Taliban and Afghanistan

How the Taleban’s Second Emirate is Transforming Afghanistan

The Human Rights Situation

On August 15, 2021, the Taleban seized power in Kabul for the second time since 1996. They re-established their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) toppled by the US-led 2001 intervention and embarked on a course toward building what they call a ‘truly’ (and exclusively) Islamic society. This project goes hand-in-hand with a crass deterioration of Afghans’ human and citizen rights.

The Taleban failed to honour earlier promises of a general amnesty for members of the old government and its security forces.

According to the February 2023 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, the Taleban’s systematic violation of the human rights of women and girls was “unprecedented” worldwide, and had deepened since his first report in September 2022. They rule Afghanistan “through fear and repressive policies.[i] Those policies often respond to open civilian protest or armed resistance or seem to be revenge for violence committed under the previous government. In other cases, they seem to systematically target real or perceived opponents even when they are unrelated to concrete acts of opposition.

The Taleban also failed to honour earlier promises of a general amnesty for members of the old government and its security forces. In doing so, they have betrayed hopes that emerged during the negotiations of the 2020 Doha Agreement that they would be more tolerant vis-à-vis the more educated population. 

According to the UN Special Rapporteur, their regime is characterised by the “absence of any codified law”, empty “of clear juridical competencies” and lacking in marked “standardised processes.”[ii]

Taleban Governance

On the surface, the Taleban’s government structures, including the cabinet in Kabul, differ little from their predecessors. Their highest decision-making authority, however, is their supreme leader Hebatullah Akhundzada, advised by a small circle of extremely socially conservative religious scholars (ulema). This group is largely unknown to and inaccessible from the outside world and is currently asserting more and more power: pushing the larger Taleban Leadership Council, which ran most of the insurgents’ war, into oblivion. As Amir al-Mu’minin (commander of the faithful), Hebatullah is beyond criticism, at least in his circle’s interpretation of Sharia, and there are no established mechanisms to practically challenge his policies.

In practice, the Taleban's governance is unpredictable and uncentralised.

After taking power, the Taleban leadership dissolved state and semi-state institutions that were introduced after the US-led intervention in 2001, such as the two national electoral commissions, the Independent Human Rights Commission and the special courts for women. In the former Women’s Ministry building, they installed their Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Discouraging Vice that, in their view, fulfils the former’s task, by taking care of women and their honour. The Taleban did not even consider it necessary to formally repeal the old constitution, to dissolve parliament and the provincial councils that were also elected, or to ban political parties. In contrast to the neighbouring Islamic Republic of Iran, their state does not even have any symbolic parliamentary elements.

In practice, the Taleban’s governance is unpredictable and uncentralised. Their leadership allows sub-national Taleban actors wide latitude. For example, state-run secondary schools for girls continued to be active in several provinces even after they had been ordered not to reopen in spring 2022 for several months.

However, constructive government action does occasionally exist, for example, in the fight against Covid19, continued polio immunisation campaigns and overcoming the consequences of the earthquake disaster in June 2023 and nationwide flooding in 2022 and 2023. In those cases, the Taleban cooperated with non-governmental groups and the UN, allowing for a more structured crisis response. Their recent edicts banning Afghan women from working with NGOs and the UN, however, have severely undermined this relationship and, hence, have further undermined their ability to provide constructive, direct responses to national crises.

Anti-Taleban Resistance

Protests [...] reflect a rejection of Taleban policies by larger parts of the population.

Since retaking central Kabul, the Taleban have consolidated their power across the country. Similar to all their predecessor governments, however, they are not able to permanently control their entire territory. This leaves certain areas in which civil or armed resistance can flare up. So far, however, the Taleban have always been able to successfully suppress or at least contain such protests by violent means.

This resistance includes ongoing – albeit limited – public protests by women against their disempowerment, particularly in education and much of the job market. Because of the harsh repression, those activists have moved most of their protests to social media and private spaces. These protests, although small, reflect a rejection of Taleban policies by larger parts of the population and are the tip of an iceberg.

