Abstract: The Taliban’s first year in power has seen the group gradually grow more repressive, as it consolidates its control over the country. But this consolidation has stalled in critical aspects of governance, revealing divisions in Taliban policy views and ambitions to power. Behind the scenes, Taliban leaders remain unable to reach consensus on key issues or to formalize the structure of their government to shore up domestic and internal legitimacy. From girls’ education to hosting al-Qa`ida in Kabul, the Taliban remain bogged down by contradictions in their organizational ambitions, and the ambiguity that served them so well in maintaining their diverse membership, as well as helping to press for the best possible bargain at the negotiating table, is stunting the development of their nascent state. Though the group remains unchallenged by existential threats for the moment, the trajectory of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate is troubled.

On March 23, 2022, the Taliban, seven months into their assumption of power as Afghanistan’s national government, inadvertently revealed a great deal about the internal politics and decision making, divisions, and unsettled debates within the notoriously secretive movement. The group’s supreme leader overruled a critical policy at the last minute, casting new light on differences in Taliban visions for Afghanistan’s future. How and why the decision was made, and how the group dealt with the fallout, illuminates many of the challenges, tensions, and themes of the Taliban’s first year back in power.

For months leading up to March 23, Taliban officials had assured the Afghan public and foreign diplomats that the ban on girls attending secondary school, which had been halted by an early decree and enforced in more than two-thirds of the country, would be lifted by the start of the Persian new year, in late March. But just days—or perhaps hours—before teenaged girls were scheduled to resume classes, the Taliban’s reclusive emir, Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada (hereafter referred to as Hibatullah), overruled his cabinet at a gathering of Taliban leadership in the southern city of Kandahar.1 He extended the ban indefinitely.

The decision’s momentous, tragic impact tended to overshadow the fact that this was perhaps the most publicly exposed policy disagreement in the Taliban’s history. In the days and weeks that followed, Taliban figures in Kabul and across the country privately vented frustration and dismay over the decision, even as spokesmen emphasized the movement’s unity and denied the existence of any differences of opinion.a

The decision also appeared to risk the future of international engagement with the Taliban regime. Western donors had drawn a red line on the resumption of girls’ education, and the timing could not have been worse. The day after March 23, the Taliban’s foreign minister had been scheduled as a keynote speaker for a major diplomatic forum in Doha, Qatar; the week after, developed nations were meeting to pledge assistance to Afghanistan for the remainder of the year.b

By July, as popular discontent grew over these decisions and the country’s economic conditions grew more dire, the Taliban organized a large gathering closely resembling the loya jirga, the country’s most iconic mechanism for establishing political legitimacy.2 Yet, the Taliban eschewed this term, assembling confirmed Taliban supporters (a majority of them religious scholars) and ignoring calls made by many attendees to lift the ban on girls’ attendance in schools.3 The gathering proved to be little more than a rubber stamp on the Taliban’s authority, capping any real debate and emphasizing obedience to the state.

The Taliban’s starkly exclusionary turn underscores themes identified by this author in this publication last year in an assessment of the movement’s first three months in power.4 The Taliban remain obsessed with maintaining internal cohesion, even at the expense of effective governance; they lack agreement or even much clarity on the preferred scope and structure of the Afghan state; and they are fixated on consolidating control in largely the same way they did during wartime by moving swiftly to eliminate perceived threats. All of this has, as predicted, stunted the Taliban’s ability to respond to the country’s economic and humanitarian crises, which would have required compromise and collaboration with external donors to a degree that would complicate their raison d’être of ejecting foreign influence from Afghanistan.

Taliban officials have privately confided that when it comes to critical issues, their movement is still in early stages of policy debate and continues to lack detailed political visions for the future.5 They remain operationally cohesive and project power across the country with a monopoly of force unprecedented in recent Afghan history. In spite of the dysfunction and rumbling dissent in their movement, the Taliban maintain a clear intent, as well as the capability and willingness, to exert an exclusive hold on political power for the foreseeable future.

This article reviews the Taliban’s first year of rule in a focused assessment of the group’s internal politics and policymaking, and explores not-yet fully realized Taliban visions of an Afghan state. It offers a new lens for understanding the emerging divides in Taliban policy views. It then surveys the methods by which the group has further consolidated its authority since last year, in contrast to their limited capacity to pull the country out of economic deprivation. It also covers the Taliban’s approach to foreign relations, concluding with implications for future engagement, as well as the stability of their regime and the region. This article draws on extensive interviews the author conducted, many remotely but some in-person, with Afghan journalists, researchers, and interlocutors with strong connections to the Taliban, as well as foreign humanitarians, U.N. officials and diplomats based in Afghanistan, and Western security officials based abroad.

Under the Radar
The Taliban decision-making regarding girls’ return to secondary school, along with their fumbled implementation and muddled public relations spin, raised critical questions about how, and under what structure, the Taliban govern the country’s affairs.c The last-minute nature of the decision after the group had seven months to deliberate, and the shock expressed in public and private by a wide range of Taliban officials, suggested deep dysfunctionality in the Taliban leadership’s policy formulation process and further blurred the already-unclear lines between the roles of state officials, religious clerics, and other influential figures in the movement.6 The issue itself was clearly controversial among the Taliban, but the way the group fumbled how this controversy was handled epitomized this author’s observation last year: “In many ways, the group has revealed the slow conservatism underlying the leadership’s consultative, consensus-building decision-making—a modus operandi that was key to the insurgency’s resilience but may pose a critical threat to effective, responsive governance on a national scale.”7

The episode is worth examining in detail, as the most publicly visible example of dysfunction in Taliban policymaking to date, though it is far from the only instance.d The decision on girls’ secondary schooling is also illuminating because it highlighted tensions in the parallel structures of the Taliban’s state: How powerful was the emir of the Islamic Emirate, and why did he assert his authority so disruptively after such a quiet, out-of-the-spotlight role in the first months of the Taliban’s new government? After March 23, diplomats began to speak of rival centers of power between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, where Hibatullah has ensconced himself since the takeover.8 Afghans and foreign observers alike began to ask if there was any hope of making headway with the Taliban on any issue if the final policy say lay in the hands of a single, ultra-conservative cleric.9

