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Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, a UNESCO site park with the tomb of Mogul Emperor Babur.
Photo: Florian Kühn
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Five questions about the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan

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It’s too early to know if the Taliban will honour their promises not to take revenge and to allow more freedom for women and girls, says Florian P. Kühn, senior lecturer in peace and development studies. He has researched Afghanistan for over 20 years and believes we will likely see a highly uneven picture of the implementation of Islamist rules in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. We asked him five questions about the unfolding events.

How surprised are you by the recent developments?

“Like most observers, until about four weeks ago I would not have expected the Taliban to conquer Kabul in August. However, already in spring I was active to urge European governments to get their local partners – translators, local staff – out of Afghanistan quickly. This was delayed by visa regulations and all sorts of checks, making the process extremely complicated for applicants. I am saying this to illustrate that the advances of the Taliban were anticipated by many who have done research and have contacts in the country. Once the Taliban started taking over major cities and provincial capitals in the North of the country, it became clear that it was a matter of weeks at best until they would reach Kabul."

"In any case, the rapid advances were not predictable. I would even find it plausible if the Taliban themselves were surprised at the speed with which the Afghan security forces gave way. Some cities were handed over with no shots fired – accelerating the process. The Taliban thus not only captured large amounts of weapons and ammunition, but more importantly acquired the fame of being a sweeping, successful force. Likely this has motivated more and more in the Afghan military to either defect or change sides – and not fight for an already lost cause. So, the psychological aspect certainly played a huge role difficult to anticipate. That morale was low in the Afghan military and that supply lines had already frequently been disrupted was no secret. Also, the legitimacy of the government, necessary to give an army something to be motivated to die for, was almost non-existent.”

What responsibility does the West have, and what is the responsibility of Afghanistan?

“The responsibility of Western governments would have been to organise an orderly withdrawal. Not having been able to phase out the mission in a way that would have allowed a negotiated exit is probably US-President Biden’s biggest failure. To be sure, he inherited President Trump’s lousy deal with the Taliban and decided to honour it. That gave them legitimacy and leeway while they had to give almost nothing in return except for lofty assurances. More generally, almost all Western countries failed to live up to their responsibility by not protecting those who have supported the Western statebuilding project."

"This includes not only those who worked for Western military or development agencies, but also women activists, journalists, and others who were decidedly against the Taliban. Many of them received death notes even before the Taliban took power, but had to prove they were in danger in order to be registered as urgent cases to be given visas. For many that did not happen, and there is little doubt many of those will die at the hands of the Taliban."

"Afghanistan has no recognized government right now. It remains to be seen if the Taliban will adhere to international obligations signed by the former Afghan government. Afghanistan is a member of most international protection and human rights conventions. Whether the Taliban will just disregard those commitments or claim they are void because the former government was illegitimate remains to be seen. Under international law, however, the Taliban have the obligation to protect civilians. Reportedly, they have killed surrendering soldiers of the Afghan National Army, which is of course a war crime. Also, they cannot just kill foreigners, or their own citizens, or any non-combatants unless after a fair trial based on law.”

What do the Taliban want to achieve?

“The Taliban, who view themselves as Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (a title they will likely re-install, after their ‚Emirate‘ ended in 2001), want a congruent religious and political order. Any political order, in their view, is ancillary to the divine order they see themselves as establishing. When they were governing before 2001, they were a strange case of a government refusing to formulate policy: In their view, all policy already exists, in the holy scriptures and Sharia law. Their aim in terms of governing is restricted to enforcing those rules, not much more."

There is little to no social policy, foreign policy or economic policy.

"Obviously, the Taliban are aware that they need to collect taxes to finance their repression, and are trying to create an image of themselves as aware of people’s economic needs and expectations towards an administration. However, taking their general perspective into account it is not to be expected that they would create an active state, allocating funds to support policy such as building infrastructure, schools, or finance hospitals."

"It is more likely that they will leave such services at a minimum, and where available, to be run by international humanitarian agencies. Until 2001 they were extremely suspicious of foreign aid agencies, but have indicated that they would now work with them. This is possibly a sign that they have understood humanitarian aid may help them stabilise as a regime. It is unclear how they will deal with the media and telecommunications sector, as well as with other forms of private entrepreneurship. Economically, Afghanistan has clearly changed since Taliban rule 1996-2001 and they will have to account for those changes.”

How trustworthy is their communication right now?

“I would not trust the Taliban, like I would not trust any movement in their position. Highly militarized and radical young men, victorious and with little constraints, it is rather surprising how disciplined they have been during their conquest. Not only were they strategically cagey, but also had a clear plan about how to bring the population on their side. Whether that ‘friendly face’ will become their general style remains to be seen – there is an indication that, given local commander’s relative freedom within their networked governance approach,

it will very much depend on the personal character of the commander in a certain region or town.

"If he is willing to follow the Taliban leadership’s call for moderation, or if he and his men think that they deserve to harshly enforce the rules they have fought for and which they deeply believe to be divinely legitimized is what will decide individual behaviour.

So even if the leadership was serious with their promises not to take revenge, to allow for more freedom for women and to keep open schools for girls, there is no way to be sure local commanders will honour the pledge. In other words, I expect that we will see a highly uneven picture of the implementation of Islamist rules.”

What will happen now?

“Currently, the situation is extremely volatile and dynamic, so any conclusions or assumptions would be dangerously premature. It is not entirely clear if the population will concur with Taliban rule: What if people in the cities will not return to work? Some demonstrations against Taliban rule have already taken place, and I suspect that the Taliban will react with violence, as they have reportedly done in Jalalabad. They are not accustomed to public dissent and certainly don’t have a pluralistic understanding of politics. Reportedly in Kunduz, Taliban commanders called and requested workers to show up – threatening them with severe consequences if they did not. Also, people need to survive, so the everyday will likely resume some kind of uneasy normalcy and occasional protests. Most people, as is the case in many authoritarian countries, will just try to get by."

"Silently, many in Afghanistan will accept or even welcome the Taliban’s ability to curb corruption and create security, so that one can leave the house after dark without being killed. The security situation was so dire in recent years that many had hoped the Taliban would return. Militarily, while many militias have joined the Taliban for now, it is not clear how many regional and ethnically affiliated fighters will mount resistance against the Taliban in the mid-term. Politically, neighbouring countries may want to normalize relations but view the Taliban with mixed feelings: On the one hand, they are fierce Islamists and thus ideologically affiliated with movements deemed a threat in neighbouring countries. On the other, neighbours hope they can benefit from order and security established by the Taliban. On a humanitarian level, we will likely see thousands of refugees trying to escape to Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian. Many, particularly young and educated Afghans will try to reach Western countries. Western countries will not play a major role in all that, discredited by this military and political defeat - except as donors for humanitarian aid.”

About Florian Kühn

Florian P. Kühn is a senior lecturer in peace and development studies and Co-Programme Director for the M.A. Global Studies at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. He has researched Afghanistan for 20 years and written extensively about international interventionism, statebuilding and the ambiguities and contradictions of global politics.

Contact information: florian.p.kuehn@gu.se