The Taliban in government: A grim new reality is settling in

Taliban decision-making over the past 20 months reveals where Afghanistan is headed – towards an impoverished autocracy.

Afghan people carry sacks of rice, given out as part of humanitarian aid sent by China to Afghanistan, at a distribution centre in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 7, 2022. REUTERS/Ali Khara TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Afghan people carry sacks of rice, given out as part of humanitarian aid sent by China to Afghanistan, at a distribution centre in Kabul, Afghanistan on April 7, 2022 [File: Reuters/Ali Khara]

It has been 20 months since the Taliban took over Kabul. Warfare has indeed ended but the lives of millions of Afghans have not improved. Afghanistan faces a severe humanitarian and human rights crises, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions.

While the Taliban has managed – with the help of the UN – to continue certain government functions, it has violated basic human and civil rights, clamped down on dissent, and rejected any form of national dialogue or political inclusivity.

The country is now ruled by a small circle of secluded leaders who are bent on rooting out dissent and erasing women from public life, even if it means deepening the international isolation of the country and further impoverishing the population. Without changes to this core of the system, there is a hard limit to how much governance can improve and how stable the country can get.

As the Taliban tries to gain international recognition, it is important to scrutinise its performance in government so far.

Service delivery

After waging war for two decades, the Taliban has been able to settle into the Afghan state unexpectedly well. The Afghan bureaucracy has been effectively incorporated into the reestablished Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). With the exception of those working in the judiciary and the security sector, most lower and middle-ranking public servants have kept their jobs for now and are receiving their salaries, although at reduced rates.

Despite a chaotic transition, the World Bank, UN agencies and the IEA have worked out an arrangement to sustain the provision of health services on par with pre-August 2021 levels.

Under a deal with the IEA, the UN is also sending regular shipments of $40m in cash in order to be able to operate in the country, given the restrictions on the Afghan banking sector. Most of this money goes to much-needed food assistance and the delivery of basic health services. It also indirectly stabilises the Afghan currency and prevents a complete economic collapse.

The education sector has taken a major hit after the Taliban banned girls from attending secondary school and university at public and private intuitions. That is causing incalculable harm to the Afghan youth and the future of the country.

However, the Taliban have been paying the salary of female schoolteachers for now. Remarkably, enrollment numbers in primary schools for both boys and girls have increased in some areas of the country as security has improved.

The Taliban has also managed to pay the country’s electricity import bill, ensuring power supply to most of the country, although regular blackouts continue. Its government is also pushing forward with important water management projects undertaken before 2021, but resource constraints could hinder further progress.

The economy and the private sector

After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the country underwent a massive economic shock, with the gross domestic product (GDP) shrinking between 30 and 35 percent. Today the country’s economy is no longer in freefall due to the cessation of hostilities and the UN cash transfers.

However, the new economic equilibrium has left virtually the entire country in poverty and two-thirds of the population in need of international assistance to survive. A major beneficiary of international assistance, the urban-based middle class has been completely wiped out as the flow of foreign funding ceased.

The Taliban government has managed to collect some budget revenue, despite the economic contraction. The mining industry has helped boost both public revenue and exports.

The Taliban’s ministry of agriculture also collects religious levies of ushr and zakat from farmers, but it is unclear how much they amount to since this revenue category is not integrated into the reporting system of the Ministry of Finance. The Taliban also continues to tax the illegal drug industry, another unreported source of revenue.

While the Taliban leadership is eager to publicise revenue collections, it remains secretive about expenditures. Save for a mini-budget released soon after it resumed control, the Taliban has not been transparent about how it spends the money it collects. Some analysts suggest that the security sector – and not social services – may make up the bulk of the government budget.

In 2022, merchants surveyed by the World Bank reported that they were benefitting from lower levels of corruption and safer roads, but they were suffering from the sanctions, legal uncertainty, increased taxes, and an impoverished customer base. But recent decrees issued by the Taliban’s Amir al-Mu’minin, Hibatullah Akhunzada, that are meant to curb nepotism and bribery within the Taliban government may indicate increasing incidence of corruption.