Armed resistance is fragmented.[iii] Various groups operate from the urban underground or remote mountain hideouts, control no territory and have no access to safe havens in neighbouring countries. For various reasons, they are unable to mobilise beyond a limited clientele: they use similar, sometimes terrorist means as the Taleban did during their insurgency phase, which often harms civilians.[iv] They emerged from political factions or units of the armed forces that were part of the corrupt political system before 2021. Some are known for their radical ethnocentrism. Above all, however, the general war weariness, which led populations in many parts of the country to come to terms with the local Taleban rule under the previous government, also limits the mobilisation potential.

In addition, these armed groups – unlike the anti-Soviet Mujahideen of the 1980s or the Taleban after 1994 – are not actively supported by any international actor. The leadership of the strongest of those armed groups, the National Resistance Front (NRF), is in neighbouring Tajikistan, tolerated by Russia which has a strong influence there. Russia has denied supporting the NRF with arms. Iran is also said to allow the group an unofficial representation. The US, UK and the EU have stated that they do not support attempts to militarily overthrow the Taleban regime.[v] However, the NRF does have support from some right-wing Republicans in the US Congress and was registered as a lobbying organisation with the US Department of Justice and set up an office in Washington.[vi]

The Taleban, as a ‘national-Islamist’ organisation, does not present a direct transnational threat.

An exception is the ISKP (IS – Khorasan Province), the Islamic State’s (IS) local franchise. However, it does not have any significant social basis in Afghanistan since the group antagonised Salafist village communities in eastern Afghanistan after a reign of terror lasting several years in 2019-20. Since then, the Taleban have been cracking down on clandestine ISKP cells and the local Salafist milieu from which the group allegedly recruits.[vii]

China, Russia and the West are interested in maintaining a working relationship with the Taleban to contain ISKP and minimise the influence of other groups present in Afghanistan who follow a worldwide jihadist agenda. [viii] The Taleban, as a ‘national-Islamist’ organisation, does not present a direct transnational threat.

Political parties and movements newly emerging or re-emerging in exile are equally as fragmented. This includes a group of former Mujahideen leaders and warlords who founded the “Supreme Council for National Salvation” in Ankara in May 2022 widely known for their corruption, alleged war crimes and human rights abuses.[ix]

Those fractures and NRF claims of leadership have blunted attempts to form an anti-Taleban umbrella organisation, as during a meeting of some of these groups in Vienna in September 2022.[x] Projects such as the formation of a parliament in exile, a women’s parliament in exile or even a government in exile have not yet progressed beyond the idea stage.

Multiple Crises

Afghanistan’s economy has been hit by the effects of the global climate crisis for decades.

The Taleban takeover was followed by deep humanitarian and economic crises, only partly caused by the new rulers. The West’s disengagement, beginning as early as 2014, led to significant cuts in funding and contributed to the breakdown of large parts of the Afghan economy which depended on aid and more significant funding flowing in through the Western militaries. After the Taleban took power, Western donor governments stopped all development programs, which until then had accounted for almost 40 per cent of the volume of the Afghan economy and 75 per cent of government spending. They also froze the Afghan state’s foreign assets. Many Afghans, including opponents of the Taleban, and analysts see this as “economic warfare” and the West’s “revenge” for the war lost to the Taleban.[xi]

After initial improvement, poverty had risen again to a pre-intervention level in the last few years of international presence in Afghanistan, by 2016-17. The Taleban’s exclusion of many women from working life pushed more households below the poverty line. According to the UN, 28 million people – about two-thirds of the total population – are currently dependent on humanitarian aid, including 15.3 million children.[xii]

At the same time, Afghanistan’s economy has been hit by the effects of the global climate crisis for decades. As early as 2009, the Stockholm Environmental Institute predicted that climate models indicated that drought in Afghanistan “is likely to become the norm around 2030” and suggested that it was “no longer a temporary or cyclical phenomenon.”[xiii] The frequency and severity of droughts have increased significantly in the immediate past: from 2020 to 2022, Afghanistan experienced three consecutive years of drought for the first time in more than 20 years. A 2019 report lists Afghanistan as the sixth most affected country.[xiv] In January 2023, in the middle of an extremely harsh winter with many deaths from the cold, the UN spoke of an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis with the very real risk of systemic collapse and humanitarian catastrophe.”[xv]

At the same time, the World Bank has confirmed that the Taleban have had certain successes in their economic policy, particularly relating to fiscal policy and the fight against corruption. The Afghan economy is “no longer in free fall” but still at a “hunger level equilibrium.”[xvi] Half of the total $2.6 billion budget is estimated to go into security, mainly it seems because their leadership has to keep paying its fighters as it cannot demobilise them into a faltering economy that cannot absorb them.