For the first six to seven months of the restored Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the so-called “caretaker” government in Kabul, made up exclusively of senior Taliban figures, appeared to be in the driver’s seat when it came to public policy.e The Taliban clearly oriented their messaging and public events around a theme of formalized, professionalized governance.f

Far from standardizing the government’s structure, it was clear from the day they were appointed that the cabinet’s minsters excluded some the movement’s most influential leaders, while some of the most distinguished battlefield commanders did not immediately receive official titles. It was widely assumed that the Taliban’s heavyweights would continue to shape policy and behavior as they had during the insurgency, regardless of the scope of their official title—and plenty of evidence of an unofficial plane of policymaking and operations emerged.10

Up until March 23, the world was focused on machinations in the administrative capital of Kabul. Assessments of Taliban divisions focused on the competition between personality-driven factions for status and appointments, a dynamic that was often overemphasized and oversimplified.g Some observers concluded that the Haqqanis, a once semi-autonomous yet powerful Taliban faction hailing from the country’s southeast, had wrangled a lion’s share of authority through cunning and gamesmanship.11 Others saw the traditional influence of southerners from Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan, home of most of the Taliban’s leadership and the movement’s historical seat of power, asserted from the start, underscored by later appointments of provincial governors and key roles in the security sector.12 Aside from the competition of various factions and cliques, some of the Taliban’s greatest dilemmas of governance were grounded in their exclusion of ethnic minorities from any substantial share of power, the capacity gaps stemming from the lack of modern technocrats in their ranks, and the sheer scale of the economy’s collapse after Western donor states suddenly cut off billions in assistance.

Scant analytical attention was paid to the role of Hibatullah, who had barely emerged in public since the takeover. When the Taliban’s cabinet was announced in early September 2021, even his role as head of state had been described in vague, obfuscatory terms.13 Moreover, Hibatullah had long been mischaracterized as a weak figure who was overly deferential to battlefield commanders and religious leaders.14 Yet gradually and under the radar, the elusive emir began to assert his authority over a wide range of government functions, some of them seemingly insignificant. On larger decisions, Hibatullah seemed to grow dismissive of the counsel of his chief deputies.h

These assertions of authority were also formalized: The Taliban have established the beginnings of an administrative framework to connect their supreme leader to organs of the state. What was once the Administrative Office of the President under the Islamic Republic, which under former President Ashraf Ghani appropriated and centralized crucial functions from ministries, has been retitled as the Administrative Office of the Prime Minister (also serving his deputies, including the influential Abdul Ghani Baradar). However, there is also a parallel Administrative Office of the Emir, which consists of a much less rigid staff and apparatus based in Kandahar. Finally, there is an Administrative Office of the Arg (the compound of palaces in Kabul historically home to heads of state), which primarily functions as a waystation for all memoranda and items of business raised by the ministries. The Office of the Arg determines which issues should be dealt with by the prime minister, which to call for resolution by the assembled cabinet, and which should be sent to the emir for ultimate review. Though it remains quite murky to what extent and how formally these offices engage with government affairs, by January 2022, reports were filtering out of Kabul that the Office of the Emir had begun to review, and in some cases interfere with or even overturn, an increasingly longer list of ministerial actions and edicts.15

Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani reviews new Afghan police recruits standing in formation during
a graduation ceremony at the police academy in Kabul on March 5, 2022. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Role of the Emir and Kandahar
Though signs were accumulating, the extended ban on girls’ education abruptly enforced on March 23 was the first major, publicly visible assertion of Hibatullah’s authority as supreme leader of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. His low (near-invisible) public profile had encouraged assumptions and assessments that were, as is now apparent, erroneous.i

Almost immediately after the extension of the ban, Western officials began to ask if speaking to the “Kabul Taliban” even made sense anymore. Some analysts, including the author, fixated on reports that in a meeting of Taliban leaders chaired by Hibatullah, only two or three top figures had opposed teenage girls’ return to school.16 If true, it clashed with the impression close Taliban watchers had of Hibatullah’s tenure: that he was a consensus-builder, notable for reconciling breakaway factions and restoring relationships among the movement’s leaders to such an extent that his deliberative style was often characterized as weak.17

In theory, the Taliban have always regarded the emir’s authority as absolute.18 According to the Taliban, the obedience the emir commands, and the unity this obedience is meant to foster, is what differentiates the Taliban from every other mujahideen faction that fought over and preyed upon a fragmented Afghan nation. In practice, however, the emir—even the Taliban’s first emir and founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar—has always presided over a highly egalitarian, horizontal movement, with deliberation and consensus-building at the core of important decision-making.19 When the U.S. intervention scattered the Taliban’s leadership across various sanctuaries in Pakistan, distancing many of them from their insurgency’s future battlefields, field commanders were given progressively greater autonomy for years; the ability to enforce edicts from on high was strained thin.20 The emir’s authority was rarely openly questioned or publicly challenged, but for much of the insurgency, the emir and his lieutenants were careful to avoid testing the limits of obedience.j After Mullah Omar’s hidden death (the scandal that nearly tore the movement apart) became public in 2015, the emir’s authority rested on consensus among leadership more than ever, a dynamic for which Hibatullah seemed well-suited.

In overturning a policy endorsed by so many of the movement’s top figures at the last minute, Hibatullah reasserted the authority of the emir in a controversial new way; in recent years the emir had seldom overturned such a strong consensus among the movement’s elite.k By reliable accounts, a majority of the Taliban’s leadership council, including all three deputy emirs (Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob), hoped to see the implementation of girls’ return to school. Some Western officials asked if his decision called into question the entire characterization of Taliban rule as consensus-based.21

Yet, the reversal clarifies how the Taliban have historically approached the notion of consensus. In the leadership’s deliberations (especially under Emir Hibatullah), reaching consensus has not entailed an automatic deference to the majority opinion, especially not when objections are raised on the grounds of ideological or religious purity. Rather, consensus is reached only after any such objections are retracted or withheld. At critical moments during U.S.-Taliban negotiations, Taliban negotiators flew to Pakistan and huddled with the rest of the movement’s leadership, only returning to Doha and moving forward after universal consent had been obtained. At one point Mohammad Fazl, a former Guantanamo detainee and notorious combat leader, was dispatched from Qatar to mollify concerns of battle-hardened commanders and some of the movement’s senior most leaders; moving forward without unanimous, if tacit agreement was a nonstarter.22

