It is too soon to know for sure what Afghanistan’s new government will look like and what policies it will pursue. This briefing note highlights several key issues to watch.
Just over a week after the Afghan government’s collapse and the Taliban’s return to Kabul, there are more questions than answers about how the Taliban, back in de facto power in Afghanistan after twenty years, will rule the country.
So far, the policy announcements from Taliban spokesmen are crafted to be reassuring, though vague, declaring that there will be no revenge taking, saying girls and women will continue to be allowed education and employment (within unclear parameters), telling journalists that they can continue to report and calling for calm. At the same time, the limited anecdotal reporting of Taliban interactions with the population in areas newly under their control paints a mixed picture. There appear to be instances of reprisals and intimidation, especially directed at Afghans associated with the erstwhile government and its foreign supporters. Kabul, apart from the desperate scenes at the airport related to the rushed and unplanned evacuation, is reported by some to have been largely quiet in the initial days, though there are also reports of Taliban harassing some of those trying to reach the airport. Information from elsewhere in the country is sparse. The disparate and inconsistent signals do not yet form a clear pattern. Even if they did, it should not be assumed that the current Taliban approach will be long-lasting.
Running through the many near-term questions about what Taliban rule will look like are three fundamental and inter-related uncertainties: what are the Taliban leadership’s intentions? To what extent might those intentions diverge from the attitudes and behaviour of the Taliban’s military commanders and fighters (that is, those now exercising authority on the ground throughout the country)? To what extent will the leadership wish to or be able to overcome any such divergences?
Installation of a new administration – much less a new Islamic state system, the contours of which the Taliban have so far only hinted at – is barely nascent. In that light, it is important to identify several emerging policy dilemmas and issues to watch. What might the new government look like? How will Taliban rule be experienced by Afghans? What are the group’s immediate challenges? And how are outside powers likely to – and how should they – respond?
What shape might the Taliban’s government take?
Despite years of on-and-off dialogue with other Afghans and foreign emissaries seeking to get a peace process on track, the highly secretive Taliban have been notably coy about their political vision. They have stressed that their goal, aside from ousting foreign military forces, was to establish an Islamic system. But they have shied away from revealing what that would mean in practical terms – that is, what the levers of power would be and who would be emplaced to pull them. Will the Taliban use their 1990s government as a template, with an emir at the apex, appointed ministers and no elections? Will they institute a hybrid system with theocratic and elected parts, as in Iran? Will they give any regard to the form of constitutional democracy in effect in Afghanistan, though imperfectly implemented, since 2004?
Until the Taliban form and reveal answers to these questions, it is possible, and perhaps necessary, that they will cobble together a temporary administration composed of ministers selected through opaque, back-room wrangling and headed by a president or prime minister. It seems likely – though they have not yet said so – that the group will instal some sort of religious authority at the top of their new system, whether they establish a temporary administration or something purportedly more permanent from the start. This arrangement might involve situating the group’s emir (using that title or a revised one), Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, as an authority superior to the administration that would be responsible for day-to-day governing. Or it might involve establishing an ulama or religious scholars council, dominated by Taliban leaders, that has the ultimate say over policy and legislation. Having insisted for two decades on the legitimacy and use of the name “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – as they called their 1990s regime – the Taliban seem unlikely to give up on it now, even if they reform some of the former Emirate’s structures and policies.
The Taliban have signalled that they may be open to including in their new administration some figures associated with the politics of the last twenty years. They have engaged in talks with former President Hamid Karzai and former senior government official Abdullah Abdullah. As the outright victors, and with many of their own leaders and constituencies to satisfy in government formation, the Taliban probably would not offer more than token inclusion of non-Taliban figures. But there are reasons why doing at least that much could serve their interests. One reason is to defuse the potential for domestic opposition to their rule to gain traction. They have indicated to foreign interlocutors that they appreciate that monopolistic rule in Afghanistan would not be stable – but how genuine this appreciation is and how far it extends within the movement is unclear. A second reason is that a degree of inclusiveness could satisfy the insistence of external powers – especially those in the neighbourhood whose support the Taliban will need most – that stability requires such an approach to governance. Even token inclusivity could enable the Taliban to claim that their victory was not solely a military takeover, which they had been pressed not to pursue, and could reinforce their claim to legitimacy.