Toward a ‘Pure’ Islamic Society

Afghanistan is increasingly on the way towards a theocracy.

With the influence of Hebatullah’s circle in Kandahar increasing, Afghanistan is increasingly on the way towards a theocracy. Hebatullah made it clear several times that the implementation of Islamic law enjoys political priority. In his view, all non-Sharia laws should be abolished. In the summer of 2022, the Taleban leadership convened a nationwide assembly of ulema in Kabul to establish regime legitimacy. Thereby, it rejected the traditional autochthonous, semi-democratic way of doing so, through a Loya Jirga: a system that represents all relevant social and ethnic groups and has been utilised by most previous regimes, from the monarchy to the post-2001 Islamic Republic. According to the final resolution of the assembly, which was prepared in advance and approved by acclamation, this way of grounding legitimacy is justified as an Islamic system had been “the eternal wish of our believing nation” and the Islamic Emirate practically exercises “undisputed control over the entire country” and creates “security and justice.” Hebatullah declared that Allah had helped the Taleban win their jihad against the ‘infidels.’ Therefore, one need not wait any longer to establish His divine order on earth. Those present renewed the bay’a, the oath of allegiance, to him as Amir al-Mu’minin and leader of the Emirate.[xvii]

In words evoking ideas of a ‘clash of civilisations,’ Hebatullah spoke of the fact that the Taleban fight continues and there would be “no compromise between Islam and unbelief.” Afghanistan would not bow to foreign demands and go its way, as prescribed by the Sharia. “We do not accept compromises on Sharia law,” he said to the West. “Our Lord is Allah, not you.” Moreover, the final resolution declared that “any kind of opposition to the ruling Islamic system contrary to Islamic Sharia and national interests” was tantamount to “rebellion and corruption on earth.”

Hebatullah Akhundzada has also ruled out any future political role for leading politicians from the Western-backed Islamic Republic (2001-21). For Hebatullah, figures like ex-President Hamed Karzai and his then-main opponent Dr Abdullah will play no role in “inclusive government” despite the international community’s demands. In 2022, he said those politicians had been granted amnesty despite their “unparalleled crimes in history,” but that did not mean sitting down with them at the government’s table.

This appeal explains the fact that some Taleban leaders who have expressed public criticism of Hebatullah’s course do so in vague terms. They are also not interested in an open split, which could cost the Taleban their power or at least significantly destabilise their regime.

The increasingly multipolar world and tensions between the US-led West, China and Russia are expanding the Taleban's diplomatic leeway.

In the months that followed, the leadership circle around Hebatullah undertook further measures to institutionally consolidate their rule. Ulema councils were established in most provinces to oversee local Taleban administrations, effectively taking over the responsibilities of provincial councils under the previous government. “Special representatives” of the Amir al-Mu’minin were installed in ministries and other authorities to monitor them and report to his Special Office in Kandahar – practically a parallel system of governance. According to Taleban officials, local leverage is shrinking.[xviii]

The Taleban’s policy of repression alienates their regime from large parts of the population and isolates it internationally, albeit less so than during its first reign from 1996-2001. The increasingly multipolar world and tensions between the US-led West, China and Russia are expanding the Taleban’s diplomatic leeway, without them having yet achieved their goal of gaining diplomatic recognition from a single state and taking over Afghanistan’s UN seat.

