Abstract: Whether and how much the Taliban have changed since their repressive rule over Afghanistan before the fall of 2001 is key to whether a potential peace settlement can create a social and political landscape in Afghanistan that is acceptable to the people of Afghanistan, as well as the United States and NATO allies. While the Taliban have softened their rhetoric on some issues (for example, on women’s rights and education) and there is evidence of real policy change in certain areas (for example, on the use of media, in the education sector, a greater acceptance of NGOs, and an acceptance that a future political system will need to accommodate at least some of their political rivals), their policy adjustments appear to have been largely driven by political imperatives rather than any fundamental changes in ideology. Many in the Taliban hope that they can restore their ‘Emirate.’ Given their continued domineering behavior, intolerance of political dissent and oppression (especially toward girls and women) in the areas they control, there is legitimate concern that if political pressure diminished after an eventual peace agreement and a troop withdrawal, they might revert to pre-fall 2001 practices. Shifts in Taliban rhetoric and positions do, however, shed light on what they may be willing to entertain in a post peace-settlement Afghan political order in which they have to come to some modus vivendi with other Afghan power groupings and interests. The Taliban are a religiously motivated, religiously conservative movement that will not give up what they consider their core ‘values.’ How these values will be reflected in any future constitution and play out in the concrete policies of any eventual power-sharing government that includes the Taliban will be subject to the day-to-day political bargaining between various political forces and the balance of power between them. Whether some changes in approach will be perpetuated will depend on the ability of Afghan communities and political groups to maintain pressure on the Taliban. This, in turn, depends on continued international attention toward Afghanistan particularly if and when there is a political settlement and power-sharing deal and after foreign soldiers have left.

The question of whether the Afghan Talibana have changed their repressive pre-fall 2001 positions, particularly on rights and freedoms—or even their wider ideology,b and if so, how much and whether for good—is key to whether a potential peace settlement can create a social and political landscape in Afghanistan that is acceptable to the people of Afghanistan, as well as the United States and NATO allies. Soon after taking over as the United States’ top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that any peace settlement needed to preserve “the progress made over the last 20 years with regard to human rights, civil liberties, and the role of women in Afghan society.”1 This was preceded by similar calls from the European Union and European governments, and assurance by the Afghan government that protecting these rights and liberties is a “red line” for them.2

It has become clear that there is no way around negotiating with the Taliban if the 40 years of war in Afghanistan is to be stopped. Such negotiations resulted in the U.S.-Taliban agreement concluded in Doha in February 2020 and intra-Afghan (peace) negotiations also taking place, and now stalling, in Qatar. These talks have been happening under immense time pressure, following former President Donald Trump’s reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which resulted in the numbers dropping to 2,500 in mid-January 2021, their lowest since 2001.3 These developments have weakened the Afghan government’s position in Doha and strengthened that of the Taliban.

Around the beginning of March 2021, the Biden administration launched a new diplomatic effort to “accelerate” the peace process. In so doing, the U.S. government made clear that it had not decided whether to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May 1 as stipulated, conditions-based, in the U.S. agreement with the Taliban. As part of this push, the United States circulated proposals to the Afghan government, the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) chaired by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and the Taliban. According to The New York Times, the proposals “included a road map for a future Afghan government with Taliban representation, a revised Afghan constitution using the current one as an ‘initial template’ and terms for a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire … national elections after the establishment of a ‘transitional peace government of Afghanistan’ … guaranteed rights for women and for religious and ethnic minorities, and protections for a free press … [as well as a] High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence to advise an independent judiciary to resolve conflicts over the interpretation of Islamic law.”4

The first part of this article provides a historical overview of the evolution of the Taliban movement. Before examining whether the Taliban’s approach has changed since the fall of 2001, the article examines the movement’s decision-making approach and structure. It then scrutinizes the evolution of the Taliban’s positions on several key policy areas that have been in focus ever since they took power in Kabul in 1996: women’s rights, education, relations with non-governmental organizations, and their ideas about a future political system in Afghanistan. This article does not explore the Taliban’s relations with key terror groups active in Afghanistan, the discontinuation of which represents one important set of obligations the Taliban committed to fulfill in the February 2020 agreement. Many observers, and not least the U.S. Department of Defense, have stated that key obligations have not been fulfilled.5 Instead, this article is focused on other critical issues that are more important to the daily lives of Afghans.

Mullah Baradar, one of the Taliban’s deputy leaders, leaves after signing an agreement with the United States during a ceremony in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

A Historical Overview
By the end of the 1990s, the situation was clear for many in the West: the Taliban were a ‘stone age’ movement and the workings of their regime ‘medieval.’ They banned women from working and studying (not to mention political participation), confining them to their homes unless accompanied by a mahram (male relative) and wearing a burqa. They banned flying kites, playing soccer, and playing music, except for religious chants. Television sets were ‘executed,’ and music cassette tapes strung up at checkpoints. They tried to force NGOs to separate male from female staff in their offices and tried to establish control over foreign aid organizations by attempting (in vain) to move their accommodations to Kabul University’s closed dormitory for women students. They held public executions.

But the reality was never that clear-cut. When the author visited Afghanistan as a journalist in late 1999, kids flew kites and Kabulis and Kandaharis played soccer. The author observed locals dodging the Taliban’s religious police when they closed tea houses and restaurants during prayer time and tried to herd them into mosques. There was criticism against the restrictive anti-girls education policy, even among Taliban officials. Some tolerated or even protected home and NGO-run schools, warning those running them when hardliners planned to raid them.6 There was open resistance in some government ranks and among Taliban fighters against the attempts of Pakistan and Taliban members originating from Pakistan (who held some positions in the Taliban regime) to set the movement’s policies, even leading to shootouts. There was an underground resistance, some of whom were armed (and linked to late Ahmad Shah Massoud’s ‘Northern Alliance,’c) and others of whom, including pro-democracy groups, were political only. Even in the Pashtun countryside, some village communities occasionally resisted Taliban measures against local traditions and the ever-repeating Taliban campaigns of forced recruitment.

If these nuances were little understood in the West by the end of the 1990s, they all but vanished from the public policy debate after 9/11. The Taliban had hosted the al-Qa`ida leadership who had committed these atrocities, accepted their money, used their fighters, and continued to refuse to extradite Usama bin Ladin. From a U.S. perspective, the Taliban were in cahoots with terrorists.

But there were no Taliban—nor indeed Afghans—among the 9/11 hijackers. The Taliban had no part in the organization and implementation of the attack, and no prior knowledge. The Taliban were notably absent from bin Ladin’s “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” founded in February 1998 with groups from Bangladesh, Egypt, and Pakistan. The August 1998 terrorist attacks against U.S. embassies in East Africa had shown to the Taliban that al-Qa`ida intended and was capable of striking U.S. targets, but like others, the Taliban were unable to imagine 9/11. Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar tried to rein in bin Ladin several times. He demanded the Saudi refrain from activities abroad while being a ‘guest’ of the Taliban. But ultimately Mullah Omar was not prepared to give up a man who had fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets and had pledged allegiance to him.7 d

Considered defeated after their regime collapsed faster than expected in the fall of 2001, the Taliban were not invited to the Bonn conference late that year. Attempts to include individual members in the institution-building process that followed, for example during the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga, were not successful. Another opportunity was squandered when several prominent former high-level figures, including ex-foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, returned to Afghanistan and tried to act within the new political system. However, President Karzai and the United States did not allow them to formally set up a ‘moderate’ Taliban ‘party.’8 Some ran unsuccessfully for parliament; others later joined Karzai’s High Peace Council.

The Taliban staged their military comeback starting from areas in Afghanistan’s ‘dusty districts’ where groups had survived after their defeat in 2001 and safe havens in Pakistan. Their revival was supported and legitimized by widespread corruption in the new government, the wholesale persecution of Pashtun communities for their real or alleged pro-Taliban stance by the victorious U.S.-supported, Northern Alliance-dominated Afghan government forces, and perceived and real political exclusion of Pashtuns at the national, regional, and provincial levels.9 This stood in the way of the government setting up an effective administration in Taliban-influenced areas and drove whole communities into the Taliban’s arms.10

In June 2003, Mullah Omar formed a new Taliban Leadership Council to bring all the new or reemerged Taliban groups under one umbrella.11 By 2005-2006, the Taliban were a force to be reckoned with again in the southern half of Afghanistan. Starting in 2009-2010, they expanded into the north and widened their influence into areas where they never had been strong, as well as building up influence among non-Pashtun religious leaders and fighters.12

As the Taliban again grew in strength, for years the United States continued to try to defeat them militarily rather than seek a negotiated end to the insurgency. When President Barack Obama’s troop ‘surge’ in 2009-2011 failed to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, the United States reconsidered this approach.13 This led to a first series of talks (subsequently referred to as ‘Doha 1’) from 2009-2014 and the establishment of the Taliban political office in Doha, Qatar. When the ‘Doha 2’ direct talks between the United States and the Taliban started in 2018, the Taliban had de facto been diplomatically accepted as a key party to the conflict. This came at the expense of the Afghan government, which was sidelined due to the Taliban insisting and the United States conceding that direct Afghan government-Taliban talks could not come before a signed bilateral U.S.-Taliban agreement concerning U.S. troop withdrawal.e One thing is clear: when the negotiations for this agreement started in 2018, it was not as a result of the U.S. pressure against the Taliban but of President Trump (and a significant portion of the U.S. public) losing patience with one of what he called the “endless wars.”14

During their resurgence, and particularly their expansion into non-Pashtun areas, the Taliban increasingly proved that they were a learning organization. Awareness grew within their movement, that their own (repressive) policies had resulted in global isolation as well as opposition from many Afghans, including those who had initially welcomed the Taliban when they almost ended the inter-factional wars of the 1990s. This resulted in not just a softening in rhetoric, but also (as this piece will discuss further in detail) some of their policies. There was a noted change in tone on ‘foreign policy.’ For years, the Taliban leaders’ messages to the Afghan people and the movement’s ‘mujahideen’ had called on neighboring countries to jointly confront the United States in the region.15 But in September 2009, the Taliban emphasized for the first time that the ‘Emirate’ wanted “good and positive relations with all neighbors based on mutual respect and … mutual cooperation and economic development” and assured “all countries” that it would “not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others.”16

The Taliban’s Decision-making Approach and Structure
In order to gauge how the Taliban movement has engaged in politics, it is useful to look briefly at their decision-making approach and structure. As Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri wrote, the Taliban’s “{p}olicymaking has been driven by military and political necessity”—in other words, it can be pragmatic if needed.17 This is relevant for the question this article seeks to answer because it means that Taliban policymaking is not set in stone, even though many in the movement regard themselves as believers in an immutable set of truths. It has the capacity to change.

