One year after the Taliban’s victory over its democratically elected predecessor, the Islamic Emirate is struggling with internal and external challenges that could further undermine its already shaky foundation. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate remains to be recognized by any foreign state. It is facing resistance in various parts of the country, is rife with internal fragmentation, and has failed to form an inclusive government contrary to its commitments in the Doha Agreement. The Taliban have deprived women of their livelihoods and restricted girls’ education to below the secondary level. More than 90 percent of Afghans do not have enough to eat. To make matters worse, the killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul by a U.S. drone demonstrates that Afghanistan may have once again become a safe haven for terrorist organizations.
How are the Taliban running Afghanistan and where is the country headed?
An analysis of how state institutions are run illustrates that the Taliban have formed an ultra-exclusive government run by Taliban fighters, clerics, and sympathizers at the national and local levels. Many of these appointees lack the knowledge and expertise to run a complex administrative system. The repercussions of the brain drain, with previous administration workers leaving the country, is palpable, and the problem is compounded by the Taliban’s inability to pay what civil servants remain.
An Ultra-exclusive Government
After the fall of Kabul, the Taliban announced a government consisting of hard-liners who were close to the former leader and founder of the group, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The cabinet was entirely dominated by men, virtually all Pashtuns (30 Pashtuns, two Tajiks, and one Uzbek). Evidently, appointments were not based on merit, skills, or knowledge, or arrived at through a democratic process. Those appointed had various roles in the Taliban movement and/or a long history of involvement in jihad fighting against the former government and the international troops in Afghanistan. Other decisive qualifications appear to be religious training, ideological alignment, and a Pashtun background.
The Taliban had no reservations about assigning a number of high-profile individuals on designated terrorist lists to key ministerial positions. Over half of the cabinet (17 of 30) is on a U.S. or U.N. terrorist watchlist. The Taliban’s Interior Minister Sirajudin Haqqani, for example, is a U.S. Department of State designated terrorist and on the FBI’s wanted list with a bounty of $10 million for information leading to his arrest. His name made the headlines in early August when a U.S. drone killed al-Qaida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in his guesthouse in the heart of Kabul. In addition to Sirajuddin Haqqani, his uncle Khalil Haqqani, minister of refugee affairs, has a bounty of $3 million on him. Likewise, Amir Khan Motaqi, the Taliban’s foreign affairs minister, is on the U.N. sanction list.
What the Taliban lack in expertise and technical knowledge, they make up for in religious titles and zeal, and the presumed religious legitimacy thereof. That the Taliban are a violent Islamist group with a strict and extreme interpretation of Islam is well-known and extensively studied. Religion has always been the core essence of the Taliban’s identity. Hence, to see the Taliban government filled with clerics and religious scholars (mullahs) comes as no surprise.
In fact, religious titles (often indicative of religious training and rank) are commonly used by the Taliban. These signal not only religious-based authority but are also aimed at demonstrating legitimacy on the premise of religion. As such, almost every single Taliban member occupying key administrative positions has religious titles, such as amir-al muminin (commander of the faithful), Khalifa, Alim, Sheikh, Mufti, Mawlawi, Akhund, and Mullah. Some names are fortified with multiple such religious designations: e.g. Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund.
The Taliban aim to reshape state institutions in their own image, and to do this, they are replacing the current civil service with Taliban fighters and sympathizers. The new regime has dissolved a number of state institutions, primarily those safeguarding democracy and human rights. For example, the Taliban dissolved the Independent Election Commission and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission as well as ministries such as the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and Ministry of Peace. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was also dissolved. The Taliban rationalized that there was no “need” for such institutions. The Taliban brought back the ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (aka the moral police) and, in a symbolic act, placed it in the building formerly housing the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. For many women subject to harsh Taliban laws enforced by the moral police, this added insult to injury.
The tight grip on state institutions at the national level trickles down to the local level through a carefully crafted plan to gradually replace all civil servants with decision-making roles. Taliban administrators at provincial offices and ministries have told civil servants that they were not needed. The implication of the Taliban’s replacement policies has been particularly detrimental for women. The overwhelming majority of women lost their jobs, and the few who were allowed to work in jobs that men are not allowed to fill had to accept a significant cut in salary.
The Taliban’s replacement approach is aimed to rid state institutions of people who are not ideologically aligned with the Taliban. In an interview with Afghanistan International, a member of the Taliban stated, “Of what use to us is the expertise and knowledge of people leaving, if they are lacking belief?”
However, the Taliban’s political leadership, particularly those at the heart of the administration, are too savvy to discuss such policies openly. In public, the Taliban have frequently stated that the specialized workforce — doctors, engineers, judges, lawyers, and teachers — should not leave the country and can return to their jobs. However, in practice, those jobs do not exist, the jobs have been filled with Taliban fighters, or the Taliban’s strict policies make working conditions suffocating and virtually impossible to deal with.
Replacing civil servants has been a double-edged sword. The capable and knowledgeable workforce is being driven out, but loyalist Taliban fighters lack the basic knowledge and expertise to run these jobs, and some are even reluctant to even try to do so. Reportedly, some Taliban fighters who occupy various administrative positions “miss jihad” and find their new office-based roles boring. According to a resident of Herat City, some Taliban civil servants can barely read and write. Without an educated workforce to competently administer the country, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate might not last long.
Central to the Taliban’s policies is an attempt to implement Shariah and a related drive to increase religious education. According to Noorullah Munir, the Taliban education minister, religious education is a priority for the Taliban’s Emirate. The Taliban have converted scores of secular schools, universities, and educational institutions to madrassas with the aim of rooting out the secular education that thrived in Afghanistan since 2001. Furthermore, the Taliban have reshuffled school curriculums in accordance with their ideologies and beliefs and have curtailed or banned secular education.
These changes only add to an already large pool of radicalized youth that have attended a ballooning number of madrassas in the country. In fact, since 2001, the country has witnessed an unprecedented increase in the number of mosques and madrassas. According to the former Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs, in 2014 only 3,500 mosques were formally registered in the country while approximately 120,000 new mosques were established that were not registered. Since then, the numbers have increased rapidly.
Ultimately, the Taliban will cultivate a workforce with rigorous religious education and close ideological alignment. As for the implications for state institutions that were built in the last 20 years since the fall of the first Emirate, the damage is already tremendous and likely irreversible should Afghanistan continue on this trajectory.