However, the Taleban’s control is not all-encompassing. Issuing bans does not mean that bans are implemented everywhere and all the time. There is also open criticism by prominent Taleban leadership members, including Mulla Muhammad Yaqub, the defence minister and son of late Taleban founder Mulla Muhammad Omar. He and others urged the leadership to listen “to the people’s legitimate demands” as that could “drive a wedge” between the regime. There was also criticism of “power monopolisation [by one Taleban ‘faction’]” which “cannot be tolerated any longer.”[xix] However, a leading Afghanistan analyst described the Taleban’s political priorities as “internal cohesion [and] external dominance” to stay in power.[xx] This also is the priority of the Taleban’s internal critics.

[i] Situation of human rights in Afghanistan. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett. https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/country-reports/ahrc5284-situation-human-rights-afghanistan-report-special-rapporteur.
[ii] Op. Cit.
[iii] The UN Secretary-General’s Afghanistan report of 14 Sep. 2022 mentions “at least 22” (The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security  Report of the Secretary-General, https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/220914_sg_report_on_afghanistan_s.2022.485.pdf). Many of these groups are probably only active online. In a country report from autumn 2022, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, Länderreport 54, Afghanistan Bewaffnete Opposition gegen die Taliban, Stand: 10/2022, https://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/DE/Behoerde/Informationszentrum/Laenderreporte/2022/laenderreport-54-Afghanistan.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=2) was only able to assign activities to six of these groups – based on statements by the groups themselves, which usually cannot be independently verified.
[iv] „Explosion kills 5 Taliban members and a civilian in Taloqan city“, Kabul Now, 23. Feb. 2003, https://kabulnow.com/2023/02/explosion-kills-5-taliban-members-and-a-civilian-in-taloqan-city/.
[v] Kamila Ibragimova, „Taliban accidentally wires money to Tajikistan-based opposition”, Eurasianet, 20 Dec. 2021, https://eurasianet.org/taliban-accidentally-wires-money-to-tajikistan-based-opposition; „Rusia: Ba jabha-ye muqawamat-e melli kumak surat ne-gerefte ast“ [Russia: The National Resistance Front has not been supported wurde], Killid, 18. Jan. 2022,  https://tkg.af/2022/01/18/روسیه-گزارش%E2%80%8Cها-مبنی-بر-حمایت-تسلیحاتی/; Saqalain Eqbal, „US supports no armed resistance in Afghanistan“, Khaama Press, 28 May 2022, https://www.khaama.com/us-supports-no-armed-resistance-in-afghanistan455733/; Statement on violence in Afghanistan, UK Government, 19 June 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/statement-on-violence-in-afghanistan; Afghanistan: press briefing by Tomas Niklasson, EU special envoy for Afghanistan, European External Action Service, 5 March 2023, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/delegations/afghanistan/afghanistan-press-briefing-tomas-niklasson-eu-special-envoy-afghanistan_en.
[vi] Ayaz Gul, “Anti-Taliban group registers with US to try to build Afghan resistance”, Voice of America, 1 Nov. 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/anti-taliban-group-registers-with-us-to-try-to-build-afghan-resistance-/6295339.html; Andrew Desiderio, “Lindsey Graham, one-man PR shop for the Afghan resistance“, Politico, 15 Sep. 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/15/lindsey-graham-afghan-resistance-511891.
[vii] Human Rights Watch, „Afghanistan: Taliban execute, ‚disappear‘ alleged militants“ 7 Jul. 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/07/07/afghanistan-taliban-execute-disappear-alleged-militants
[viii] See e.g., Nomaan Merchant and Jamey Keaten, „CIA head meets Taliban leader as fears for Afghanistan grow“, AP, 24 Aug. 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/cia-chief-met-with-taliban-on-monday-according-to-u-s-official.
[ix] Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity, Human Rights Watch, 6 July 2005, https://www.hrw.org/report/2005/07/06/blood-stained-hands/past-atrocities-kabul-and-afghanistans-legacy-impunity; “Today We Shall All Die”: Afghanistan’s Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity, Human Rights Watch, 3 March 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/03/03/today-we-shall-all-die/afghanistans-strongmen-and-legacy-impunity.
