An Assessment of Taliban Rule at Three Months.

AuthorWatkins, Andrew

In spite of the evolution in Taliban shadow governance over the past decade and the group's growing sense of military and political momentum, the first three months of the reinstated Islamic Emirate revealed the group's struggles with the responsibilities of national sovereignty. The Taliban have busied themselves consolidating control, reacting swiftly and harshly to perceived threats. They have not clearly defined the scope or structure of their state, nor have they shared long-term plans for their rank-and-file, many of which continue to operate as they did before August 15, 2021. Taliban leaders have demonstrated the continued primacy of maintaining internal cohesion, a longstanding trait that will likely stunt the group's response to Afghanistan's impending economic and humanitarian crises.

On August 15, 2021, after sweeping through most of Afghanistan in a blistering campaign initiated earlier that spring, the Taliban approached and entered Kabul on the same day, largely bloodlessly, after it was abandoned by government leadership and practically all security forces. (1) The collapse of the Western-backed Islamic Republic was swift and expansive, and even as the United States and other allies scrambled to complete a chaotic evacuation, the Taliban immediately stepped into the vacuum.

In some ways, the Taliban have transitioned their leaders and fighters into officials of a still-forming government with incredible speed. In less than two months, the Taliban extracted oaths of fealty or at least gestures of tacit acceptance from most political leaders who remained in the country; appointed a caretaker government (or at least the facade of one); established a harsh, at times abusive, but largely orderly new security regime in cities; maintained firm control over borders and set customs to account for economic hardship; engaged in regional diplomacy with neighboring states; swiftly and brutally put down an attempted resistance in a mountainous province; and increasingly devoted resources to rooting out security challenges, including a bloody campaign against the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) branch but also retribution against a number of former security officials. (2)

Yet in many ways, the group has revealed the slow conservatism underlying the leadership's consultative, consensus-building decision-making--a modus operandi that was key to the insurgency's resilience but may pose a critical threat to effective, responsive governance on a national scale. (a)

Much of the Taliban's behavior, even acts the group has claimed were unsanctioned or that observers point to as evidence of discord, has adhered to several themes and characteristics that have continued to define the group amid its transition into power.

(1)) The Taliban, at both an organizational and an individual level, are guided by threat perception: over two decades, survival and strengthening their insurgency required constant awareness and resolution of potential threats. The identification, pursuit, and then elimination or cooptation of threats has been and still is the core occupation of most Taliban members.

(2)) When the Taliban's leadership debates policy or determines a strategic course of action, it has a consistent track record of choices that prioritize and ensure the maintenance of internal cohesion--or at least the outward appearance thereof. (3) Despite factional jostling for power, radicalized views among younger fighters, an ideological challenge by ISK, and a lack of technocratic capacity, the Taliban since taking power have thus far managed to retain the cohesion they nurtured so intently throughout their insurgency. But the cost to the people of Afghanistan has been steep; the movement's focused determination to prevent its ranks from splintering has guided decision-making at each turn, even at the risk of alienating a hungry populace or failing to secure funding sufficient to sustain a modern state.

(3)) Finally, the speed of the Islamic Republic's collapse and the totality of the Taliban's takeover obscure the fact that on August 15, the group was in quite a tenuous position, and consolidating its grip over the country was a line of effort likely considered necessary.

In its first three months in power, the insurgent group has scrambled to begin functioning according to the contours of a modern state not too dissimilar from the one it overthrew--or, when unwilling/unable to do so, to at least give the appearance of functionality. (b) The overarching narrative of the Taliban's first weeks of rule may be one of the former insurgents grappling with a wide range of challenges and crises, plenty of which they lack the funds or capacity to effectively resolve. Figures and fighters from every stratum of the Taliban have told journalists and Afghans repeatedly that the country's problems will take time to solve. (4) That incapacity has prompted the Taliban to revert back, in many ways, to a default wartime style and operational mode, placing harsh restrictions on civilians and in some cases, committing human rights abuses, disappearances, and killings. (5)

This article examines the arc of those first three months, with a focus on governance and security. The first section examines the transition of power after the Taliban entered Kabul. The second section identifies the key themes and characteristics of Taliban rule as the group has moved to cement its power. The third section then examines the group's government formation and governing style in detail. The fourth section evaluates the group's approach so far to security, including how it has responded to the challenge posed by the Islamic State. The fifth section looks at the social restrictions that have been imposed by the group over the past three months, including how it has approached the issue of female education. It also examines the Taliban's delivery of social services. The final section offers some conclusions.

The author conducted remote interviews (and received testimony when formal interviews were disrupted by security concerns) with several dozen Afghans and foreigners who remained in multiple regions of Afghanistan after August 15. This article cites international and Afghan media reports where details are offered, and also draws from the author's previous research on Taliban perspectives on peace negotiations and political ideology, along with the group's long history of prioritizing cohesion.

A note: This article largely refers to the Taliban as a unitary actor and analyzes it as such (even though attention is paid to factional and individual behaviors throughout). This characterization is not intended to discount or minimize the complexity and diversity of the Taliban's many entrenched interests, camps, tribal confederacies, and schools of thought; their familial cliques; or their intra-personal (and at times transnational) networks. On the contrary, this choice is as epistemological as it is stylistic: even at the height of U.S. and foreign military engagement in Afghanistan, the Taliban managed to keep the death of their leader a close-held secret for close to two years, a metric of obfuscation and opacity that should perennially humble any foreign observer of this movement. The past three months have thrown so much into flux in Afghanistan. The coming months are likely to remain just as fluid, meaning any outsider's perceptions of the Taliban's various demographics and the dynamics between them--already almost certainly incomplete--are likely to be rendered obsolete.

(1). The Two-Week Transition

In the two weeks after the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, 2021, evacuation of U.S. forces, internationals, and a range of Afghan partners and affiliates continued amid a precarious standoff in Kabul, wherein the Taliban quickly moved to assert order over the capital while deferring control of much of the airport to U.S. troops. The two actors, previously only ever having come face to face in Afghanistan as military adversaries, entered a tense yet functional two-week phase of coexistence in close proximity, even after an Islamic State bombing at the airport prompted both sides to elevate security postures.

Successive waves of Taliban forces streamed into Kabul from across the country as leadership figures arrived piecemeal by air and overland travel. The patchwork of fighters from nearby provinces and more distant regions was dizzying, their chain of command impossible for outside observers to track with precision, but it was clear that the insurgent movement was resourcing as stable--and as obvious and overwhelming--of a takeover of the capital as possible. (c )As the Taliban's ranks in Kabul swelled and the international presence steadily shrunk, U.S. military and government officials say the group began asserting its authority over agreed-upon terms and conditions of the evacuation process, delaying or denying evacuation attempts seemingly at random. (6) Coordination between the U.S. and Taliban forces stationed at the airport, to include sharing manifests of Afghans and foreigners destined for upcoming flights, was often clogged by Taliban commanders' insistence on new requirements, additional information, claiming inaccuracies and various other hang-ups--in what one U.S. official characterized as "a power flex." (7 )There was little discernible pattern to manifests that were delayed versus those that were not; in hindsight, this interference seems to have been a display of the Taliban's increasing degree of control over Kabul and their leverage in the situation.

Consolidation of its vast newfound gains and attaining supremacy of authority seemed to guide the group's behavior on a spectrum that spanned from brutally violent to surprisingly clement. Taliban fighters opened fire on one of the country's first anti-Taliban demonstrations, killing three in Jalalabad, at the same time their leaders met publicly with powerbrokers of the Islamic Republic...

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