Researcher Ashley Jackson has assessed that Hibatullah’s decision to not allow girls to return to school likely reflected both a personal assertion of his authority and a growing resentment among the movement’s senior clerical circles that they had been excluded from policymaking taking place daily in Kabul.23 Jackson’s assessment was strengthened by events in the ensuing weeks, as a raft of social restrictions were issued in the emir’s name and enforced by emboldened Virtue and Vice officials; it appeared as if the movement’s most conservative, doctrinaire members had taken the emir’s intervention as a call to action. A number of senior clerics had begun to feel increasingly shut out of shaping the new government, a government that to them, and many others among the Taliban’s ranks, had not done nearly enough to distinguish itself from the foreign-backed republic they had fought so bitterly to topple and replace.24

The emir’s challenge to the majority’s opinion is more understandable in light of the administrative apparatus and political interests forming in Kandahar. According to Afghan researchers and several foreigners who have traveled to Kandahar, concentric circles of access and influence have coalesced around the emir.25 An inner circle, consisting of longstanding comrades and fellow clerics, close advisors, and messengers, is surrounded by a plethora of Taliban, young and old, powerful and ambitious, all representing diverse interests within the movement—yet, a great many of them only representing elements of southern Afghanistan.26 Sources based in Kandahar or who visit regularly report that the emir spends a good deal of time meeting with the Kandahar ulema council, which is notable both as an influence on ideological discourse and as a body that includes prominent political figures and families.27

The perspectives, perceived threats, and priorities that exist in these Kandahar circles do not, according to the interlocutors, capture the full spectrum of views within the Taliban—which, of course, only represent a fraction of the beliefs and values of the Afghan people.28 That said, these ultra conservative Taliban Kandahar circles are not as uneducated or unexposed as many have characterized. For example, one prominent Afghan business owner said of the Taliban’s reassurance that girls will eventually be educated in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan values that “the problem is, these men define ‘Afghan’ values as the values of their remote villages in Uruzgan.”29 While there may be a kernel of truth in this claim, there are as many wealthy traders in the movement as there are elders of humble origin. Many of the Taliban’s most senior clerics spent most of the past 20 years in Pakistan, while others managed to travel in and out of Gulf states; their written outputs are often in Arabic and Urdu, in addition to Pashto. The cosmopolitanism of the Kandahari power center has surprised more than one visitor.l

There are notable Taliban figures and influential stakeholders who have barely set foot in Kabul since the takeover, remaining or settling instead in Kandahar.m Several factors play into this gravitational pull:

The historical example of Mullah Omar remaining in Kandahar throughout his tenure, tasking subordinates to go to Kabul and manage the daily grind of governing a country, still holds powerful sway among many Taliban, and proves especially meaningful to those with southern roots.30

A corollary to the deep admiration for the emir’s aloofness from politics is a deep suspicion, widely held in the 1990s and only hardened in the 20 years since, of the corrupting, sinful influence of Kabul. This characterization reportedly remains in use in internal Taliban discourse.31

The superiority complex some in the Taliban attach to Kandahar also includes an ethno-tribal dimension with deep historical roots; the region of greater Kandahar has produced most of Afghanistan’s rulers over the last 300 years.32

In addition to, or perhaps regardless of this cultural context, the most critical factor appears to be power politics: Many Taliban in these circles are in Kandahar, rather than Kabul, likely because they perceive it as the true center of power within their movement. Even among Taliban leaders appointed as ministry heads or deputy heads, a number of them spend more time in Kandahar than they do in the capital.33

Thus, reports that a small minority of ultraconservatives objected to the resumption of girls’ education should be contextualized: There is an entire constituency within the Taliban, consisting of clerics and rank-and-file alike, concerned that the movement has not moved quickly or completely enough toward harsh visions of a “pure Islamic state.”34 Two speeches the emir gave in July 2022, at the ulema gathering in Kabul and the next week at a mosque in Kandahar, both included assertions that a truly, purely Islamic state had not yet been established and stated that harsh hudud punishments would be restored in the future.n Taliban-affiliated social media discourse, as well as field interviews with Taliban members and sympathizers, reveals significant enthusiasm for this prospect.o

Taliban reactions to the March 23 decision on teenage girls’ education, and related restrictive edicts that followed, made it clear that the movement contains more than one constituency. In political and ideological terms, the Taliban insist their authority is derived from God, from the righteousness of their struggle to eject foreign influence and to purify a corrupted Afghan state and society.35 Practically, the Taliban’s leaders have never ignored the authority derived from the delicate relationship with their own commanders and fighters; their unity is their strength, and maintaining unity requires work. And like many political organizations around the world, the Taliban appear far more sensitive to discontent from their extreme ideological wing than to those of relatively pragmatic or ‘moderate’ members.

As for the emir’s assertion of his authority, it is unclear how this will balance out with the need to maintain buy-in from the movement’s many stakeholders or how the relationship between two centers of power, both endowed with formal state authority, will continue to develop.

Varying Visions of an Afghan State
As late as 2020, the International Crisis Group determined that the Taliban had barely begun discussions on some of the most fundamental questions of political systems, formal power structures, or state building.36 The Taliban’s first year in power has only reaffirmed those findings. Not only did the Taliban lack the technical capacity after the takeover to govern in so many ways, leaders and influential figures a year later still have not reached consensus on a range of pressing policy questions. The ambiguity that fueled a flexible insurgency is gumming up the establishment of a lasting, or potentially more effective, framework for governance.

The Taliban’s tendency to avoid political discourse, and the longstanding tendency to deny any differences that might prompt debate at all, laid the foundation for the dysfunctionality witnessed on March 23. Not only did Taliban ministries begin preparing for a major policy overhaul without sufficiently winning over potentially opposing views, but the Taliban lack any structured mechanisms for doing so.p In the absence thereof, the movement seems to have defaulted to harsher views.

