The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 proved fatal for the the Western-backed government in Kabul. The Taliban returned to power swiftly and now, nearly two years later, remain in control of Afghanistan.
In his recent book, “The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan after the Americans Left,” Hassan Abbas dives deeply into the Taliban of today — who they are, what they want, and how they govern. Abbas, a distinguished professor of international relations at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Strategic Studies Center, charts the faultlines within the Taliban movement and what has (and hasn’t) changed since the group ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. In the following interview with The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz, Abbas explores these themes and more, ultimately concluding that as much as we can discuss the group, its actions, and its intentions, “it’s too early to start judging the Taliban.”
Regarding the collapse of the Afghan Republic government, you write: “With no prioritizing of institution-building, weak rule of law and reliance on warlords and drug dealers, things could not have ended differently. The new edifice of an overcentralized and unaccountable Afghan state was unsustainable.” Based on what we know so far about the Taliban in a governing role, are some of these same flaws still present? In what ways does the Taliban Emirate differ from the Republic in the aforementioned terms?
Well, the two situations/groups cannot be compared. The Afghan Republic had the benefit of international support — especially financial and security support from the United States, NATO, and other allied states. This state-building project was a massive undertaking and for most initiatives finding resources was not an issue.
Essentially, we had a chance to rebuild Afghanistan from scratch, and a new Afghanistan was built: in terms of infrastructure, road networks, educational opportunities, and a relatively better environment for minorities. Yet as I have discussed in the book, there were also many flaws, inadequacies, and importantly distractions such as Iraq war that took away focus from reconstruction of Afghanistan.
The Taliban today have inherited an existing infrastructure and many institutions, which they are now attempting to reshape and reconfigure according to their agenda. Their challenge is this: they lack resources and are fundamentally authoritarian in essence and dogmatic in their worldview. At least most of the Taliban leaders, especially those housed in Kandahar today, fall into this category. The essence of the current Emirate and the former Republic were shaped by incredibly different circumstances and thus realities.
In what ways does the Taliban of today differ from its 1990s iteration?
The Taliban have gone through a transformation, arguably a haphazard evolution, in so many ways. The ’90s version was more extremist in outlook, more conservative in their attitudes, and even more ill-equipped to run a state. They were more of a reactionary movement than anything else, and one that had thousands of recruits from radical madrassas in Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas. They were zealous, surely, but incapable and incompetent when it came to governing a state. That group is the one that I refer to as Taliban 1.0.
In the last 20 years, the Taliban organized themselves as an insurgency, having masterfully used social media to their benefit and diversifying their support base and skill set. Then, they took advantage of the opportunity to groom themselves in the world of diplomacy when they were allowed to set up a political camp in Doha in 2012 and get involved in direct negotiations with the United States.
Many of the Taliban during the insurgency era had moved to either Pakistan (predominantly) or some of the Gulf countries as well, inevitably shifting — or loosening — their mindsets. Most relevant was the rise of social media. It offered the young Taliban a new way to network, yes, but in the process, their exposure to the internet opened the gates to a new world to them.
Who I refer to as the Taliban 3.0 in the book are our current subjects: a mix of conservative old hardliners in Kandahar, who believe themselves to be harbingers of their distorted version of Islamic law, and those in Kabul who have happily adopted new titles of prime minister, cabinet ministers, administrators of this or that, etc. — high titular labels. Unlike the ’90s, some of them have Ph.D.s, others are trained and well-versed in modern technology and bureaucratic structures. Essentially, they are trying to learn how to govern on the fly, but with far more qualification than their predecessors.
The other major difference between the ’90s and now is that there are far more divisions amongst the Taliban today, the most important being between some pragmatists in Kabul and extremists and hardliners in Kandahar. Policy paralysis, such as in the case of girls’ education and minority rights, is a consequence of that schism.
