One year after the fall of Kabul into the hands of the Taliban, it is time for a first assessment of how the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has performed so far. It is worth pointing out that it has not imploded yet, despite the dire economic situation. The Taliban are able to raise about $2 billion per year in customs and taxes, keeping the state more or less afloat. The lack of resources has nonetheless ensured that intra-Taliban tensions have remained high over the past twelve months.
Rumours about the health and fate of the leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, continue to circulate, bolstered by his reluctance with public appearances. Though there have been a number of statements issued by him or in his name, including verbal ones, he appears to be doing little to steer his deeply divided organisation out of trouble. While, at the leadership level, the Taliban have mostly been able to find a modus vivendi and slowly reached a consensus on a number of issues, at the grassroot level deep contrasts continue to divide Serajuddin Haqqani’s and the Kandahar Taliban’s followers, despite them essentially being the ruling coalition guiding the Emirate forward.
Among the smaller groupings, the Tajik faction led by Qari Fasihuddin has been able to uneasily maintain a relationship with the ‘ruling coalition’, while the Uzbek faction of Salahuddin Ayubi has been thoroughly purged from power positions. The Helmandi Taliban, the Western Taliban groups, and most of the Eastern Taliban all sit rather uncomfortably at the margins of the ‘ruling coalition’. In particular, the Helmandis seem the most upset.
While regional factions battle for influence and control, another divide has emerged between the ultra-conservative clerics of the south — who, with some justification, consider themselves the core of the movement — and the ‘policy makers’ and ‘politicians’ who have run the movement throughout their ‘jihad’. The clerics appear to feel side-lined and have been acting as cogs in the politicians’ wheels, as epitomised by their issue with the re-opening of girls’ high schools and their demands to postpone such plan in March.
At the same time, the Emirate faces a growing number of external challenges. While the Islamic State in Khorasan is struggling to mount a successful guerrilla campaign capable of weakening the Emirate and relies on high profile massacres of civilians to grab the headlines, several new opposition groups have emerged. Apart from the Panjshiri-dominated NRF (National Resistance Front), a number of other factions have emerged from the ashes of the previous regime, including a couple of splinter groups from the NRF, a Hazara defector of the Taliban, three groups supported by former warlords, and two additional ones established by remnants of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces. For now, they mainly represent a nuisance for the Taliban, although they do force the government to committing large security forces in parts of the north, where these groups mostly operate.
Considering its limited means and a collapsing economy, the Emirate has not performed too badly in terms of governance. It has shown some pragmatism in working closely with the United Nations (considered an enemy by pro-Al-Qa’ida jihadists), allowing as a result to keep schools and clinics open. However, the Emirate’s inability — or unwillingness — to compensate all its men has triggered forms of corruption and additional tensions within the ranks over control of revenue streams, such as mining operations. It is indeed not uncommon for Taliban commanders to offer their protection to drug smugglers, making it likely that the drug plan approved in April will generate further tensions (if ever implemented).
Above all, the Taliban are trying to figure out what the Emirate should look like as a state. A battle for intellectual hegemony started with the publication of a book by the Minister of Justice, Abdul Hakim Haqqani, which is the first authoritative attempt to lay out a model for the Islamic state, based on a fundamentalist blueprint. By contrast, some of the other Kandahari Taliban seem to be defaulting to the monarchic model of Abdur Rahman, which they had already largely adopted during the first Emirate in the 1990s. For now, the Taliban are still struggling to find a formula to convert their polycentric structure — which was remarkably successful in the insurgency — into a blueprint for effectively running the country.
The struggle between regional factions, ulema, and the ‘politicians’ is also reflected in the Emirate’s foreign policy. Among the doctrinaire ulema, echoed in one of the speeches attributed to Haibatullah, the idea that the Emirate can do without foreign states, none of which qualifies as fully Islamic, is still widespread. For their part, the ‘politicians’, including the large majority of the Cabinet, instead agree that an isolated Emirate would not go very far, though they are divided on the extent to which engagement with foreign countries should go. The widest consensus is about the need to maintain friendly relations with China.
Furthermore, despite tensions with Pakistan in the winter and spring, at times resulting in violent border clashes, few Taliban leaders would question the need for good relations with their southern neighbour. The debate, instead, revolves more around keeping Pakistani interference under control. The most pragmatic elements, such as Mullah Baradar, advocate for some kind of reconciliation with Western powers yet currently lack widespread support. Iran, too, has its friends among the Taliban, especially in western and south-western Afghanistan, though relations with Kabul are relatively cold at present. And while most of the Kandahari leadership favour good relations with Russia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, others — especially the Haqqanis — object. Overall, however, the Emirate has at least managed to prevent foreign powers from extending support to domestic opposition. Even the US and UK governments have stated their refusal to fund the opposition, while India — which initially flirted with the idea of helping some groups — has now opted for constructive engagement with the Taliban.