Abstract: Since their 2021 takeover, the Taliban have consolidated control over an impoverished and austere postwar Afghanistan. Since their victory, the Taliban’s emir has reasserted his status as a ‘supreme leader’ and oriented domestic policy in favor of highly conservative constituencies—which has revealed deep differences among their leadership of visions for the future of the Afghan state and society and how authority is divided among themselves. Yet, the Taliban have persistently prioritized the cohesion of their movement and governing apparatus. This trajectory has earned condemnation from Western states and prompted caution in the entire world’s engagement, which has in turn fueled Taliban motivations to reject foreign demands. After two and a half years of rule, the Taliban’s domestic agenda has become intertwined with their foreign relations impasse.

In mid-October 2023, the de facto acting Minister of Interior of Afghanistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani, gave a speech in which he said the Taliban were “very saddened by Israel’s crimes against Muslims in Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem],” and called “on the world’s powers and the United Nations to stop further aggressions against Muslims.” But he prefaced these sentiments by making clear, “We don’t want to interfere in internal matters of others.”1

This was one of the most prominent statements from senior Taliban leadership on Israel’s military incursion into Gaza.a The Taliban, who have valorized their armed resistance against the United States and its allies in myriad ways since their August 2021 takeover of Afghanistan, have demonstrated more restraint in public messaging on Israel’s campaign than key Western allies such as Turkey and Jordan. The fact that the man issuing such a clear position of non-interference had, only a little more than a year prior, supposedly hosted perhaps the world’s most notorious global jihadi in downtown Kabul encapsulates the tensions and contradictions at play in the Taliban’s two and a half years of rule.2

Since their dramatic entry into Kabul amid the international evacuation in August 2021, the Taliban’s past two and a half years of rule over Afghanistan have been marked by paradoxes:

After decrying the very foundations of the Afghan state built up and bolstered by U.S. and foreign support, the Taliban stepped into the administrative structures of that state. It had been abandoned so suddenly by former president Ashraf Ghani that it remained largely intact through the takeover.3

Building on their strengths as an insurgent movement, the Taliban have utilized the resources of that leftover state and have begun to craft a sophisticated, if low-budget security state, with extensive monitoring, policing, and limitation of dissent and political expression.4 The Taliban preside over an atmosphere of impunity that includes several hundred documented cases of extrajudicial killings, but their return to power is also defined by the absence of large-scale purges of previous adversaries, even in comparison to the behavior of American-allied Afghan forces when they toppled the Taliban in late 2001.5

In the absence of widespread armed conflict, there is now greater freedom of movement and ability to travel the country than most living Afghans can recall.6 Yet, the Taliban’s adoption of sweeping gender-based restrictions, many of which hearken back to edicts imposed during their earlier period of rule in the 1990s, means that the state formally denies much of this freedom to over half its population.7

Foreign relations with the West have largely stalled, due to a political impasse over the Taliban’s gender restrictions and other domestic policies, a situation that has only revived adversarial wartime suspicions and apprehensions among both sides.8 Foreign relations with regional countries have steadily normalized, as neighboring capitals accept the reality of the Taliban’s consolidated control. Yet, the potential for regional instability still hangs over relations with border states, Pakistan in particular.9

These paradoxes illuminate the extent to which the Taliban have pursued the consolidation of their authority as a state and a governing force, albeit still influenced by nebulous ideology and operating paradigms of their militant insurgency (and previous era of rule).10 They also reflect internal political and ideological contestation over structures and allocations of power. This contest has been driven by a variety of interests and issues but has orbited several key questions of state structure and policy, such as how to define and institutionalize the role of the Taliban’s supreme leader, or emir, in their steadily evolving government. The pendulum of policy influence has also hinged on the dilemma of how to balance foreign relations, domestic policies, and self-sufficiency (both real and perceptions thereof).

The past two and a half years have revealed significant divergences among the Taliban leadership’s preferred policies, and perhaps even of their ultimate vision for a Taliban-led Afghan state and society.11 Eighteen months ago, one of the authors concluded in this publication that the Taliban’s biggest challenges would stem from tensions between their two chief motivations: to establish a strong, independent Afghan state and to ensure that such a state remains true to their ideological and theological roots. In each phase of internal contestation over the future of control and decision-making, the movement’s powerbrokers have opted to stifle conflict and preserve cohesion.b This political equilibrium may prove unsustainable indefinitely now that they are in government, especially if challenged by unforeseen or escalating crises, but could also conceivably be maintained for several years or more.

This article attempts to shed light on the evolution in dynamics—and management of potential challenges—among the Taliban’s leadership, as it is demonstrated in several areas of governance. A key theme is the expanded role of the emir, both in relation to other leaders’ authority and more formally, where and how he engages with the state. It then evaluates the Taliban’s foreign relations, by examining the influence of internal and domestic political considerations on their foreign policy stances, their strategic considerations in diplomacy and trade, and what their current posture toward Pakistan’s dilemma with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may forebode for the wider region. It concludes with several observations on what internal dynamics and external posturing foretell, and what this trajectory means for Western policy and security interests.

This article was researched through dozens of remote and in-person interviews with U.S., Western, and regional government officials, along with a wide range of stakeholders inside Afghanistan, including Taliban officials and affiliates.c It also draws on the authors’ extensive previous research and analysis on the post-August 2021 Taliban.

Part 1: Governance and Leadership Dynamics
Since one of these authors last assessed the Taliban’s rule in this publication in August 2022, the Taliban’s emir, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, has continued intervening in the domestic and foreign affairs of the so-called Islamic Emirate, on decision-making large and small. These interventions, with an aim to not only increase but to formalize his office’s influence and control, often have been in favor of an ideologically rigid constituency within the Taliban. The core of this constituency consists of senior religious clerics, some of whom are reputedly personal confidantes of the emir, but also includes former insurgency commanders and other stakeholders hailing from particularly conservative communities in southern Afghanistan.12

On one hand, Akhundzada’s interventionism has tested the historical parameters of the emir’s role within the movement. Since the Taliban insurgency began, then-emir Mullah Omar significantly devolved decision-making authority to the movement’s Rahbari Shura (or Leadership Council), appeasing those within the Taliban who felt his dictatorial rule had led to the collapse of the first regime (1996-2001).d Omar, and his successors Mansur and Haibatullah Akhundzada, were obliged to defer to different constituencies and interests, as reflected in the composition of the Rahbari Shura and other networks of Taliban leaders.13 For 20 years, the shura structure dominated the Taliban’s decision-making, with the emir weighing in only sporadically, usually to settle disputes.14 e

Meanwhile, Akhundzada’s interventionism has also strained the obedience that those constituencies—Taliban and otherwise—owe the emir.15 Since the Taliban returned to power, the emir’s attempts to expand his authority—and perhaps return it to the nadir enjoyed by Mullah Omar—have upended the shura format for decision-making to which many Taliban leaders have grown accustomed.16 As a result, Akhundzada’s attempts to expand his authority have met several distinct forms of resistance, driven both by significant differences on policy and strategic vision for their state and motivations of some Taliban leaders to protect personal power.17 To date, disagreements persist over allocation of state authority and the direction of domestic and foreign policy.18

These disagreements continue to test the parameters of the emir’s authority, and the durability of mechanisms for receiving and resolving internal debate and dissent.f However, after internal tensions repeatedly spilled into public view in the first half of 2023, an equilibrium has emerged, wherein the emir and other leaders have all decided to refrain from risking the cohesion and coherence of their regime. The emir’s role as the final arbiter of most policy appears to have been settled. Domestic policies that varied wildly across the country are increasingly enforced to a single standard (though regional variation remains, it is shrinking).19 Public signs of dissent from Taliban officials have sharply decreased. However, it appears that the emir has also run up against the limits of his authority, and Akhundzada’s supremacy over the movement depends on a delicate balancing act in which he satisfies key constituencies. Elite dynamics have stabilized—for now.

A poster of Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada is seen along a road in Kabul, Afghanistan,
on August 14, 2023. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Cabinet Formation
The first phase of contestation centered on the composition of the Taliban’s government, especially senior or ‘cabinet-level’ posts.20 The Taliban’s political office, responsible for talks with the United States, angled for a sizable role in the government, asserting that its negotiations were critical in securing a triumphant return to power. Senior military leaders’ claims to power derived from the suddenness and totality of the military campaign that swept across the country in summer 2021, as well as the political weight of the sacrifices of tens of thousands of fighters. Finally, the movement’s religious scholars believed that men with seniority and knowledge of ‘Islamic’ law should be given top leadership roles—consistent with the fundamental mission of the movement (i.e., the establishment of a ‘pure’ Islamic state).g

The outcome of this first round of contestation was a Taliban-only government that carefully included all Taliban constituencies but was dominated by religious scholars and those who held cabinet positions in the 1990s.21 Neither the political office nor several key former military commanders fared as well as they had hoped and outsiders expected. While not fully appreciated at the time, this allocation of formal state power—along with the decision to maximize Taliban representation within government, at the expense of non-Taliban actors—laid the foundation for the future trajectory in which the emir and his close circle became increasingly assertive.h

Since the original cabinet appointments, senior officials have been replaced often—frequently at the provincial level, and regularly at the level of deputy minister and below.22 In the first year of the Taliban’s rule, these decisions appeared to be reached in cabinet meetings, but by the end of summer in 2022, the emir’s office increasingly took control of appointments, at times without even cursory consultation.23 How the rest of the leadership responded, and the dynamic that emerged, is covered further below.