This is not the first time that ultra-conservative views have held sway over Taliban policy discourse, regardless of the depth of their support. On the contrary, a broad historical review of Taliban discourse and behavior suggests that policy often tilts as conservative as circumstances on the ground will permit. When policies have been moderated, such as service provisions for civilian populations or adjustments to the practice of suicide bombing, this has largely taken place due to political and military imperatives, rather than on prima facie ideological grounds.37

Throughout their insurgency, the Taliban remained cohesive, consistently replenished their ranks, and steadily expanded by espousing harmoniously simple objectives: 1) eject foreign interlopers from the country, and 2) purify the Afghan state and society of their corrupting influence, replacing it with an Islamic system. Under these universalized aims, the Taliban permitted and fostered a great deal of ambiguity, in policy practices and in their political philosophy; as long as the movement remained in wartime mode, potentially divisive stances on governance could be tabled, and were.38

But now, with the most pressing and primary objective achieved, the insurgent movement has attempted to focus on establishing a more independent and purportedly more morally pure “Islamic” system. While the urgency and lethality of military objectives made it easier during the insurgency to call for unquestioning obedience, how the Taliban, post their takeover of Kabul, ought to organize, monitor, and control the Afghan state and society has surfaced much more diversity of thought within the movement’s intellectual landscape. Differing schools of thought on how best to do so, long kept dormant, have erupted into Afghanistan’s media outlets, social media platforms, and interpersonal discussion.

A host of labels have been applied, over the years, attempting to describe different schools of thought or ideological camps within the Taliban. Some of these perceived camps came into sharper focus as talks between the United States and Taliban grew serious in early 2019. The obvious geographical divide between the Taliban leadership stationed in Qatar, also known as the “Doha Taliban,” and the rest of the leadership, known by their shorthand as the Quetta Shura, called for frequent analysis of differences and divisions. More incisive analysis scrutinized the generational and lifestyle gap between the Taliban’s leadership in Qatar and Pakistan, versus the rural rank-and-file bearing the brunt of the war’s costs.39 As peace efforts intensified, and a greater number of foreign diplomats, facilitators, and researchers began to interact with Taliban representatives in Doha, the ideological gap grew more evident. Stemming from this engagement, experienced analysts began to speak of internationalists within the Taliban versus (the more prominent) isolationist views.40

This categorization does not necessarily illuminate every moment of tension that has arisen in Taliban attempts to establish and calibrate their new state. This framing can also greatly overemphasize the extent to which foreign relationships or external actors factor into the Taliban’s decision-making. The extension of the ban on girls’ secondary school attendance is a prime example of just how little the consequences on the international stage shaped the Taliban’s final decision. An inverse example, which unfolded less than a month later on April 3, was the Taliban’s surprise announcement that they would comprehensively ban narcotics production and distribution.41 Many foreign analysts speculated this was a Taliban attempt to placate the international community after the decision on teenage girls’ education , but field researchers reported that Taliban discourse on the narcotics ban, both internally among leadership as well as publicly, leaned heavily toward addressing the domestic blight of addiction and abuse.42

State Building vs. Struggle
This article proposes a new analytical lens for analyzing diverging policy views among the Taliban; it does not delineate fixed camps into which Taliban figures or factions fit neatly, but rather seeks to identify the roots of policy tensions within their movement.

In the pursuit of establishing an ideal state, the Taliban appear to have two basic imperatives: 1) that it be a strong, independent Afghan state; 2) that it be a pure, uncorrupted state, steered and protected by tenets of Islam and Afghan values (as the Taliban interpret them). These imperatives are reflected in a vast array of Taliban messaging, public relations activities, internal communications, and careful assessment of patterns of behavior since August 15, 2021. Points where these two impulses diverge have contributed to the most striking instances of delay and dysfunctionality of the Taliban’s first year in power.

The first imperative is fueled by nationalist sentiments that run deep among the Taliban’s membership and bases of support, sentiments that are also embedded within elements of Pashtun ethnonationalism.43 It is also driven by the sense of triumphalism that has become enshrined in the Taliban’s own organizational sense of self since the withdrawal of Western troops and the collapse of the former government. The Taliban’s conception of their place in Afghan and world history has been—and continues to be—dramatically redefined by their victory over the world’s only superpower.44 The first imperative, driven by the desire to command respect at home and abroad, points toward economic prosperity and material measures of state strength and success, including globally recognized notions of statehood and sovereignty.q

The second imperative stems from the Taliban’s original sense of purpose: to topple the country’s cohort of cruel and corrupt political leaders and powerbrokers, and to restore a semblance of order in a war-ravaged, fragmented society. This motivation was revised and re-employed throughout their insurgency. In doing so, Taliban propaganda and education sought to portray every aspect of state and society under the republic as irrevocably corrupted.45 In mainstream Taliban thought, the struggle to purge the many influences of such an illegitimate and harmful system, as well as the struggle to prevent foreign meddling, is far from over.r Rejection of foreign influence has anchored the movement, particularly in the years since 2001 and remains incredibly ideologically potent even a year after the U.S.-NATO military withdrawal. This imperative to continue struggling against perceived harmful influences and a belief in the Taliban’s exclusive authority to root out potential harm (including moral harms) within Afghan society has come increasingly to the fore of Taliban edicts and enforcement since March 23.46

These two imperatives have been largely in alignment as the Taliban shape and implement their new government’s policies, often reactively and on the fly. For instance, both a strong and a morally pure Afghan state would reject the interference of other countries in domestic affairs; the ideal approach for the Taliban is clear and there is little room for debate. To give a more specific example, the strong sympathies expressed across the Taliban for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their insurgency against the Pakistani state feed into both inclinations.s The nationalistic impulse to assert its sovereignty compels the Taliban’s government to distance itself from Pakistan and not be perceived as a client regime, even at the risk of damaging an important relationship. At the same time, the intent to purify the Afghan state and society easily extends to support for closely related Pakistani counterparts, with whom many in the movement share deep kinship and cultural ties (and regard the international border as a meaningless construct). Both inclinations, to state build and to continue the struggle, interweave and influence Taliban policy formulation and behavior.