The Taliban are not a political party but primarily a military movement.18 The movement seeks to produce religious legitimacy from its constant reference to ‘Islamic’ law (and to what it alleges is the non-Islamic character of the current government). This approach is reflected in the title it assigned itself and continues to use, as well as that of the political entity it established, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The Taliban movement’s structure is dual in character, with vertical and horizontal features. There is a vertical axis of command-and-control. The leader, called amir-ul-momenin (commander of the faithful), stands at the top. Under him is the Rahbari Shura (Leadership Council)f of which he is not a member and that advises him. The leader takes the final decision. The Rahbari Shura determines the amir-ul-momenin. He seems to hold the office until death—at least there is no precedent, or known regulation, to suggest otherwise. When Mullah Omar was the leader, he seems to have been largely removed from the organization’s day-to-day business from 2008 onward,19 which is carried out under the responsibility of the leader’s deputies who are part of the Rahbari Shura.g

The Rahbari Shura controls a number of commissions, resembling the Afghan government’s ministries.h They include an influential council of ‘Islamic’ scholars (ulema), a Military Commission, and a Political Commission. The latter staffs the Doha office. Since his release from Pakistani detention in 2018 and appointment as one of the three current deputy leaders, in the wake of the ‘Doha 1’ talks commencing, Mullah Abdul Ghani, better known as Baradar, oversees this commission. With this, he is the Taliban’s de facto foreign minister.

At the same time, the Taliban are structured horizontally as a network of networks and fronts led by military commanders. To operate as part of the movement, the local Taliban fronts (usually called mahaz) must obtain recognition from the Leadership Council. After this is granted, the front commanders have a significant degree of autonomy, including in decision-making in day-to-day affairs. This seems to be a guiding principle of Taliban leadership: an acceptance of commanders operating with a significant degree of autonomy, as long as they do not act against what the leadership considers central principles.i This not only reflects the segmented structure of a tribal/community-based society,20 but is designed to avoid splits in the movement by over-administrating.

In the Taliban structure, fronts can belong to larger informal networks, linked to members of the Leadership Council or other strong figures in the movement, and can control—at least partly—their own sources of income.21 One of these networks is that of the Haqqanis in southeastern Afghanistan, a semi-autonomous entity within the Taliban, as it has a different tribal base, is older than the ‘mainstream’ ‘Kandahari’ Taliban movement, and, significantly, has successfully maintained a close relationship with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in Pakistan, stemming from the anti-Soviet struggle. These attributes allow the Haqqani network to act autonomously in many instances, while its current leader—Sirajuddin Haqqani—has risen to become one of the movement’s deputy leaders.j Other informal networks are linked to influential ‘Kandahari’ leaders. This can be the case even after their death, such with the currently active informal network linked to Mullah Omar’s first successor Akhtar Muhammad Mansur (killed 2016).22 The larger the network is, the more influential its leader is.

During the post-2001 years, the Taliban have established parallel government structures that administer the growing area controlled by them and which also operate and exert influence in areas nominally under government control. Taliban ‘governance’ does not include the direct provision of services. Rather, the Taliban shadow administration monitors the Afghan government-paid service delivery in the insurgency-controlled areas.23 On paper, the Taliban have military and ‘civilian’ administrative structures in place, with the commissions mirrored at the subnational levels.k In practice, however, the Taliban’s district governors, who often are the local military commanders, also oversee the ‘civilian’ commissions and often double as administrators.24

Over the past decade, the Taliban leadership has worked on more consistent sectoral policies and their implementation. This particularly applies to the education sector (which is discussed in detail below).25 In the late 2010s, the Taliban set up a system of ‘taxing’ the transport of goods in which individuals could avoid multiple taxation by furnishing Taliban-issued receipts recognized by Taliban structures countrywide.26

The overall structure described in the paragraphs above is still in place under the Taliban’s current leader Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhun{d}zada.l Although he might lack the quasi-mythical image of founder-leader Mullah Omar, as sheikh ul-hadithm and former primary religious ‘advisor’ to Omar, he has a stronger theological pedigree.27

While the vertical chain of command, the religious self-legitimization of the amir-ul-momenin, and the structures he leads keep the Taliban movement together under one flag, the horizontal autonomy provides elasticity. Unity is a key requirement for the Taliban’s strength, both as a guerrilla movement and when and where in power. This horizontal autonomy also means that any changes in approach over policy by the top Taliban leadership may not be translated fully or at all into a change in approach ‘on the ground.’ However, the Taliban movement has proven less fractious than many other political movements in Afghanistan.n

When assessing the Taliban movement’s policymaking process and the ability of its leadership to get Taliban administrators and commanders ‘on the ground’ to implement policy changes, it is also important to bear in mind that the movement has never—unlike other armed insurgent groups elsewhereo—developed a political organization, or wing, clearly distinct from its military arm. This is also unlike the Afghan mujahideen ‘parties’ (tanzim) of the 1970s-1990s that have registered as and work as political parties, although they are still associated with armed groups.p The Taliban’s structure closest to a political wing is the office of the Political Commission in Doha, which doubles as their negotiating team with the United States and other international actors, mandated by the amir-ul-momenin. However, this is not an independent structure, but resembles a foreign ministry in exile.

The Evolution of Taliban Policies
Having provided a historical overview of the Taliban movement and examined its decision-making structure, this article now turns to whether and to what degree Taliban policies have changed in five key areas: media and communication, women’s rights, education, relationships with NGOs, and their view of what kind of polity Afghanistan should be.

As already noted, one peculiarity of the Taliban’s decision-making structure is that policy changes at the top leadership level may not be translated into a change in approach on the ground. As a result, local Taliban commanders might choose to pay lip-service to their leaders’ decisions. Shifts in rhetoric from Taliban leaders may also be paying lip-service to the sensitivities of many within Afghanistan and within the international community by merely softening its policy rhetoric rather than fundamentally changing its approach. Skeptics would argue that it was when the Taliban were in power in Kabul that they showed their true colors and that any subsequent softening in their rhetoric on certain issues should be dismissed as merely designed to improve their image and facilitate their return to power. But it should be noted that both local communities and international actors, particularly NGOs trying to keep basic services running in Afghanistan during that time, were able to extract concessions from the Taliban. Furthermore, the Taliban leadership has also demonstrated that it is able to rein in unruly commanders when it chooses to do so.

While the Taliban have the ability to be pragmatic and therefore change their rhetoric and policies, its religious character as a movement limits their ability to agree to ideas and concepts (including in governance) they could regard as religiously illegitimate. Put another way, shifts in what the Taliban say shed light on what the Taliban may be willing to entertain in a post peace-settlement Afghan political order in which they have to come to some modus vivendi with other Afghan power groupings and interests. Presumably, some in the Taliban have learned the lesson that Afghans will judge any government led by or involving them not mainly by its religiousness but whether it will be able to improve their livelihoods. A majority of the population is still living under the poverty line. The failure to improve the economic welfare of Afghans before 2001 contributed to the Taliban’s lack of support despite a very religious population.q

Furthermore, although the Taliban’s new policy program has not yet been tested by them returning to govern at the national level, the fact that the Taliban exert significant influence over large parts of the country (and therefore the policies that are implemented in those areas) means that it is possible to make useful observations about whether and to what degree there have been real changes in approach. For example, as will be outlined below, while research of the Taliban’s current practice in areas they control suggests there have been some tangible changes in media and communications, the education system, and the relations with NGOs, it does not indicate positive changes toward women’s rights, political freedoms, and political participation.

Media and Communications
The most striking, although not most important, change in Taliban policies is their handling of media and communications. During their time in power before the fall of 2001, they banned watching TV and instead communicated to the population through print media and radio and often face-to-face with local communities. The use of phones—mainly, the rare satellite phones in those days—was monopolized by the Taliban.

Now the Taliban make use of the full spectrum of technically available conventional and social media, from radio (still without music) to multilingual websites featuring print, audio, and video material. Accordingly, anecdotal reports indicate that the Taliban have grown less repressive toward people watching TV in areas they control, but they still draw the line at smart phones, which are often completely banned for the population. This is also the case for their rank-and-file fighters, mainly to prevent them from being tracked.28 r A very restricted number of authorized commanders and fighters is allowed to use smart phone-operated messenger services as a means of military communications.29 s

Overall, the Taliban’s approach to means of communications is more pragmatic now, dominated by the demands of the military conflict and propaganda. This means there are fewer restrictions on the population in Taliban-controlled areas. Arguably, what has driven the change in the Taliban’s approach was not mainly a shift in their belief-system, but rather an acceptance that they could not control the rapid spread of mass media and internet in Afghanistan and a realization that these technologies could be useful for their own messaging.