Nexus of Resentment: Political Centralization and Ethnic Favoritism
Another plane of contestation, within the Taliban but shaped by and responsive to popular sentiments, has been over the degree of centralization of power. Center-periphery relations have long been a controversial feature of Afghan politics, closely intertwined with ethnic politics and social policies.24 But the Taliban’s origins as a Pashtun movement, and their history of interactions with other ethnic groups in Afghanistan (especially in the 1990s), set the stage for particularly fraught subnational and inter-ethnic dynamics throughout society.25

More than one high-ranking non-Pashtun Taliban leader from north and central Afghanistan initially resisted orders to transfer out of their power bases, along with measures to severely restrict fiscal authorities in their respective regions. This led to a series of standoffs involving local and non-local security forces, and in some cases civilian demonstrations, in Faryab, Balkhab, and Badakhshan.26 These instances of contestation were managed but the underlying issues were left unresolved, and they simmer at varying temperatures in varying provinces.i In Badakhshan, for instance, tensions between local and non-local Taliban security forces have heightened several times since the summer 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. For over two years, Badakhshan was governed almost exclusively by local Taliban; when one local governor was replaced, it was by another Badakhshan-born individual.j Perhaps the starkest and most quantifiable measure of the tenuous nature of central control in Badakhshan may be found in this year’s remarkable data on the Taliban’s poppy eradication: Badakhshan was the sole exception, where output increased rather than falling sharply.27

As noted above, provincial-level officials are rotated frequently—a carefully orchestrated practice that as of 2023, the emir’s office appeared to have almost completely taken over.k While there are forms of preferential and prejudicial treatment that cannot be denied, the policy of officials’ rotation appears to be widely implemented across the country.28 The apparent motive is to prevent individual or factional establishment of local bases of power that might taint the purity of, or one day come to challenge, the state.29 This is a feature of governance intended to enhance and preserve the centralized nature, as well as the ideological purity, of the state—one that incidentally happens to further marginalize Taliban leaders from non-Pashtun backgrounds.l

Worries among non-Pashtuns about the Talban’s ethnocentrism remain prolific, and the higher-profile the issue, the more intense the suspicions. A notable example involves the Taliban’s flagship infrastructure project, construction of the Qush Tepa canal in northern Afghanistan.30 Local attitudes toward the project, which aims to provide thousands of jobs and eventually sustain sufficient wheat cultivation to feed the entire country, are tinged with worries that Pashtun communities from elsewhere will be relocated en masse and be granted the lion’s share of prime agricultural land.31 For now, these remain rumors—the land surrounding the canal has not been reallocated, nor have mass relocations been engineered—but their persistence captures popular concerns.

Even among Pashtun members of the movement, criticisms have regularly surfaced that southern Taliban, in particular those from certain tribal and family networks, are being privileged over other Taliban.m Much has been made over the past two and a half years of power struggles between southern Taliban and the Haqqani network, based in southeast Afghanistan and drawn from a different tribal confederacy. But other Pashtun communities, and their representatives in the Taliban, voice similar resentments. In the eastern region, particularly in the strategic and economic hub of Nangarhar province, local Taliban were displaced from power in the first weeks after the takeover.32 Military commanders were dispatched from southern provinces due to concerns about the Islamic State-Khorasan Province’s (ISK) presence and possible infiltration of local rank-and-file.33 More than two years later, ISK’s capacity in the province has been severely degraded, with very little reported activity in all of 2023—yet southerners remain in charge of key positions in Nangarhar. Locals speak openly about financial incentives as the likely reason that “outsiders” remain in control of their province.n That this dynamic has taken root, and local sentiments are as strong as they are, suggests that the Taliban are far from perfectly implementing a system intended to stymie personal power or profit from state office.

Whoever Has the Gold, Makes the Rules
Assessing in 2022 what would determine who ultimately wields power and influence in the Taliban’s state, one of the authors identified control over financial resources and fiscal affairs as a critical factor.34 By early 2023, it became clear that the emir had been exerting as much control over budget expenditures as he had appointments and other major policy decisions, with serious implications for internal politics.

In early 2023, the acting minister of finance, Hidayatullah Badri, reportedly began to protest the emir’s growing habit of dispersing government funds in an arbitrary and ad hoc manner.35 The national budget, as best as can be discerned, has discretionary spending funds allocated for the emir’s office.36 But Badri, other leaders, and technocrats in their ministries grew increasingly concerned by a pattern of erratic, unplanned expenditures; more than one informed source suggested the emir had been dispatching trusted couriers to Kabul with instructions that the finance ministry should issue them large sums of money, in cash—a crude harkening back to the financing modus operandi of the insurgency. Badri’s protest apparently escalated; the emir unseated him and “demoted” him to run Afghanistan’s central bank, but the finance ministry remained without a minister for months, and sources noted that Badri continued to coordinate closely with his former subordinates.37

The episode illustrated a dynamic that emerged elsewhere, wherein the emir managed to assert his office’s ultimate authority, but also implicitly conceded several ways in which lesser leadership figures remain integral to governance. Furthermore, it marked a foundational tenet of dissent: not against the emir’s ultimate authority, but the manner in which he practiced that authority. Badri was not challenging the emir’s supremacy over fiscal affairs per se; he was insisting that the emir’s interventions be structured and appropriate, and that it should not be destabilizing to the rest of the organs, functions, and planning of the state. In many ways, this approach set the tone for the emir’s expansion into the sphere of governance for the rest of 2023.

Observers noted that Badri’s protest seemed to trigger—or at least corresponded with—a months-long debate over the budget, anchored in multiple conclaves the emir held with his cabinet of ministers in Kabul.38 The episode prompted analysis and speculation on state expenditures, but even after it was resolved, the national budget remained shrouded in secrecy. Nonetheless, a few basic facts have emerged, including an extravagantly outsized percentage of expenditures going toward security forces (primarily in the form of payroll/personnel costs).o The impulse to treat the civil service sector as a source of patronage, not unique to the Taliban nor to the context or regimes in Afghanistan, appears to have been difficult for some Taliban officials to resist.39 In 2023, the emir issued multiple edicts restricting nepotistic practices that had spread in Kabul ministries and subnational offices; announcements on the hiring of tens of thousands of new teachers or “administrative staff” for the Ministry of Interior suggest less individual, and more systemic impulses.40

A fundamental question that remains unanswered and could prove decisive in steering both internal Taliban politics and major policy decisions in the future, is whether or not the resources of the state will grow more or less available to its own officials as a source of exclusive patronage. An entire theme of the emir’s edicts, and the manner in which he has asserted authority over official appointments and key decisions, suggests a strong desire to erect rules and structures to prevent state capture. But his pursuit of unchecked authority, and the political compromises and concessions it requires, could easily enable some interests and constituencies the ability to pilfer the state’s coffers even while tasked to prevent others from doing the same.

Nothing better demonstrates the dilemma between the impulse to reward Taliban veterans and loyalists and the ideological imperative to administer a morally pure state (according to the Taliban) than the emir’s insistence on imposing the ban on narcotics.p Reporting in late 2023 demonstrated that the ban, though gradually and in phases, was being thoroughly implemented across most of the country, in spite of the economic harm to millions of Afghans who depended on income from the drug trade.41 That includes an indeterminate but significant number of households considered as some of the Taliban’s key constituencies, in addition to substantial profits reaped by any of the movement’s senior figures involved in the trade.42 If economic realities become crises in the coming year, whether or not the Taliban choose to continue seriously enforcing this ban will broadcast a great deal about their priorities—and who is dictating them.

The Emirate and its Discontents
The campaign of the emir and his allies to increasingly steer and influence affairs of state can be generally interpreted as an agenda to restore and safeguard the ideological core of the movement. As this campaign progressed, it challenged Taliban leadership dynamics that had evolved and become an internal status quo over two decades—one that some leaders seem to have presumed would continue into their stewardship over the state. In their first two years back in power, disagreements metastasized both on policy grounds and concerns about the structure and allocation of political power.43 But these disagreements do not appear to pose an existential threat, as most Taliban leaders appear to be committed to prioritizing internal unity and their own movement’s survival as state authorities.

Although much Western media coverage of the Taliban’s return to power has focused on alleged human rights abuses and their restrictions on women, within the Taliban movement a discourse of concern, even alarm, began to unfold that their government was not meeting expectations for their “Islamic state.” Entire wings of the movement perceived that their caretaker government’s initial policymaking and general posture was far too similar to the previous one, too accommodating of their former adversaries, and not moving closely or quickly enough toward what many had imagined of their “Islamic Emirate.”44 q

In this light, the emir and his close circle of allies could be thought of as originalists; it has been noted elsewhere that many of their policies and structural changes in governance actually draw on precedents from the group’s rule during the 1990s.r As this campaign to remake the state, and society, began to take shape, a camp began to emerge that could best be characterized as dissenters. The dissenters are not a uniform group, but what unites them is a general dissatisfaction with the way the emir has asserted his authority over key policies, and perhaps for some of them, over how much authority the emir monopolizes, and how little authority that leaves for the rest of the leadership.

In the first six to eight months of rule after the takeover, many of these dissenters—which include the acting ministers of interior (Sirajuddin Haqqani), defense (Mohammad Yaqoub), and at least a dozen other senior leaders—seemed to be driving the direction of the new regime in Kabul.45 The originalists, many of them senior Taliban-affiliated ulema bolstered by broader sentiments among indoctrinated rank-and-file, grew anxious that the ideological purity of the movement’s goals was being diluted for pragmatic, or even personal, gains.46 Critically, some originalists were also concerned that the emir seemed to have been marginalized or sidelined from key policies and decisions.

Operating under the assumption that their cabinet positions gave them power over their respective ministerial portfolios, Taliban leaders had taken the lead in their respective sectors without feeling compelled to solicit and strictly implement instructions from the emir in every avenue of policy.47 This assumption of authority and autonomy flowed naturally from the operating procedures that governed much of the previous two decades of insurgency.48

This fed into concern among originalists that both the emir, as the ostensible supreme leader, and religious authorities, as a key stakeholder group, were losing control over the strategic direction of the state.49 A campaign to reassert the emir’s authority coalesced, first marked by spectacular controversy over the issue of girls’ secondary education.50 The originalist camp began to measure the ideological purity of the movement, domestically, by how much Taliban policies diverged from those of the Republic, and, externally, by how much praise or positive engagement the Taliban received from Western powers.

In other words, the greater the outcry from the international community, the more that diplomatic overtures themself became a motivation for the originalists’ policy agenda; foreign demands for changes to domestic policy were deemed necessary to resist.51 Based on shifts in their public messaging, it appears another key motivation was being able to point to changes the Taliban brought about—given that the ideological platform insisted that the state and society had been morally bankrupt under the Republic, then the more that was swept away, the better for the purity of their Emirate.52

These two drivers shed light on the sequencing of decrees that emerged in late 2022 and 2023, and how restrictions on Afghan women became intertwined with positions on foreign aid organizations. Banning women from attending university, and restricting their freedom to work for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and later for the United Nations, were rooted in an ideological vision—but were also driven by a growing antagonism toward those foreign actors rhetorically attacking that vision, and an insistence on blanket unity in the face of outside scrutiny.

Setting in Stone: Formalizing the Emir’s Relation to the State
As emir Akhundzada expanded his authority, relationships between him and other leaders of the movement began to strain, and it became clear that he would require structures and mechanisms to exert control over the daily functions of governance.

Akhundzada and his close circle appeared to realize that an important source of power for would-be dissenters was control over the state apparatus. The Taliban inherited the Islamic Republic’s state apparatus; the position of emir was not integrated into the standard functions and operations of the state. Therefore, the emir’s interventions, especially at first, were often subversions of the standard operation of the state. This also served to rebut the notion that ministerial position conferred independent power or autonomy, as noted above. Latent within this rebuttal seemed to be the desire to ensure the Taliban’s state did not repeat the patterns of past Afghan regimes, especially the abuse of state resources for patronage or dependence on foreign powers.