Today’s Taliban have not only more international exposure but members among them now skilled in the art of diplomacy — which explains their effective engagement with regional countries in Central and South Asia and the Gulf. Additionally, they are also focusing more on revenue generation and managing their financial affairs, publicly sharing the import and export comparisons year to year; an unthinkable idea in the ’90s.
Lastly and of great importance, the Taliban today face another extremist challenge in the shape of Daesh or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), a lethal group even more extremist than the Taliban — the new resident menace. Furthermore, they are also facing less challenge from political opposition (including former Afghan republic leaders, tribal elites), as they are all now scattered in the region (some enjoying the illegitimate assets they acquired while in power), and not willing to fight with the Taliban inside Afghanistan.
In the book you note factions among the Taliban as existing along identity lines — the Doha moderates, old guard hardliners of the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras, fighters and field commanders, organized criminal groups, and ordinary villagers. Are they variations on the general Taliban theme or are there ideological differences among them?
The divisions within the Taliban are mostly political, ethnic, and tribal driven. Tribal identity still matters a lot in the current landscape. As obvious from multiple profiles of Taliban leaders that I have shared in the book, many Taliban leaders are political animals: Their greed for power and lust is loud and clear.
Then, there are the drug dealers disguised as businesspeople, belonging to narcotic or organized criminal mafias. They dress like them, speak their language, and may seem to be a part of them — but in reality, they are Taliban allies.
Lastly, ideological differences continue to exist as well, but by and large the Taliban belong to the Deobandi school of thought within the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence. I have discussed the religious narratives and nature of Deobandism and its impact in Afghanistan in much detail in the book. Mullah Haibatullah, the supreme leader, was head of a religious seminary in the suburbs of Quetta during the groups’ insurgency years. Some of his close associates are also deeply steeped in hardliner extremist religious narratives. Those in Kabul might be less conservative and more pragmatic, but in ideological terms, they belong to the same cadres and schools of jurisprudence. Essentially, their DNA has not changed.
Pakistan has undergone its own share of turmoil since August 2021. The scenes of General Faiz Hameed being photographed rather brazenly schmoozing around Kabul before a government was formed are rather remarkable. How would you characterize Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban at present? How do Pakistan’s own domestic problems affect its policies with regard to Afghanistan?
The return of the Taliban to Kabul has energized its allies, the Pakistani Taliban. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP for short) have restarted their terrorist activities in Pakistan, and contrary to Pakistan’s expectations, the Afghan Taliban have been of very little help in either dismantling the network or helping Pakistan bring the TTP to justice. Thus, Pakistan is once again paying the price for its support to the Taliban through the blood of its civilians.
The former Pakistani intelligence chief had visited Kabul at a critical juncture in August 2021 when the Taliban cabinet formation was in the process. It was more of a show, and his appearance in news headlines hardly helped Pakistan. As I have discussed in the book, Pakistan’s foreign office had strongly warned him against such gimmicks and later, he was directly questioned in a close-door Pakistan parliamentary session about what he was up to in Kabul. He responded by saying the Chinese and American intelligence officials had also visited Kabul at that time, to which a political leader bravely quipped, “But they were not the ones photographed, you were.”
Yet, Pakistan remains a beneficiary of the Taliban’s return to Kabul, because for Pakistani security hawks that means that India has stepped out of the game as a player in Afghanistan. The Pakistani defense establishment, naturally, is rather jubilant about that. Pakistan’s also been receiving some financial benefits via coal imports and more trade opportunities with Afghanistan. Additionally, they are also trying hard to convince countries to recognize the Taliban but to little avail so far.
It is however crucial to recognize as well, as I have done in the book, that unlike the ’90s when Pakistan was its biggest supporter, the Taliban today have other and more important allies — in the shape of Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, even China, and Iran. They are getting free electricity from Uzbekistan, for instance. The foreign minister of Afghanistan is constantly on the move engaging with regional countries. For the Taliban, Pakistan is no longer their strongest and most important ally. Moreover, Taliban leaders who had moved their families to Pakistan do not have very fond memories of the years of total dependence on their neighbor. Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar, for instance, and what happened to him at the hands of Pakistani intelligence, is still a sore memory.