Women’s Rights
The wide-ranging exclusion of Afghan women from the social and political spheres was a major feature of Taliban rule before the fall of 2001. The Taliban’s public rhetoric on this issue has changed significantly, but it is important to note that they have not followed through with visible practical steps regarding the social and political inclusion of women in the areas they control, except on some improvement of girls’ education (described below). It is also important to note that, as a June 2020 Human Rights Watch report put it, “strict social norms regarding dress—especially for women—and women’s movements are common among communities in much of rural Afghanistan, including in conservative government-held areas.”30 Here, the Taliban often act not against but in conformity with the majority of public opinion.

In the Resolution of the Intra-Afghan Peace Conference in Doha in July 2019, initially called an Afghan dialogue meeting, the Taliban agreed to assure “women rights in political, social, economic, educational, cultural affairs within the Islamic framework of Islamic values” in the future.31 A recent reiteration of this was the February 2021 “Open letter to the people of the United States of America” from one of the Taliban’s deputy leaders, Mullah Baradar, where he reiterated that the Taliban were “committed to upholding and guaranteeing all rights of women afforded to them by Islamic law.”t

The Taliban attach such formulas to many of their statements about rights and freedoms to distance themselves from what they see as ‘Western’ concepts. At an Afghanistan-related conference in February 2019 in Moscow, Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai told the media that “Islam has given women all fundamental rights, such as business and ownership, inheritance, education, work, choosing one’s husband, security, health and right to good life.” He also said that women could get elected, come into high political office—except that of head of state and chief justice.32 u However, he added, “If the world thinks we give the women the rights America or the West gives to them, this is not congruent with the culture and tradition and our religion.”33 v Taliban deputy chief Mullah Baradar repeated this position in a speech delivered in late 2020 where he stated that “the only work done under the shadow of occupation in name of woman rights is the promotion of immorality and anti-Islamic culture.”34

In the July 2019 Doha meeting, a number of female participants attending from Afghanistan approached the Taliban delegation on the issue of ‘Islamic dress’ for women. They replied that no full burqa was required and that a headscarf (chaderi) was sufficient. Some of the women saw this as a change in the Taliban’s “mindset,” having become “more willing to discuss women’s rights.” The impression of more openness was also conveyed after an earlier first direct meeting between Afghan women and Taliban in Oslo in mid-2015.35

However, these statements may only have been diplomatic gestures designed to placate urban women that Taliban delegates encountered in meetings abroad. Human Rights Watch has reported that “in more diverse or urbanized areas, Taliban officials have sanctioned and reinforced rigid social controls in communities that had previously not observed such practices” after gaining more influence there.36 Tellingly, women do not play any active role within the organized structures of the Taliban. There are no women on their negotiating team in Doha and no reports of active female involvement in the Taliban’s parallel administration, let alone the frontlines.

In general, the Taliban’s position on the social and political role of women remains conservative and often contradictory. This is also reflected by another statement from the February 2019 Moscow meeting. The Taliban chief negotiator, Stanakzai, stated there that women’s rights were “imposed on Afghan society” and that in “the name of women’s rights, there has been work for immorality, indecency and circulation of non-Islamic culture.”37

Restriction of girls’ and women’s rights has been a key feature of the Taliban’s education policy when in power up to the fall of 2001.38 On their way to power, between 1994 and 1996, and later on, Taliban commanders used to almost automatically close down schools, particularly girls’ schools, in areas they took control of. In some areas, girls’ schools were transformed into boys’ schools. During the time that the Taliban were in power, education for girls was restricted to those before puberty. Female teachers were sent home, and male teachers were not allowed to teach girls. The ban on female teachers also impacted boys’ education, as around 70 percent of all public school teachers in Afghanistan used to be women.w The Taliban still see schools as a possible entry point for the spread of Western values.

The story of the Taliban regime’s approach to girls’ education is not that of a total shutdown, but rather one of strict limitations and asserting control. In 1998, the Taliban announced that schools (including those just for girls) “would not be allowed to teach girls over the age of 8, that schools teaching girls would be required to be licensed, and that such schools would be required to limit their curriculums to the Koran.”39 In order to give their measure some muscle, around 100 of them were closed in June 1998.40 However, many of the shuttered schools resumed operations when the immediate pressure decreased.

Even during Taliban rule, there were a number of girls’ and mixed-gender schools operating in Kabul and elsewhere. Some did so clandestinely, often run by former female teachers or women activists and financially supported by foreign NGOs. A 1997 survey counted “422 boys’ schools, 125 girls’ schools and 87 co-education [mixed schools] in [the] form of primary schools and home-schools” in at least 10 provinces.41

Some foreign NGO-operated, mixed-gender schools were allowed to operate as a result of agreements with Taliban authorities. One German NGO, COFAA, ran a school program at 13 madrassas mainly in Kabul with a total of around 10,000 pupils and an attached teachers’ training program in agreement with the Taliban’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Half of the pupils were girls. These schools ran up to grade six, beyond the earlier decreed maximum age of eight years.42 Ulla Asberg, the regional director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), told the media in 2000 that the SCA ran schools with some 200,000 pupils, 37,000 of them girls, based on a protocol agreed with the Taliban Ministry of Education.43 A year earlier, SCA reported that it served 567 schools, most of which were formal (there were also 39 home schoolsx), many in rural areas. A U.S. government report referred to instances where in areas “newly captured by the Taliban, some communities successfully petitioned Taliban representatives to reopen” schools.44

During 1999, around 300,000 to 350,000 children were educated at schools run or financed by various assistance agencies and NGOs.45 By December 2001, an estimated 500,000 boys and girls in Afghanistan were in schools supported by NGOs; the gender proportion was not reported.46 In a report on human rights practices in Afghanistan in 2000, the U.S. government cited a UNICEF report stating that approximately 25 to 30 percent of all boys and up to 10 percent of all girls were estimated to be attending any school. UNESCO reported lower figures for 2000, with as few as three percent of Afghan girls receiving primary education as opposed to up to 39 percent of boys.47

Although, in general, arrangements pertaining to schools in Taliban-run Afghanistan were rather volatile, Taliban-decreed restrictions were never fully enforced, and the Taliban occasionally gave in to local populations’ or NGOs’ demands to keep the educational system running, including for girls, even if with restrictions.48

It is important to understand the nuances of the Taliban’s approach to education when they were in power. Taliban leaders maintained that they were not against education, even of girls, in principle. They blamed the bad security situation as standing in the way of girls’ education, as well as a lack of funds; when security was reinstated in the country, they promised, schools would reopen. But toward the end of the Taliban regime, the Taliban’s argument sounded increasingly hollow, as fighting was ongoing in only a few parts of the country. It is worth stressing that the Taliban’s restrictive approach toward education reflected similar widespread beliefs in conservative sectors of the rural population from which the movement sprang. But it is important to note broader attitudes had already started changing before the Taliban came to power. Many Afghan refugees forced to flee to Pakistan during the 1979-1989 war had come to appreciate the schooling that was provided there, including for girls.

During their reorganization and expansion phase between 2001 and 2009, the Taliban reenacted their pre-2001 patterns of closing all schools in areas they recaptured, particularly keeping girls’ schools closed, but also of being occasionally responsive to local inhabitants’ pressure to allow schools. For a decade, the Taliban specifically targeted schools as symbols of the government’s influence. Their first layha (code of conduct) published in May 2006 made clear to commanders and fighters that it was “forbidden to work as a teacher under the current puppet regime, because this strengthens the system of the infidels.” The code of conduct stated, “True Muslims” should only study “with a religiously trained teacher and … in a mosque or similar institution. Textbooks must come from the period of the jihad or the Taliban [regime].” According to the code, teachers working for the government had to be warned to give up their jobs, and if they did not, should be killed. If a school headmaster failed to heed the instruction to close, the school “must be burned.” Foreign NGOs should be “treated as the government is treated.”49 Girls’ schools were more often targeted than boys’ schools.50

During the course of the 2010s, now operating from a consolidated territorial base inside Afghanistan, the Taliban gradually switched from attacking to taking control over the government-run education system. Their change in approach was partly due to the backlash they faced from villagers who wanted their children to be educated. In a new version of the layha, published in 2010, all provisions declaring the education system a target were dropped.51 At around the same time, aid groups were reportedly entering into safe passage agreements or even registering with the Taliban.52

As early as 2007, the Afghan Ministry of Education established contacts with the Taliban to keep schools open and keep at least a foothold in Taliban-controlled or contested areas.53 In some areas, this led to unwritten agreements with local Taliban through local elders or religious figures. As noted by Barnett Rubin and Clancy Rudeforth, this crystallized into a full-fledged (although officially denied) Taliban-government pacty with regard to education in 2011, and so-called community-based education became “a feature of the education landscape in Afghanistan” and “has led to higher enrolment.”54

By 2012, internally the Taliban had drafted a softer education policy.55 This was reflected in the Taliban’s August 2013 Eid al-Fitr message proclaiming that “our young generations should arm themselves with religious and modern education, because modern education is a fundamental need in every society in the present time.” The document does not distinguish between boys’ and girls’ education, but uses the neutral term “children.” This therefore can be interpreted as applying for both sexes.56

In its arrangement with the government on education, the Taliban set conditions on how the schools in their areas of influence would operate. They placed restrictions on curricula, often not allowing ‘Western’ subjects such as social sciences, culture, or English for girls to be taught, or reducing their hours while increasing the time for religious subjects.57 They forced the government to hire pro-Taliban staff or former Taliban fighters as teachers, or tried to win over teachers to have at least one at every school who could report back on their fellow teachers and on the implementation of Taliban measures. They taxed teachers’ salaries (as they did the incomes of all inhabitants in the areas of their control), confiscated ‘ghost’ teachers’ salaries, and fined absentee teachers, a step appreciated by local populations.58 Still, many in the local populations credit the Taliban, not the government, for making the schools run.59