More room for inclusion might exist at the technocratic level, in the civil service and especially in ministries responsible for delivering public services, though the Taliban will certainly maintain control of the most powerful ministries and institutions, including defence, interior, intelligence and foreign affairs. So far, the Taliban have, for instance, reportedly asked the health minister to remain in his post. They have also asked the majority of public-sector employees to return to their duties and promised that these people will continue to receive salaries. There are indications that some of the group’s leaders appreciate the limitations of their capacity to operate the machinery of government in more technically demanding areas. Although the Taliban have exercised so-called shadow governance in some rural areas of Afghanistan since gaining strength over the past two decades, it was rudimentary and limited in scale, and in areas like health and education they essentially co-opted the Afghan state’s and non-governmental organisations’ delivery of services.
How far the Taliban’s political inclusiveness will extend, how long it will last and what form their government will take are unanswerable questions for the time being. Much will depend on how they navigate the difficult transition from insurgency to government.
How might the Taliban treat the Afghan population?
The uncertainties surrounding the shape of Taliban government also apply to questions regarding the extent to which they will reimpose the harsh policies and practices of their rule from 1996 to 2001, including brutal punishments, implementation of an extreme interpretation of Islamic strictures governing everyday life, atrocities against minorities (especially the Shiite Hazara) and exclusion of women from education and the public sphere. Taliban figures have said they recognise mistakes were made during their prior regime and that lessons have been learned, but they have not been specific about what those mistakes and lessons are.
In these early days, even messages that appear intended to be reassuring are ambiguous and can lead to highly divergent practices. For instance, the new Taliban governor for Kandahar has reportedly said: "We are not going to intimidate anyone on music and the style of their beards and hair, but rather scholars should prevent them from evils in a delicate way." This kind of message leaves it uncertain how “scholars” will interpret their mandate and what they will do to carry it out.
Aside from the as-yet-unknown intentions of the Taliban leadership with respect to their forthcoming policies on social control, there are likely to be competing forces pulling the government in different directions. Taliban leaders have indicated in the past that, once they regain power, they do not want their regime to be the international pariah that it was in the 1990s, starved of foreign aid and recognised by only three countries (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). They are aware of the close scrutiny that traditional donor states and international institutions will apply to their treatment of the population, especially women and minorities. On the other hand, the group is existentially dependent on sustaining the loyalty and cohesion of the military commanders and fighters who brought them to power, and these elements are deeply conservative and unlikely to be interested in satisfying foreign interests in order to attract their support.
What are the Taliban’s biggest immediate challenges?
As noted above, the Taliban evidently did not have a government-in-waiting and a political program readied in advance of the swift collapse of the prior government and security forces. Filling this gap will be crucial to their ability to ensure continuation of public services (keeping risk of unrest in check) and to reassure their followers that they are instituting a new, more Islamic system. Government formation and maintaining public order through their military commanders and fighters are likely to be the group’s principal occupations for at least the weeks ahead. At the moment, armed resistance to the Taliban’s ascendance appears too minimal and too unlikely to attract significant foreign support to be a major concern, but this dynamic bears watching.
Economic strains might soon challenge the Taliban’s ability to govern, depending upon how ambitious their public spending plans turn out to be. The predecessor government’s budget was about 75 per cent financed by foreign grant aid – sources of funding that at a minimum will be suspended for a lengthy period of time as donors watch developments. The Taliban will continue to have the revenue streams that sustained their insurgency, as well as access to the customs revenue on which the erstwhile government relied heavily for the portion of its budget it raised domestically. Whether new donors will step in to make up any of the shortfall is not yet clear, as none have spoken up to say so.
Even before the upheaval of recent weeks, Afghanistan was suffering from multiple humanitarian crises brought on by drought, the COVID-19 pandemic and displacement due to conflict. About half of the country’s population was estimated to need humanitarian assistance in 2021. All these challenges are likely to be compounded by what appears to be a burgeoning economic crisis, with the national currency, the Afghani, losing value and the prices of staples increasing. Donors appear likely to continue offering humanitarian aid delivered through UN agencies and international NGOs, but the Taliban will need to ensure access and coordinate effectively with providers if they hope to ameliorate these crises or at least stop them worsening.
