Inside Story

Enigmatic pariah

Two years after their return to power, the Taliban aren’t living up to many of their promises — and the West’s disengagement isn’t helping

Hamish McDonald Books 10 August 2023 2695 words

An Afghan family taking home food rations distributed by the charity Women for Afghan Women last Thursday in Kabul. Samiullah Popal/EPA

Two years after the Taliban captured Kabul the outside world is still uncertain about the regime’s goals, dismayed by many of its actions, and holding back from anything that might signify recognition or approval. Of Afghanistan’s thirty-four million people, meanwhile, the only significant beneficiaries of the change of regime are residents of the rural hamlets that bore the brunt of air and drone attacks and night-time raids by Western special forces.

Since the US-supported president Ashraf Ghani fled the capital, the economy has shrunk by 20 per cent or more. Around twenty million people are short of food, and an estimated 3.2 million children are malnourished. Some rural people are reportedly selling organs or even children for cash to survive. Others have streamed into relief camps near provincial capitals for meagre rations.

For its part, the Taliban leadership seems less focused on dealing with this crisis than applying its interpretation of sharia law to social behaviour. It bears down chiefly on women and girls, restricting or even stopping their access to work and education or movement outside the home.

Behaviour like this is the reason the world hangs back from helping the country recover from war. Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran and Qatar have kept their embassies running in Kabul, and India rejoined them in August last year. But none of those countries has formally recognised the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, and nor has any other Muslim-majority country. Australia and other Western countries maintain cautious communication with the Taliban through diplomatic posts in Qatar, and in the United States’ case through occasional fly-ins or third-country meetings.

Around US$9 billion of the former regime’s foreign funds have been frozen by the United States, several European countries and the United Arab Emirates. After seventy top economists, including Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, urged president Joe Biden last August to let the Afghan central bank tap the reserves — and stop the “collective punishment” of the Afghan people — the United States set up a foundation in Switzerland to allocate half of the reserves in American banks (US$3.5 billion) to pay for humanitarian supplies and electricity from Central Asian neighbours.

But what more can and should the outside world do to alleviate the suffering and starvation of the Afghan people — and beyond that, influence the Taliban towards the more inclusive interpretations of Islam, especially in the treatment of women and religious minorities, that apply in so many other Muslim nations?

In The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan after the Americans Left Pakistani-American scholar Hassan Abbas suggests that the immediate prospects for reform in Afghanistan are not great, but that the West must try anyway.

He opens his book by describing how contact between the Taliban and the United States in Qatar from 2012 first acquainted Western officials with some of the figures who were destined to emerge in top positions in the new emirate. After Donald Trump became president in early 2017, this contact developed into negotiations for a US withdrawal.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned diplomat of Afghan origin, was appointed leader of the American team, and in January 2019 he was cleared by secretary of state Mike Pompeo to offer a drawdown of US forces to zero. In July that year, Trump imposed a nine-month deadline for an agreement. With no gains to show from pulling out of the Iran nuclear pact and talking to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump needed a deal before the 2020 election.

The Taliban persuaded the Americans to agree on a complete pull-out, including from the huge Bagram air base near Kabul. In return they promised that Afghanistan would not become a base for terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies, and that US forces and their local helpers could withdraw without harassment. Rather less firmly, they also pledged to enter power-sharing dialogue with Ashraf Ghani, and to look after Shia and Hazara minorities and allow female education.

Trump got his peace deal in February 2020, though it was signed in Doha rather than, as he’d hoped, at Camp David near Washington. He overruled Ghani’s objection to the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners as part of the deal. With withdrawal by May 2021 pledged, the Taliban suspended action against American forces and concentrated instead on attacking Kabul’s army. By the time Biden formed his administration, Taliban fighters controlled most of the provinces and were closing in on Kabul. Ghani dithered and postured, losing any opportunity to bargain.

Biden decided not to abandon Trump’s agreement, though he shifted the final departure date to 11 September 2021, exactly two decades after the 9/11 attacks by Afghanistan-based al Qaeda. After a trillion dollars, 2448 Americans killed, 20,722 wounded and many more traumatised, Biden said, a changed outcome was highly unlikely even if America stayed another hundred years.

The reality, says Abbas, is that “the Taliban outlasted the Americans.” Afghans were disabused of any faith that the West and their favoured Kabul politicians would save them. “The glorious myth of the ability of foreign intervention to install a democratic order” was comprehensively debunked.

Parallel with the negotiations in Doha, the Taliban were undergoing successive leadership changes. In tracking these shifts, Abbas give us important insight into the make-up and views of the men now in charge of Afghanistan.