During the 2010s, the Taliban were more frequently responsive to demands by local communities in areas they held sway over to keep schools, including for girls, open. In one example, members of a German NGO told the author that the local Turkmen population in areas outside of Andkhoi (Faryab) pressured the Taliban to re-open girls schools up to grade 12 after they had initially closed them down after seizing the areas in 2010. In 2018, the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) found that in Obe district (Herat), girls’ schools were allowed to reopen after additional female teachers had been hired. After the Taliban took over much of Dasht-e Archi (Kunduz) in early 2019, they allowed school girls to sit for their grade 12 final exam.60 In contrast, in Taliban-ruled Sayedabad district in Wardak, girls’ schools that year were open only up to (including) grade 5, while teachers were male.61

Despite a softening of the Taliban approach to the education sector, the battle over control of education and schools in Afghanistan remains ongoing, particularly in contested areas. There, schools—often the most sophisticated building in a given area—are often used as temporary military bases either by government forces or Taliban, or serve as polling stations during elections and therefore become targets.62

Relations with NGOs
Up to 2009 and 2010 when the Taliban issued two new versions of their layha, there was open hostility to NGOs. The first Taliban layha in 2006 described NGOs in general as “tools of the infidels” and banned “all their activities” and (although not explicitly) condoned the killing of NGO personnel; the new versions focused on co-opting them when useful. Any exceptional contract with an NGO had to be authorized by the Leadership Council “in exchange for money or materials.” More specifically, NGOs were asked to register with local Taliban authorities, and the Taliban ‘taxed’ contractors and NGO workers’ salaries.z With the new layhas of 2009 and 2010, the Taliban changed their attitude toward co-opting NGO projects where useful for them. This also applied to government-funded, NGO-operated state schools, with the Taliban offering where it judged beneficial to its interests “the protection necessary for teachers and NGO and health workers to live, work, and serve the local population.”63 Following this, a commission responsible for dealing with NGOs was established, officially called “Commission for the Arrangement and Control of Companies and Organisations.”64 The fact that the Taliban lump companies and NGOs together reflects that they see both categories as commercial and ‘taxable.’aa

There were and are exceptions to the softer Taliban approach. The Taliban strongly oppose USAID- and U.S. military-funded projects and consider them a form of non-military ‘occupation of the country.’ The author has heard numerous reports from NGOs before 2010 of Taliban checking documents and computers in their offices to obtain information on their funding sources. In June 2011, a Taliban representative was quoted as saying “Mullah Omar had ordered a halt to the killing of” people working for organizations and companies building roads, as long as they did not work with private security contractors that were considered enemy fighters.65 ab This policy shift went along with a softening of the Taliban stance on other issues, as provided by their 2009 and 2010 layhas. In her 2011 analysis of the layhas, Kate Clark described the motivation behind the softening of policies toward NGOs and schools as dealing with them “in a way which does not alienate [the] local population” (which depends on services provided by NGOs) and simply “an acknowledgement of reality.”66

Ideas about the Future Political System
“The Taliban have been much clearer about what they oppose than what they support,” Barnett Rubin noted in a recent paper.67 There is no available document, such as a political program, that lays out the Taliban’s ideas about the future political system after the conclusion of a peace agreement.

Of course, during the 1990s, the Taliban showed the world the kind of political system they then believed in. Structurally, their government resembled earlier Afghan governments, with roughly the same number of ministries (called “commissions” by the Taliban, to reflect their initial claims that they did not want permanent power) and even a prime minister (sadr azam, the traditional title used under the Afghan monarchy)68 in Kabul and governors and police chiefs for provinces and districts. It was also equally centralized. The only key structural difference was the existence of a parallel government apparatus in Kandahar, the Taliban movement’s ‘capital,’ where deputy ministers had more power than their formal superiors in Kabul, not least because of their physical and political proximity to Mullah Omar.

Insights about Taliban ideas for Afghanistan’s future political system and how these may be different from their previous approach can be distilled from their presentations at conferences, track II meetings,ac Eid messages, and other messages of their leaders and public interviews, now regularly posted on their official website. An examination of these public statements shows there has been a large degree of continuity since their former minister of planning Qari Din Muhammad became the first Taliban representative to publicly speak abroad after their regime’s defeat at a conference labeled ‘academic’ in Kyoto in 2012.69

The Taliban have repeatedly stated that their general political goal is to “gain independence of the country and establish a just Islamic system there on the basis of the aspirations of the Muslim nation,” as Mullah Omar put it in 2009. In that statement, Mullah Omar did not specifically mention the reestablishment of an emirate.70 In 2016, Borhan Osman and Anand Gopal reported on the basis of a series of interviews that “few if any Taliban say they want to re-establish the Emirate or revive the policies that rightly drew the world’s opprobrium upon them. Their main grievance is the continued presence in Afghanistan of the foreign military forces.”71

In mid-2019, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, according to The New York Times, “Our goal is Islamic government. How this Islamic government will come about is something we cannot decide now. On this issue, the clerics, analysts, and authoritative Afghans make decisions in its right time.” At the same time, The New York Times concluded from “private interviews,” including with “some Taliban figures,” that “what they want is the return of their Emirate with a more open embrace that shares power, but not a renegotiation of the fundamentals of how they view power.”72 In his February 2021 “Open letter to the people of the United States of America,” Mullah Baradar did not explicitly demand the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate, but wrote more vaguely of “the establishment of an Islamic government and enduring peace and security through intra-Afghan dialogue” while he claimed that it was “an irrefutable fact that majority of the [Afghan] general public supports the Islamic Emirate.”73

Notwithstanding this posture, the Taliban have repeatedly issued statements that they understand they have to deal with other political forces in the country and that some form of pluralism needs to be ensured. At least since 2011, they have frequently stated that they are not interested in reestablishing a political monopoly.74 In a speech published in December 2020, Baradar reiterated that position by saying “the Islamic Emirate is not pursuing monopoly over power following the independence of Afghanistan” but “rather it seeks an inclusive Islamic government with all Afghans in our beloved homeland.”75

A leading researcher in the field, Borhan Osman has recently reported that the Taliban “seem to have reached a conclusion internally that their 1990s model of government is not tenable today.”76 It is important to note that the new guidance to their fighters on how to conduct jihad published in May 2017 under the title Mujahedino ta de Amir ul-Mumenin Larshowene (Instructions to the Mujahideen from the Commander of the Faithful) and described as “dictated” by the movement’s then new leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, does not directly refer to the ongoing discussion about Afghanistan’s future political system. According to Osman, the author of the Taliban book refers to the “concepts of emirate and caliphate a few times in the text, but he never spells out how he defines or distinguishes one from the other. They are sometimes mentioned interchangeably as if they meant the same thing to him.” There is strong emphasis on ‘obedience to the amir’ (i.e., the Taliban leader) and on continuing the jihad against “the infidels’ … puppets” after “the departure of the infidels,” but Osman warned against over-interpreting the book as being applicable beyond the current phase of the Taliban’s struggle and as “rejecting any idea of a political settlement.”77

It is known but not widely reported that international and Afghan interlocutors have probed the Taliban for ideas on elections, parliamentarianism, pluralism, and so forth, and that several models have been discussed, including the ‘Iranian’ one that puts a council of religious scholars above all elected bodies.78 It was notable in this regard that in their 2015 Eid message, the Taliban spoke of “an Islamic, just, independent and all Afghan-inclusive system” with “an accountable, transparent, professional and inclusive Afghan administration.”79

These discussions have so far mainly focused on political structures at the central government level. This reflects the top-down approach to governance that is typical for all political forces in Afghanistan.80 It has become apparent that the Taliban—like most other Pashtun-dominated political forces—prefer to maintain a centralized state with a ‘presidential’ (i.e. ‘one-leader’) system, which also could be an amir.81

With respect to political inclusivity, Taliban participants said as early as at a meeting in 2016 that they could “accept elected shuras (muntakhab shuragane)” at the national, provincial, district, and village level.82 This could point to a multi-step, bottom-up delegation system, similar to how district councils in Afghanistan are supposed to delegate members into provincial councils under the current constitution. In such a system, even a parliament with female members could be possible. This sounds democratic and even grassroots driven. The Taliban left it unclear, however, what kind of relationship between the legislative branch and the executive they would pursue. Would it be one of mutual checks-and-balances or of the executive taking precedence over the legislative bodies?

There is another reason to believe the Taliban may eventually favor political engagement over open warfare, namely that even a power-sharing agreement would not be an end state. The last 40 years of Afghan history have repeatedly shown that factional realignment can happen rather quickly and across previous lines of enmity,ad and the Taliban might assume that forces within the current political system of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan might chose to or be forced to realign themselves with the strongest military faction (which they believe they are). The Taliban are already actively pursuing such a realignment, by reaching out to former mujahideen leaders within the current Afghan political set-up who have competing ambitions to the current president Ashraf Ghani and even to HCNR chairman Abdullah.83

However, it can be assumed that many in the Taliban leadership and rank and file privately believe that the reestablishment of the Emirate would be the optimal political outcome. This view may have been strengthened as a result of the United States entering into direct negotiations with the Taliban, from which the Afghan government remained excluded, and as a result of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, after which there was triumphalist Taliban rhetoric.84 ae

An emirate would be based on the unelected power of the ulema (the Islamic ‘clergy’), not on the current constitutional principle of the general suffrage.85 The Taliban also consider the current Afghan constitution with its promulgation of human and women’s rights and some secular principles as a “major obstacle for peace” as it had been “imposed” by the West.86 They want to draft a new one, “exclusively by Afghan religious scholars, jurists and law specialists (ulama, fuqaha au qanun-pohan)” and without international expertise and excluding anyone they feel is ‘under foreign influence’ as Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, then head of the Political Commission and member of the Taliban Leadership Council, put it in a meeting in January 2016 in Doha.87

The Taliban’s continued use of the term “Emirate” when referring to themselves has put them in an antagonistic position toward the relevant political forces that are part of the current political set-up of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA), making it evident that they represent just one party in the conflict. This amounts to a tactical weakness. As much as the Taliban have repeatedly rejected joining the IRoA political set-up, it is unlikely that the parties included in this set-up would subordinate themselves under this ‘Emirate’ as a result of a political settlement.af

Furthermore, the political forces opposing the Taliban will not be an easy pushover, as they are armed themselves. This is recognized at least by some Taliban, as a 2016 quote from a Taliban interlocutor reflects: “[I]t is now obvious that the opponents of the Islamic Emirate cannot be forced to surrender nor be eliminated. We will be in the state of an unending war if each side stresses their primary positions against the other.”88 One important caveat is that the military position of anti-Taliban forces has been weakened by U.S. troop reductions.

