“We reached a victory that wasn’t expected,” argued the Afghan Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Baradar, who languished in a Pakistani jail for eight years between 2010 and 2018, is projected to return to Kabul as a leading figure—maybe even president—of the reestablished Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
No one, Baradar included, could have predicted the Taliban’s speedy victory. There are many reasons for the rapid fall of provincial capitals across Afghanistan and ultimately the administrative collapse of Kabul. These include U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration’s obsession with a quick withdrawal and the lack of coordination involving U.S.-led efforts in Doha—where Baradar and his team have been housed since 2018, although the Taliban office was created more than a decade ago—in light of the unexpected changes on the ground in Afghanistan. Other factors include an intelligence failure on the part of the United States and its allies, the clandestine flight of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, a patchy network of messy and local agreements between security forces and Taliban military and political leaders, and the sheer scale of desertion of Afghan soldiers and administrative officials.
The reasons for the meltdown will be subject to much study and examination. Sentiments about why the West failed or what it was all for no doubt will shape the titles of the many books and movies that will be written and produced for a long time to come.
Yet, for the moment, there are three key questions that need to be answered.
First, will the deceivingly nonviolent—yet terrifying—entry of the Taliban into Kabul be able to maintain the peace, or will civil war break out as soon as U.S., British, and other troops leave the country over the next three to four days? Second, will Ghani, his vice president Amrullah Saleh, and others play a part in the negotiations to come with the Taliban or coordinate some form of resistance?
Third, what role exactly will the so-called transition council play? The transition council includes former insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was prime minister of Afghanistan in the 1990s and has close links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Joining him are chairman Abdullah Abdullah and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai. The council was loosely created late in the evening of August 15. All three leaders are still in Kabul.
The Taliban Script
There is clearly a script, authored in Doha, that Baradar and Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen are keen to evangelize. It includes the following tenets: the Taliban wants a “peaceful transfer of power” and supports an “Afghan Islamic-inclusive government.” According to Shaheen, “hundreds of schools for girls” are continuing to operate in areas held by the Taliban. “Women,” he told the BBC, “can have access to education and to work.” They just need to “observe the hijab.”
Yet Shaheen’s policy, set out by the Taliban in Doha, widely contradicts reports from the ground. Live on the BBC on the morning of August 15, Shaheen argued that the Taliban have been instructed to wait at the gates of Kabul until a transition was worked out. By the afternoon, Taliban pickup trucks were spotted on the streets of Kabul. By late evening, Taliban fighters were seen outside the homes of influential Afghan leaders. By nightfall, Taliban fighters and their political associates were sitting around the table at the Arg Palace that Ghani occupied only hours before he fled. Clearly, what Shaheen and his group in Doha say are not the ultimate pronouncements followed on the ground.
This is not to say that there has been a complete breakdown in the Taliban chain of command between political leaders and military commanders. It means that there is a visible tension, which is very likely to grow. Indeed, Taliban fighters, according to private conversations with individuals living in Kabul, have begun search operations. In parts of the city, they are going house to house to identify detractors. They have a list.
According to sources inside Kabul, senior commanders from the Taliban’s military commissions in southern Afghanistan have also entered the city. These are individuals who have trained with the Pakistani military, fought alongside Sunni militia groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and who have, in the past, openly opposed peace talks.
Further, the Taliban’s policy on schooling for girls and education for women directly contradicts reports from Afghanistan. Women teachers in Herat, under the control of the Taliban, have been asked not to enter a university whilst Taliban officials are inside it. A Taliban spokesman stated that “the presence of women in government-owned offices is difficult.” In Balkh district, taxi drivers have been told not to take women passengers. Radio jockeys have been asked to stop playing pop songs in the afternoon.
Clearly, the so-called policy scripted by Shaheen and Baradar is at odds with the deeds being practiced on the ground. The Taliban in Doha want legitimacy. That is clear. At this time, it might be the only effective card left for U.S. and other negotiators, as their governments focus on the evacuation from Kabul. After this evacuation happens over the next few weeks, and after Baradar claims the government, the desire for legitimacy is less likely to matter. The promise of financial assistance, another card to be traded, is not held by the United States alone. China and Russia are well placed to support Baradar’s group. Chinese and Russian officials have entertained members of this group over many years.