But the policy reversal of March 23 should be interpreted as a critical ‘fork in the road’ moment where these imperatives informed two starkly different policy trajectories. In private conversation and a growing number of public remarks, some senior Taliban figures make clear that the education of Afghan girls and women is fundamentally connected to the strength and prosperity of the nation. Revealingly, it is in terms of nationalism and state building—not a debate on what is permitted or encouraged in sharia or various Islamic schools of jurisprudence—that Taliban seeking to return girls to school have made their case.47 On the other side, analysts have noted how, in the face of widespread condemnation by Islamic authorities around the globe, including some of the world’s most prominent Deobandi religious clerics, Taliban messaging on girls’ education shied away from religious justifications to hazier references to “local” or “Afghan” culture.48 A survey of Taliban attitudes on education and women’s rights also exposes the deep-rooted theme of continued struggle against the “corrupting” influence of Western intervention.49 Before assuming his role as emir, Hibatullah reportedly once said: “A mujahed will graduate from a madrassa; a Karzai will graduate from a [modern] school.”50 Even Mullah Baradar, often hailed as a “moderate” by foreign press and diplomats, said in a speech in late 2020, “The only work done under the shadow of occupation in name of woman rights is the promotion of immorality and anti-Islamic culture.”51

While reemphasizing that the two imperatives guiding the Taliban are often in sync (e.g., both the desire for a powerful state with unchallenged authority and a state obliged to police its citizens’ morality both lean toward repressive and coercive treatment), there can also be an inherent tension between the two. No one recognized this earlier than the emir himself. In 2017, the Taliban internally published a book by Hibatullah that sternly warned against the Taliban’s pursuit of power and prosperity in their march to victory, instead insisting on the imperative of ideological purity.t

In this context, much of the reported competition between Taliban factions fades in significance. Though Taliban elites may rival each other for positions in ministries or sway over resources, the most impactful rift in the movement is not between Baradar and Haqqani or Yaqoob.52 In fact, over the past year, these three—along with many others who migrated to Kabul or stepped into myriad roles of local governance across the country—have demonstrated clear interest in pursuing the imperative of a strong, prosperous Islamic emirate (again, as defined on their terms).

There is no denying the divergence in Taliban policy views or that it has spilled out into the open more than any other period of their history. A younger generation of Taliban have begun asking, routinely on social media platforms and in conversation with newfound interlocutors in urban centers, “Is this [insert controversial policy decision] what we fought and bled and died for?”u Yet, the impact of this divergence on the movement’s cohesion, which has given rise to much commentary on Taliban “divisions,” should also not be overstated.53 Whatever the extent of discontent among Taliban members with decisions made this year, it has not escalated to a level of grievance that threatens to break the Taliban apart. Rather, these imperatives, where they conflict, have led to policy stall, and occasional embarrassment on the world stage.

There is no better example of the tensions (and potential for fiasco) between the group’s dueling imperatives than the recent revelation that elements of the Taliban had been hosting Ayman al-Zawahiri, global leader of al-Qa`ida, in downtown Kabul.54 The United States revealed al-Zawahiri’s location and details of his sanctuary after conducting a drone strike that killed him on July 31, 2022. According to the White House, “senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul” and “Haqqani Taliban members took actions after the strike to conceal al-Zawahiri’s former presence at the location.”55 The Associated Press reported that according to a senior intelligence official, the safehouse al-Zawahiri was killed in was managed by a top deputy of Sirajuddin Haqqani.56 Haqqani since August 2021 had been increasingly courting foreign diplomats and cultivating a reputation as a “pragmatist” with whom the international community could do business.57 Haqqani, with a reputation for ordering some of the most brutal acts of violence in the past 20 years of war, surprised many foreigners when he came out strongly in favor of girls returning to school.58 More than any other figure, Sirajuddin exemplifies how individual Taliban—and their organization writ large—still seek to chart deeply contradictory trajectories for their movement and the state they helm. A year after taking power, disconnecting from the imperative for ideological struggle, even for those most drawn to the trajectory of building a strong modern state, has clearly not been successful. As of this report’s release, the Taliban remain tight-lipped and deny any knowledge of al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts, refusing to confirm the U.S. version of events.59 But given the importance of terrorism concerns for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, even those more adversarial toward the United States and more willing to normalize the Taliban’s regime, the Taliban are unlikely to dodge this dilemma: remaining ideologically steadfast with transnational jihadi brethren or sustaining the confidence of a wary region while dependent on external aid.60 v

While most observers have determined that, at least for now, ideology has trumped pragmatism within the Taliban, the pragmatic business of building their new state carries on daily, and the divergence in policy views cannot be swept under the rug.61 w Months after the ban on girls’ secondary education was extended, some girls’ high schools remain open in multiple provinces, as do a number of private schools throughout the country.62 They do so with quiet assurances from provincial Taliban officials (and possibly also from Kabul).63 The emir’s fiery speech at the July 2022 ulema gathering may have revealed an uncompromising personal vision, but other senior leaders’ speeches during the three-day conference subtly acknowledged the depth of criticism being leveled at, and from within, the Taliban.64 Only days later, acting Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Stanekzai, who had already spoken publicly prior to the ulema gathering strongly in favor of girls’ education and women’s right to move and work and public life, reiterated his views publicly.65 x The controversy obliged Hibatullah to appoint a committee to explore under what circumstances girls’ education could resume in accordance with Taliban interpretations of Islamic law—and, quite belatedly, to determine what Taliban consensus on those interpretations should be.66

Though it has yet to produce results, the committee is a testament, much like the ulema gathering, to the pressure being generated in internal debate. The Taliban’s policy debates on many issues remain ill-defined, are poorly and informally facilitated within the group’s leadership structures, and often lack structure, even when formal mechanisms have been established to address them. Yet debates on the specifics of what shape the Afghan state should take are taking place more publicly, and by Taliban insider accounts, more prolifically than previously before.