The originalists’ move to incorporate the emir into the organs of the state began by using tools and practices already established. To take up the example of education policy: Before the emir doubled down on the closure of girls’ high schools in March 2022, Taliban officials in at least 11 of the country’s 34 provinces had looked the other way and permitted girls to attend.s To enforce the ban and other edicts more uniformly, the emir replaced ministers in Kabul, rotated subnational officials out of their home regions at a rapid tempo, and encouraged the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (MoPVPV, or PVPV) to monitor implementation across the country. The General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) increasingly became the enforcement arm for challenges to this authority, from within the Taliban or society.53

To better institutionalize his control over the state, the emir and his allies have been integrating his office into state institutions and practices. One of the first measures was that cabinet meetings in Kandahar, which began as a practice of ad hoc summons, became regularly scheduled convenings.54 While these remain opaque to the Afghan public and outside world, there now appears to be an established standard as to what substance and seriousness of issues require deliberation in Kandahar.

The Taliban formalized a legislative process, still issued via decree but far from autocratic, whereby all legislative proposals are vetted by a review board.55 The board consists of a number of high-ranking judicial clerics and officials, and is headed by the emir’s close ally, the chief justice of the supreme court. After clearance, proposals are then submitted for the emir’s final approval.

Across the country, the emir’s office encouraged and oversaw the establishment of ulema councils, which were created (and still remain) under an ambiguous definition of their role.t These councils placed ideologically aligned clerics in a loosely defined supervisory or advisory role, situated in a vague relationship with provincial officials, with the overall aim of encouraging and ensuring strict compliance with the emir’s policy vision. Some worried that ulema councils would essentially serve as informants with a direct channel to the emir, reporting not only on abuses of power but policy variation (for example, exposing instances of local officials permitting more lax interpretation of gender-based restrictions).56

Yet, the ulema councils have presented a paradox: They might give the emir’s inner circle insight into provincial-level issues in all corners of the country, but as a parallel institution perched alongside local officials, they could also undermine the centralized governance the Taliban sought to establish and consolidate. Another theory is that the councils may have been intended to address a common domestic critique, that the Taliban’s system of government lacked formal avenues of popular representation.u Employing ulema as unelected representatives of local communities could be the emir’s attempt to balance demands from domestic constituencies, while still remaining true to originalist vision(s) for the proper makeup of the state. Whatever the original calculus, the contradictions and lack of clarity embedded in these bodies appear to have muted their functionality, and their future role in the state is unclear.

In Kabul, Akhundzada has gone further than ensconcing allies in the cabinet, as he did in the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to better enforce his policy agenda.57 The Taliban have repurposed the Islamic Republic’s Attorney General Office, whose functions were largely dismantled in the first days of their takeover.58 In the second half of 2023, the emir installed a confidante as head of a new institution, with the mandate of overseeing compliance with edicts and other laws.v The scope and functions of this directorate are not fully public, and some indicators suggest they have evolved over the course of the year; but it is clear that the institution both plays a role in Kabul, shaping new cabinet-level leadership dynamics, and has developed capacity for subnational oversight.59 Another institution, the Dar-ul Ifta, an advisory and judicial body that issues guidance on Islamic jurisprudence as relevant to matters of state, rose in prominence in 2023. This is not only headed by a close affiliate of the emir, but further establishes religious leadership as final authorities and arbiters of governance.60

While the originalists have made major strides in reorienting the structure and direction of the Taliban’s state, they operate within constraints and under serious dilemmas—some of them potentially existential (more on these below). The dissenters continue to hold significant influence over the apparatus of the state, and they represent several influential constituencies within the Taliban that the emir cannot ignore.

While it is easy to characterize the succession of repressive social measures over the past two and a half years as a steadily regressive march back to the Taliban’s rule of the 1990s, the political heft of the dissenters may explain why gender segregation, in just one instance of policy impact, has not been implemented in absolute terms—in spite of evidence that some of the movement’s most influential clerics would describe that as ideal.61 A full accounting of the Taliban’s policies must grapple with the following: various bans on women working have not been uniformly extended to the private sector (indeed, some ministries still publicize and celebrate the number of women-owned businesses and their activities); women still appear prominently on locally produced television programming; some high-ranking Taliban officials still speak forcefully in favor of returning girls to school without being censored or visibly punished.62 Why is any of this permitted? The Taliban have made clear it is not because they fear foreign or domestic blowback for pursuing this agenda.w

Sidestepping Conflict and Preserving Cohesion
The most sensational evidence that the emir faces constraints emerged when a series of top leaders publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the general direction their emirate had taken, critiquing (if not explicitly naming) the emir himself.63 This unprecedented public dissent, coupled with persistent rumors of internal political turmoil in the first weeks of 2023, appeared to many interlocutors to be a potentially decisive moment.x Yet, in the months that followed, no discernible action was taken to constrain the emir’s authority as he had carved out in the course of the past year, nor did the emir move to fire or demote any of the chief dissenters. The entire episode revealed a careful equilibrium in the Taliban’s leadership dynamics; neither side could afford to dislodge the other, perhaps to the point that they might not have even seriously considered it.

One of the authors has studied the Taliban’s history of meticulously maintaining their organizational cohesion, at times at great cost, throughout their 20-year insurgency.64 Many observers assumed that once in power as a governing force, facing an entirely separate set of challenges than a militant rebel force does, the Taliban’s carefully tended sense of unity would crumble.65 But if the Taliban’s two and a half years in power has demonstrated anything, it has been a remarkable commitment to the principle of upholding cohesion and unity among their own ranks, which now oversee the various organs of the state.

Taliban leaders have proven willing to endure international condemnation, and their government remains formally unrecognized by any country on earth, even though many of them plainly do not agree with the policy that has fueled this quasi-pariah status.y This notion of regime survival, so closely tethered to internal cohesion and so indifferent to external pressure, is rooted in a collective reading of Afghan history. This history emphasizes the existential failure of the righteous mujahideen, who after defeating the invading Soviet superpower, descended into corruption, abuse of power, and petty disputes that escalated into civil war—all because of their failure to rally around a single leader and unifying vision. The obvious foreshadowing of the Taliban’s possible end has loomed over their decision-making since their takeover, and impels behavior that, to much of the outside world, may seem counterproductive.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid addresses a press conference at the government media and information
center in Kabul city, Afghanistan, on October 30, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Part Two: Engaging with the Outside World
The Taliban’s approach toward foreign relations, like that of any state authority, is intertwined with their domestic policy and political considerations. Much of the nationalist rhetoric and symbolism trumpeted by Taliban officials, and some of the thorniest issues between Kabul and neighboring capitals, share challenges and themes common to most previous Afghan governments.z But, owing to the precedents of their draconian rule in the 1990s and the international opprobrium that followed, as well as complicated, decades-long affiliation with al-Qa`ida and other transnational jihadi organizations, which evolved and adapted alongside the Taliban’s own organizational and ideological development, the Taliban also bring particular baggage to the arena of international relations.66 These features have shaped the history of their movement in the most dramatic ways possible—including being directly responsible for their overthrow and the 20-year U.S. intervention—and continue to present their state-building efforts with unique dilemmas.

The Internal Politics of External Relations
Setting aside the factor of domestic social policy, originalists and dissenters appear to be in general agreement regarding foreign policy. Originalists seem to genuinely support positive and balanced relations with other countries, even including the United States and Europe, on the condition that it does not interfere with their domestic agenda.aa In hindsight, a window of relative openness in the first six to eight months after their takeover now stands out clearly.67 Even today, both camps seek economic revitalization and welcome the foreign investment it would require.68 Not only because positive economic impacts to the Afghan population would increase their domestic popularity and legitimacy, but because a more robust financial situation would enable a greater sense of regional and geopolitical independence.ab

However, the current postures of Western donor states toward the Taliban do not set aside domestic social policies; on the contrary, they highlight and hinge on them.ac International condemnation provides a powerful motivation for the Taliban’s continued prioritization of internal cohesion at the expense of the Afghan people: It encourages the perpetuation of ‘us versus them’ paradigms, shaped by nearly 30 years of war and opprobrium. The Taliban increasingly perceive being “under siege,” with this state of affairs perpetuated by former enemies (led by the United States) who cannot accept their defeat in Afghanistan and therefore seek to prosecute ‘economic warfare’ where they failed on the battlefield.ad These increasingly suspicious perceptions clearly fed into policy decisions, culminating in restrictions on women working for NGOs and then the United Nations, in December 2022 and April 2023, respectively.69

Two years ago, dissenters had the space to make an internal argument that pragmatic foreign engagement would ultimately serve the agreed-upon goal of attaining national self-sufficiency. In effect, their argument was that making short-term overtures to foreign powers would enable them to grow strong enough to not need to, in the longer term. The same argument today would be characterized within Taliban discourse as caving to outsiders’ demands, no better than the Islamic Republic or any other Afghan regime in history, beholden to foreign patrons.70

Yet, even as Taliban suspicions and worldviews harden, openness to beneficial forms of engagement remain surprisingly open.ae As early as the summer of 2022, the emir characterized his regime’s relations with the outside world in sharply suspicious and adversarial terms, outlining a sort of ‘clash of civilizations’ in which the Taliban’s state-building would be forever opposed by enemies of Islam.71 Yet, when a delegation of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, including non-Afghan Americans, returned to Kabul in late 2023 for the first time since the takeover, senior Taliban officials, almost certainly with the foreknowledge and permission of the emir, attended a lavish conference in which deeper economic engagement was discussed.72 These officials included Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Development Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who has become notoriously reticent to meet with officials from Western states since the takeover, this event being the only known exception.73

Geopolitical Balancing: China, the United States, or a Juggling Act?
Considering the above context, in addition to 20 years of bloody insurgency (for years ranked as the world’s deadliest conflict), any measure of Taliban interest in engaging with the United States, its allies, or Western-backed institutions should be framed as a serious degree of pragmatism.af This is rarely conceded by Western descriptions of the Taliban’s diplomatic positioning, which often focus on the Taliban’s intransigence—both their formal negotiating approach and the general resistance to demands that they alter domestic policy.74 Intransigence indeed defines much of the Taliban’s posturing in engagement with external powers, but so too does an underacknowledged degree of openness and realism.