The Possibility of Resistance
It is unlikely that Ghani will be able to play any meaningful leadership role for Afghanistan any longer. Whatever may have been the reasons for his escape, he will not be forgiven by ordinary Afghans, by parliamentarians in his own cabinet (including women), or by soldiers, many of whom continue to wait in barracks in different parts of the country. The best that the former president could do was to urge the Taliban to “preserve the name and honour of Afghanistan.” He did not fail to mention that the “Taliban have won.”
His vice president, Saleh, who is believed to be in the Panjshir—about three hours north of Kabul—has committed himself to resist. “I will never, ever, and under no circumstances bow” to the “Talib terrorists,” he tweeted on August 15—the day the Taliban entered Kabul. “I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER.” A day later he tweeted, “In my soil.” Saleh has the ability to garner support among Panjshiris, who live in the north of the country. Whether or not he will have the ability to raise arms against the Taliban is uncertain. Afghanistan is in a different place today compared to the 1990s, when his “hero” and that of millions of Afghans, the Afghan military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, defended the north and inspired the support of thousands. Iran is likely to be a lot more cautious in choosing who they support. They may well lend legitimacy to Baradar’s Taliban. Russia and China, who have kept their embassies open in Kabul, are unlikely to support any opposition to the Taliban, at least for the time being.
Pakistan has clearly won. Having sheltered the Taliban for decades, Pakistani handlers have an ideological and material association with a group that, ironically, it evacuated shortly after the U.S.-led intervention began in October 2001. The Taliban are unlikely to adhere to every nudge and suggestion made in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but no doubt, Pakistan’s leverage in Afghanistan will be overwhelming.
Massoud’s son, Ahmad, has made it known that he is willing to “create an inclusive government with the Taliban.” However, the younger Panjshiri has made clear that he will not accept “extremism and fundamentalism.” How exactly he and his followers, still based in the north of the country, can square the circle between inclusion and avoiding Taliban extremism will be challenging, to put it mildly. In time, he could serve as a spearhead for resistance. The key for him will be the ability to accumulate military capabilities. By all accounts, supplies have been missing since at least June 2021, due to Ghani’s poor leadership.
There are, of course, several committed anti-Taliban soldiers and erstwhile administrative officials who will hold out in the mountains, until some kind of resistance is ultimately organized. For now, however, the only guarantee for a semblance of stability inside Afghanistan rests on three factors: the extent to which the script around legitimacy and peace percolates down to the fighters on the ground; the efficacy of the guarantees and the leverage around long-term financial assistance that presumably was negotiated in Doha; and the Taliban’s desperate need for support in governance. In Balkh, the new Taliban mayor was until recently in charge of ammunition. This is the state of the Taliban. It is presumably, why, the group’s advisers—already in Kabul—are engaging people like Karzai and Abdullah as well as the so-called transition council.
The Transition Council
At the time of writing, there has been no clarity on how exactly the transition to a Taliban-led government would work. What will happen to the Afghan military and the corps commands that are still somewhat intact in certain parts of the country? Who exactly will take over administrative responsibilities? Who will run the ministries?
There is a group of about fifteen to twenty Taliban representatives, who could well be called the beltway Taliban. They have had visas stamped on their passports (often ones that they have held onto since the last Islamic Emirate in the 1990s) from different parts of the world. They speak English and have negotiated with diplomats and officials for years. But apart from this small group, the Taliban has no cadre of seasoned administrators. Anywhere between 60,000 and 70,000 fighters and political officers make up the Taliban. They desperately need the old government.
It is yet unclear what Karzai, Abdullah, and Hekmatyar can negotiate or are willing to do. The transition council, which they set up on August 15, has not made any major announcements as yet. The council met with leaders of the Taliban on August 16 in Kabul. At the moment, it is impossible to envisage either Karzai or Abdullah in any power-sharing arrangement. They could possibly play a role in making sure that older structures of governance do not all but collapse as hardened fighters temporarily hang up their Kalashnikovs to take over banks, ministries, and maybe even the remnants of the Afghan military.
This is the best-case scenario.
Troops and diplomats from the United States, the UK, and other countries will leave Afghanistan over the next three to four days. Meanwhile, overzealous Taliban political leaders (who have long waited in Doha, Quetta, and elsewhere) and military commanders are taking over the country. There is little to suggest that the inclusive government that Shaheen emphasizes is anything more than rhetoric, carefully designed to present an exclusive, perhaps ever-so-slightly more modern Islamic Emirate.
The primary advantage and potential limitation that the current Taliban have is in the global recognition that they have sought and gotten from around the world. Whether or not this matters once Baradar and others move into the palace in Kabul will be made clear very soon.