Center-Periphery Consolidation, Security, and Control
As the Taliban struggle to define a strategic vision for their state, at the operational level they face some of the same dilemmas as the Islamic Republic and other Afghan governments before them. The balance of power between the political center and powerbrokers in the periphery repeatedly challenged the Taliban in their first year and has seen the group increasingly default to an approach of potential threat removal and centralization of power. As noted above, throughout the Taliban’s insurgency the organization grew increasingly horizontal, bestowing greater autonomy to many of its field commanders even while the leadership strove to professionalize and formalize its hierarchy.67 Yet, since they began government formation efforts, a natural priority has been the security sector, which entails the massive task of turning much of their fighting force into military and police, but also the enforcement of much more hands-on command and control.68 y

A spectrum of security concerns over the past year, ranging from anti-Taliban resistance activity in the Panjshir Valley to popular unrest in Faryab Province and internal contestation over the control and taxation of natural resources, have been resolved with the same basic approach: the Taliban have quickly flooded the area in question with forces dispatched from bases across the country, almost always under the command of men most trusted by the senior leadership. This has not incidentally coincided with the fact that to a growing extent, incoming commanders or replacement officials are southern Pashtun Taliban, underscoring a longstanding tension within the group: Its membership has expanded across the country’s ethnic landscape, but its leaders remain overwhelmingly well-connected Pashtuns.69

The troubling ethnic undertones of this trend are especially notable in contrast to the Taliban’s earlier attempts to publicize the high-profile command of their most senior Tajik military commander, Qari Fasihuddin, in putting down the initial burst of resistance in Panjshir, in August-September 2021,z or their earlier highlighting of their then most prominent Hazara member, Mehdi Mujahed.70 Indeed Mehdi, was confronted more than once over his failure to abide by directives from central authorities, including but not limited to surrendering local revenue collection. He was eventually demoted and fled to his home district, where the Taliban pursued him and surrounded the district. 71 Their armed incursion in pursuit of Mehdi and militiamen loyal to him led to reports of extrajudicial killings and civilian harm, and the United Nations reported that 27,000 people fled the district—many out of fear that the Taliban’s violence might take on an ethnic dimension.72 As of publication, there are still Taliban forces amassed in the area.

The Taliban’s brutality in confronting perceived threats to their authority cannot be ignored, especially as most of this violence has been aimed at ethnic minorities. But the viciousness of their crackdowns has also distorted a lot of analysis of their effectiveness. In June 2022, some of the few Western officials based in the country pointed to the flareup of violence against Mehdi and similar Taliban actions in the remote northeast Badakhshan province and warned of a “deteriorating security situation,” adding these areas to a map of hotspots that already included anti-Taliban resistance in Panjshir and neighboring Baghlan province, as well as eastern areas where Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) is most active.73 Yet, this diagnosis ignored that the Taliban initiated these latest flare-ups of violence and did so under conditions that were favorable to them on military and political terms. From the Taliban’s perspective, they were putting out fires before they grew too big to manage, eliminating potential threats to their monopoly on power while those threats operated at a district level rather than granting the space for such actors to expand and develop larger demographic and geographic bases of support. More broadly, the International Crisis Group has found that brutalities carried out by Taliban fighters, in early efforts to counter each significant security challenge since their takeover, have been augmented or replaced with a more comprehensive approach, including coercion, dialogue, and possibly payoffs of local stakeholders.74

It is also worth noting that the only significant, large-scale displays of mass unrest across the country this year have not been acts of resistance to the Taliban’s authority; rather, demonstrations in Faryab and Badghis provinces in the north were driven by residents’ desire for people from their communities to be granted more authority within the Taliban’s government, and for locals to oversee local affairs.75 Intriguingly, such incidents also appear to have been linked to the Taliban’s evolving political dynamics as Kandahar emerged as a growing center of power. As the Taliban move to centralize control, entailing the arrival of southern overseers in many parts of the north, local stakeholders have sought influential interlocutors or bridge figures who can intercede on their behalf, knowing that the gap between the Taliban in their communities and those in Kandahar will not equalize anytime soon. In more than one instance, this has involved outreach to the Haqqanis; Sirajuddin Haqqani is somewhat of an outsider in terms of Kandahari circles of Taliban elites but is highly influential nonetheless.76 As a result, the reach of the Haqqani network, such as it is, appears to be widening in ways that cannot be measured by ministries or more official metrics.

Another notable aspect of how the Taliban has approached establishing security and maintaining control has been the growing, outsized influence of their intelligence arm, the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI). Since early this year, reports of the GDI acting with impunity have steadily increased; Afghans who have been questioned, threatened, detained, or abused by GDI agents speak of them as acting entirely differently than most of the Taliban rank-and-file. “Rules don’t apply [to GDI].”77 Even internationals working in Kabul note the relative impunity with which GDI personnel seem to operate.78 Reports that the Taliban’s intelligence arm was growing increasingly repressive had begun accumulating since the first days of 2022; after the March 23 decision, those reports were matched by anecdotes of increased policing by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the ‘morality police’ made notorious during the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s.79 These two arms of the Taliban’s state, both increasing in stature over the course of this year, can be viewed as two parallel institutions inspired by the dual imperatives guiding the movement—both resulting in the same, increasingly repressive end-state.

It must be reiterated that when the Taliban have carried out security crackdowns, they have disproportionately affected non-Pashtun ethnic communities. Entire neighborhoods in Kabul, home to families with ties to Panjshir province, have borne the brunt of house searches and raids, weapon seizures, and mistreatment multiple times this year.80 The Taliban defensively assert that their security forces simply follow the trail of potential threats.81 This is somewhat borne out by grim revelations that the Taliban executed dozens of men from (Pashtun) salafi communities in the east, which have historically provided ISK fighters and bases of support; Human Rights Watch found over 50 bodies dumped in a canal in Jalalabad city last November.82 Yet, a mountain of anecdotes of a wide range of mistreatment, down to petty verbal abuse at checkpoints, undercuts Taliban claims that ethnic bias is never an issue.83

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the resilience (though small-scale) of anti-Taliban resistance in certain areas of the north is that this has legitimized the continued Taliban embrace of wartime mindsets. As long as resistance remains active in Afghanistan, the Taliban will be able to credibly tell themselves that their raison d’être is to hunt down and eliminate threats to their authority. Their movement will more easily remain militant in its priorities and perspectives, and the suspicion of certain ethnic communities assumed to be affiliated with resistance could grow entrenched among an entire generation, sowing the seeds for a wider resumption of conflict in the future.