The Taliban’s rigidness in Doha-based talks features alongside their long history of quiet concessions granted to aid workers, U.N. agencies, and even mistrusted neighboring states.ag Diplomatic, development, and humanitarian actors with experience in other conflict and post-conflict settings describe the Taliban as “an order of magnitude” more willing to accept foreign engagement and activity under their domain, and to discuss and resolve issues as they arise, in comparison to armed groups or unrecognized regimes that hold comparable degrees of territorial control.ah

Foreigners and Afghans who engage with Kabul officials paint a portrait of curious Taliban attitudes toward the United States, framed by more than a “love and hate” dynamic, with one diplomat describing their attention toward bilateral engagement with the United States and its positions as “near-obsessive.”75 There is no foreign power their movement has more reason to bear enmity or hold suspicions toward, but Taliban elites also ascribe to Washington far greater ability than any other nation to impact the legitimacy and success of their state-building.76

The Taliban are acutely aware that in spite of Afghanistan’s geopolitical and commercial center of gravity shifting to regional states after the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops in 2021, foreign aid and support overwhelmingly flows from the United States and its partners.77 ai Moreover, Taliban officials seem to perceive that the United States either dictates or can influence most decisions made by other donors and many regional states as well; foreign officials note that other donor states, in spite of contributing equal or greater levels of aid funding, are taken much less seriously.78 aj

The United States’ importance for the Taliban is also part of their overarching approach to foreign relations, based as much on mistrust of regional states as of the West.79 Taliban officials frequently note a longstanding historical pattern of neighboring countries, as well as regional and global superpowers, seeking to influence or interfere with Afghan politics, in an attempt to project power within its borders.80 Unlike the concept of neutrality as idealized (at least in principle) by the Islamic Republic and several previous regimes, the Taliban have opted for an approach perhaps best characterized as balancing.81 In this strategy, Kabul actively shifts between positive engagement and restrained antagonism toward different foreign powers with the intent to reduce Afghanistan’s dependency on any one neighbor or patron.82

When it comes to China, hailed as Afghanistan’s best non-Western option for investment and support, Taliban leadership have pursued strategic ties—and been embraced by China in kind—to a greater degree than any other foreign power. However incomplete (even as they officially received credentials from a Taliban ambassador in Beijing in late 2023, the Chinese denied they were formally recognizing the Taliban’s government), progress with China must be understood as a major foreign policy “victory” for the Taliban.83 China is not only the most capable economic engine in the region (and therefore the best source of serious foreign investment among neighboring states); as a great power rival with the United States, it serves as an essential counterbalance against the condemnation and demands from the West.ak

However, the Taliban express a sophisticated degree of suspicion and criticism toward Beijing’s engagement with emerging economies and fragile states. Taliban officials have described China’s global approach to development as extractive and potentially exploitative, pointing to measures such as the use of Chinese laborers brought in to develop and construct infrastructure (rather than employing native workforces and stimulating local economies).84 The example of China in Sri Lanka in particular is offered as a cautionary tale.85 And the Taliban are keenly aware that with Pakistan as China’s client state in the region, the relationship will always include a sharp edge.86

One of the most visible examples of the balancing approach to foreign relations remains the Taliban’s talks to secure foreign help running Afghanistan’s airports. After months of negotiations toward an anticipated deal with Turkey and Qatar, in fall 2022 the Taliban suddenly changed course and awarded a sweeping contract to a UAE-based firm.87 The same example, revisited a year later, also captures the inefficiencies of such an approach: Aviation specialists with the United Nations and other international bodies describe that contract’s terms as flawed, and note that the contracted firm has made very little progress on badly needed improvements.88 More recently, the Taliban revealed the same approach in the weeks following Pakistan’s harsh measures to eject Afghan migrants and refugees: Baradar, the deputy prime minister for economic development, led one of the largest and most senior delegations to Tehran, to date—signing a raft of agreements set to shift Afghanistan’s balance of trade toward Iran at the expense of Pakistan.89 al

In this light, the Taliban’s attention to relations with the United States can be understood as more than an assessment of Washington’s weight with like-minded capitals; this relationship is likely also viewed as a valuable counterweight that can stave off dependency on, or even domination by, China and other regional powers.am

Neighbors, Borders, and Relations with Foreign Fighters
In 2022, the major development in the Taliban’s relationships with jihadi groups was the revelation that al-Qa`ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri had been sheltered in a Haqqani-affiliated safehouse in downtown Kabul, made public after a U.S. precision drone strike killed al-Zawahiri on July 31 that year.90 In 2023, the dominant development became the escalating TTP campaign of violence inside Pakistan, and the Taliban’s role in either exacerbating or resolving Pakistan’s security dilemma.91 The TTP’s campaign, its impact on Pakistan, and even the implications for U.S. security interests have been discussed well elsewhere, including this publication’s pages.92 But how the Taliban perceive this destabilizing set of events, and what it might mean for their relations with the entire region, has gone underexamined.

The Taliban evince a clear understanding that their regime survival depends on regional states maintaining a political calculus: that the Taliban are net-beneficial as neighboring rulers of Afghanistan, or that coexisting with them is at least less costly than it would be to support efforts to replace them.93 In concrete terms, what neighbors expect from an Afghan state more than anything is the ability to manage and largely contain the spillover of violence, instability, or even mass migration across Afghanistan’s borders. With that necessity addressed, regional states express varying degrees of interest in positive interconnectivity, avenues of trade, infrastructure, global commodities and even industry—all of which feed back into Taliban desires to attain economic independence.

Thus, reassuring neighboring states of their ability to maintain secure borders is a lynchpin of Taliban foreign relations, and—in spite of tensions with most neighboring states, such as disputed water rights with Iran or Tajikistan’s hosting of anti-Taliban opposition groups—they have worked to progressively improve working-level relations on border security and controls.94 an

Yet, as noted above, the Taliban have an acute sense of historical grievance with, and suspicion toward, most neighboring states. They have consistently demonstrated a “pluckiness,” as one Kabul-based diplomat describes it, an intentionally provocative posturing that stops short of destabilizing relations but seems to signal a reminder: Even as the weakest state in the neighborhood by many conventional measures, the Taliban have the ability to inflict pain on their neighbors and their interests, if need be.95

This stance is reflected in some ways that intertwine with the Taliban’s intent to achieve national self-sufficiency, such as the Qush Tepa Canal; the Taliban have forged ahead with construction regardless of their neighbors’ concerns, insisting there is more than enough water for the entire neighborhood, but also insisting on their right—citing international law—to take what they see fit.96

But perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is the Taliban’s ability to employ or facilitate foreign jihadi groups currently based in Afghanistan—and ‘flipside of the coin’ concerns about their inability to constrain and prevent unfriendly groups from attacks across the region.ao In meetings with foreigners, the Taliban eagerly seek credit for having contained such groups, for (in their view) meeting commitments explicitly laid out in the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, yet occasionally hint at their ability to “let go of the leash,” if they were ever obliged to defend themselves from external aggression.97 Those hints seem to have grown more explicit regarding the TTP, since Islamabad initiated the policy of mass forced returns of Afghans out of Pakistan in November 2023.98

Every regional country is attentively following developments regarding the TTP, understanding that the Taliban’s approach to the security concerns of a neighboring country has direct implications on their interests, too—in spite of the unique relationship that Pakistan has with Afghanistan generally and the Taliban in particular.99

It is important to point out the unique nature of the Taliban’s relationship with the TTP, which is quite distinct from the one that elements of the Taliban developed with al-Qa`ida and others over the decades. The TTP share kinship with elements of the Taliban, including shared geography, language, and extensive tribal and familial ties, at an incomparable degree of both cultural proximity and scale (with thousands of fighters and their families, compared to dozens or hundreds in other groups).100 Typologically, though both groups have engaged with transnational jihadi ideology to varying degrees, both were formed on the basis of, and were organized around, similar nationalistic aims.ap

But even with this intimate relationship, the Taliban are putting forth visible, high-profile efforts to stem the kind of support that could naturally flow from comradeship, affiliations, and shared ideological beliefs. In August 2023, a fatwa was issued by the aforementioned Dar ul-Ifta and endorsed by the emir banning any Afghan from joining armed jihad outside of Afghanistan.aq The GDI has detained hundreds of alleged TTP fighters in border areas since then, in both targeted and mass arrest operations.101 Personnel reassignments in positions along the border appear to also be influenced by whether or not security forces commanders are abiding by instructions from central leadership relating to how to approach the TTP issue.

The Taliban express indignation at Pakistan’s refusal, as they put it, to acknowledge how much they have done to contain and constrain the TTP.102 They have informed several foreign diplomats of plans to not only relocate TTP fighters and their families far away from border areas of Pakistan, but to disarm, demobilize, register, and closely monitor them in restricted living and agricultural compounds until they assimilate peacefully into Afghan society.103 However, the Taliban do express an expectation that Pakistan, if not other foreign powers, should pay for such containment measures, as the Taliban claim the TTP are not a problem of their making.ar

The reality check is that Pakistani, other regional, and U.S. officials describe clear evidence of Taliban permissiveness, and at least local-level facilitation and support for TTP attacks that are planned or staged from inside Afghanistan.104 But—with the understanding that much, if not all, of the Taliban harbors deep-seated sympathy for the TTP’s cause (and, conversely, deep-seated antipathy toward Pakistan)—that makes the measures described above, however obviously insufficient to resolve the issue, all the more notable. What outside observers dismiss as half-hearted or token gestures come at very real cost to the Taliban’s leadership; segments of their rank-and-file and ideologues alike sharply criticize these gestures, criticism that makes up a core tenet of ISK’s anti-Taliban propaganda.105 as Especially given that the domestic policy agenda has demonstrated the dominance of the emir and the originalists, the emir’s approval of any restrictive measures at all, even if only for show, are a demonstration of the Taliban’s balancing act between different schools of thought, between no less than ideology and pragmatism.

The Taliban clearly do not wish to be dragged into open conflict with Pakistan; in spite of the ideological bond with the TTP, their behavior in foreign relations is not utterly nihilistic. Instead, what the past two and a half years have demonstrated is the desire of the Taliban’s leadership to not be forced to make difficult, organizationally painful decisions.at That desire has long been a facet of the group’s decision-making and policy process.106

In two and a half years, the Taliban have made a lot of progress, according to their own priorities, in the transition from a militant movement to an ever-centralizing governing entity. In some ways they have regulated and professionalized the most detailed functions of the state, to a degree the Islamic Republic’s administrators were never able to achieve.au In other ways, their frontline officials and security officers retain much of the character of their insurgency era, and many dilemmas remain unaddressed.107

Regardless, they have managed to consolidate control over the country with a growing confidence that they face no real domestic challengers. True, ISK proved capable of targeting foreign institutions and assassinating senior officials inside Afghanistan throughout 2023, and has evolved into a serious security concern across the region—as the attack in Iran demonstrated in the first days of 2024.108 But the group is far from posing an existential threat to the Taliban’s authority—and indeed, appears to have adjusted its foreseeable objectives in light of that fact.109 av Per the Taliban’s own assessment, the greatest threat to their rule is posed by internal resentments and inequities, which keeps their attention fixated inward.aw

As a result of achieving this monopoly of force, the Taliban oscillate between arrogance but also insecurity, borne from capacity gaps in most technical areas of governance, threadbare economic resources for services and development, and the cloud of threats or missed opportunities that result from their quasi-pariah status in the outside world.

