InterRegional for Strategic Analysis organized a panel discussion on 19 August 2021 entitled "The Future of Afghanistan Under Taliban Rule," hosting Mohammad Bashir Mobasher, Professor of Political Systems at the American University of Afghanistan, Adjunct Professor of Constitutional Law at Western Washington University, and Law Consultant to the German Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law. The staff at the InterRegional headquarters in Abu Dhabi and non-resident researchers participated in the meeting.
How will the Taliban rule?
The panelists put forward a number of ideas surrounding the expected form of Taliban Rule in Afghanistan. The main trends presented in the discussion were as follows:
1- Murkiness of the Taliban’s vision of the future: A study of the experience of Taliban rule of the Afghan state from 1996 to 2001 revealed a very extreme and simplistic view of governance. The Taliban has a simple set of ideas about the state under Islamic rule, leaving many issues—such as the nature of the system of government, the constitution, rights and freedoms, and others—without specific answers.
2- Early eruption of a battle over the "state flag": It appears that the Taliban is inclined to change the flag of Afghanistan, especially after taking down the flag in many areas and institutions and raising the Taliban flag in its place. This prompted many citizens to demonstrate, raising the official state flag, to hold on to what has been achieved over the past years.
3- Differing Taliban perceptions of politics: The Taliban espouses different concepts of politics compared to other movements. When it talks about "a government representing the sects of the people," "respecting rights and freedoms," and "freedom of the press," it has a different view from what the West believes about these concepts. This makes its rhetoric not conform to the Western model of politics. It expresses its view of politics according to the constitution the movement established for the "Emirate of Afghanistan" in 2005.
4- Contradictions between discourse and practice: The Taliban deliberately sends many mixed messages. Rhetoric adopted by the movement’s leadership is directed outward and contradicts the Taliban’s actions from 2003 to 2021. These include burning government schools in the south, rejecting girls’ education outside of religious education, and targeting its opponents and those who collaborated with the United States, which is expected to escalate in the coming period.
5- Turning Afghanistan into "Talibanistan": The main speaker predicted that the Taliban will turn the state into an emirate subordinate to it, despite pledges to form a representative coalition government, and that it will issue a revised version of the 2005 "Taliban Constitution" so that only Sunni Muslims who follow the Hanafi school will come to power, excluding other sects and schools.
6- Separation between the center and the periphery: The discussion raised the issue of the Taliban’s increasingly decentralized structure. In exchange for the movement’s leadership in Kabul adopting conciliatory and reassuring messages at home and abroad, the Taliban’s branches and affiliated groups outside the capital are adopting a more hardline and violent approach against opponents and minorities.
7- Tightening restrictions on women and minorities: Although the Taliban has asserted respect for the rights of women and minorities, its behavior in some states, such as Herat and Kandahar, points to the opposite. Women have been prevented from going to markets, streets, and work, and messages have been sent to female bank workers in Kandahar to send their male relatives to work in their place. No women have appeared in pictures of the press conference held by Taliban leaders in Kabul. As for Shia minorities, their fears increased after their red flags were taken down and desecrated in some provinces, despite the Taliban’s pledges that they would be spared.
8- Invoking Sharia precepts: The Taliban will exploit Sharia rules to impose many restrictions on public freedoms. For example, adhering to Islamic dress will become a condition of school and work, all laws will be reviewed to ensure their compliance with Sharia, and school curricula will also be reviewed. "Promotion of Virtue" groups have also returned to the streets to enforce religious discipline according to the Taliban’s view.
9- Early signs of continued radicalization: Some Taliban elements have started to engage in behaviors that reveal that the extremist movement’s ideology has not changed: destroying some statues, attacking some representatives and members of the media in Kabul and Kandahar, and using violence with Afghans wishing to enter the Kabul airport to join evacuation operations of those who collaborated with foreign forces.
10- Integrating the Afghan army into the Taliban: Contrary to what happens in cases of political transition, some elements of the Afghan army are currently being reintegrated into the Taliban according to what extent they accept the movement’s rule. This enhances the Taliban’s military capabilities, especially after the seizure of a huge amount of American weapons, including armored vehicles, aircraft, and other specialized weapons systems.
11- Two-sided use of social media: The Taliban uses social media extensively, along two tracks: First, to threaten and intimidate opponents and prevent them from inciting citizens against the Taliban. Second, to spread political propaganda aimed at reassuring citizens and improving the movement’s image. These messages are received cautiously and not given much credibility in view of the Taliban’s historical legacy and link to extremism.
What stands in the way of Taliban hegemony?
The Taliban may not be able to fully assert its dominance, according to the panelists. The world has radically changed from the 1990s, as have the Afghan state and the aspirations and preferences of the Afghan people themselves. What worked for a previous historical period may not be viable in the current period. The participants considered that the most important curbs on the Taliban imposing its hardline vision are the following factors:
1- Formation of a civilian front opposed to the Taliban: Despite the Taliban’s tribal Pashtun support base, the early days of its control have seen the formation of a front to oppose it and demonstrations raising the Afghan flag torn down by the movement. The demonstrations raised slogans of respect for women’s rights in work and education.
2- Beginning of anti-Taliban military movements: "Resistance committees" are currently being formed to militarily confront the Taliban, led by Ahmad Massoud in Panjshir province and they have begun to move towards Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan. Panjshir’s mountainous terrain and the difficulty of controlling it is being exploited to establish an axis of armed resistance that includes remnants of the Afghan army and anti-Taliban factions.
3- A change in Afghan society and its political leanings: Opinion polls conducted shortly before the fall of Kabul indicate that the majority in Afghanistan aspires to civil government, the protection of rights and freedoms, and representative institutions, and does not want to submit to hardline, Taliban-led rule. This leaves Taliban rule facing many checks, including the formation of armed rebel movements confronting the movement and the possibility that its rule may be overthrown in the future.
4- International powers playing the card of recognition and aid: The only leverage the world has against the Taliban is to grant recognition of its government, as well as financial aid and investments. The Taliban’s commitment to respecting human rights and preserving the status of women, education, and the media can then be traded in exchange for recognition of the legitimacy of their rule and financial support.
5- Pressuring the Taliban to cut ties with Al-Qaeda: There is no guarantee that the Taliban will abide by its pledges not to turn Afghanistan into a safe haven for terrorism. But international powers with differing interests—such as the United States, China, and Russia—have direct interests in preventing any connection between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which puts the Taliban under international observation.
In conclusion, the participants painted several scenarios for the future of Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The first is that the movement imposes its vision of governance on Afghanistan, while the second scenario leads to a hybrid system and a compromise between the Taliban’s vision of politics and the aspirations of Afghan society. The third scenario is that the Taliban accepts widening the scope of participation and builds a system of governance that ensures the rights of minorities and women.