The Taliban are back in power. But how will they govern?

The Taliban are back in power. But how will they govern?

Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/AP

Taliban fighters hold the movement’s flags in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2021. Many Afghans anxious about a return to Taliban rule are confronting mixed messaging, and a possible disconnect between leadership and fighters.

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September 1, 2021

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Despite toned-down rhetoric coming from Taliban officials in Kabul, actions on the ground across Afghanistan signal that the Taliban remain fully committed to their conservative version of Islamic law and will work to impose that on the Afghan people, experts say.

Yet the Taliban face major challenges. They lack the plans, expertise, and control needed to run the country – especially an Afghanistan radically different than it was when the Taliban first took power in 1996.

Why We Wrote This

With the Taliban set to reimpose their strict version of Islamic law, Afghans may wonder how that will work. Some things are clear: Afghanistan has changed, and to govern, the Taliban likely need help.

Shaped by the crucible of war and exile overseas, the experts say, the Taliban may show greater pragmatism, bending to political necessity even while holding to core, hard-line values.

“Their ideological makeup may not have changed, but the generational change and the experience has made them more realists,” says Professor Hassan Abbas at the National Defense University in Washington.

A key question going forward is to what extent the Taliban will be willing to share power and compromise to create the “broad-based” government Taliban leaders say they want. Or, alternatively, will the Taliban revert to more repression?

“Kabul will not be the kind of open place it was, and that is a reality,” says Professor Abbas.

When gun-toting Taliban fighters stormed the compound of her small community aid organization on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Marnie Gustavson feared the worst.

Ms. Gustavson, who had followed U.S. Embassy guidelines to evacuate, learned from her security personnel when she landed in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that fighters had overwhelmed the organization’s unarmed security guards, stolen trucks, and kidnapped her head manager.

“Things moved so fast,” says Ms. Gustavson, executive director of PARSA, a grassroots nongovernmental organization in Afghanistan since 1996. “I wasn’t prepared for the Taliban to come to the gates of Kabul and for the Afghan government to simply melt away and disappear, leaving the population unprotected.”

Why We Wrote This

With the Taliban set to reimpose their strict version of Islamic law, Afghans may wonder how that will work. Some things are clear: Afghanistan has changed, and to govern, the Taliban likely need help.

Then, almost as quickly, the crisis gave way to a tense calm. Taliban leaders freed PARSA’s manager from the armed foot soldiers, and the next morning sent guards to protect the compound.

Days later they granted PARSA the authorization to continue operations.

The Taliban’s mixed signals left Ms. Gustavson and her staff wondering, “What’s coming at us next?” she says in an interview in Seattle.

With the completion this week of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taliban fighters in Kabul fired automatic rifles into the air to celebrate their military victory and seizure of power. But Afghans and foreigners alike are now watching and waiting anxiously to see how the militant Islamic group will govern.


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Despite toned-down rhetoric coming from Taliban officials in Kabul, actions on the ground signal that the Taliban remain fully committed to their conservative version of Islamic law and will work to impose that on the Afghan people, experts say.

Yet the Taliban face major challenges. They lack the plans, expertise, and control needed to run the country – especially an Afghanistan radically different than it was when the Taliban first took power in 1996.

Shaped by the crucible of war and exile overseas, the Taliban may show greater pragmatism, bending to political necessity even while holding to core, hard-line values, the experts say.

“Their ideological makeup may not have changed, but the generational change and the experience has made them more realists,” says Hassan Abbas, professor of International Relations at the National Defense University in Washington, and author of “The Prophet’s Heir.”

Savvier leadership

Wearing a black turban and wire-rimmed glasses, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen sat calmly next to the white flag of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate for a mid-August interview with CNN and assured Afghans they would be safe under Taliban rule. Afghans “should not be terrified,” he said.

Now a ubiquitous media figure, despite the Taliban’s banning of television during their 1996-2001 rule, Mr. Shaheen tweets cheerful messages such as “Time to roll up sleeves and build Afghanistan,” along with a video of road construction. Another video shows Afghan girls entering a school, with the tweet “back to school in a new Afghanistan.”

Former Taliban diplomats such as Mr. Shaheen, a fluent English speaker with a university degree, are the relatively polished, political face of today’s Taliban, aiming to assure Afghans and the world that they do not seek violent retribution.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen gestures during a news conference in Moscow, March 19, 2021. Now a ubiquitous media figure, Mr. Shaheen, a fluent English speaker, tweets cheerful messages such as “Time to roll up sleeves and build Afghanistan,” along with a video of road construction.

