Taliban retakes power, but it faces mounting challenges ahead

Al Jazeera takes a look at six challenges facing the armed group as it prepares to rule the country of 38 million for the second time since 2001.

People were frustrated and ready for change, but that does not mean they welcome the return of the Taliban [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]
People were frustrated and ready for change, but that does not mean they welcome the return of the Taliban [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

The Taliban took control of Afghanistan last week, 20 years after it was removed from power in a US-led military invasion.

Winning that war might just turn out to be the easy part, as maintaining peace and governing the conflict-wracked and impoverished country will be a tough nut to crack, analysts and Afghan officials say.

Al Jazeera takes a look at six challenges facing the armed group as it prepares to rule the country of 38 million for the second time since 2001.

Acceptance

The government of President Ashraf Ghani failed to meet the aspirations of the people, as their standard of living barely improved with poor basic services such as health and education.

The government was mired in corruption, while the security situation remained precarious, forcing thousands of Afghans to leave the country. Many notorious militia leaders and their henchmen were rehabilitated despite their atrocious human rights records and corruption.

People were frustrated and ready for change, but that does not mean they welcome the return of the Taliban.

“In many parts of Afghanistan, people are subjected to a Sophie’s choice of a repressive Taliban regime or a government that extracts far more than it provides,” said Jonathan Schroden, the research programme director at the Center for Naval Analyses based in the US state of Virginia.

“While some Afghans certainly have strong preferences and support one side versus the other, a great number are caught in the middle of not being particularly enthusiastic about either side,” said Schroden, who heads the Countering Threats and Challenges Program.

Stretched forces

In a span of weeks, the armed group captured most of the provincial capitals, including the capital Kabul, in a virtually unopposed, lightning military sweep that brought back memories of US-trained Iraqi troops fleeing battlefields in face of marauding ISIL fighters in 2014.

The Taliban launched its military offensive in May as US-led foreign forces started to withdraw from Afghanistan as part of an agreement the group signed with the US on February 29, 2020, in the Qatari capital Doha.

Afghan security forces either surrendered (after mediation from local tribal elders) or withdrew, giving the Taliban fighters a walkover in some northern and western provinces.

Advisers to the previous government headed by President Ghani, who has since fled the country, say the former government’s decision to withdraw government troops from remote areas backfired, as it allowed the Taliban to build momentum and strike fear among the remaining troops.

Now with almost all of Afghanistan under their control and fewer than 100,000 active combatants, the Taliban will be stretched thin, analysts say.

“The Taliban found it easy to seize a large number of districts, but holding on to major cities is another proposition – one requiring significant amounts of manpower,” Schroden said.

A former Afghan minister told Al Jazeera that the Shughnan district in Badakhshan province was taken by just “six Taliban fighters” – it is home to an estimated 60,000 people. And there have been other instances where a handful of fighters have been able to claim significant territory. This was also confirmed by the Taliban.

The Taliban has announced a general amnesty for government officials as it looks to retain as many people in their current roles as possible.

Unless it boosts the number of law enforcement personnel, the country is susceptible to unrest and lawlessness.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud – son of Tajik Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud – have already called to challenge Taliban rule.

Governance

The Taliban has been good at one thing – fighting. How will they govern this diverse country with almost negligible modern infrastructure?

“The Taliban have yet to demonstrate their ability to effectively govern. They did not do so when they ruled Afghanistan, and they have not shown such an ability in the areas they currently control in the country,” said Schroden from CNA.

People carry the national flag at a protest held during the Afghan Independence Day in Kabul [File: Reuters]
A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

The Taliban have at times been credited with being good at maintaining security – albeit through very heavy-handed means – and providing efficient forms of traditional justice, but they have little to no technocratic understanding of how to perform the other functions of government.

The group will likely struggle to provide effective governance to the people of the country as the government does not have much revenue to spend on public services – this is the essence of its problems today.