In a few sections you note areas or instances in which the Taliban “deserve credit” or “deserve recognition” — for example, in reference to a decree banning forced marriage of women and directing courts to treat women fairly or the appointment of a Hazara and a few Tajiks to posts in the interim cabinet. How do we square these decisions with less-admirable choices or twists, such as the pledge that girls would be able to return to school and then its reversal? Put a different way: Were these triumphs of good policymaking or accidental victories for moderates?
As discussed earlier, the relative pragmatists, or perhaps better-called moderates in Kabul (many of whom shuttle between there and Doha) have been influencing some policy decisions. I have heard from many Taliban leaders in my personal engagements that they actually do want girls to go to high school and college, but Mullah Haibutullah in Kandahar, under the influence of radical elements around him, has been creating hurdles.
There is an ongoing tussle on these issues. Mullah Haibutullah is apparently even trying to establish his own security force in Kandahar, something along the lines of Iran’s revolutionary guards. Some experts even think Iranians advised Haibutillah to build an independent security force directly under his command.
Various Taliban factions are still testing the waters and by and large, are trying to put on a united face — because they know their survival depends on it. However, on the inside, there are severe tensions and heated debates taking place amongst the cabinet members and between those in Kandahar and Kabul.
Kandahar is dogmatic and trying to enforce its writ, but the Afghanistan of 2023 is different from the Afghanistan of the ’90s. There’s also pressure from women’s groups and the new middle class that’s emerged during the last two decades. The departure of a large number of educated Afghans from Kabul has diminished the power and influence of the new middle class in Afghanistan, but still, many remain in the country. Some of them have even returned to their government positions to make two ends meet.
Ultimately, Afghanistan cannot be run without educated Afghans and with time, that will help the pragmatist elements in Kabul. Last but not least, the Taliban (to their credit) are trying to engage with the modern institutions they inherited. My argument is that a new Afghanistan will inevitably force change onto the Taliban — or I would at least like to hope so.
Ultimately, you conclude with an admittedly controversial recommendation: for the international community to increase engagement with the Taliban, rather than restrict it further. Why do you think that is the best way forward?
I have reached this conclusion because many other options have already been tried. We had 20 years to fight and dismantle the Taliban — and it did not happen, because the Taliban have significant support in Afghanistan. Still, since their return to Kabul through negotiation channels they have made commitments, especially regarding security matters which they appear to be abiding by to quite an extent.
Simply, the truth is that West was no longer ready to fund state-building in Afghanistan – and those at the helm of affairs in Kabul were proving to be irreparably corrupt and incompetent. Does that mean innocent Afghan civilians pay the price through sanctions and starvation?
The “new Taliban,” if I may call them that, are trying to convey to not only their regional partners but to the West that they will not allow their territory to be used for regional or international terrorism. We know they are fighting ISKP, and there is some international cooperation they are receiving for this endeavor. If the Taliban can show that they truly mean what they are saying, the region would start taking them more seriously.
Getting into another warlike situation with the Taliban is unlikely to improve the plight of ordinary Afghans or the nature of Afghanistan’s reality today. Even if at some point hard tactics and strong sanctions are opted for, we at least need to be able to say that we tried our best to offer peacebuilding opportunities and a constructive approach to Afghanistan. We need to give engagement a chance before we are forced to think about hard power — if for anything, for the sake of their struggling people. Enough generations of Afghans have suffered, with too many hands to blame. If this is the only path through which their children can have a chance at a better present and future, dare I say we take it?
It seems that the Taliban are still trying to control their own cadres and the mainstream Taliban are still struggling to establish their writ. If I may be so blunt — it’s too early to start judging the Taliban. Two years for a group with no experience as governors, after a brutal 20-year war and with intense sanctions and a crippling humanitarian crisis, is not much. Let us hope, even if this optimism be framed as foolish, that they get it right.