In spite of two or three geographic pockets of ongoing resistance, and the roots of lasting resentment being planted in the Taliban’s treatment of whole swaths of the population, the Taliban has managed to successfully consolidate the security situation in critical ways. By any measure of daily life, there are fewer security-related obstacles to movement or activity—for men.aa Some commentators have noted, rightly, that the Taliban, as the entity previously responsible for carrying out the majority of violent incidents, should not be awarded credit for lower levels of violence. And it must be noted that while critical sources of data and statistics have been lost since the takeover, anecdotal assessment of crime in urban centers indicates significant increases due both to economic desperation and the Taliban’s lack of professional policing or criminal investigation capacity.84 But the Taliban’s return to power has permitted an unprecedented freedom of movement—again, for men; women’s right to travel is strictly regulated and carries new risks. In a measure of security that sharply contrasts with the previous government, there is no actor or obstacle that prevents the Taliban from surging their security forces from one corner of the country to the other. As the state, the Taliban have more freedom of movement and fewer security restrictions on their access to the countryside than any Afghan government of the last 50 years or more.

The Taliban have not managed to effect much change in the dire economic situation facing the country; what measures their government has implemented, and what results they have managed, are an extension of their general approach to centralization and control. The Taliban have proven adept at collecting customs revenue at border crossings and even centralizing revenue collection from the provinces.85 This has been somewhat surprising, given the importance of the Taliban’s insurgency financial model, in which a core element was the tacit understanding that field commanders would retain a good amount of what they collected for themselves, their fighters, and expenses of their own discretion.86 It is not yet clear if or how local and provincial level officials have been incentivized to smoothly transmit collected revenues to the center, but leading economists and experts on Afghanistan’s political economy say that corrupt practices in more formal avenues of collection such as customs have been significantly curbed.ab Taliban missteps in financial management have likewise adhered to the theme of control; attempts to limit foreign currency exchange and digital transactions, which economists strongly recommended against in the Afghan context, have come with clumsy attempts to coerce guilds such as money changers’ associations in large cities.87

Perhaps the most ambitious initiative of attempted economic control, better covered in sufficient detail elsewhere but important to outline here, is the Taliban’s announced ban on the cultivation, sale, and transport of poppy and other narcotics. Incomplete but reliable reporting suggests the Taliban have engaged in some enforcement; it remains unclear if enforcement will be scaled up and carried out countrywide to a strict standard.88 One critical question that requires further investigation is how the Taliban, if they sincerely pursue this policy, plan to persuade and re-incentivize elements within their movement that have entrenched economic interests in the narcotics trade. Given the growing importance of Kandahar as a center of power, it is highly unlikely that southern-based elements within the Taliban with a great deal to lose have not been factored into the decision-making regarding this ban and its enforcement. Yet another major question, which feedback from interlocutors in Kabul suggests the Taliban may not have deliberated on in as much detail, is what alternative livelihoods the Taliban plan to introduce for the hundreds of thousands of rural southern Afghans who participate in poppy or ephedra harvests.ac

The still-staggering levels of food insecurity and general poverty (which impacts essentially the entire population of close to 40 million), despite a massive humanitarian campaign through the winter of the Taliban’s first year, are likewise covered in dismaying detail elsewhere.89 It is worth exploring, though, how the Taliban attempt to justify their acceptance of and dependence on foreign-funded aid to provide for Afghans’ most basic needs. Observers of the Taliban since the 1990s have noted that the group also grew comfortable, even expectant, with the existential levels of largely Western-funded humanitarian aid.90 While the Taliban were just as resistant then to notions of foreign dependence, they had not yet developed the animus toward Western influence that their insurgency would rally around after the U.S-NATO intervention. Throughout their insurgency, as the Taliban increasingly came to recognize the need to provide for civilian communities’ basic needs, they rarely acknowledged Western sources of funding. Rather, the Taliban began to master the appropriation of services, either provided directly by the Afghan government or by Western-funded avenues aligned with the government, taking credit for their distribution.91 Since the takeover, the Taliban’s public messaging has tied Western sources of funding for aid and assistance to an obligation and grievance; having participated in the occupation of Afghanistan for 20 years, leaving it in such a bad state, the same nations now owe it to the Afghan people to provide support.ad The limited public opinion polling conducted since the takeover, along with anecdotal surveys, suggests that a good number of Afghans accept this messaging (at least for now), seemingly ready to blame the United States, in particular, for the disastrous state of the economy.92

The Outside World, Looking Ahead
Neighboring countries’ approach to the Taliban since the takeover can be summarized as cautious yet steady acceptance, with near-universal pragmatic engagement, even from some surprising regional powers like India. For their part, the Taliban have approached foreign and neighboring relations with a surprising pluckiness, even drifting into moments of antagonism (in spite of the Taliban leadership’s awareness that they cannot afford deteriorating relations on their borders while they are still working to consolidate their rule and establish their political system).ae

The Taliban’s adversarial moments with neighboring states have been brief and quickly resolved through diplomatic outreach as well as clear restraint in Taliban rhetoric and lack of escalatory action. This has been true after a series of clashes with Iranian border guards and after a rhetorical attack on Central Asian states that are still holding a number of valuable Afghan Air Force aircraft.93 This even proved true after the most intense buildup of tensions in the Taliban’s first year in power. The Taliban have lurched from crisis to tense cooperation with Pakistan over Taliban support for—or at least an inability to meaningfully restrict—the TTP’s increased attacks on Pakistani soil while enjoying sanctuary in Afghanistan.94 In June, the TTP entered a shaky ceasefire with Pakistan, which had been brokered through the mediation of Sirajuddin Haqqani—now under fire for hosting al-Qa`ida leadership.95

The state builder versus struggle paradigm of Taliban policy formulation illuminates some otherwise counterintuitive moments of confrontation (as well as the quick de-escalation afterward). The Taliban have a multi-faceted imperative to assert themselves as a more sovereign and independent government than the previous Western-backed republic, yet the necessities of maintaining a firm hold on power while they continue to slowly state build requires the maintenance of functional regional relationships.

Over the course of the past year, the Taliban expressed—but then quickly abandoned—an intense burst of optimism that China, as a large and relatively wealthy non-Western nation, might begin massive investments in Afghanistan in the very near term. China, instead, followed the playbook of caution and prudence it has elsewhere around the world, and the Taliban quickly executed an about-face.96 After some early weeks of appearing to sour on Western diplomats, the Taliban resumed regularly engaging the United States and other European states, in an unspoken acknowledgment of these states’ hugely disproportionate share in providing humanitarian assistance.97 That engagement has continued, even as the United States and Europeans have grown sharply critical of Taliban repression after March 23, and other regional powers have taken a much less vigorous stance on human rights. In spite of those differences, both Western and regional powers all align in calling for the Taliban to institute a more “inclusive” form of governance, a call the Taliban resist both by claiming they have already achieved inclusivity and by dismissing foreign states’ right to call for it.