Yet many Afghans and outside experts view this as a cosmetic change, aimed at cleaning up the movement’s image.

“They’ve gotten savvier in their public relations. They’re so on message, compared to the 1990s when they were all over the place,” says Ashley Jackson, author of “Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan.”

“The leadership core is more worldly,” in contrast with the 1990s when “they were very naive about the consequences of their actions and the global perception of them,” says Ms. Jackson, co-director of the Centre for Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute, an independent think tank based in London.

Reports of executions

Yet across Afghanistan, the Taliban have continued to prove themselves capable of harsh, arbitrary punishments, assassinations, and other human rights abuses reminiscent of their prior regime.

Just days after Kabul fell, Taliban fighters opened fire on a crowd of protesters waving the black, red, and green flag of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing three people, Reuters reported.

The United Nations’ human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, last week cited credible reports of the Taliban executing civilians and Afghan security forces who were surrendering, among other “serious” violations. She warned that thousands of people were at risk of Taliban retribution, including civil society members, journalists, professionals, and former security personnel.

On Aug. 27, the Taliban reportedly executed a popular Afghan folk singer, Fawad Andarabi, days after a Taliban spokesman said music was forbidden in Islam – echoing a prior ban on music. In an interview with The New York Times, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban sought to “persuade” Afghans to forgo music in public.

And in a chilling reminder of past Taliban massacres of ethnic minorities, Taliban fighters tortured and killed nine ethnic Hazara men after seizing control of the southeastern province of Ghazni in July, according to an Amnesty International investigation.

Afghan women in particular are facing major setbacks.

A Taliban spokesman urged women last week to stay home lest Taliban fighters “mistreat” them. This followed Taliban pledges to protect the rights of women “according to Islamic principles” – the same formula espoused for women’s rights from 1996 to 2001, when women were barred from school, had to wear head-to-toe coverings called burqas, and could only work in the medical profession.

“They have their own framework of Islam, and it’s way out of the mainstream,” says Heather Barr, associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

Afghan women “don’t believe anything” the Taliban say, says Ms. Barr, noting that many women – including prominent female Afghan politicians, journalists, and others – are fleeing the country.

“I left the country because, like millions of people, I fear the Taliban,” female anchor Beheshta Arghand told CNN.

Different reception this time

In 1996, the Taliban took power in much of Afghanistan without firing a shot. Afghans exhausted and impoverished by civil war welcomed the Islamic fighters for overcoming warlords and lawlessness and restoring a modicum of order.

“The people of Jalalabad threw flowers, food, and money at the militia, praying that peace might at last be restored,” wrote the Monitor’s John Zubrzycki on Sept. 20, 1996.

Today, the Taliban’s arrival in what are relatively modern, open cities with vibrant civil societies has had the opposite impact. It has created a political power vacuum, thrown the economy into free fall, and sent people into hiding.

Afghans dread the Taliban, a group surveys consistently find is unpopular. In a 2019 poll by the Asia Foundation, for example, 85% of Afghans expressed no sympathy for the Taliban. As a result, thousands of Afghans – many of them professionals – have fled or are attempting to flee.

For their part, the Taliban are aware they badly need expertise to govern, and have attempted to stop people from leaving – setting up checkpoints and whipping and beating Afghans trying to enter the airport.

“I don’t think the Taliban stepped into Kabul with a … blueprint for governance,” says Ms. Jackson at the Overseas Development Institute. “I think they’re really scrambling to figure out how to keep this whole [country] going.”

The Taliban are “like an octopus,” she says, with different political factions and power centers run with a loose consensus. Leaders lack absolute control over fighters.

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A key question going forward is to what extent the Taliban will be willing to share power and compromise to create the “broad-based” government Taliban leaders say they want. Or, alternatively, experts say, will the Taliban revert to more repression, which would impact urban populations most heavily?

“Kabul will not be the kind of open place it was, and that is a reality,” says Professor Abbas at the National Defense University. “Even if we have moderate Taliban … who try to create stability and peace … that educated urban elite will find it very difficult to coexist with the Taliban,” he says. “That can lead to a strong crackdown.”

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