There has been no sign in any of the Taliban’s statements, or in their practical policy either, to indicate that they would agree to any future political system fully legitimized by general elections, including for the head of state. The Taliban’s shift in rhetoric regarding political inclusivity does not represent a commitment to a pluralistic, party- and “one person, one vote”-based political system. A parliament formed according to the Taliban’s ideals would be a body resembling a shura-ye ahl-e hal o aqd (those qualified to elect or depose a caliph on behalf of the Muslim community), a form of Islamic representation through selection, not election. Here, it is worth noting that shuras often use open-ballot voting, which then increases the pressure to vote for powerful individuals and contradicts the principle of a secret vote. The Taliban have also made statements that suggest they consider the votes of privileged groups, such as the ulema, as more valuable than those of other Afghans. This notion resembles an earlier idea of Hezb-e Islami,89 according to which the current formally open pluralistic system would be replaced with a system whose only claim to ‘pluralism’ would be to allow different mujahideen and ‘Islamic’ (in fact, Islamist) factions to operate.

Notwithstanding the fact that all post-2001 Afghan elections have been deeply flawed, the introduction of any new system—based on the ‘Iranian’ model or some hybrid form—would abolish an important element of the current political set-up in Afghanistan, namely the right to vote for every citizen. It does not augur well for democracy in Afghanistan that the Taliban’s apparent openness to a partly pluralistic system that does not feature general elections would likely be palatable to former mujahideen leaders in the current system and also feature as options for the interim period envisaged in the latest U.S. proposals for an “accelerated” peace process.90

It is important to note that reports from Taliban-controlled areas do not indicate any change from the pre-fall 2001 practices when it comes to political participation. Taliban commanders are fully in power everywhere, and there are no formal bodies—even advisory ones such as shuras—that can influence day-to-day policies. Only in a very limited sense do the Taliban accept community and religious elders as mediators between themselves and the local population and between themselves and the government.91 Even Afghan media may only enter Taliban-held areas with explicit Taliban permission. “Vice and virtue” police continue to exert social control in “districts under Taliban control,” monitoring “residents’ adherence to Taliban-prescribed social codes regarding dress and public deportment.”92

Afghan journalist Sahil Afghan, during research in a district of Ghazni province in 2020, found no sign of “open protests” against the Taliban in Andar, “not because there is nothing to complain about, but because people see it as too dangerous.” Local interviewees assumed that the Taliban would quickly establish who was organizing protests, label them as “government affiliate{d}”, and crack down. The most that locals could safely do was petition Taliban leaders, which in some cases was successful, but in others not, particularly if the local population’s request went against the Taliban’s military priorities. Some badly received petitions could even trigger punishment. One example of the Taliban’s lack of tolerance for dissent was its June 2020 abduction and killing of the grand-nephew of Ghulam Muhammad Niazi, one of the founders of the historical Afghan Islamic movement, on the suspicion that he was working with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISK).93

Members of the Taliban delegation gather ahead of the signing ceremony with the United States in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

Although many look back to the track record of the years of Taliban rule in Kabul between 1996 to 2001 to understand their general worldview and politics, this is not sufficient. It would be misguided to assume that the future Taliban and their policies would necessarily be the same as those during the pre-fall 2001 Taliban rule.

Even before their regime was toppled in 2001, the Taliban were not a uniform organization. There was always a plurality of opinions while factionalism was strongly suppressed.ag There had even been high-ranking Taliban officials who individually disagreed with aspects of official policies (for example, fathers of girls on girls’ education) or who even consciously did not implement decisions (for example, on cracking down on girls’ and/or NGO-supported schools). When ruling Afghanistan, the Taliban also developed what in the United Nations was then called “implementation fatigue;” the Taliban were simply unable to consistently implement all bans and regulations, so that the population could ignore some and had niches of greater but still very limited freedom.

The post-2001 Taliban have proved to be a learning, more political organization that is more open to the influence of external factors. They are pursuing their political aim, namely regaining power and establishing what they call a genuinely “Islamic government,” with political methods now as well as with military methods. This includes, as one option, pursuing a negotiated settlement that would likely result in a power-sharing arrangement with other factions. It is undisputed that the Taliban’s political strength and diplomatic successes are to a significant degree based on their military prowess, having withstood 20 years of war against a coalition around the mightiest military power in the world. Having fought their way back from being an international pariah hosting terrorists to being a diplomatically accepted party to the conflict and negotiating partner, the Taliban consider themselves to be the victorious party in the ongoing war. But currently, going through negotiations might appear to the Taliban an easier and faster way back to power, entailing fewer losses than a prolonged war against a government with a large number of troops amd which continues to be financed by the United States and its allies.

The last two decades have had another impact on the Taliban. Their control over large parts of the Afghan territory and population has brought them into permanent contact with groups outside their original Pashtun basis and has instilled in them the need to develop some form of governance. This is reflected by the growing quasi-governmental structures they have developed. These structures need to perform in the eyes of the population who can use them as entry points to try to influence Taliban behavior and day-to-day politics. To this author, it looks as if the Taliban have learned from their defeat in 2001 in certain respects. They realize they cannot rule over a population by only resorting to bans and prohibitions but will have to also provide services and perform a range of governance functions.ah

At the same time, it is clear that local communities in areas the Taliban control appreciate their efforts to limit corruption, including in the education sector, and their running of what local communities consider to be an effective judicial system “outgoverning the government.”94 However, the Taliban’s current political practice shows that there have been no positive changes toward any political freedoms or political participation, a fact also noticed by local Afghans.

The Taliban have repeatedly signaled in messages and statements that they understand that, given the current balance of power in Afghanistan (with a government still supported by the international community), a political settlement will entail compromise. In this light, it seems that the Taliban have adopted a strategy of gradual changes on policies. These changes, however, might be tactical, or lip-service, or not shared by everyone in their leadership or local commanders or rank and file and therefore often not implemented on the ground. Yet, the strong vertical aspect of the Taliban’s organizational structure and their top-down chain of command indicate that the Taliban leadership would be able to enforce in its own rank and file the implementation of any commitments resulting from an eventual peace and power-sharing agreement if it chooses to do so. The Taliban’s ability to get its rank and file to obey key top-down commands was demonstrated when they dealt with splinter groups, in their actions during the three-day ceasefire over the Eid holidays in June 2018, as well as their actions during the week-long ‘reduction of violence’ period preceding the U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement in February 2020 and the stop of attacks on Western troops and large Afghan cities thereafter.95

The fact that the Taliban have so far not laid out what their idea of the exact configuration of a post-peace settlement Afghan political order might look like could reflect a lack of agreement in the ranks of their leadership on that issue, or an unwillingness to discuss their vision for the future publicly and show their hand before it is necessary—at substantial intra-Afghan talks, for example. The Taliban are surely aware of the widespread doubts about their honesty and the clear rejection of their pre-fall 2001 model of governance by most Afghans according to available polls and in the international community.ai

An important factor weakening their position is the Taliban’s lack of means and personnel to run a government on their own; this is already visible in the areas they control. There, they are forced to accept that even basic services are run by government funds and NGO personnel. (This would change, though, if they became part of a power-sharing arrangement as that would give them access to domestic and external resources, and would enable them to co-opt existing personnel.)

Under the current context of an ongoing war and political negotiations to end it by diplomatic means, it is difficult to untangle to what degree the changes in the Taliban’s policies, rhetoric, and behavior reflect a reaction to political necessity, are tactical lip service, or represent a genuine shift in ideology. One thing seems sure: The Taliban are a religiously motivated, socially, politically, and religiously conservative movement that will not give up what it considers its core “values” (even if outsiders agree they are not well-defined). How these values will be reflected in any future constitution and play out in the concrete policies of any eventual power-sharing government that includes the Taliban will be subject to the day-to-day political bargaining between various political forces and the balance of power between them. This balance of power will also determine who will define what is ‘Islamic’ and what is not.

A more pessimistic prognosis is that a peace agreement bringing the Taliban into a ‘new Islamic government’ as stipulated by the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement will tilt the scale more to the conservative or even Islamist side. These forces would likely easily be able to denounce any demand from Afghan civil society groups for maintaining or even strengthening current political and individual freedoms as ‘anti-Islamic.’ That these forces frequently play the religion card to try to exercise political hegemony was demonstrated, for example, in discussions about women’s rights-related issues in parliament and public debates about transitional justice and legal impunity provided by the 2008 ‘amnesty law’ to the perpetrators and those politically responsible for war crimes and grave human rights violations.96

More optimistically, it can be assumed that policy adaptations that are only tactical at first can evolve into genuine changes, particularly as a result of negotiations during which the concerned party is systematically confronted with views of other parties as well as the pressure of day-to-day political decision-making, also on the subnational levels. This requires time, which an extended, detail-oriented negotiation process would provide, given it is connected with the ceasing of hostilities, regardless under which term: ‘ceasefire’, ‘reduction of violence,’ or any other.aj

An intra-Afghan peace agreement will not be an end-state for the country, but a new phase of intra-Afghan competition for power. It can only be hoped that during the current peace process, functioning mechanisms for peaceful competition can be developed. That they are preserved in the long run will depend on the United States and the other donor countries maintaining attention on and development-oriented support for Afghanistan, even after foreign troops leave.     CTC

Thomas Ruttig is a co-director and senior analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), an independent research organization based in Kabul and Berlin. He worked as a political affairs officer and head of the United Nations Special Mission in Afghanistan’s political office in Kabul during the last years of the Taliban regime and as a political affairs officer of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan during the so-called Bonn Process. He speaks Dari and Pashto and—up to the coronavirus crisis—visited Afghanistan several times a year. This article is mainly based on the author’s experience at UNSMA in Afghanistan in 2000-2001 and recent research by the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

© 2021 Thomas Ruttig

Substantive Notes
[a] Founded in 1994, the Taliban initially used Islamic Movement of the Taliban as their official name, later dropping it in favor of the more state-like Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a reminder that they consider their regime’s overthrow in 2001 illegal and continue to consider themselves the legitimate government of Afghanistan. See the speech of their representatives at the research conference in Chantilly, France, December 24, 2012, available at Thomas Ruttig, “Qatar, Islamabad, Chantilly, Ashgabad: Taleban Talks Season Again? (amended),” Afghanistan Analysts Network, December 31, 2012.