Their leaders have a firm grasp of challenges ahead and the dire needs that most Afghans struggle with daily; they have demonstrated an interest in long-term planning, to the extent their resources allow, but without any evident consideration of the possibilities that a fundamental reset with Western donors might enable. Faced with potential economic growth versus a perceived necessity of resisting foreign interference, the Taliban have—for now—clearly opted for the latter.

The Taliban’s leadership, perhaps embodied most of all by the emir, orchestrates an exhausting set of constant balancing acts. Some are timeless dilemmas of Afghan regimes, such as the struggle between the political center and periphery. Other dilemmas are uniquely Taliban-owned, such as the jihadi worldview that still drives many of their veterans—which now beckons young Afghan men to take up arms with the TTP and other extremist groups.

Although many of these Taliban leaders seem cannily aware of the serious hurdles they face, few if any of them have begun to visibly speak or act with the sense of urgency that might meet their circumstances. In domestic policy as well as diplomacy, the Taliban appear to continue to have faith in steadfastness, in the ability and willingness to hold strong and endure, no matter the cost, as an approach to their gauntlet of governance challenges. In discussions with foreigners throughout 2023, a wide range of Taliban officials evinced the belief that their immovability would continue to produce gains; the world would come to them, just as the Americans did at the negotiating table, presaging their victory.110

This governing force, still militant in many ways, and hardening against perceived threats to their sovereignty from abroad, retains an eagerness to engage and co-exist with the West on good terms—in ways that align with their interests.111 Yet, they refuse to bend in the face of foreign demands, an impasse that now largely defines their relations with the outside world. Many among the Taliban have expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, both within the country and how it faces outward. But they seem to agree that unity in the face of pressure is imperative to sustaining their reign. This tenet appears to be predicated on assumptions that (a) compromise would catalyze a collective crisis of faith their movement is unprepared for, and that in the meantime, (b) they are capable of weathering whatever storms lie ahead.     CTC

Haroun Rahimi is an Associate Professor of Law at the American University of Afghanistan and a Global Academy Scholar with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). He has researched and written extensively on Afghanistan’s legal and governance structures, before and after the Taliban’s takeover.X: @harounrahimi

Andrew Watkins is a Senior Expert with the United States Institute of Peace, and has worked in and on Afghanistan with the United Nations, as an advisor to humanitarian organizations, and in several capacities during the U.S. intervention. X: @andhuhwhat

© 2024 Haroun Rahimi, Andrew Watkins

Substantive Notes
[a] The Taliban’s rhetorical restraint on events in Israel and Gaza has been notable, especially in contrast with their public responses to other crises across the Muslim world since their return to power. That does not suggest political or ideological disinterest; in Haqqani’s statement and many others thereafter, concern is repeatedly expressed. But a sense of pragmatism is evidenced in their muted response. See Akmal Dawi, “Taliban leaders conspicuously silent on Israel-Hamas war in Gaza,” Voice of America, October 18, 2023, and “Muttaqi off to Iran for consultative conference on Palestine,” Ariana News, December 22, 2023.

[b] This slow, deliberative approach was a trademark of how the Taliban maintained political equilibrium among vast disparate factions during the insurgency.

[c] Some, though not the majority, of the interviews were conducted by one of the authors in the capacity of supporting a U.N. assessment of international engagement with Afghanistan, but all observations and analysis (and any faults thereof) are exclusively the authors’. See “Report of the independent assessment pursuant to Security Council resolution 2679 (2023),” United Nations Security Council (S/2023/856), November 8, 2023.

[d] In this article, the authors analyze the emir’s authority in the past two and a half years of rule by comparing the office as it existed under the later phases of the Taliban’s insurgency—not to the role during the movement’s earlier period of governing control in the 1990s, under founding emir Mullah Mohammad Omar. In seeking to assess the dynamics between the emir and the Taliban’s current senior leadership cadre (and understand the impact they will have on this movement’s future), the most useful starting point is to examine how these leaders related with each other in the years leading up to their takeover. The historical parallels between Omar and Akhundzada’s periods of rule, their differences in personal leadership style, and their very distinct sources of authority within the movement are worthy of further study—as are the multiple ways in which the emir and the movement gesture to Omar’s legacy. But that largely falls outside the scope of this piece. On the evolution of the role of the emir since the earliest days of the Taliban’s insurgency, see Antonio Giustozzi, Koran Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007 (London: Oxford University Press, 2009), and Thomas Ruttig, “Have the Taliban Changed?” CTC Sentinel 14:3 (2021). On Omar’s legacy during the Taliban’s current period of rule, see Fazelminallah Qazizai, “The Taliban Still Depend on Mullah Omar’s Legacy,” New Lines Magazine, May 2, 2022.

[e] This shura structure was guided in most respects by the imperative to pursue military victory. For reflections on the many ways in which the military imperative steered the Taliban’s approach to policy, see Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri, “Insurgent Bureaucracy: How the Taliban makes policy,” United States Institute of Peace, November 19, 2019, and Ruttig, “Have the Taliban Changed?”

[f] Throughout their insurgency, the Taliban developed an organizational culture that deferred internal debate on a wide range of policy, especially aspects of governance that might define their vision of future government. Ambiguity was often useful in the command and control relationship between senior leaders and field commanders, and proved to be as well at the negotiating table with the United States. See “Taking Stock of the Taliban’s Perspectives on Peace,” International Crisis Group, August 2020. But as the Taliban took over the outlets of the Afghan state, measures and sources of authority and influence among leadership began to shift, and old ambiguities became sources of tension—as evident in a range of issues from girls’ education to relationships with foreign jihadi movements. The emir’s expansionism should, in part, be seen as an attempt to grapple with the many impacts of ingrained policy ambiguity. On expressions of public dissent by some Taliban leaders and the dynamic that emerged in its aftermath, see Andrew Watkins, “What’s Next for the Taliban’s Leadership Amid Rising Dissent?” United States Institute of Peace, April 11, 2023.

[g] The other point of contestation in the movement was to what extent any non-Taliban political figures or technocrats should be included in the highest levels of government. This had been a compromise reportedly considered as part of a last-minute political settlement up until then-president Ashraf Ghani fled the country. On these last-minute negotiations, see an early account from Zalmay Khalilzad in Katrina Manson, “Ghani’s escape derailed last-ditch deal with Taliban, US envoy says,” Financial Times, September 15, 2021.

[h] At the time, this might have been underappreciated because the announced government was formally designated as a caretaker government (the title it still holds today). But observers’ attention on ministerial figures in Kabul, rather than the emir and scholars in Kandahar, was likely always going to tilt in favor of the many visible, symbolic measures of the Taliban securing and wielding state power. See Andrew Watkins, “An Assessment of Taliban Rule at Three Months,” CTC Sentinel 14:9 (2021), a piece that also overly focused on developments in Kabul.

[i] The emir’s management of some of these powerbrokers after reassignment, as described by interlocutors with close knowledge of their provincial politics, suggests a savvy political mind. See several examples cited in Andrew Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On,” CTC Sentinel 15:8 (2022).

[j] Reinforcing the ethnic dimension of these dynamics, a key factor in Badakhshan’s exceptionalism is the unique makeup of Badakhshani Taliban. Throughout the insurgency and into their rule, the Taliban in Badakhshan have been recruited exclusively from the province, from just three districts spanning interconnected valleys. The province is almost entirely ethnic Tajik and Persian-speaking, making Badakhshani Taliban a demographic outlier in the movement, even compared to other northern (non-Pashtun majority) provinces. In fall 2023, the emir finally appointed a non-Badakshani, non-Tajik provincial governor, who initially struggled to engage with local officials and elders. For background on the above history, see Obaid Ali, “The Non-Pashtun Taleban of the North (1): A case study from Badakhshan,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, January 3, 2019. On the recent appointment and tensions, see “Security Commander of Taliban in Badakhshan Dismissed on Charges of Drug Trafficking,” Hasht-e Sobh, December 26, 2023.

[k] As a key means of patronage and thereby securing a regime, appointments have always been historically fraught in Afghan politics; much of the dysfunction in the Islamic Republic’s “National Unity Government” stemmed from contested authority over appointments. Close observers note that in the initial months of the Taliban’s government, there seemed to be internal debate over which office of the state would oversee subnational offices and appointments. Increasingly centralized under Ghani’s personal staff, this had fallen under the Ministry of Interior in some 20th century Afghan governments—an assignment many speculated would appeal to Sirajuddin Haqqani, named Interior’s acting minister. Over the course of 2022, authority in this arena was increasingly asserted by the emir’s office, which by the end of 2023 had been standardized. Authors’ interviews, Afghan and foreign political analysts, based in Kabul, winter 2021 and August and October 2023.

[l] The default practice of greatest trust among interpersonal networks, in a Taliban senior leadership that remains largely Pashtun, limits the opportunities and authorities of their non-Pashtun leadership. See “Taliban and National Participation, the Non-Pashtun Commanders Face Segregation,” Hasht-e Sobh, October 18, 2022.

[m] While the lack of transparency in many aspects of Taliban governance makes it difficult to discern if, for instance, members of the emir’s Noorzai tribe have actually been appointed to (a) more or (b) more influential positions since he began to assert control over appointments, allegations to that effect are fueled by vignettes such as the Taliban’s insistence on securing the release of Haji Bashir Noorzai, a notable drug trafficker jailed by the United States for 17 years and tribal kin to the emir, as his suffix suggests. See Kazim Hasan, “Taliban’s Pablo Escobar: Who is Haji Bashir Noorzai?” Kabul Now, June 14, 2023.

[n] One veteran Afghan political analyst, citing these dynamics in Nangarhar as an example, pointed to intra-Pashtun resentments as the Taliban’s greatest domestic political struggle in the foreseeable future: Some Pashtun communities generally contributed more to the insurgency, and those that contributed more still have greater expectations of representation and allocation of power under the Taliban’s rule. Authors’ interviews; political analysts, journalists, and U.N. security officials; Jalalabad, Afghanistan; August 2023.

[o] Best estimates suggest at least 40 percent of the entire budget is directed to the security sector. See Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour, “What Do the Taleban Spend Afghanistan’s Money On? Government expenditure under the Islamic Emirate,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 2023.

[p] The narcotics ban was announced early in 2022, repeatedly touted since by the Taliban as one of their major achievements in governance, but progressed only gradually and in phases over the past two years. It began with incomplete poppy crop eradication in the first several harvest and growing seasons, and was only enforced stringently in 2023. See David Mansfield, “Truly Unprecedented: The Taliban Drugs Ban v2.0.,” Alcis, June 6, 2023.