How might – and should – outside powers respond to Taliban ascendance?
No government is rushing to congratulate the Taliban, and as yet there is no Taliban government formed to formally recognise, for those who may be inclined to do so.
Regional states with which the Taliban has cultivated relationships, and that have hedged against the risk of the prior government’s collapse by cultivating relations with the group in return, can be expected to move toward recognition sooner rather than later. Most importantly, this group includes Pakistan (the Taliban’s long-time patron), China, Russia and Iran. Central Asian states can be expected to engage with the Taliban at a minimum as a means of pursuing their security interests in ensuring that Central Asia-focused militant groups do not find new opportunities to thrive in Afghanistan. None of these countries are traditional donors of substantial amounts of grant aid, and it is too early to estimate how much financial support they may offer.
Views taking shape in Western capitals suggest that donors that have provided billions of dollars to Afghanistan over the past two decades are unlikely to provide aid to a Taliban government any time soon. Recognition of the government, once formed, and removal of sanctions still in place on the group and many of its leaders may prove politically difficult as well. Some of these governments, including the U.S., have publicly adopted a wait-and-see stance and have continued to dangle the possibility of aid as a means of encouraging the new government to adopt moderate and inclusive policies. But supporting a Taliban government might be politically too toxic even if the group offers non-Taliban figures government posts and takes steps to moderate its rule as compared to the 1990s. It will be especially controversial if the Taliban include in their government senior members of the Haqqani faction, a particularly lethal U.S. adversary during the conflict.
Western governments might tacitly accept the Taliban’s ascendance and attempt to engage with them for limited purposes especially related to counter-terrorism interests. But the Taliban may be unwilling to engage if their government is not accorded recognition, granted access to state financial resources and properties held abroad, given the symbolically significant seat at the UN and provided relief from UN, U.S. and other bilateral sanctions. The Taliban notably see themselves as already entitled to sanctions relief, which was promised on a timeline never met under the terms of the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement.
U.S. and European policies do not appear to have grappled as yet with the potential consequences of a deeply impoverished and isolated Taliban-run state, starved of external resources and recognition, and struggling to earn legitimacy among Afghans by providing services (assuming they at least partly perceive their domestic legitimacy in that fashion). Harm to the Afghan population could be partially mitigated by humanitarian support provided through UN agencies and international NGOs. More difficult to mitigate would be the potential for a Taliban government in these circumstances to lean into its Islamist credentials in the absence of an ability to foster legitimacy through governance. In this scenario, the Taliban might even be more tolerant of transnational militant groups like al-Qaeda in their midst and more severe in the social policies they impose on the Afghan people.
Before governments even begin to address conundrums concerning their policy postures toward a Taliban-controlled government, there are several immediate priorities. First is engaging in pragmatic negotiations with the Taliban to ensure safe passage to the Kabul airport or elsewhere if other routes open up for all foreign citizens and vulnerable Afghans who wish to leave the country. Foreign governments evacuating people, particularly the U.S., which is playing the largest role, also need to ensure that they continue this crucial work until it is fully completed.
Secondly, the U.S., EU and European governments should mount a concerted and visible diplomatic campaign to fill the coffers of humanitarian and refugee agencies for their Afghanistan appeals. Such an effort could help make good on promises of standing with the Afghan people and, for the U.S., on assurances that its pivot away from using military means of pursuing its foreign policy would be accompanied by a pivot toward diplomatic, humanitarian and economic ones.
Finally, key Western governments – and, to the extent they are willing, governments of the region – should begin quiet consultations to determine the feasibility of building consensus on conditions for recognition of and assistance to the Taliban, as well as for sanctions relief. Governments will have varying degrees of political flexibility to engage with a Taliban government in the foreseeable future, beyond limited purposes such as safe passage, humanitarian access and conveying diplomatic messages. Much will also depend on how the Taliban decides to govern Afghanistan and the group’s actions in the weeks ahead. But it is not too soon to begin evaluating whether there is any set of policies and practices the Taliban might plausibly implement that could meet conditions for recognition, sanctions lifting and potentially support from donors and international institutions.