[b] The author does not discuss the particularities of the Taliban ideology and the movement’s theological positions in this article. On this subject, see Anand Gopal and Alex Strick van Linschoten, “Ideology in the Afghan Taleban,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 29, 2017; Thomas Ruttig, “How Tribal Are the Taleban? Afghanistan’s Largest Insurgent Movement between its Tribal Roots and Islamist Ideology,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 29, 2010; Bernt Glatzer, “Zum politischen Islam der afghanischen Taliban” in Dietrich Reetz ed., Sendungsbewußtsein oder Eigennutz: Zu Motivation und Selbstverständnis islamischer Mobilisierung (Berlin: Das Arabische Buch, 2001), pp. 173-182. Glatzer calls the Taliban ideology “eclectic, ad hoc.” He also suggests considering them “a movement, not an organization.”

[c] Officially Jabha-ye Muttahed-e Melli bara-ye Nejat-e Afghanistan (United National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, UNFSA).

[d] Mullah Omar, as the amir-ul-momenin, was ready to take decisions on his own, ignoring the opinion of ulama (religious scholars) advising him. The author, as a member of the U.N. team, was aware that members of the Taliban leadership were unhappy with Mullah Omar sticking with bin Ladin.

[e] The Taliban still do not recognize the current Afghan government. As a workaround, they are currently formally negotiating with a team of the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” representing a political spectrum including and beyond the government.

[f] The number of its members seems to fluctuate.

[g] The number of the leader’s deputies has fluctuated. After the resurgence of the Taliban in the early 2000s, there were two, the late Mullah Obaidullah and Mullah Baradar (actually Abdul Ghani). When Pakistan arrested Obaidullah in 2007, he was replaced by Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur. The latter remained the only deputy after Baradar was also arrested in 2010. See Borhan Osman, “Toward Fragmentation? Mapping the post-Omar Taleban,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, November 24, 2015. This gave Mansur the best position to replace Mullah Omar as amir-ul-momenin when, in 2015, the Taliban had to confirm that Mullah Omar had already died two years earlier. For more on this, see Khalilullah Safi and Thomas Ruttig, “Understanding Hurdles to Afghan Peace Talks: Are the Taleban a political party?” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 27, 2018. When Mansur became the Taliban leader, two new deputies were appointed: Sirajuddin Haqqani (the leader of the Haqqani network) and Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqub, Mullah Omar’s son. See Borhan Osman, “The Taleban in Transition 2: Who is in charge now?” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 22, 2016. Currently, there are three deputies. After Baradar was released in 2018, he was appointed deputy ‘for political affairs’ and given oversight of the Doha talks. See Rajab Taieb, “Taliban Appoints Mullah Baradar as Head of Qatar Office,” TOLOnews, January 24, 2019.

[h] During their pre-fall 2001 time in power, the Taliban initially also called their ministries ‘commissions.’

[i] The ‘tax’ issue is central. When Qari Hekmat, a local Taliban commander in Jawzjan province, repeatedly refused to send tax revenues to the next-higher level in the movement, he was expelled in the fall of 2017. When he declared his allegiance to the Islamic State, the Taliban fought him until he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in April 2018. See Obaid Ali, “Qari Hekmat’s Island Overrun: Taleban defeat ‘ISKP’ in Jawzjan,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, August 4, 2018; Obaid Ali, “Non-Pashtun Taleban of the North (4): A case study from Jawzjan,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, September 18, 2017.

[j] The Taliban were able to establish themselves in southeastern Afghanistan in the first place because the Haqqani network joined forces with the Taliban in their march north from Kandahar in the 1990s. The Pashtun tribes that are the Haqqani network’s tribal basis (such as the Dzadran) are distinct from the Durrani and Ghilzai tribal ‘confederacies’ strong in the south. The southeastern Ghilzai (mainly Ahmadzai) are more strongly represented in other Taliban-associated networks, such as those of the Mansur family and ex-Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami networks. For more background, see Thomas Ruttig, “Loya Paktia’s Insurgency: The Haqqani Network as an Autonomous Entity in the Taliban Universe,” in Antonio Giustozzi ed., Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (London: Hurst, 2009), pp. 57-88, and Vahid Brown and Don Rassler, Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

[k] There is insufficient on-the-ground research to understand how this works in practice. The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), in looking at Ghazni province, has recently shown that even the terminology for the Taliban’s administrative and military structures seem to differ (or are understood differently) in some regions. See Sahil Afghan, “Living with the Taleban (1): Local experiences in Andar district, Ghazni province,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, October 19, 2020.

[l] Both spellings appear in Taliban sources.

[m] A religious scholar qualified to teach the hadith, the codified renderings of the Prophet Mohammad’s sayings and deeds, one of the three sources of Islamic law.

[n] The largest split within the Taliban so far was the emergence of the faction calling itself High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate in 2015. This splinter group was active mainly in western Afghanistan, but largely faded away after key leaders returned to the mainstream Taliban. Jessica Donati and Habib Khan Totakhil, “Taliban Splinter Faction Pledges Allegiance to Main Group,” Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2016.

[o] For example, the New People Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP); the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin; and Colombia’s FARC and the Unión Patriótica (UP). For comparison with Afghanistan, the case of the formation of the UP in 1985 is particularly interesting insofar as it was the result of a FARC attempt to end the armed struggle and join electoral politics. It also showed the risks of such an approach, as thousands of UP activists were killed by armed right-wing groups, driving the FARC back into armed struggle.

[p] The tanzim, however, have shifted only partly. Their internal workings are far from transparent and democratic. Most importantly, they have not given up using armed violence (or the threat thereof) as a means of political competition as they have maintained connections to a multitude of militia-like armed groups with historical links to them. These militias switch between being part of government structures when funding is available (such as the ALP or ‘uprising forces’) and a ‘freelancer’ role when not. If there is a peace settlement in Afghanistan, the Taliban could opt to follow this pattern, joining government structures while maintaining loosely affiliated armed groups that, where possible, seek government funding. See Thomas Ruttig, “Outside, Inside: Afghanistan’s paradoxical political party system (2001-16),” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 6, 2018.

[q] The Taliban might also take a lesson from the fate of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK) in Kunar province in which an extremely religiously conservative population turned against a group whose (theoretical) views it shared because its rule had become unbearable. See Obaid Ali and Khalid Gharanai, “Hit from Many Sides (2): The demise of ISKP in Kunar,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 3, 2021.

[r] The Taliban continue to reject what they consider to be too liberal entertainment programs. See Ben Farmer, “Taliban say women’s rights to be protected under Islam, but must not threaten Afghan values,” Telegraph, February 5, 2019.

[s] The numerous Taliban attacks on cell phone towers are not operations against communication as such, but designed to enforce black-out times supporting their own operations and movement and to extract ‘taxes’ from the operating companies. Scott Smith, “Service Delivery in Taliban-Influenced Areas of Afghanistan,” USIP, April 30, 2020, pp. 16-17.

[t] In this letter, the Taliban also declare their “commitment towards freedom of speech within the framework of Islamic principles and national interests.” “Open letter to the people of the United States of America,” Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, February 16, 2021.

[u] The view that women should be excluded from the highest offices of state is shared by Islamist politicians in Afghanistan and has frequently been aired in the Afghan parliament (for example, during the debates about the Elimination of Violence against Women Law). See Christine Roehrs, “Damage Avoided, for Now? The very short debate about the EVAW law,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 18, 2013. Misogynistic views toward women are not limited to Islamist politicians. When very important decision-making circles meet in Afghanistan, a woman is rarely in sight. See photos of this November 28, 2019, meeting of the country’s Senior Security Leadership at NSC Afghanistan, “NAS @hmohib chaired Senior Security Leadership (SSL) meeting …,” Twitter, November 28, 2019, and when President Ghani announced the November 2019 prisoner/hostage swap at “De Afghanistan de Islami Jumhuriat de Jumhur-Rais Muhammad Ashraf Ghani de waina matn [Text of a speech of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Muhammad Ashraf Ghani],” posted on the website of the Office of the President of Afghanistan. See https://president.gov.af/da/?p=23248

[v] It is worth noting that the current Afghan constitution also enshrines the ‘Sharia caveat’ in Article 3, stipulating that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

[w] In 1996, Afghanistan had 158 public schools with 11,208 teachers, of which 7,793 were women, according to the United Nations. “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” United States Department of State, February 1997, p. 1,416.

[x] Home schools pertains to schools operated in private homes, both in cities and the countryside, which were often run by teachers dismissed by the Taliban.