[q] Notably, the emir’s most important decree in the Taliban’s first months back in power brought on a great deal of the tension that later drove him to accommodate the most ultraconservative wing of supporters: the provision of general amnesty to former security forces and officials. That the emir later sided with discontented ideological hardliners should not obscure this nuance. For a thorough timeline of Taliban statements and guidance on the amnesty, see “A barrier to securing peace: Human rights violations against former government officials and former armed force members in Afghanistan: 15 August 2021 – 30 June 2023,” United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, August 22, 2023.

[r] This inclination of the emir and his camp to emulate the 1990s extended beyond policy and into the realm of leadership stature. As one senior Taliban bureaucrat said, “He’s [Haibatullah Akhundzada] more like Mullah Omar than Mullah Omar.” See Matthew Aikins, “The Taliban’s Dangerous Collision Course with the West,” New York Times Magazine, August 8, 2022.

[s] Senior Taliban leaders themselves admitted that girls were attending high school in a plurality of the country. See quotes from acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kathy Gannon, “The AP Interview: Taliban seek ties with US, other ex-foes,” Associated Press, December 13, 2021.

[t] Some close to the Taliban speculated, early on, that the ulema councils might serve as a religiously-oriented, unelected equivalent to the Islamic Republic’s Provincial Councils (which was also a body vested with significant but vaguely-defined and often informal access and authority). Taliban officials themselves encouraged this view (and may have believed it at one point). In 2022, an acting deputy minister of interior said in Takhar province, “The Ulema Council [of this province] is higher than the Provincial Council of the Republic regime.” See “Ulema Council established over Takhar provincial government,” Ariana News, June 13, 2022.

[u] This critique was even shared by ulema themselves, at two ‘grand ulema gatherings’ held in Kabul and Kandahar in the summer of 2022. See Rahimi, “Islamic Law, the Taliban, and the Modern State.”

[v] The title of this institution is difficult to translate precisely, but it is something like the High Directorate for the Monitoring and Oversight of Edicts and Decrees.

[w] An important corollary to consider is the sequencing and timing of each major policy decision. To continue examining the realm of gender-based restrictions, the nine-month gap between the rejection of girls returning to high school (March 2022) and the ban on women attending university (December 2022) suggests internal political factors at play. It is not feasible that the Taliban’s originalists deliberated for nine months before deciding that women in university should be forbidden, nor is there reason to believe that enforcing such a policy required so much time to prepare. Therefore, several (non-exclusive) possibilities suggest themselves: (a) the originalists face opposition to their agenda of total gender segregation, either internally within the Taliban or from domestic constituencies they respect; (b) the emir himself is not a proponent of originalist views on gender relations, but is rather juggling the competing demands and political weight of various camps; (c) global condemnation has not only hardened the Taliban’s resolve to resist, but has gradually tilted the scales of domestic policy decision-making in favor of the originalists’ vision, by default (since anything less has increasingly taken on the taint of caving into foreign demands). This last possibility is explored in the below section.

[x] One former Western envoy bluntly characterized the drama as Sirajuddin Haqqani, Yaqoub, and other figures “holding a gun to the head of the king, and then failing to pull the trigger.” Several other interlocutors, who were convinced the rumors indicated serious internal turmoil, clarified that what was at stake was not radical change in the Taliban’s hierarchy, but a much softer coup that might sideline the emir into a more ceremonial role. Authors’ interviews; Afghan political observers and foreign diplomats; Kabul, Doha, and other locations; February, March, and August 2023.

[y] A narrative has gained traction among Taliban who speak with foreigners, that the United States and other Western powers always planned to relegate them into a sort of pariah status; they point to the cessation of funding and the freezing of state assets only days after the fall of Kabul, which they claim proves an intent to economically blockade their regime well before any offending policies were in place. Yet, this narrative is disingenuously selective with its facts, ignoring major offers to improve ties and expand assistance if girls returned to high schools. See Patrick Wintour, “West plans to tie Afghan teacher aid to girls’ education pledge,” Guardian, January 27, 2022.

[z] In terms of state-building and its relation to foreign affairs, one of the most strikingly familiar themes is found in the way the Taliban express their interest in establishing a “grand army,” a bedrock of Afghan monarchical dynasties. Even the appointment of Yaqoub as acting Minister of Defense in the earliest days after the August 2021 takeover, and the implications of that appointment given the widely gossiped subtext of Yaqoub’s ambition and potential to become emir one day, reflects the historic political importance of the army as an Afghan institution.

[aa] For instance, the Afghanistan National Academy of Sciences—an institution headed by an influential religious scholar close to the emir who has been recently sanctioned for his role in keeping Afghan girls out of school—held a conference on the benefits of adopting neutral positions in relations with other states. See Naweed Samadi, “Hanafi: Islamic Emirate Established Policy of ‘Neutrality,’” Tolo News, August 18, 2023.

[ab] There are differences between the two camps, however. Dissenters seem to believe they can leverage the promise of economic self-sufficiency to moderate social policies, thus using external pressure in their favor on domestic social policy disagreements. The originalists, on the other hand, seem to value economic self-sufficiency more for the opportunity it would afford the state to resist external pressures to moderate their domestic agenda. Authors’ interviews, analysts in Kabul and Taliban affiliates, 2022-2023.

[ac] In just one small measure, the majority of public statements made by the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding Afghanistan since the Taliban’s takeover have focused on the rights of Afghan women and girls (when one factors out evacuation-related statements, the percentage rises greatly).

[ad] These perceptions, it is critical to note, make up a key element of public messaging the Taliban disseminate through all the mass media outlets available to the state. Authors’ interviews, Kabul-based diplomats, January-March 2023; Taliban officials, August and October 2023.

[ae] As suggested in domestic policy and internal Taliban debate earlier above, this continued openness in the face of hardening attitudes, and how both continue to be reflected in Taliban public messaging, suggests the emir and his leadership have a delicate balancing act on their hands—and that balancing among different ideological poles within their movement is something they tend to carefully.

[af] Since its takeover, a notable pattern has emerged in ISK’s propaganda: the Taliban’s foreign engagements are consistently lambasted as selling out the values of a true Islamic state; practically every photo taken with foreign officials is used in propaganda that attacks their legitimacy. Engagement has real costs for the Taliban. See Lucas Webber and Riccardo Valle, “Islamic State Khorasan’s Expanded Vision in South and Central Asia,” Diplomat, August 26, 2022.

[ag] Media coverage and commentary on the Taliban’s relationship with Iran, for instance, is characterized by episodes of tensions and even clashes along their shared border, but beyond the headlines, Kabul has quietly established a model for interagency border security liaison with Iran, one it has replicated with other neighboring states and which regional diplomats praise as professionalizing and stabilizing bilateral conflict resolution. Authors’ interviews, diplomatic officials, Kabul and regional capitals, July-October 2023. For insights into the Taliban’s pragmatism and flexibility as exercised toward international humanitarian and development actors during their insurgency, see Ashley Jackson, “Life under the Taliban shadow government,” ODI, June 20, 2018.

[ah] Foreign interlocutors describe the Taliban as far easier to engage with on a wide range of issues than the Houthis in Yemen, both de facto governments and major armed groups in Libya, and armed actors in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan; these are only a few commonly cited points of comparison. Authors’ interviews, humanitarian and development professionals, August-October 2023.

[ai] One illustration of the vast gap in assistance between Western and regional states was China’s contribution to emergency relief in October 2023, after a series of devastating earthquakes in western Afghanistan. Beijing pledged 30 million yuan, or about 4 million USD, out of a total response plan sum of 173 million: roughly two percent. See “China provides 30m yuan in humanitarian aid to quake-hit Afghanistan,” CGTN, October 12, 2023.

[aj] Some Taliban officials have expressed outsized, unrealistic assessments of U.S. influence on how the world engages with Afghanistan. In a July 2023 interview with an Arabic-language media outlet, acting Minister of Defense Yaqoub suggested that the act of all countries withholding diplomatic recognition was due to U.S. pressure—he did not elaborate how the United States might be influencing adversaries such as Russia, Iran, or China. See Karishma Pranav Bhavsar, “‘Some countries under pressure…’ Taliban says US obstacle to international recognition of Afghanistan,” Live Mint, July 24, 2023.

[ak] The corollary to this attempt to play China and the United States/West off of each other is how effectively China is then able to pressure the Taliban, if and when they choose—as it traps the Taliban in a corner they believed offered them sanctuary. See “China says Afghan Taliban must reform before full diplomatic ties,” AFP, December 5, 2023.

[al] It is worth noting the irony that, amid a nadir in the Islamic Republic’s relations with Pakistan, then-president Ashraf Ghani orchestrated a strikingly similar shift in both diplomatic overtures and trade arrangements with Iran. See, for example, “Afghanistan opens new trade route with aim of building link to Europe,” Reuters, December 13, 2018.

[am] Where Pakistan fits in this balancing calculus is difficult to precisely dial in. Taliban officials frame Islamabad’s interests differently, depending on the context and issue at hand. At times, Pakistan is assessed as most effectively counterbalanced by shifting to Iran, as cited just above; other times, Pakistan is described as an ally or even client state of China. At other times still, Pakistan’s actions or messaging are characterized as a proxy for U.S .interests, and can be invalidated as such. Authors’ textual analysis of Taliban press statements, 2022-2023.

[an] The Taliban’s army chief of staff confirmed the establishment of these liaison working groups; see Franz Marty, “Exclusive Interview with Taliban Chief of Army Staff on Status and Mission of Taliban Army,” Swiss Institute for Global Affairs, January 29, 2023.

[ao] Many groups on good terms with the Taliban have been notably inactive since the takeover (if relatively free to communicate internationally and produce propaganda). See, for a summary of this uneasy quietude, Asfandyar Mir, “Two Years Under the Taliban: Is Afghanistan a Terrorist Safe Haven Once Again?” United States Institute of Peace, August 15, 2023. The most notable group hostile to the Taliban, ISK, demonstrated its resilient capacity to carry out transnational acts of terrorism in a lethal bombing deep in Iran, in early January 2024. See Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland, “Exclusive: US intelligence confirms Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch behind Iran blasts,” Reuters, January 5, 2024.

[ap] The depth of the TTP’s relationships with transnational jihadi groups, its embrace of many of their aims, and even direct participation in international acts of terrorism all distinguish the group’s earlier history from the Afghan Taliban, but over time, the TTP has calibrated its espoused ideology and strategic aims to more closely mirror the Taliban. See Sayed, “The Evolution and Future of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.”

