The Taliban regime 90 days later

The Taliban regime 90 days later

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Since the Taliban took power on August 15, Afghanistan has nosedived into poverty, unemployment and uncertainty with no cash to pay salaries. As the winter is approaching, Afghanistan’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Around 23 million people, or half of the Afghan population, are facing acute food insecurity. 
The Taliban regime, confronted with multiple challenges, continues to view governance problems through the lens of the threat spectrum. Consequently, the tendency of viewing non-security challenges as threats, a typical insurgent mindset, is stunting the Taliban’s transition from an insurgency into a political or governing entity. The brain drain through the exodus of skilled manpower to the West has also compounded the Taliban’s governance conundrum. The Taliban still play to their base by putting their internal cohesion over and above the needs of the Afghan people. 
The precariousness of the current Afghan situation leaves both the Taliban and the international community in a bind. For instance, if the international community continues to leverage the humanitarian aid and unfreezing of $9.5 billion Afghan assets to influence the Taliban’s behavior, it will punish Afghans for the crimes they have not committed. Likewise, if the Taliban moderate themselves to avail the international aid and diplomatic recognition, they will lose their hard-line fighters to Daesh-Khorasan. In doing so, they also risk becoming the very entity against which they waged an insurgency for the last two decades, i.e., a weak government dependent on Western largesse. 
Despite making the right political noises after taking Kabul in August, the Taliban’s caretaker cabinet was anything but politically inclusive. An all-male and Pashtun-centric cabinet brought back most figures who held vital cabinet positions during the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. By appointing old cabinet members in the caretaker setup, the Taliban sent a strong message to the international community that they were seeing the restoration of their regime as a continuation of the pre-9/11 status quo ante. 
Unlike the 1990s, when the Taliban controlled 90 percent of Afghan territory, they have complete physical control of the country this time around. However, now that the Taliban have assumed power in Afghanistan, they do not know what to do with it. Though the Taliban movement is a hierarchical and heavily bureaucratized entity with shadow governors for all provinces and commissions for almost all policy sectors such as health, education, etc, they have not defined their Islamic Emirate’s scope and structure. Indeed, the Taliban are politically savvier and smart at using social media to give favorable political spins to events in Afghanistan; they lack the governance and policy acumen to run a modern state. For the last twenty years, the Taliban dominated the Afghan countryside. However, managing big cities like Kabul, where most middle-classes reside, is qualitatively different from shadow governing far-off Afghan villages. 

Indeed, the Taliban are politically savvier and smart at using social media to give favorable political spins to events in Afghanistan, but lack the governance and policy acumen to run a modern state

Abdul Basit Khan

The presence of Daesh-K has been both a challenge and an opportunity for the Taliban. Daesh-K has successfully posed a turf challenge to the Taliban regime physically and discursively. Of all the things, at the very least, the Afghan people expected the Taliban to restore order in Afghanistan by bringing bloodshed and anarchy to a halt. However, by targeting religious minorities as well as the Taliban fighters and commanders, Daesh-K has undermined the Taliban’s ability to secure the Afghan people and territory. 
At the same time, Daesh-K is an opportunity for the Taliban leaders to keep their fighters stay engaged in a fighting or insurgent mode without worrying much about their future in the short term, such as transforming them into professional law enforcement or fighting forces for which they do not have funds or expertise. Likewise, Daesh-K’s presence also provides the Taliban with an opportunity to forge a working relationship with the international community in counterterrorism. Doing so allows the Taliban to pitch themselves to the international community as the lesser of the two evils. 
During the 90-day interim rule, the Taliban have also suffered from internal divisions along factional and tribal lines, jostling for key appointments and power accumulation. Tensions between the Haqqani and Kandhari Taliban factions is a case in point over ministerial positions in the interim cabinet. For instance, Mullah Baradar’s appointment, who was the front-runner for the prime ministership, as the deputy prime minister fueled speculations of internal rifts. In September, the supporters of Khalil Haqqani and Mullah Baradar also exchanged blows in the presidential palace following which the latter left Kabul for some weeks. 
Perhaps the only silver lining has been the Taliban regime’s obfuscating pragmatism in the last three months. Provided no external pressure is employed, the Taliban have been found to moderate their ideological postures if tangible benefits accompany them. For internal consumption, the Taliban leaders do not want to be seen as taking foreign dictates in return for assistance. In certain instances, such as agreeing to the resumption of girls’ secondary education in the northern Kunduz province in October or allowing women to continue their work in the health sector, the Taliban adopted dual narratives. A departure from a stated religious position was justified in the name of Afghan culture and vice versa. In other words, perhaps, persuasion coupled with tangible benefits works better than dictates promising financial incentives, something that the international organizations and donor states can adopt to seek concessions from the Taliban. 
Going forward, how the Taliban leaders balance the internal imperatives of toeing hard-line policies and external requirements of moderating their ranks to transition from an insurgent to a political entity without splintering, holds the key to both the movement as well as Afghanistan’s future.

- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher. 

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