January 2023

Stepping forward… and back

Arshad Yusufzai  assesses the meaningful gains made by the Taliban after 16 months in power – but also highlights the many challenges and pitfalls ahead

Afghanistan has been under Taliban rule for over 16 months now. Despite the rest of the world moving into a new year, most of this country remains stuck in the same old year of uncertainty, with no new hope of improvement in the already grim lives of millions, in a nation that has nevertheless slowly started breathing more peacefully after nearly 42 years of externally imposed wars and violentinternal conflicts.

Since the takeover of Afghanistan on 15 August last year, the Taliban – or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) – have faced numerous internal and external challenges, including finding ways of engaging with a world that is fast losing trust in the militia’s means of governing the troublesome country and its nearly 39 million people. For, although they have restored a trustworthy peace in almost the entire country, the Taliban know that the survival of their government still heavily depends on the approval and financial assistance of the international community.

Some of the most serious challenges faced by the IEA are the security threats posed by the Islamic State-Khurasan (ISK) and the National Resistance Front (NRF). And while a fragile economy remains a matter of grave concern, it has been overshadowed by the Taliban’s harsh decisions regarding women, freedom of speech and the continued ban on girls’ education across the country.

Yet, while there is much scope for criticism of the Taliban, its successes should not be overlooked. The most visible achievement for the country’s ruling elite is the end of war and a clear reduction in violence. They have accomplished this through fighting both the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan forces since being ousted from their first stint in power in 2001. Restoring order in the country was a monumental challenge after the withdrawal of international forces and the disappearance of the Afghan National Army.

Mohsin Hashmi, the new governor of Panjsher
WINNING TRUST: Mohsin Hashmi, the newly appointed governor of Panjsher

Although periodic acts of terrorism, mostly claimed by the elusive ISK, continue to take place, the Taliban must be given credit for their hard work in achieving their goal of maintaining peace and security in all provinces, including Panjsher, where the so-called NRF is said to have its strongest presence. Although the situation in Panjsher remains visibly tense, the watchful Taliban soldiers are ever ready to control any outbreaks of violence.

In an attempt to win the hearts, minds and trust of the locals, the Taliban appointed Mohsin Hashmi, a non-Pashtun who hails from Takhar province, as the new governor of Panjsher. Hashmi served as governor in Takhar and Logar in the previous governments and is well aware of the language, culture and traditions of the people of Panjsher, more so, indeed, than any Kandahari, Helmandi or other Pashtun-origin person.

A fragile economy remains a matter of grave concern

Excluding military positions, most of the old staff in the governor’s office are keeping their jobs, while at the same time the new governor has reiterated that priority will be given to the people of Panjsher in filling all new civilian posts. Similarly, any complaints against mistreatment of the locals by Taliban soldiers are swiftly and strictly addressed, as seen in a case in November when two Taliban commanders from Kandahar were put behind bars for beating up a local civilian in Panjsher. At the checkpoints, too, the Taliban soldiers are more lenient towards the locals, while people visiting Panjsher from other provinces face tougher security checks.

Another Taliban achievement is their success in restricting most forms of corruption, and increased customs duties and tax revenues indicate their ability to put financial matters in order. While the revenue generated is not enough to run a country, the interim government finds it of great value in meeting routine expenditures.

Similarly, a number of positive steps in the agriculture sector have been praised by ordinary people, as well as those concerned about the future of Afghanistan’s agricultural production. The Taliban are focusing on the completion of irrigation projects left unfinished due to the change of administration in Kabul, while at the same time they are finding new ways of facilitating the work of farmers. However, low purchasing power has affected the financial gains from agricultural products, as fruits, particularly apples, pomegranates and grapes, nowearn for farmers just over half their original prices.

The Emirate’s relations with its eastern neighbour Pakistan have deteriorated considerably

A campaign against drug addiction last spring saw the Kabul administration round up all drug addicts from the streets, sometimes putting them in prison compounds due to nonexistent hospital space. They were provided with treatment before being reunited with their families. In another similar step more recently, data for around 13,000 beggars was compiled, so they could receivea monthly stipend.

Returning to the challenges, one issue many countries, including those in Europe, worry could spiral out of control is the growing tensions within the Taliban over disputes on many important domestic and international issues. Unlike other armed groups, the Taliban are very good – most of the time – at solving their issues peacefully, discreetly and without the involvement of any foreign elements. However, speculation arises when, instead of clarifying the situation, they maintain silence over such issues.Time and again, concerns have emerged about a power struggle between the Haqqani Network – a semi-autonomous offshoot of the Taliban – and the original Kandahari group, and their respective core leadership, particularly the 43-year-old Minister for Interior Affairs, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Minister for Defence Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, who is just 32.

That said, various Taliban leaders, in informal sittings, often talk cheerfully about the ‘exemplary’ relations between these two relatively young but powerful Taliban commanders. The Taliban give examples of how Sirajuddin embraces Yaqoob when they meet both in front of and behind the camera; how they went together to visit the grave of the latter’s father in Zabul province; and, more recently, the trip by Mullah Yaqoob to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with Sirajuddin’s younger brother Anas Haqqani, who is said to have arranged the visit and the meetings in an effort to enhance the IEA’s relations with the UAE, since the Taliban have been traditionally seen asmore inclined towards Qatar.

(l to r) Mullah Baradar, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqoob are all in favour of reopening girls’ schools
(l to r) Mullah Baradar, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqoob are all in favour of reopening girls’ schools

Another positive outcome of Yaqoob and Anas Haqqani’s visit – only the second such high-profile Taliban visit since Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar went thereon the death of the UAE’s president and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, in May 2022 – was their meetings with UAE officials, who warmly welcomed the Taliban leaders, despite them representing an unrecognised government.

The two leaders also met many Afghan businessmen based in the UAE, in an apparent attempt to convince them to invest in poverty-stricken Afghanistan. And lastly, they were also able to meet and mend relations with Mutassim Agha Jan, one of the most senior former leaders of the Taliban, who had serious disagreements with the Taliban movement, which he deserted after an attempt on his life about a decade ago.

Yet, despite these positives, according to some Taliban leaders, differences over the core issue of girls’ education have the capacity to become an ‘Osama bin Laden’-like problem. Most of the cabinet, including Mullah Baradar, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Yaqoob, are in favour of reopening girls’ schools but opposition from only a handful of the senior-most leaders – five to be precise –has been causing the deadlock. Apparently, the said Taliban elders have the ability to convince their Amir, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada,to continue the ban and, despite foreseeing its negative impact, the majority of Taliban are not contesting this decision, mainly because they prize unity above everything.

Yet another problem is that, unexpectedly, the Emirate’s relations with its eastern neighbour Pakistan have deteriorated considerably during the last year, particularly after the increased attacks from across the border on Pakistani security forces by banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists based in Afghanistan. Pakistan has repeatedly complained about the presence of the TTP in Afghanistan and is often left thinking that the IEA is not serious about taking any action against the terrorist group. The tensions have often resulted in closure of border passes, and, more worryingly, in deadly incidents of exchanged fire, in which forces and civilians alike become victims.

As if existing unpopular decisions by the IEA weren’t enough, the recent announcement of implementation of punishment according to Shariah Law has forced many into believing that the Taliban 2.0 are finally returning to the old ways of the original Taliban from the 1990s.

We can only hope that the more forward-thinking contingent of the group will prevail, building on recent gains in an effort to take Afghanistan into a brighter, better new year.

The writer has covered the Afghan conflict and terrorism in Pakistan, worked as a communication expert with the ICRC in Pakistan, and advised the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue-Geneva on Afghanistan