[aq] The original fatwa and official statements about it did not specify Pakistan, but later comments from Taliban diplomats based in Pakistan clarified this point. See Fatima Adib, “Darul Ifta Issues Fatwa Prohibiting Afghans From War Abroad: Mujahid,” Tolo News, August 11, 2023, and Frud Bezhan, “Afghan Taliban Bans Fighters From Waging ‘Jihad’ In Pakistan,” Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, October 27, 2023.

[ar] Indeed, Taliban officials point to the actions of former intelligence chiefs under the Islamic Republic, and their widely reported dalliance with the TTP and other groups that could potentially foment unrest inside Pakistan, as the source of today’s violence. Authors’ interviews, Taliban officials and foreign interlocutors in Kabul, June-November 2023.

[as] One example of ISK propaganda seizing on these criticisms came in a Pashto-language video (meant to target the Taliban’s supporters), accusing the Taliban of betraying their very roots. See Afghan Analyst, “The ISKP-affiliated Al Azaim media recently released a 53-minute propaganda video in Pashto …” X, November 5, 2023.

[at] At least when it comes to the TTP, the Taliban’s approach to foreign fighters remains paralyzed by the dilemma the analyst Graeme Smith once characterized with the Pashto proverb, “You can’t hold two watermelons in one hand.” As Smith put it, “In this case the watermelons are the jihadi supporters of the Taliban on one side, and the international community on the other.” See Scott Peterson, “Afghanistan mystery: Why was Al Qaeda’s leader in Kabul?” Christian Science Monitor, August 2, 2022.

[au] In one small example, the Taliban’s customs revenue collection has been facilitated by their adept usage of sophisticated tracking software, introduced but never effectively used by the former government. See William Byrd, “Let’s Not Kid Ourselves: Afghanistan’s Taliban Regime Will Not Become More Inclusive,” Lawfare, October 24, 2022. The Taliban have overseen numerous improvements to efficiency in customs and trade more broadly (to their benefit in revenue collection). See David Mansfield, “Changing the Rules of the Game: How the Taliban Regulated Cross-Border Trade and Upended Afghanistan’s Political Economy,” Alcis/XCEPT, July 25, 2022.

[av] On ISK’s adjustment of its aims in the face of Taliban suppression, a U.S. official said in 2023 that “ISIS Khorasan members involved in media, facilitation and recruitment in support of external operations are increasingly moving to neighboring countries to evade the Taliban [counterterrorism] campaign.” Quoted in Natasha Bertrand and Katie Bo Lillis, “New US intelligence suggests al Qaeda unlikely to revive in Afghanistan, but officials warn ISIS threat remains,” CNN, September 8, 2023.

[aw] The renowned scholar of Afghanistan Barnett Rubin astutely noted that the Taliban had not managed to resolve ethnic political tensions but had dominated Afghan political space so completely that ethnic tensions now largely play out within the Taliban, over how much representation and influence any given ethnicity has within their state. See Barnett Rubin, “Afghanistan Under the Taliban: Findings on the Current Situation,” Stimson Center, October 20, 2022. Even over a year old, the piece holds up remarkably well as an overview.

[1] See YouTube video posted by the account “MoI [Ministry of Interior] Afghanistan,” entitled [“Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqani, Acting Minister of Interior, participated in the National Conference on Economic Development of Afghanistan”], October 15, 2023.

[2] See “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on a U.S. Counterterrorism Operation,” The White House, August 1, 2022.

[3] Summarized in Haroun Rahimi, “The Taliban in government: A grim new reality is settling in,” Al Jazeera English, March 23, 2023.

[4] Authors’ interviews, security analysts, Afghanistan, August and October 2023. On the state augmentation of surveillance and informant-network capabilities the Taliban developed as an insurgency, see Jacob Silverman, “The surveillance state that the U.S. left behind in Afghanistan,” New Republic, August 26, 2021. For a comprehensive overview of the Taliban’s adaptation to security challenges as a governing authority, see “Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban (Report N. 326),” International Crisis Group, August 12, 2022.

[5] On Taliban killings and other human rights violations since the takeover, see “A barrier to securing peace: Human rights violations against former government officials and former armed force members in Afghanistan: 15 August 2021 – 30 June 2023,” United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, August 22, 2023. For a comparison to human rights violations perpetrated by other recent Afghan political regimes, including U.S.-supported forces, see “Paying for the Taliban’s Crimes: Abuses Against Ethnic Pashtuns in Northern Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, April 2002; “All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, October 2002; and “Killing You is a Very Easy Thing For Us: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, July 2003.

[6] See “Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.”

[7] For a comprehensive list of gender-based restrictions, see “Tracking the Taliban’s (mis)treatment of women,” United States Institute of Peace, n.d. For Taliban views and discourse on some of these restrictions, see Fazelminallah Qazizai, “Why the Taliban view education as a weapon,” New Lines Magazine, April 4, 2022.

[8] Authors’ interviews (remote and in person), Taliban officials and Afghan political analysts, June-November 2023.

[9] See Asfandyar Mir, “No Good Choices: The Counterterrorism Dilemmas in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” CTC Sentinel 16:10 (2023).

[10] For an essential snapshot of these paradoxes and this transition conveyed in rank-and-file perspectives, now occupying municipal offices and quotidian government jobs, see Sabawoon Samim, “New Lives in the City: How Taleban have experienced life in Kabul,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, February 2, 2023.

[11] See Andrew Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On,” CTC Sentinel 15:8 (2022).

[12] Authors’ interviews, remote and in person, Afghanistan, 2022-2023. A sense of this constituency and some of their views on girls’ education is provided in Ashley Jackson, “The Ban on Older Girls’ Education: Taleban conservatives ascendant and a leadership in disarray,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 29, 2022.

[13] See Ruttig, “Have the Taliban Changed?”

[14] On the role of the emir, how the office and its authority has evolved, especially when it came to succession crises, see 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, and “Taleban in Transition 2: Who is in charge now?” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 22, 2016.

[15] On the importance of the concept of obedience to the emir in the institutional culture of the Taliban, especially as they evolved throughout their insurgency, see Michael Semple, “Rhetoric, Ideology and Organizational Structure of the Taliban Movement,” United States Institute of Peace, January 5, 2015. On the strain that Akhundzada’s leadership style has placed on this concept, see Andrew Watkins, “What’s Next for the Taliban’s Leadership Amid Rising Dissent?” United States Institute of Peace, April 11, 2023.

[16] Authors’ interviews, Afghan political analysts, Dubai, Istanbul and Kabul, November-December 2022 and March 2023.

[17] On several phases of resistance to the emir’s expansionist leadership style, see Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On,” and Watkins, “What’s Next for the Taliban’s Leadership Amid Rising Dissent?” For a thought-provoking thesis, suggesting that divergent policy visions in Taliban leadership only reveal differences in preferred approach, not in the desired end-state, see Timor Sharan, “Time for the United States to Rethink its Strategy for Afghanistan,” Just Security, April 20, 2023.

[18] Authors’ interviews, foreign diplomats and Afghan political analysts, Kabul, October-November 2023.

[19] Authors’ overall assessment from field research across Afghanistan, August and October 2023, and January 2024.

[20] For more detail and sourcing on the following characterizations, see Haroun Rahimi, “Taliban Caretaker Government: Good for Internal Cohesion, Bad for Governance,” Diplomat, September 9, 2021.

[21] See Rahimi, “Taliban Caretaker Government.” See also Ibraheem Bahiss, “Who Will Run the Taliban Government?” International Crisis Group, September 9, 2021.

[22] On the pace of these replacements, see Haroun Rahimi, “Remaking of Afghanistan: How the Taliban are Changing Afghanistan’s Laws and Legal Institutions,” Institute of South Asian Studies Working Papers, July 26, 2022.

[23] Authors’ remote interviews, foreign and Afghan political analysts in Kabul, September-Nov 2022, February-March 2023, and August-October 2023.

[24] For an overview of the topic, see Alex Thier, “The Nature of the Afghan State: Centralization vs. Decentralization,” United States Institute of Peace, November 2020. On how the nexus of center-periphery relations and ethnic resentments played into the collapse of the Islamic Republic and the Taliban’s swift takeover of northern Afghanistan, see Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, “The Collapse of Afghanistan,” Journal of Democracy 33:1 (2022).

[25] For a perspective on the historically persecuted Hazara community in this respect, see Farkhondeh Akbari, “The Risks Facing Hazaras in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan,” George Washington University Program on Extremism, March 7, 2022. These concerns were reflected in numerous author interviews with community elders, civil society activists, and other local stakeholders in multiple regions of Afghanistan, August and October 2023.

[26] On popular unrest in Faryab (taking particular note of similar problems facing the former Islamic Republic), see Sudarsan Raghavan, “A popular Uzbek commander fought for the Taliban for more than two decades. He was arrested anyway,” Washington Post, February 1, 2022. Astute observations about the Taliban’s management of center-periphery tensions are found in Barnett Rubin, “Afghanistan Under the Taliban: Findings on the Current Situation,” Stimson Center, October 20, 2022.

[27] See David Mansfield, “Uncharted Territory: Does the Taliban’s new edict signal a crackdown on the drugs trade is looming?” Alcis, November 2, 2023.

[28] Authors’ interviews, Afghan and foreign political analysts, based in Kabul, winter 2021 and August and October 2023.

[29] Authors’ interviews, Afghan and foreign political analysts, based in Kabul, winter 2021 and August and October 2023.

[30] On the canal, see Javed Ahmad Kakar, “Reports about land distribution around key canal nixed,” Pajhwok News, November 15, 2023.

[31] Authors’ interviews, civil society activists and business owners, Balkh province, Afghanistan, August 2023.

[32] Authors’ interviews; political analysts, journalists, and U.N. security officials; Jalalabad, Afghanistan; August 2023.

[33] Authors’ interviews; political analysts, journalists, and U.N. security officials; Jalalabad, Afghanistan; August 2023. Regarding the threat Islamic State-Khorasan posed to the Taliban after the takeover, including eastern Afghanistan, see Amira Jadoon, Andrew Mines, and Abdul Sayed, “The Enduring Duel: Islamic State Khorasan’s Survival under Afghanistan’s New Rulers,” CTC Sentinel 16:8 (2023).

[34] Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On.”

[35] See “Taliban government’s Finance Minister resigns over financial misappropriation,” Balochistan Post, March 20, 2023.

[36] See Kate Clark, “Taxing the Afghan Nation: What the Taleban’s pursuit of domestic revenues means for citizens, the economy and the state,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, September 28, 2022.

[37] Authors’ remote interviews, economic and political analysts, Kabul and Dubai, February-May 2023.

[38] Authors’ remote interviews, economic and political analysts, Kabul and Dubai, February-May 2023.

[39] See Kate Clark, “The Cost of Support to Afghanistan: Considering inequality, poverty and lack of democracy through the ‘rentier state’ lens,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 29, 2020.