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the secretive but charismatic Ameer ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) during the Taliban’s first spell of government in the 1990s, resurrected the movement after it was ousted by the Americans and the Northern Alliance in late 2001. Around 1995, he had boldly entered a museum in Kandahar, the country’s second city, taken out a rarely seen cloak said to have been worn by the Prophet Muhammad, and put it on before an amazed and adoring crowd.

In 2013, a little over a decade into the new insurgency, Omar became ill and died in a Karachi hospital. His death was kept secret by the Taliban and their mentors in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI, while succession plans proceeded. The natural successor might have been Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Omar’s young brother-in-law, but he was viewed with suspicion by the ISI because he’d opened contact with a brother of Mohammed Karzai, the then US-backed president in Kabul. He was also out of the picture: the ISI had arrested and jailed him in 2010.

In his absence, Mullah Akhtar Mansour was proclaimed the new emir in 2015. A mullah though he was, he was known for his worldly appetites, heading frequently to the Gulf to “buy perfume” — in other words, enjoy Russian sex workers — and hosting Gulf sheikhs for falcon-hunting. It was under his leadership that the Taliban made their first breakthrough in Afghanistan’s north, seizing the city of Kunduz.

Mansour’s term as emir ended when an American drone strike killed him on the road back to Quetta, his Pakistani hideout, after a stay in Iran. The ISI helped target him, Abbas says, so that US forces struck him on the road, rather than at a tea-stand halt, to avoid civilian casualties. With this “help” from the ISI the United States may have lost an emir more inclined to deal with Kabul.

Succession came down to one of Mansour’s two appointed deputies. The victor, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, then fifty-five, was one of the few mullahs who actually knew the Qur’an and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), though his interpretations diverged from those of most Muslims elsewhere. Apparently strict and calm, Abbas reports, even now he doesn’t know how to use a mobile phone.

Hibatullah retained Mansour’s other deputy, Sirajuddin (or Siraj) Haqqani, a military commander regarded by US intelligence as an ISI asset, who to this day has a US$10 million bounty on his head. One of Omar’s sons, twenty-six-year-old Mullah Yaqoob, was added as second deputy. Baradar, added as a third deputy in 2018 after his release by the Pakistanis at Washington’s request, was soon assigned to the Doha negotiations.

Two years after its return to Kabul, the new Taliban emirate has two centres of power. Hibatullah resides in Kandahar, surrounded by equally conservative mullahs in a council known as the Rahbari Shura. This is the ultimate power centre, akin to the supreme theocratic figure in Iran.

The other centre is the government in Kabul. Unlike its counterpart in Tehran, it isn’t the product of any form of popular election. Its most powerful figures are Siraj Haqqani and Yaqoob, who seized the interior and defence ministries respectively in August 2021 and remain entrenched there.

The prime ministership went to a seventy-year-old mullah, Mohammad Hassan Akhund, regarded as safe hands by Hibatullah. The important qualifications for the job, according to Abbas, were being in Pakistan’s good books, having been in the Taliban councils in Peshawar or Quetta shura and, having studied at the Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary, being of like mind with Hibatullah.

Akhund heads a cabinet of mostly Pushtun conservatives, nearly half of whom are on a UN terrorism blacklist. His government did become a little more diverse when deputy ministers were added, notably deputy economics minister Abdul Latif Nazari, a member of the Hazara ethnic minority who holds a PhD in political science, and deputy health minister Hassan Ghyasi, a medical doctor who is also Hazara.

From the time of the Doha peace agreement until their first weeks after entering Kabul, the Taliban purported to have changed since the 1990s, when women were forced into the all-enveloping burqa, and executions and amputations conducted in public were substituted for sport. Siraj Haqqani even told readers of the New York Times in February 2020 that “killing and maiming must stop,” that the Taliban would work for a new inclusive political system, and that women would have the “right to work” and the “right to education.”

There have been glimmers of progress since the takeover. Taliban fighters guard the Shia minority’s mosques and festivals. Women in the cities wear headscarves, as they would anyway, rather than the burqa, and women have been appointed heads of maternity hospitals and gynaecological schools. A contest to head the Afghan Cricket Board became a “fistfight,” suggesting that attitudes towards sport had changed from when the first Taliban regime expelled the Pakistan soccer team with shaven heads for wearing shorts on the field. Hibatullah has also issued a fatwa against forced marriage and the disinheritance of widows.

Mobile phones and social media are allowed. Indeed, Taliban spokesmen have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. With seven million Afghans using the internet — “a necessity of the people,” one minister has said — the regime accepts that this particular tide of modernity can’t be ordered back. A new 100,000-strong regular army and a 140,000-strong police force, many with shaven faces, have been formed. Foreign correspondents are allowed to stay in Kabul, and often get interviews with government figures.

