The Taliban One Year On.

AuthorWatkins, Andrew

On March 23, 2022, the Taliban, seven months into their assumption of power as Afghanistan's national government, inadvertently revealed a great deal about the internal politics and decision making, divisions, and unsettled debates within the notoriously secretive movement. The group's supreme leader overruled a critical policy at the last minute, casting new light on differences in Taliban visions for Afghanistan's future. How and why the decision was made, and how the group dealt with the fallout, illuminates many of the challenges, tensions, and themes of the Taliban's first year back in power.

For months leading up to March 23, Taliban officials had assured the Afghan public and foreign diplomats that the ban on girls attending secondary school, which had been halted by an early decree and enforced in more than two-thirds of the country, would be lifted by the start of the Persian new year, in late March. But just days--or perhaps hours--before teenaged girls were scheduled to resume classes, the Taliban's reclusive emir, Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada (hereafter referred to as Hibatullah), overruled his cabinet at a gathering of Taliban leadership in the southern city of Kandahar. (1) He extended the ban indefinitely.

The decision's momentous, tragic impact tended to overshadow the fact that this was perhaps the most publicly exposed policy disagreement in the Taliban's history. In the days and weeks that followed, Taliban figures in Kabul and across the country privately vented frustration and dismay over the decision, even as spokesmen emphasized the movement's unity and denied the existence of any differences of opinion. (a)

The decision also appeared to risk the future of international engagement with the Taliban regime. Western donors had drawn a red line on the resumption of girls' education, and the timing could not have been worse. The day after March 23, the Taliban's foreign minister had been scheduled as a keynote speaker for a major diplomatic forum in Doha, Qatar; the week after, developed nations were meeting to pledge assistance to Afghanistan for the remainder of the year. (b)

By July, as popular discontent grew over these decisions and the country's economic conditions grew more dire, the Taliban organized a large gathering closely resembling the loya jirga, the country's most iconic mechanism for establishing political legitimacy. (2) Yet, the Taliban eschewed this term, assembling confirmed Taliban supporters (a majority of them religious scholars) and ignoring calls made by many attendees to lift the ban on girls' attendance in schools. (3) The gathering proved to be little more than a rubber stamp on the Taliban's authority, capping any real debate and emphasizing obedience to the state.

The Taliban's starkly exclusionary turn underscores themes identified by this author in this publication last year in an assessment of the movement's first three months in power. (4) The Taliban remain obsessed with maintaining internal cohesion, even at the expense of effective governance; they lack agreement or even much clarity on the preferred scope and structure of the Afghan state; and they are fixated on consolidating control in largely the same way they did during wartime by moving swiftly to eliminate perceived threats. All of this has, as predicted, stunted the Taliban's ability to respond to the country's economic and humanitarian crises, which would have required compromise and collaboration with external donors to a degree that would complicate their raison d'etre of ejecting foreign influence from Afghanistan.

Taliban officials have privately confided that when it comes to critical issues, their movement is still in early stages of policy debate and continues to lack detailed political visions for the future. (5) They remain operationally cohesive and project power across the country with a monopoly of force unprecedented in recent Afghan history. In spite of the dysfunction and rumbling dissent in their movement, the Taliban maintain a clear intent, as well as the capability and willingness, to exert an exclusive hold on political power for the foreseeable future.

This article reviews the Taliban's first year of rule in a focused assessment of the group's internal politics and policymaking, and explores not-yet fully realized Taliban visions of an Afghan state. It offers a new lens for understanding the emerging divides in Taliban policy views. It then surveys the methods by which the group has further consolidated its authority since last year, in contrast to their limited capacity to pull the country out of economic deprivation. It also covers the Taliban's approach to foreign relations, concluding with implications for future engagement, as well as the stability of their regime and the region. This article draws on extensive interviews the author conducted, many remotely but some in-person, with Afghan journalists, researchers, and interlocutors with strong connections to the Taliban, as well as foreign humanitarians, U.N. officials and diplomats based in Afghanistan, and Western security officials based abroad.

Under the Radar

The Taliban decision-making regarding girls' return to secondary school, along with their fumbled implementation and muddled public relations spin, raised critical questions about how, and under what structure, the Taliban govern the country's affairs. (c) The last-minute nature of the decision after the group had seven months to deliberate, and the shock expressed in public and private by a wide range of Taliban officials, suggested deep dysfunctionality in the Taliban leadership's policy formulation process and further blurred the already-unclear lines between the roles of state officials, religious clerics, and other influential figures in the movement. (6) The issue itself was clearly controversial among the Taliban, but the way the group fumbled how this controversy was handled epitomized this author's observation last year: "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." (7)

The episode is worth examining in detail, as the most publicly visible example of dysfunction in Taliban policymaking to date, though it is far from the only instance. (d) The decision on girls' secondary schooling is also illuminating because it highlighted tensions in the parallel structures of the Taliban's state: How powerful was the emir of the Islamic Emirate, and why did he assert his authority so disruptively after such a quiet, out-of-the-spotlight role in the first months of the Taliban's new government? After March 23, diplomats began to speak of rival centers of power between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, where Hibatullah has ensconced himself since the takeover. (8) Afghans and foreign observers alike began to ask if there was any hope of making headway with the Taliban on any issue if the final policy say lay in the hands of a single, ultra-conservative cleric. (9)

For the first six to seven months of the restored Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the so-called "caretaker" government in Kabul, made up exclusively of senior Taliban figures, appeared to be in the driver's seat when it came to public policy. (e) The Taliban clearly oriented their messaging and public events around a theme of formalized, professionalized governance. (f)

Far from standardizing the government's structure, it was clear from the day they were appointed that the cabinet's minsters excluded some the movement's most influential leaders, while some of the most distinguished battlefield commanders did not immediately receive official titles. It was widely assumed that the Taliban's heavyweights would continue to shape policy and behavior as they had during the insurgency, regardless of the scope of their official title--and plenty of evidence of an unofficial plane of policymaking and operations emerged. (10)

Up until March 23, the world was focused on machinations in the administrative capital of Kabul. Assessments of Taliban divisions focused on the competition between personality-driven factions for status and appointments, a dynamic that was often overemphasized and oversimplified. (g) Some observers concluded that the Haqqanis, a once semi-autonomous yet powerful Taliban faction hailing from the country's southeast, had wrangled a lion's share of authority through cunning and gamesmanship. (11) Others saw the traditional influence of southerners from Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan, home of most of the Taliban's leadership and the movement's historical seat of power, asserted from the start, underscored by later appointments of provincial governors and key roles in the security sector. (12) Aside from the competition of various factions and cliques, some of the Taliban's greatest dilemmas of governance were grounded in their exclusion of ethnic minorities from any substantial share of power, the capacity gaps stemming from the lack of modern technocrats in their ranks, and the sheer scale of the economy's collapse after Western donor states suddenly cut off billions in assistance.

Scant analytical attention was paid to the role of Hibatullah, who had barely emerged in public since the takeover. When the Taliban's cabinet was announced in early September 2021, even his role as head of state had been described in vague, obfuscatory terms. (13) Moreover, Hibatullah had long been mischaracterized as a weak figure who was overly deferential to battlefield commanders and religious leaders. (14) Yet gradually and under the radar, the elusive emir began to assert his authority over a wide range of government functions, some of them seemingly insignificant. On larger decisions, Hibatullah seemed to grow dismissive of the counsel of his chief...

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