[40] See “Top Afghan Taliban leader issues decree against nepotism,” Associated Press, March 20, 2023, and “Taliban allocates 100,000 teaching posts to private madrassas in Afghanistan,” Kabul Now, August 21, 2023. Also authors’ interviews, U.N. officials and Afghan political analysts, Kabul and remote, October and December 2023.

[41] See William Byrd, “The Taliban’s Successful Opium Ban is Bad for Afghans and the World,” United States Institute of Peace, June 8, 2023, and “How Much Opium Did Afghans Harvest in 2023 After the Taliban Ban?” Lawfare, December 19, 2023.

[42] See Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Pipe dreams: The Taliban and drugs from the 1990s into its new regime,” Brookings Institution, September 15, 2021.

[43] In Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On,” one of the authors explored this dual-track disagreement through the lens of the controversial issue of banning girls’ education.

[44] See Jackson, “The Ban on Older Girls’ Education.”

[45] Authors’ remote interviews, Afghan and foreign analysts based in Kabul, January-February and March-April 2022.

[46] Authors’ remote interviews, Afghan and foreign analysts based in Kabul, January-February and March-April 2022.

[47] Authors’ remote interviews, Afghan analysts and foreign diplomats based in Kabul, September 2021-2022.

[48] See Andrew Watkins, “Taliban Fragmentation: Fact, Fiction, and Future,” United States Institute of Peace, March 23, 2020.

[49] See Jackson, “The Ban on Older Girls’ Education.” Also authors’ remote interviews, Afghan and foreign analysts, Kabul and Doha, Qatar, March-July 2022.

[50] See Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On.”

[51] Sana Tariq and M. Ehsan Zia, “The Taliban’s Crisis of Diplomacy,” United States Institute of Peace, December 2022. Also based on authors’ interviews, Afghan analysts and officials, Kabul and Doha, March 2022, March and August 2023.

[52] Authors’ textual analysis of Taliban press statements, 2022-2023.

[53] Ashley Jackson and Florian Weigand, “How the Taliban are losing the peace in Afghanistan,” Current History, April 2023.

[54] Authors’ interviews, U.N. and other diplomatic officials, Kabul, fall 2022 and spring 2023.

[55] See Haroun Rahimi, “Islamic Law, the Taliban, and the Modern State,” Islamic Law Blog, March 31, 2023, and Rahimi, “Remaking of Afghanistan.”

[56] Authors’ interviews, Afghan and foreign analysts based in Kabul, December 2022-March 2023.

[57] On those appointments, see Abubakar Siddique, “The Taliban Higher Education Minister Who Is Against Female Education,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 15, 2022.

[58] See Zahid Omarzai, “Explainer: How Afghanistan’s Legislative Process Has Changed Under Taliban Rule,” Jurist, January 20, 2023.

[59] Authors’ interviews, Afghan analysts and foreign diplomatic officials, Kabul, October-December 2023.

[60] See Rahimi, “Remaking of Afghanistan.”

[61] See the commentary describing the manifesto on an ideal Islamic state and social system, published by the Taliban’s chief justice of the supreme court, Abdul Hakim Haqqani. John Butt, “A Taleban Theory of State: A review of the Chief Justice’s book of jurisprudence,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, September 3, 2023.

[62] On the Taliban publicizing women’s role in the private sector, see Fidel Rahmati, “Special women’s exhibition opens in Kabul amid women’s restrictions,” Khaama Press, November 17, 2023. On women still appearing in high-profile journalism—a profession most women have discontinued since the Taliban takeover—see “Afghan broadcaster airs rare all-female panel to discuss rights on Women’s Day,” Reuters, March 9, 2023. On a recent Taliban leader’s expression of support for girls’ education, see “Stanekzai acknowledges public discontent over girls’ education ban,” Amu TV, 7 December 2023.

[63] Again, see Watkins, “What’s Next for the Taliban’s Leadership Amid Rising Dissent?”

[64] See again Watkins, “Taliban Fragmentation.”

[65] See, for example, quotes in Osama bin Javaid, “Taliban retakes power, but it faces mounting challenges ahead,” Al Jazeera English, August 22, 2021.

[66] On the influence of transnational jihadi movements on the Taliban’s ideology, organizational culture, and self-perceptions, see Anand Gopal and Alex Strick Van Linshoten, “Ideology in the Afghan Taleban,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 29, 2017. See also Borhan Osman, “Taleban Leader Hebatullah’s New Treatise on Jihad,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 15, 2017. For a summary of the twists and turns in their often-contentious relationship with al-Qa`ida up to 2018, see Tricia Bacon, “Deadly Cooperation: The Shifting Ties Between Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” War on the Rocks, September 11, 2018.

[67] An in-depth examination of this period of openness in Taliban diplomacy and external dialogue, and the internal political dynamics that led to its closure, is offered in Tariq and Zia.

[68] See, for example, the high-profile reception afforded to the Kabul visit of the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce, or the economic delegation visits to regional countries, in Ayaz Gul, “US Business Delegation Makes Rare Visit to Taliban-Run Afghanistan,” Voice of America, September 6, 2023, and Riyaz ul Khaliq, “Afghan Deputy Premier Mullah Baradar meets top officials in Iran,” Anadolu Agency, November 6, 2023.

[69] See “Taliban bans female NGO staff, jeopardizing aid efforts,” Reuters, December 24, 2022, and “Taliban ban on Afghan women working for U.N. an ‘internal’ issue,” Reuters, April 12, 2023.

[70] Again, see Tariq and Zia. Also authors’ interviews, July-October 2023.

[71] See Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On,” for some textual analysis of the speech.

[72] See Gul, “US Business Delegation Makes Rare Visit to Taliban-Run Afghanistan.”

[73] Authors’ interviews, Kabul and Doha-based diplomats, and Taliban officials, July and September 2023.

[74] See this common characterization found in, for example, “The Taliban crave recognition but refuse to do anything to earn it,” Economist, May 14, 2022.

[75] Authors’ interviews, diplomats, development and humanitarian professionals, August-October 2023.

[76] Authors’ interviews, diplomats, development and humanitarian professionals, August-October 2023.

[77] On the Taliban’s awareness of the continued U.S./Western dominance in funding and support, see Authors’ interviews, diplomats, development and humanitarian professionals, August-October 2023.

[78] Authors’ interviews, diplomats, development and humanitarian professionals, August-October 2023.

[79] Authors interviews, diplomats and Taliban officials, Kabul and Doha, Qatar, October 2023.

[80] Authors interviews, diplomats and Taliban officials, Kabul and Doha, Qatar, October 2023.

[81] On the concept of neutrality toward the region in the era of the Islamic Republic, see Nasir Andisha, Neutrality and Vulnerable States: An Analysis of Afghanistan’s Permanent Neutrality (New York: Routledge, 2021).

[82] Authors’ interviews, a senior U.N. official, Kabul, February and August 2023.

[83] See “China says Afghan Taliban must reform before full diplomatic ties,” AFP, December 5, 2023.

[84] Authors’ interviews, interlocutors and Taliban officials in Kabul, January-February and July-August, 2023.

[85] Authors’ interviews, interlocutors and Taliban officials in Kabul, January-February and July-August, 2023.

[86] Authors’ interviews, interlocutors and Taliban officials in Kabul, January-February and July-August, 2023.

[87] See Muhammad Yunus Yawar, “Taliban to sign contract with UAE’s GAAC Holding over airspace control at Afghan airports,” Reuters, September 8, 2023, and Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On.”

[88] Authors’ interviews, diplomatic and U.N. officials, and aviation specialists, Kabul and Doha, October 2023.

[89] See ul Khaliq, “Afghan Deputy Premier Mullah Baradar meets top officials in Iran.”

[90] “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on a U.S. Counterterrorism Operation.”

[91] See Asfandyar Mir, “In a Major Rift, Pakistan Ramps Up Pressure on the Taliban,” United States Institute of Peace, November 16, 2023. For earlier reference, see also Mir, “Pakistan’s Twin Taliban Problem,” United States Institute of Peace, May 4, 2022.

[92] See Abdul Sayed and Tore Hamming, “The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan After the Taliban’s Afghanistan Takeover,” CTC Sentinel 16:5 (2023).

[93] On this calculus, see Andrew Watkins, “Afghanistan’s Neighbors Are Learning to Live With the Taliban,” World Politics Review, May 23, 2022.

[94] Authors’ interviews, Taliban officials and regional diplomats, Kabul, regional capitals, Doha and remote, February-March 2022, February 2023, July-August 2023.

[95] Authors’ interview, Kabul-based diplomat, September 2023.

[96] Authors’ interviews, climate security experts and regional diplomats, May-September 2023.

[97] Authors’ interviews, Taliban officials and foreign interlocutors in Kabul, June-November 2023.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Author interviews, regional scholars and officials, Almaty, Kazakhstan, November 2023.

[100] For more background, see Abdul Sayed, “The Evolution and Future of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 21, 2021.

[101] See Ayaz Gul, “Pakistani Officials: Taliban Arrest 200 Anti-Pakistan Militants in Afghanistan,” Voice of America, September 27, 2023.

[102] Authors’ interviews, Taliban officials and foreign interlocutors in Kabul, June-November 2023.

[103] Authors’ interviews, Taliban officials and foreign interlocutors in Kabul, June-November 2023.

[104] Authors’ interviews, diplomatic and security officials, August-October 2023.

[105] Authors’ interviews, Afghan and Pakistani political analysts, August-October 2023.

[106] See “Taking Stock of the Taliban’s Perspectives on Peace,” International Crisis Group, August 2020.

[107] The best reporting that captures this raw, still-raggedy nature of the Taliban’s local arm of the state is found in Franz Marty, “How the Taliban Guard Afghanistan’s Border (and What It Says About Their Regime),” Diplomat, August 8, 2023.

[108] On ISK assassinations of Taliban officials, see Michael Scollon, “Fresh Attacks Put Spotlight on Afghanistan’s Northeast As IS-K Stomping, Recruiting Ground,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 15, 2023. On the attack in Kerman and its implications for ISK’s operational aims, see Lucas Webber and Peter Smith, “Iran attack signals growing Central Asian role in ISKP’s external ops,” Eurasianet, January 10, 2024.

[109] See one narrative of the Taliban’s campaign to suppress ISK in Antonio Giustozzi, “The Taliban’s Campaign Against the Islamic State: Explaining Initial Successes,” RUSI, October 25, 2023.

[110] Authors’ interviews, diplomats, development and humanitarian officials, February and July-November 2023.

[111] See “Briefing to the United Nations Security Council by the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Roza Otunbayeva (New York, December 20, 2023),” United Nations, December 20, 2023.

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