Yet if the promises on taking Kabul seemed too good to be true, that’s because they were, according to Abbas. In December 2021 women were told they must be accompanied by a male relative when travelling medium to long distances. Girls’ schools for grade six (age eleven) and above were subsequently closed.

In June last year, a book by chief justice Mullah Abdul Hakim (with a foreword by ) emphasised the absolute authority of the emir, and entertains no notion of a representative mechanism. Modern (non-religious) education was causing all the country’s problems, he wrote, so education had to be inherently religious. Women could only be wives and mothers, and their intellectual inferiority meant they could never be the emir. They had to be taught at home by family members, and must never study alongside men; if they had to leave the house, the teacher must be a woman.

In October, a government guidance said girls shouldn’t take college entrance exams for subjects like economics, engineering, agriculture, geology and journalism, which were deemed “too difficult.”

Abbas sees two minds at war here, with the conservative clerics advising so far prevailing, to the dismay of more progressive elements. It doesn’t help that some Western media call this “a return to traditional Islam” — it isn’t, he says. The Taliban “routinely mix up their tribal norms with Islam” instead of following sayings of the Prophet such as “Education is incumbent on every boy and girl.” Once again, women are the victims of war, Abbas writes. “They have become the bargaining chip, their liberties the sacrifice.”

And what of the Taliban’s other promises?

On security, the main terror threat comes from the regional branch of ISIS, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan. Its suicide bombing amid the crowds outside Kabul’s airport on 26 August 2021 killed 170 Afghans and thirteen American soldiers, and it has also targeted the Shia and Hazara minorities where it can. The Taliban are said to be seeking aid from the Americans, including signals intelligence, to fight the ISK; outflanked in extremism, it worries that its now-idle fighters might gravitate to the radical group.

But old Taliban friendships persist. In July last year, a CIA drone strike killed the visiting al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a Kabul residence where he was apparently a guest of interior minister Siraj Haqqani. The muted response of the government showed its embarrassment.

While the ISK, with its many foreign members, might struggle in Afghanistan, a worsening security problem is blowing back on the Taliban’s old puppet-masters in Pakistan. A wave of terror bombings by the Taliban’s counterpart, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, is aiming to establish an even purer (to its mind) form of Islamic rule in the country whose name means “Land of the Pure.”

As for inclusion, the Taliban resisted bringing figures from the former US-backed government into even symbolic roles. But Hamid Karzai, the former president, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former chief minister, continue to live in Kabul. The Hazara ethnic minority fares better than during the first Taliban period, when they were victims of a genocide that saw desperate journeys to foreign asylum — some to Australia by boat — but Abbas notes Hazara lands reportedly being taken by Pashtuns and Hazara being excluded from relief supplies.

Economic stringency is affecting the Taliban as well, and helping moderate figures. Baradar has come back into the picture as head of economic policy with oversight of the finance ministry. Though not an economist, his Doha background makes him best suited to approach foreign partners and donors.

Another frontman is a foreign ministry spokesman, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, who grew up in New Zealand, speaks fluent English and may be a son-in-law of the late emir Mansour. As part of this effort to improve their image abroad, the Taliban have invited foreign correspondents to witness the drive against opium cultivation.

Overall, Abbas says it’s too early to declare that anything resembling a “New Taliban” has arrived. The regime is a toxic mix of “religion gone sour,” patriarchy, tribalism, nationalism and ethnic rivalry — all surrounded by baleful geopolitical rivalries: Saudi Arabia vs Turkey vs Iran; India vs Pakistan; the United Arab Emirates vs Qatar. But change might happen over the next five years as the Omar-era old guard retires.

This is very much an interim book, breezily written, more journalistic than academic, with necessarily vague attributions to the Taliban, diplomatic, intelligence and army figures whom Abbas quotes. It is strong on the who, how and where, less so on the “why.” The explanation of the Taliban’s theology derived from the Deoband school in Northern India could be a lot clearer: Abbas assumes a knowledge of the Salafi and Wahhabi purist schools originating in the Arab world in making a distinction about the Taliban.

But Abbas does buttress his contention that holding back doesn’t help anyone. The Taliban are the de facto government, and the West recognises regimes with equally atrocious human rights records elsewhere. Distinguishing between engagement and endorsement, Abbas argues that only through “creative engagement” can the Taliban be influenced effectively. He concludes: “Not engaging is going to support the view of hardliners that the world is against them — and consequently they will rise further within the organisation.” •

The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan after the Americans Left
By Hassan Abbas | Yale University Press | $34.95 | 305 pages