[x] See for example: Flora Mory, “Taliban-Gegner Massoud in Wien: ‘Ihr autoritäres Regime wird fallen’“, Der Standard (Vienna), 16 Sept. 2022, https://www.derstandard.de/story/2000139175910/taliban-gegner-treffen-sich-in-wien.
[xi] See e.g. Anders Fänge, “Im Schatten der Taleban“, Südlink 198 (2021), pp 10–11 and Norah Niland, “Taliban policies are a nightmare; so are economic warfare and starvation“, Humanitarian Alternatives, https://www.alternatives-humanitaires.org/en/2022/08/16/taliban-policies-are-a-nightmare-so-are-economic-warfare-and-starvation/.
[xii] “Ten years of Afghan economic growth, reversed in just 12 months: UNDP“, UN News, 5 Oct. 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/10/1129287; Government of Afghanistan, Afghanistan living conditions survey 2016–17, https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-living-conditions-survey-2016-17; UNOCHA, Afghanistan humanitarian needs overview 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-humanitarian-needs-overview-2023-january-2023?_gl=1*18fru8*_ga*MTk2NDU5Nzc4My4xNjc3NDg5NTE5*_ga_E60ZNX2F68*MTY3NzQ4OTUxOS4xLjAuMTY3NzQ4OTUxOS42MC4wLjA.
[xiii] Jelena Bjelica, “Less rain and snowfall in Afghanistan: high level of food assistance needed until early 2019“, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 30 Jun. 2018, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/economy-development-environment/less-rain-and-snowfall-in-afghanistan-high-level-of-food-assistance-needed-until-early-2019/.
[xiv] Nasrat Sayed and Said Hashmat Sadat, “Climate change compounds longstanding displacement in Afghanistan“, Migration Policy Institute, 29 June 2022, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/climate-change-displacement-afghanistan?jr=on.
[xv] UNOCHA, Afghanistan humanitarian needs overview 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-humanitarian-needs-overview-2023-january-2023?_gl=1*18fru8*_ga*MTk2NDU5Nzc4My4xNjc3NDg5NTE5*_ga_E60ZNX2F68*MTY3NzQ4OTUxOS4xLjAuMTY3NzQ4OTUxOS42MC4wLjA.
[xvi] William Byrd, “One year later, Taliban unable to reverse Afghanistan’s economic decline”, U.S. Institute for Peace, 8 Aug. 2022, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/08/one-year-later-taliban-unable-reverse-afghanistans-economic-decline.
[xvii] „IEA Supreme Leader Akhundzada’s speech“, Ariana News, 1 July 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ft5ap4FDE7Y.
[xviii] “Taliban set up cleric councils to solve its ‘social problems”, Amu TV, 25 Jan. 2023, https://amu.tv/en/33611/; Ehsan Amiri, “Why Taliban promises of change evaporated: Who’s really calling the shots in Afghanistan”, Toronto Star, 10 Jan. 2023, https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2023/01/10/why-taliban-promises-of-change-evaporated-whos-really-calling-the-shots-in-afghanistan.html; Abubakar Siddique, “Taliban leader’s dominance results in increased oppression, isolation”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 22 Jan. 2023, https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-leader-akhundzada-oppression-isolation/32234403.html; Susannah George, „Taliban hard-liners consolidate control with crackdown on women“, Washington Post, 10. Jan. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/01/10/taliban-hardliners-women-work-universities/.
[xix] Eltaf Najafizada, “Taliban Minister’s Rebuke of Supreme Leader Shows Infighting”, Bloomberg, 13 Feb. 2013, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-02-13/taliban-minister-s-rare-rebuke-of-top-leader-shows-infighting; Samaan Lateef, “Taliban plunged into power struggle as ‘growing spat’ opens up over girls’ education“, The Telegraph, 17 Feb. 2023, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2023/02/17/taliban-plunged-power-struggle-growing-spat-opens-girls-education/.
[xx] Martine van Bijlert, “The focus of the Taleban’s new government: internal cohesion, external dominance“, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 12 Sep. 2021, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/the-focus-of-the-talebans-new-government-internal-cohesion-external-dominance/.

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