[y] Similar government-Taliban agreements have occurred in other sectors such as health. In southeastern Afghanistan, this author observed as early as 2010 that local Taliban kept contact with local health authorities and workers, such as doctors and midwives, in order to be able to ensure their family members and fighters are treated. As a result, Taliban control over clinics and health posts in their areas is less strict than in the education sector. Smith.

[z] How regularly this happens in practice is difficult to gauge.

[aa] The general confusion in the country, also in the public and administration, about the role of NGOs has been exacerbated by the activity of ‘for-profit’ NGOs in Afghanistan’s development sector.

[ab] It is not clear whether this provision of the layha covered all contractors or just those working in specific sectors (such as road building, which has also military effects).

[ac] Track II diplomacy or “backchannel diplomacy” is the practice of “non-governmental, informal and unofficial contacts and activities between private citizens or groups of individuals, sometimes called ‘non-state actors.’” See Louise Diamond and John McDonald, Multi-Track Diplomacy: A Systems Guide and Analysis (Grinnell, IA: Iowa Peace Institute, 1991), p. 1.

[ad] See, for example, the realignments between various PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) and mujahideen factions after the fall of the Najibullah government in 1992, the Hekmatyar-Dostum-Hezb-e Wahdat alliance in early 1994, and the anti-Taliban rapprochement between Hezb-e Islami and the ‘Northern Alliance’ in 1996, immediately before the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

[ae] Taliban leader Mawlawi Hebatullah Akhundzada called the Doha deal a “collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation.” Anas Haqqani, a leader of the Haqqani network, released from an Afghan jail as a result of the February 2020 Doha deal was quoted as saying: “Even if we don’t say that the U.S. is defeated in Afghanistan, it is an open secret now that they are defeated.” Ayaz Gul, “US, Taliban Sign Historic Afghan Peace Deal,” Voice of America, February 29, 2020; Saphora Smith, Mushtaq Yusufzai, Dan De Luce, and Ahmed Mengli, “U.S. sees Taliban deal as exit from Afghanistan. Militants see it as victory over the superpower,” NBC News, March 3, 2020.

[af] President Ashraf Ghani has termed the republican order a red line for the talks with the Taliban. See “Ghani Describes Election, Republic System as Redlines,” Ava Press (Kabul), November 6, 2020. Vice President Amrullah Saleh was quoted in January 2021 as saying that there was “no condition in the peace process other than preserving democratic values.” “President Ghani urges Taliban to shun violence,” Salam Watandar, January 7, 2021. Dr. Abdullah, though, has remained vague. In a September 22, 2020, interview at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., he replied to a question that he would rather not have “a precise prescription” of the future Afghan state order. He also stated that “values” such as “a Republic” would “hopefully … get [in]to an agreement with the Taliban.” “A Conversation With Abdullah Abdullah,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 22, 2020. On the Taliban position, see Borhan Osman and Anand Gopal, “Taliban Views on a Future State,” Center on International Cooperation, New York University, July 2016, p. 6.

[ag] An exception were the Khuddam ul-Furqan. See Thomas Ruttig, “The Ex-Taleban on the High Peace Council: A renewed role for the Khuddam ul-Furqan?“ Afghanistan Analysts Network, October 20, 2010.

[ah] Another lesson learned for the Taliban is that they cannot afford to again alienate the international community. Although the Taliban and al-Qa`ida continue to maintain close relations, according to the United Nations, the Taliban realize that if and when they return to power, they cannot afford for Afghanistan to again become a security threat to the international community and cannot rule Afghanistan against the international community, particularly when they openly cooperate with internationalist-jihadi terrorists. The Taliban are primarily a movement of a “national Islamist” character, and their project is to run Afghanistan as an ‘Islamic’ state. Support for wider jihadi aims would bring them into an undesired antagonism with the international community again and actually jeopardize the implementation of their (still unclear in detail) home agenda. This is reflected by the policy changes they have adopted both in rhetoric and in reality. “Eleventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2501 (2019) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace, stability and security of Afghanistan,“ United Nations Security Council, May 19, 2020.

[ai] Surveys by The Asia Foundation and the Kabul-based Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) indicate that the Taliban do have a domestic support base that could be between 10 and 15 percent of the Afghan population, not a small portion in the country’s fractured political landscape. The Asia Foundation found that this support was 13.4 percent in 2019. The AISS reported 10.2 percent conveying acceptance of Taliban policies and conduct, plus 16 percent with some acceptance; more than a quarter say they see the Taliban as “able … to govern effectively.” In the AISS survey, support for the Taliban was higher in the eastern and southern regions. The two surveys likely overemphasize government-controlled areas and may undercount Taliban support. A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2019 (San Francisco: Asia Foundation, 2019), p. 69; Omar Sadr, The Fallacy of the Peace Process in Afghanistan (Kabul: Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, 2018), pp. 52, 109.

[aj] The term ‘ceasefire’ has been controversial, as it is a demand of the Afghan government and large parts of the international community that the Taliban reject. The 2020 ‘reduction of violence’ period demonstrated that the same effect can be achieved under other terms while negotiations are ongoing.

[1] Dan De Luce, “Biden signals a tougher line with the Taliban,” NBC News, January 30, 2021.

[2] “Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on current political developments in Afghanistan and the prospects for peace,” European Council, February 29, 2020; “Women’s Rights Our Red Line In Peace Process: Ghani,” TOLOnews, April 12, 2019.

[3] “Biden administration will review deal with the Taliban: White House,” Reuters, January 22, 2021.

[4] “Department Press Briefing – March 8, 2021,” U.S. Department of State; Thomas Gibbons-Neff, David Zucchino, and Lara Jakes, “U.S. Pushes U.N.-Led Peace Conference in Letter to Afghan Leader,” New York Times, March 7, 2021.

[5] Rebecca Kheel, “Pentagon: Taliban has ‘not met their commitments’ under withdrawal deal,” Hill, January 28, 2021.

[6] Abubakar Siddique, “The Swede Who Convinced Taliban To Allow Girls Schools,” Radio Free Europe, January 26, 2012; author’s own observations.

[7] Jason Burke, Al-Qaida: Wurzeln, Geschichte, Organisation (Dusseldorf/Zurich: Patmos, 2004), pp. 233-234.

[8] Thomas Ruttig, “Outside, Inside: Afghanistan’s paradoxical political party system (2001-16),” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 6, 2018, p. 33.

[9] Martine van Bijlert, “Unruly Commanders and Violent Power Struggles: Taliban Networks in Uruzgan” in Antonio Giustozzi ed., Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (London: Hurst, 2009), p. 160.

[10] “Paying for the Taliban’s Crimes: Abuses Against Ethnic Pashtuns in Northern Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, April 9, 2002.

[11] See, for example, Borhan Osman, “Toward Fragmentation? Mapping the post-Omar Taleban,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, November 24, 2015.

[12] Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, “The Insurgents of the Afghan North,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 5, 2011.

[13] A good summary can be found at “The Obama Surge,” britannica.com.

[14] See “President Donald J. Trump’s State of the Union Address,” The White House, February 5, 2019.

[15] Author’s archive of Taliban statements.

[16] Taliban Eid messages, December 7, 2008, and September 19, 2009, in the author’s archive.

[17] More details are available in Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri, “Insurgent bureaucracy: How the Taliban makes Policy,” USIP, November 19, 2019.

[18] Khalilullah Safi and Thomas Ruttig, “Understanding Hurdles to Afghan Peace Talks: Are the Taleban a political party?” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 27, 2018.

[19] See, for example, Borhan Osman, “Taleban in Transition: How Mansur’s death and Haibatullah’s ascension may affect the war (and peace),” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 27, 2016; Bette Dam, “The Secret Life of Mullah Omar,” ZOMIA, February 2019.

[20] For the term “segmented society,” see Christian Sigrist, Regulierte Anarchie (Olten, Switzerland: Walter Verlag, 1977). Sigrist researched several African and Afghan societies.

[21] For example, see Ashley Jackson, “Life under the Taliban shadow government,” ODI report, June 2018, pp. 21-22.

[22] Osman, “Taleban in Transition.”

[23] See the synthesis report of the 2018-2020 AAN series “One Land, Two Rules.” Scott Smith, “Service Delivery in Taliban-Influenced Areas of Afghanistan,” USIP, April 30, 2020.

[24] See also Jackson and Amiri, pp. 8, 12. This was confirmed by recent AAN research. See, for example, Ehsan Qaane, “One Land, Two Rules (9): Delivering public services in insurgency-affected Jalrez district of Wardak province,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, December 16, 2019.

[25] Thomas Ruttig, “Schools on the Frontline: The Struggle over Education in the Afghan Wars” in Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, Anne-Marie Grundmeier, Reinhart Kobler, Diana Sahrai, and Fereschta Sahrai eds., Education and Development in Afghanistan. Challenges and Prospects (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, 2019), pp. 101-140.

[26] See, for example, Ruchi Kumar, “From road tax to courts: The Taliban’s attempts at state-building,” Al Jazeera, August 26, 2018. See also Smith, p. 18.

[27] See Borhan Osman, “AAN Q&A: Taleban leader Hebatullah’s new treatise on jihad,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 15, 2017.

[28] For detail on this, see the nine-part series “One Land, Two Rules” by the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

[29] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mujib Mashal, “In Afghanistan’s War and Peace, WhatsApp Delivers the Message,“ New York Times, October 26, 2019.

[30] “You Have No Right to Complain: Education, Social Restrictions, and Justice in Taliban-Held Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2020.

[31] See the (unofficial) translation in the annex of Thomas Ruttig, “AAN Q&A: What came out of the Doha intra-Afghan conference?” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 11, 2019.

[32] Quoted in Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Greg Torode, “Taliban reject Trump’s suggestion of lingering U.S. counter-terrorism presence,” Reuters, February 6, 2019.

