The Taliban has failed to gain legitimacy — what can be done?

Associated Press/Ebrahim Noroozi
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, acting deputy prime minister of the Afghan Taliban’s caretaker government (center), was photographed in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 24, 2022, while attending a ceremony marking the 9th anniversary of the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, founder of the Taliban.

On Aug. 15, 2021, the world watched as a surge of violence enabled a militant, ideologist and hardliner Taliban victory against the Afghan National Security Forces. In all likelihood, this accomplishment surprised not only the world but the Taliban themselves. The power grab may have been instigated during the political process — some have referred to it as a “peace process” — initiated in Doha in 2018, which granted the Taliban a false perception of power. The Taliban ran with this perceived power and now, almost one year after taking over Kabul, two questions remain unresolved:

After governing Afghanistan for one year, why hasn’t the Taliban gained internal and external legitimacy? And why hasn’t the Taliban reduced security threats in Afghanistan, the region and beyond?

The Taliban has attempted to govern but has been unsuccessful in addressing basic needs of the people, providing safety and security, and preventing deadly attacks against civilians. Taliban de facto authorities have driven ideological and administrative issues that have severely impeded progress and greatly impacted their legitimacy. Now they face two major crises: how to govern an increasingly discontented population and how to ensure security within and outside the country’s borders.

The Taliban takeover was executed by an anti-government religious militant group with more than 20 years of experience fighting a war. The sudden takeover was a shocking tragedy for Afghans. The Taliban approached their role of governing approximately 41 million people without any capacity and lacked a strategy to implement governance, rule of law, security and economic development. Their priority was to consolidate power, suggesting that their intention was not insular, but strategic. They replaced the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, demonstrating a total institutional and structural change. They also replaced the tricolored Afghan flag with the Taliban white flag, which raised collective grievances against their system. In addition to these symbolic and impactful stances, their first attempts to consolidate power were focused on eliminating rivals and marginalizing groups that opposed their ideology and actions.

This purge of progressives, intellectuals and rights activists has continued by warning, intimidating and detaining them. The Taliban is especially harsh regarding women’s rights, having barred women from working in certain government sectors and from field work, and banning girls from secondary schools. Women do work in health and humanitarian sectors in some provinces, but restrictions continue to worsen and women have no freedom of movement,  cannot travel alone and must cover their faces in public. When women and girls protested these and other actions, their rallies were forcefully dispersed and local journalists covering the protests were beaten. The Taliban’s actions are a clear manifestation of gender apartheid, which contrary to international human rights norms and Afghan culture.  

The Taliban’s interim government consisted of the old guard, rife with hardliners from one predominant ethnic group: the Pashtun. The lack of gender and ethnic representation confirmed a severe ideology, fundamental behavior and commitment to forming a state through coercion. Though the Taliban was pressured to form an inclusive government, the government positions are still occupied by Taliban appointees with limited or no skills; the skilled civil servants from the previous government have been sidelined. Sadly, the policy of exclusivity remains as firm today as it was on day one and there isn’t a functioning government.

The Taliban has demonstrated a strong ambition to improve relationships with the international community and has played this role well, allowing international journalists to travel to Afghanistan and becoming privy to United Nations and international humanitarian organizations. However, their relationships with Afghan entities are based on intimidation, as is evident from the detention of local journalists to the shrinking spaces where freedom of expression is allowed.

The Taliban has attempted to demonstrate that the nature of their movement has changed, but it is difficult for them to convince an increasingly discontented population. The inability to govern and create economic opportunities is demoralizing and is causing Afghans to migrate to neighboring countries and beyond. The refugee crisis will continue. The Taliban cannot sustain Afghanistan’s economy without international support, and without some economic movement Afghans will keep looking for opportunities elsewhere.

This leads to crucial questions: How can a militant group turned state builder with no institutional capacity, budgetary expertise and political organization guide the country in developing structures that can address the needs of the population? How can they put in place a political system that provides for economic investment and creation? How can they ensure freedom when it goes against their ideological foundation?