“There are the issues of retaining enough manpower, bureaucracy and civil servants to run the affairs of the government. With an exodus of people, one vulnerability could be an insufficient number of professionals and people in the technocratic cadres to run state institutions,” said Omar Samad, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Controlling its forces

The war against a foreign occupation united the Taliban’s rank. Now, when these fighters become governors and mayors and have access to incoming revenues and authority – will they go down the same route previous governments followed, and end up accused of corruption and abuse of power?

Members of Taliban forces sit at a checkpoint in Kabul [File: Reuters]

“This will be an interesting dynamic to watch. The Mujahideen struggled with this in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal when they no longer had the unifying cry of defeating the godless communists and turned their weapons on each other,” Schroden said referring to the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

“The Taliban are aware of this risk and have spent the past seven years or more improving the vertical and horizontal linkages within their organization to strengthen its cohesion. To what extent those efforts will prevent Taliban fighters from deciding to cease the fight when the rallying cry of foreign invaders is gone remains to be seen,” he said.

The past

The Taliban’s last stint in power between 1996 and 2001 was marred by abuse against ethnic minorities and curbs on women’s rights, while the country was isolated internationally.

Since retaking power on August 15, the Taliban’s talking points include respecting women’s role in the public sphere, human rights and the rights of minorities. But the world, and more importantly Afghans, are waiting to see if those words turn into action.

The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 for its links to al-Qaeda, which was blamed for the 9/11 attacks, and the Taliban will be closely watched to make sure it is keeping its promise not to provide a haven to armed groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL.

“Afghan history in the last 50 years is replete with the rise and fall of regimes and governments. Very few have had a second chance, and if they did – like the Mujahideen’s – they were short-lived,” Samad, who is a former diplomat and adviser to the Afghan government, told Al Jazeera.

“They face a huge challenge to ensure an acceptable level of human rights and gender rights policies, media and civil society laws, ethnic rights and minority rights. Also, to visibly sever ties with militant and terror groups. Time will tell if any of these lessons have been learned.”

Economy and reliance on foreign aid

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and more than 20 percent of its gross income comes from foreign aid.

The US froze $9.5bn of Afghan central bank’s assets in the wake of the Taliban takeover, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suspended access to its funds.

Many other Western donors might follow suit, making it extremely difficult for the new government to run the economy in a country where 75 percent of public spending comes from grants.

Afghan people stand in a queue as they wait for their turn to collect money from an ATM in front of a bank along a roadside in Kabul [AFP]

Significant mineral wealth remains underground as instability has prevented major exploration and international investment.

Although the Taliban have been talking to Russia and China about possible economic cooperation projects, it remains to be seen how that will materialise.

It would also need humanitarian agencies to provide urgent aid to Afghans displaced by the war. More than 5 million Afghans are estimated to be internally displaced. The UN says nearly 400,000 people have been displaced this year alone as a result of ongoing violence.

But with aid agencies, including the UN, pulling their staff out of the country, things will be difficult for people dependent on foreign aid.

In order to unlock international funding, the international community’s recognition of a Taliban government will be key, as the group is still blacklisted by the UN.

Taliban patrol the Afghan capital Kabul [Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu]

The Taliban has shrugged off the idea of reliance on foreign aid, saying its fighters survived on bread and water while fighting the war. The question remains: Can it convince millions of Afghan civilians to live without the foreign help they have relied on for years?

It is also an opportunity for foreign donors and aid agencies to persuade the Taliban to accept their terms in return for aid.

But Jonah Blank, a lecturer at the National University of Singapore said: “Money is not really as powerful a tool as some outsiders might think.”

“As long as it [Taliban] has enough funding to fulfil its basic ‘duties’ (as it sees them) then I think it’s not really going to care whether an extra billion or two here or there comes into the treasury,” Blank told Al Jazeera’s ‘Counting the Cost’ show.

Source: Al Jazeera

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