[33] See “The Guardian view on Afghanistan talks: hopes for peace, but at what cost?” Guardian, February 6, 2019; “Musaheba by Abbas Stanakzai [Interview with Abbas Stanakzai] (video),” Sputnik, November 9, 2018.

[34] “Transcript of speech by the Political Deputy, Al-Haj Mullah Baradar Akhund, at video conference organized by Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies,” December 10, 2020.

[35] See Shereena Qazi, “The activists leading efforts for women’s rights at Afghan talks,” Al Jazeera, July 8, 2019, and “Afghan women hold historic talks with the Taliban,” BBC, June 6, 2015.

[36] “‘You Have No Right to Complain’: Education, Social Restrictions, and Justice in Taliban-Held Afghanistan.”

[37] Ben Farmer, “Taliban say women’s rights to be protected under Islam, but must not threaten Afghan values,” Telegraph, February 5, 2019.

[38] The part on education draws on the author’s book chapter: Ruttig, “Schools on the Frontline: The Struggle over Education in the Afghan Wars.”

[39] “Afghanistan: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2000,“ Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, February 23, 2001.

[40] Ibid.

[41] A.W. Najimi, “Report on a Survey on SCA Supported Girls’ Education and SCA Built School Buildings in Afghanistan,” Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, August 29, 1997.

[42] Peter Schwittek, In Afghanistan (Zurich: vdf Hochschulverlag, 2011), pp. 25-26, 32-33.

[43] Jan Heller, “Afghanistan: Viele Kinder werden niemals eine Schule von innen sehen,” Neues Deutschland (Berlin), December, 23-24, 2000; Siddique.

[44] “Afghanistan: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2000,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, February 23, 2001.

[45] Ibid.

[46] “Education and the Role of NGOs in Emergencies: Afghanistan 1978-2002,” American Institutes for Research, August 8, 2006.

[47] “Afghanistan: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2000;” “U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2001 – Afghanistan,” March 4, 2002.

[48] For one example of NGO pressure in Laghman province, see Heller.

[49] Kate Clark, “The Layha: Calling the Taleban to Account,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 4, 2011.

[50] Marit Glad, “Knowledge on Fire: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan Risks and Measures for Successful Mitigation,” Care International, Kabul, September 2009, p. 3.

[51] Clark, “The Layha: Calling the Taleban to Account.”

[52] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Emboldened Taliban Try to Sell Softer Image,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2012.

[53] Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco, “The Ongoing Battle for the Schools: The Taleban and State Education,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, December 13, 2011, pp. 2-3; Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco, “The Battle for the Schools,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 11, 2013, p. 6.

[54] Barnett Rubin and Clancy Rudeforth, “Enhancing Access to Education: Challenges and Opportunities in Afghanistan,” New York University Center on International Cooperation, May 2016, p. 7.

[55] An English translation of the document is in the author’s archive. It is titled “Purposed Law for Education and Training,” Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, no date.

[56] In the author’s archive.

[57] Giustozzi and Franco, “The Battle for the Schools.”

[58] Thomas Ruttig, “Tactical or genuine? The Taleban’s ‘new education policy,’” Afghanistan Analysts Network, January 15, 2011. This report gives a detailed accounting of how the Taliban do ‘taxation.’ Fazl Rahman Muzhary, “One Land, Two Rules (7): Delivering public services in insurgency-affected Andar district in Ghazni province,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 13, 2019.

[59] Smith.

[60] S Reza Kazemi, “One Land, Two Rules (2): Delivering public services in insurgency-affected Obeh district of Herat province,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, December 9, 2018; Obaid Ali, “One Land, Two Rules (3): Delivering public services in insurgency-affected Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz province,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, February 26, 2019.

[61] Author interview, teacher, Kabul, March 2019.

[62] An example is reported in Noor Zahid, “Afghan Schools Used as Military Bases By Government, Taliban,” Voice of America, January 26, 2017, and Rahim Faiez, “UN agency: Attacks on schools in Afghanistan tripled in 2018,” Associated Press, May 28, 2019. See also “Letter to NATO Re: Civilian protection in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, July 6, 2016.

[63] Clark, “The Layha: Calling the Taleban to Account.”

[64] See Ashley Jackson, “Taliban policy and perceptions towards aid agencies in Afghanistan,” Humanitarian Practice Network, August 2013. The exact year the commission was established is not known.

[65] Emal Pasarlay, “Mufti Rahmani: We Won’t Attack the Road Builders,” BBC Pashto, June 5, 2011, quoted in Clark, “The Layha: Calling the Taleban to Account.”

[66] Clark, “The Layha: Calling the Taleban to Account,” p. 32.

[67] Barnett R. Rubin, “Constitutional Issues in the Afghan Peace Negotiations: Process and Substance,” USIP, November 13, 2020.

[68] See Celia W. Dugger, “Muhammad Rabbani, Advocate Of Some Moderation in Taliban,” New York Times, April 20, 2001.

[69] Thomas Ruttig, “Back to Qatar? Talks about talks, again,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, August 27, 2012.

[70] From Mullah Omar’s 2009 Eid message (in the author’s archive).

[71] Borhan Osman and Anand Gopal, “Taliban Views on a Future State,” Center on International Cooperation, New York University, July 2016, p. 4.

[72] Mujib Mashal, “What Do the Taliban Want in Afghanistan? A Lost Constitution Offers Clues,” New York Times, June 28, 2019.

[73] “Open letter to the people of the United States of America,” Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, February 16, 2021.

[74] “Message of Felicitation of the Esteemed Amir-ul-Momineen on the Occasion of Eid-ul-fitre,” August 29, 2011 (in the author’s archive).

[75] “Transcript of speech by the Political Deputy, Al-Haj Mullah Baradar Akhund, at video conference organized by Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies,” December 10, 2020.

[76] Borhan Osman, “Whose Islam? The New Battle for Afghanistan,” New York Times, October 2, 2020.

[77] Osman, “AAN Q&A: Taleban leader Hebatullah’s new treatise on jihad.”

[78] On these discussions, see, for example, Thomas Ruttig, “Pushing Open the Door to Peace? Pugwash organises next round of Taleban talks in Qatar,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 31, 2015; Safi and Ruttig; “Taking Stock of the Taliban’s Perspectives on Peace,“ Crisis Group Asia Report N°311, August 11, 2020, p. 29; Frud Bezhan, “Is The Taliban Seeking A ‘Sunni Afghan Version’ Of Iran?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 2, 2020; Osman, “Whose Islam? The New Battle for Afghanistan.”

[79] “Eid Felicitation Message of Amir-ul-Momineen, Mulla Mohammad Umar Mujahid,” July 15, 2015 and “Message of Felicitation of Amir-ul-Momineen (May Allah protect him) on the Occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr,” August 8, 2013 (in the author’s archive).

[80] For a discussion on the state of democracy in the various political factions and parties in Afghanistan, see Ruttig, “Outside, Inside: Afghanistan’s paradoxical political party system (2001-16).”

[81] For a discussion of political centralism among Afghanistan’s various political factions and parties in Afghanistan, see Ruttig, “Outside, Inside: Afghanistan’s paradoxical political party system (2001-16)” and Shamshad Pasarlay and M. Basher Mobasher, “Electoral Crises, Peace Process with Taliban and Constitutional Reform in Afghanistan,” IDEA Constitution Net, June 16, 2020; “Taking Stock of the Taliban’s Perspectives on Peace;” Rubin.

[82] Quoted from Safi and Ruttig.

[83] Michael Semple, “The Taliban’s Battle Plan: And Why It’s Unlikely to Succeed,” Foreign Affairs, November 28, 2018.

[84] Ayaz Gul, “US, Taliban Sign Historic Afghan Peace Deal,” Voice of America, February 29, 2020.

[85] Rubin.

[86] “Taliban outline vision for postwar Afghanistan in Moscow peace talks,” Deutsche Welle, February 5, 2019.

[87] Safi and Ruttig.

[88] Osman and Gopal, p. 6.

[89] Translation of the Hezb peace plan (“Manifest for National Security”) in Thomas Ruttig, “Gulbuddin ante portas – again,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 22, 2010. The stipulation that only ‘Islamic’ parties would be able to run in the proposed elections is in a 2010 interview of Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with German TV ZDF (transcript with the author).

[90] See Cordesman.

[91] Sahil Afghan, “Living with the Taleban (1): Local experiences in Andar district, Ghazni province,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, October 19, 2020.

[92] “‘You Have No Right to Complain’: Education, Social Restrictions, and Justice in Taliban-Held Afghanistan.”

[93] Sahil Afghan.

[94] The quote is from Ali, “One Land, Two Rules (3): Delivering Public Services in Insurgency-Affected Dasht-e Archi District in Kunduz Province.” The author does not discuss the Taliban’s judicial system as there is a wide range of literature already. See, for example, Antonio Giustozzi and Adam Baszko, “The Politics of the Taliban’s Shadow Judiciary, 2003–2013,” Central Asian Affairs 1 (2014) pp. 199-224; Ashley Jackson and Florian Weigang, “Rebel Rule of Law: Taliban courts in the west and north-west of Afghanistan,” ODI Briefing Paper, May 2020.

[95] Kate Clark, “The Eid Ceasefire: Allowing Afghans to imagine their country at peace,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 19, 2018; Kate Clark, “Voices from the Districts, the Violence Mapped (2): Assessing the conflict a month after the US-Taleban agreement,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, April 8, 2020; Thomas Ruttig, “‘Another Bonn-style conference’: A new plan to ‘fix’ the war and enable US troops to leave,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 7, 2021.

[96] Thomas Ruttig, “Situation Report: Religion in Afghanistan,” Tony Blair Faith Foundation, 2014; Christine Roehrs, “Damage Avoided, for Now? The very short debate about the EVAW law,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 18, 2013; Sari Kouvo, “After two years in legal limbo: A first glance at the approved ‘Amnesty law,’” Afghanistan Analysts Network, February 22, 2010.

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