Afghanistan’s cities have become silent places where people worry about the economic crisis, famine, political instability and new insecurities. Pockets of insurgencies have sprung up across the country, with opposition and resisting forces organizing themselves predominantly in the north. The Taliban has failed to provide safety and security to civilians, particularly the Shia Hazara communities where Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) attacks have targeted hundreds of men, women and children. Disappearances, torture and killings in Tajik populated areas of the north suggest that people are not protected and secure. Attacks in Mazar Sharif, Kabul and Kunar are signs of the Taliban’s inability to protect civilians. While there are reports of disappearances, revenge killings, violence against journalists, extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests by the Taliban, there has been a lack of systematic documentation because of restrictions on media reporting.

In addition, the Taliban has failed to institute a counterterrorism strategy and has yet to cut ties with transnational terrorist organizations. A UN report on May 26, 2022, found the Taliban reiterated their close ties with al Qaeda and confirmed the presence of other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, as well as continued links with Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamat Ansarullah, a Tajik militant group. The Taliban takeover emboldened militant groups in the region and TTP is one prominent example. They have conducted more than 200 attacks in Pakistan in the past year and are following the Taliban’s path of negotiating recognition through a position of power. 

Many countries in the region have expressed concern about their own national security and  militant groups in their territories: TTP in Pakistan; Islamist militants in Tajikistan; radicals from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Uzbekistan; the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in China that is fighting alongside the Taliban; and the Jaish e Mohammad and other jihadi groups in India. Central Asian countries face tremendous security threats as Islamic State operatives turn these areas into battlegrounds for jihadism.

The attitude of the Taliban and their engagement regionally and internationally over the past year suggests they are still negotiating with regional comrades and the broader international community. While they secured power through violence, the Taliban promised the international community that they would pivot to a human rights-based approach. Their continuous refusal to implement basic tenets of human rights means they can participate in negotiations with the international community about funding and recognition. From 1998-2021, they negotiated to have ultimate power and since August 2021, they have been negotiating for recognition.  

What is next? For Afghanistan to succeed, it needs a functioning economy and stable political system. This mandates an inclusive government where women, minorities and all political factions see and practice meaningful participation in politics and society. To address social unrest and prevent pockets of insurgency from gaining strength, it is crucial to ensure the protection of individual and collective rights.

The international community should reevaluate the parameters of engagement with the Taliban. Having engaged with the Taliban at the highest level, the dire results now lie in the absence of tangible change or indicative progress. The Taliban continues to operate under draconian policies against women to use extrajudicial killings; they have refused to cut ties with terrorist networks in the region; and they lack a coherent policy and plan of action for governance, women’s rights, and external or foreign diplomacy. Their ties with terrorist groups have created rifts among factions of the Taliban, largely based on ideological and pragmatic implementation of policies.

Unconditional engagement on the part of the international community could strengthen the Taliban and their harsh policies, allowing them to simultaneously hold the Afghan population hostage while they negotiate for their own demands. It is time for the international community to institute conditional engagement with the Taliban based on their progress, using indicators of human rights, economic stability, political participation and national and regional security. Even though the international community has less of an appetite for encouraging a legitimate political process in Afghanistan, if future interventions are void of such a plan, the current insecurities and refugee crisis is likely to gain momentum, potentially undermining global security.

The Taliban has had one year to demonstrate the ability to gain internal and external legitimacy. Their track shows consistent failure to protect the population and ensure women’s rights, and an inability to cut ties with terrorist groups. The gap between the Taliban’s words and actions has widened, and trusting them without holding them accountable will be a detriment to every person in Afghanistan, the region and the global community. The Taliban cannot afford to be isolated any longer; they need recognition and require money to run and sustain their regime. The global community still has leverage and can push harder for the Taliban to change. 

A mechanism should be established for the implementation of humanitarian assistance and to monitor human rights violations. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) mandate could still create a political process that opens space for reconciliation and meaningful participation of different political and ethnic groups. Pivoting to a policy that holds the Taliban accountable and is based on clear, measurable progress means that Afghans could still hold out hope that theirs will become a country where they are equally free to participate, speak and build their lives in peace. 

Nilofar Sakhi is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and professorial lecturer of international affairs at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @NilofarSakhi.

Tags Afghan refugees Afghanistan Human rights Taliban

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