According to ILO reports, the Afghan job market has sharply contracted. Joblessness and reduced earnings have affected millions, primarily women, undermining the economic resilience of poor families. Restrictions on women’s presence in public have hurt women-owned businesses and female workers, leaving home-based work as the only option for many women.

In the service sector, telecommunication is being instrumentalised for surveillance and censorship. While it might have avoided complete collapse, the banking industry is still in a crisis caused by sanctions and liquidity shortages. The Taliban’s Central Bank wants to replace conventional banking with Islamic finance, but no clear timeline or guidelines have been developed yet.

The political system and security

Despite initial hopes for a different outcome and the formation of an inclusive government, the Taliban has effectively resurrected the Islamic Emirate, putting power firmly in the hands of the movement’s top religious figures.

The current administration still operates as a caretaker government with no timetable put forward for when a permanent government should be expected. This may be due to the fact that when this cabinet was formed, it caused serious internal tensions, as various factions within the Taliban competed for posts.

Meanwhile, Akhunzada, aided by a Kandahar-based cohort of religious scholars and a few trusted government officials, has increasingly asserted his power over the entire state, silencing and sidelining internal critics. The tensions between Kabul and Kandahar, as the two loci of the group’s power, have become increasingly public.

Currently, there is no prospect of intra-Afghan dialogue or reconciliation beyond the Taliban offering protection to Afghan politicians associated with the previous regime who choose to return. While the Taliban have promised amnesty for all, the documented instances of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture, often targeting ex-military officials, raise serious questions about the IEA’s ability and willingness to enforce the amnesty uniformly.

Despite publicly conciliatory messages towards Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious minorities, the IEA has excluded them from power and failed to protect them from attacks by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).

Afghanistan’s independent media has collapsed, as the Taliban cracked down on free speech and foreign funding stopped. Public criticism is not tolerated and is regularly punished.

Through a brutal and bloody campaign, the Taliban was largely able to suppress the armed resistance to its regime in the north, but tensions in the area remain. ISKP remains the most serious internal threat targeting Taliban officials and religious minorities in Afghanistan, having carried out regular deadly attacks since August 2021.

The legal system

The Taliban has suspended the prosecution departments, purged the judiciary, and abolished the independent bar association. Judges have been directly appointed by the group; female judges no longer run trials.

In court, the Hanafi School of Islamic law is applied to resolve disputes and punish any act that the judge may deem punishable. In public, the police and officials of the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice summarily discipline citizens who are found to be in violation of the Taliban’s uncodified rules of proper behaviour.

No data on crime rates is available but anecdotal evidence suggests crime remains rampant. The Taliban has employed old methods to try to control the situation, reintroducing public hanging, flogging, and shaming. The religiously prescribed punishments of hudud are still rarely enforced; instead, courts punish various acts using their discretionary power (taizir) or authorising retaliation in kind under the Islamic doctrine of qisas.

The Taliban has suspended the laws of the country pending a complete review which is yet to be concluded. However, outside the judiciary, administrative laws are still used to keep the bureaucracy and revenue collection running.

The Taliban has also made the final judgments of courts pre-August 2021 reviewable upon challenge. In case of a challenge, the Supreme Court’s highest fatwa-making body, dar ul-fatwa, acts as the court of revision for those decisions and could vacate an existing judgement.

The Taliban has not released a draft constitution. The administrative and legal regulations for courts adopted by the judiciary are drawn heavily from the Ottoman-era codification of the Hanafi School of Islamic law.

These legal, political and economic developments of the past 20 months point to the fact that the Taliban has managed to settle down into the seat of power in Kabul and take the reins of the state. Its government has managed to provide the general population with some basic services and economic stability, but those largely remain contingent on humanitarian assistance.

The model of governance the Taliban has established clearly concentrates power in the hands of the Amir al-Mu’minin and a small circle of trusted associates. That form of decision-making does not bode well for the country’s future. Unless there is a dramatic change in the core of this system, the Afghan state under Taliban rule will remain a poor, unstable, repressive theocracy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.