commission ‘for the repatriation of Afghan personalities’ under Shahabuddin Delawar, it has by no means turned these into actual attempts at achieving a much-needed political inclusiveness.
Connections with the international community and the capacity to lend credibility to an Afghan government are among the old political elite’s few remaining assets. Indeed, the plea for greater inclusivity on the part of the Taliban is one of the few stances shared by almost all stakeholders in the diplomatic arena.
Moreover, coopting sections of the previous elites holds added value for domestic politics: the all-Pashtun nature of the Taliban movement, diluted through many years of careful inroads and recruitment within other communities, has been starkly reinforced by the composition of their cabinet. It is only a matter of time before such an imbalance takes its toll on the Taliban’s ability to rule, even by forceful means.
Against a backdrop of deep economic crisis and impending humanitarian catastrophes, the risk of disaffection in marginalised areas grows. In some of these, local grievances combined with symbolic issues can be especially explosive, in particular when it comes to relations between the Taliban and the Shia communities. A recent example came from the Balkhab district of Sar-e Pol province, where a Taliban commander rebelled against the Emirate denouncing the discrimination against his own Hazara community: subsequent Taliban repression was likely tainted by sectarianism and reached disturbing levels of violence.
The Taliban 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. This seems to be true both at the central level, where prominent figures from the previous political elite might gain unwanted international attention and centrality, and at the local level, where allowing local networks autonomy and power could jeopardize Taliban attempts at centralizing revenue collection and potentially lay the groundwork for a military threat in the future.
However necessary for the Taliban to function, this strict adherence to centralized control over political power is inevitably backfiring. On one hand, the Taliban’s lack of representativity lends increased international and national credibility even to the — so far — marginal activities of the political groups who oppose them. On the other hand, the lack of flexibility in accommodating room to any non-Taliban — and almost any non-Pashtun — elites in political and public life leaves the latter with no viable option but to illegally oppose the Taliban. This opposition becomes more and more tilted towards armed resistance in the face of brutal repression and the emergence of polarizing communal fault lines.
The possibility of a widespread armed struggle, which would essentially escalate into a new civil war, still lingers on Afghanistan. Critically, it largely depends on the lack of better options for the internal players and the readiness of external patrons to finance it.