Aug 30, 2021 - World

What Taliban rule will look like in the new old Afghanistan

A boy carries Taliban flags for sale in Kabul. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty

With U.S. troops departing Afghanistan after 20 years, it's now time for the Taliban to decide how it intends to run the country — and for the U.S. to decide how to work with that government.

The big pictures: The militants are offering vague assurances that they have changed with the times, while foreign powers are assessing what leverage they have to hold the insurgents-turned-rulers to those promises.

  • The U.S. will have no influence on the formation of the next government, a senior U.S. official tells Axios, but the Taliban's clear desire to avoid sanctions and cultivate normal relations does provide leverage.

The state of play: Taliban spokesmen have offered a blanket amnesty, yet there are reports of reprisals against people who supported the ousted government or foreign forces.

  • They have said girls can go to school, women can go to work (once the current unrest subsides) and journalists can hold them to account — all within still-to-be-defined limitations.
  • They’ve said they’ll establish an Islamic system, but not how it will be governed or who will lead it.
  • It’s also unclear to what extent any moves toward moderation by the group’s leaders — many of whom spent years in exile after their overthrow in 2001 — will filter down to the rank and file.

“Now that we’re face to face with each other, it’s going to take time to get through this transition and reconcile — really, to see each other as human,” says Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer in transitional justice at the American University of Afghanistan, who elected to stay in Kabul even as friends and colleagues fled.

  • His initial interactions with Taliban fighters have been civil, despite his western clothing, but he’s aware of multiple instances of arbitrary beatings.
  • “These people who are now in control of Kabul are people who have not experienced governance, but have only fought, for a good 20 years. And that obviously has a huge impact on the psyche and the group behavior as well,” he says.

One clear challenge will be funding.

  • Under the ousted government, foreign aid had accounted for 75% of the government’s budget and some 40% of GDP. That’s now on hold. The U.S. also froze over $9 billion in central bank assets after the Taliban takeover.
  • That sets the U.S. and other foreign powers up for a difficult balancing act: withhold funding to press the Taliban to respect the rights of women and minorities, without contributing to an economic collapse.

The Taliban already held much of rural Afghanistan prior to the recent offensive, and in some ways “out-governed the government” by providing limited services and swift, if brutal, justice, Baheer says.

  • Most young, educated Afghans in major cities saw the insurgents as barbarians at the gate. After they entered Kabul, though, Baheer saw a silver lining: After so many years of war, there would be peace.
  • "That, too, is not an absolute,” he says, reflecting on the airport attacks. “We will have to see in the coming days as to whether the Taliban can contain the security situation or make it better.”

What's next: Baheer has advised students who think they’ll be unsafe under the Taliban to leave, but all others to stay.

  • “This country is going to need educated people if it has any chance of surviving,” he says.
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