One theme in Taliban foreign relations, long evident but taken to new heights this year, is the consistent desire to diversify bilateral relationships with other states so as to reduce the dependency the Taliban might have with any partner or potential patron. The Taliban has past form on this. During their insurgency, as soon as they could, the Taliban’s leadership began to diversify their relationships, to move away from their sole reliance on (and vulnerability with) Pakistan. After the establishment of their political office in Doha in 2013, Qatar gradually became a pressure-release valve in this respect. In recent months, likely owing to Qatar’s pressure on the Taliban over the past few years as they hosted most elements of the peace process, the Taliban have left Qatar hanging in limbo regarding potential contracts for administering the country’s airports.98 In May 2022, Baradar flew to the UAE and returned two days later, with news that one of the major contracts, held up in talks with Qatar for months, had suddenly been signed with the UAE instead.99 The exact reasons are unknown, but the impulse of “balancing” and playing one foreign state off another emerges clearly. This is underscored perhaps most of all by the Taliban’s engagement with India, a major reversal of rhetoric and posture by both sides, which quickly led to India’s partial reopening of its embassy in Kabul.100

Looking ahead, while all of Afghanistan’s neighbors share concerns about Taliban rule, they are also all deeply hesitant of any course of action that might push Afghanistan back toward civil war; neighboring countries suffered during the civil war era of the 1990s as regional trade and economic growth stalled out and refugees flooded across borders. So long as the Taliban manage to contain the worst-case scenarios of terrorist activity, transnational crime, human displacement, and other disasters within Afghanistan’s borders, its neighbors will likely prove quite patient with the new government.

Unless or until neighboring powers change their strategic calculus and come to view the toppling of the Taliban as necessary, it is difficult to see the balance of military power and security challenges tipping against the Taliban in the foreseeable future. Domestic actors seeking to challenge the Taliban’s authority do not possess the material resources, funding, or steady logistical pipelines, not to mention the recuperative impact of seeking sanctuary, necessary to maintain any significant, sustainable insurgency at this time.

While resentment against the Taliban—which, as an organization is growing more repressive toward some urban and minority populations—is deepening and expanding, it is not even close to translating into widespread popular resistance against their government. Though detrimental to the longer-term durability of their regime, the Taliban’s brutal approach to snuffing threats out before they grow has proven effective thus far in a diverse set of cases across the country.

As noted earlier, the Taliban have yet to articulate a detailed, coherent vision for their ideal Afghan state. They continue to operate in many ways, especially when it comes to security and social control, that suggest the perpetuation of wartime mindsets—with the supreme leader advocating those should be maintained in perpetuity.af The revelation that the Taliban were hosting al-Qa`ida’s leader in Kabul only underscored how mired this movement remains in the paradigms and commitments of its militant insurgency, to the detriment of its status as a state.

In the longer term, which way will the Taliban be tugged, between perpetual militancy or maturing as a normalizing nation-state? How will the balance of power play out between the two Taliban centers of power and multiplying schools of political thought? It is too early to tell, but a lot will likely depend on money and resources—not the lure of foreign aid, but what Taliban leaders are able to provide for their patronage networks. The centralization of tax revenue is a critical development; for now, reports suggest that the emir himself is exercising budget approval authorities, but that may not prove sustainable over time.101 Taliban figures more inclined to power and prosperity than framing the state as the vanguard of a perpetual, revolutionary struggle will likely prove more adept at managing state resources and engaging with the private sector (especially informal avenues of foreign investment).

For now, however, no one in the Taliban is willing to openly challenge the moral superiority of ideological struggle. Until the subtle, almost imperceptible attempts to nudge the needle on controversial issues within the movement gain more momentum, the Taliban’s emphasis on policing public life—and most critically, keeping women out of it—is likely to continue. And given this dynamic, al-Zawahiri’s killing under sanctuary in Kabul may confront the Taliban with a greater obligation to shore up their legitimacy among jihadi circles than to fall in line with international expectations on counterterrorism.     CTC

Andrew Watkins is a senior expert on Afghanistan with the United States Institute of Peace. He has previously lived in and worked on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, the United Nations, humanitarian organizations, and the U.S. Department of State, and as an independent researcher. His work focuses on insurgency, organizational culture, and regional diplomacy. Twitter: @and_huh_what

© 2022 Andrew Watkins

Substantive Notes
[a] The author conducted interviews on Taliban complaints with Western and regional diplomats based in Kabul and Doha, Afghan business leaders, and former members of the Taliban, March and April 2022. On denials, Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told The Wall Street Journal in June, “There is no division whatsoever within the Emirate.” See Sune Engel Rasmussen and Margherita Stancati, “Taliban Splits Emerge Over Religion, Power and Girls’ Schools,” Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2022.

[b] In Doha, Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi’s speech was quickly and quietly scuttled, his timeslot filled by Nobel Prize-winning girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai, and a session dedicated to an award-winning Afghan girls robotics team. The Qatari foreign ministry rescheduled the original travel arrangements to bring Muttaqi and other Taliban officials to Doha until most of the forum had taken place. On March 31, donors pledged less than half of the amount the United Nations mission in Afghanistan had requested in order to sustain the country’s dire levels of humanitarian and basic human needs. See Roxanna Shapour, “Donors’ Dilemma: How to provide aid to a country whose government you do not recognize,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 5, 2022.

[c] Gutting scenes from that day of tearful girls being turned away from schools and sent home all across Afghanistan were broadcast by journalists invited by the Taliban’s own ministry of education who had planned on a public relations triumph. Officials appeared to have neither forewarning nor a clear explanation: They sputtered through nearly a dozen different excuses and justifications, ominously including the need to enforce stricter hijab, or covering, of girls and women in public.

[d] Sources close to the movement have highlighted many other cases in which the Taliban struggled to develop coherent governance policy in their first year in power, in which ministries and formal offices were sidelined in favor of ad hoc solutions driven by informal interpersonal relationships. The author’s survey of the Taliban in November 2021 captured some early examples, such as the Taliban’s frequently changing policies and procedures for engaging with U.N. agencies, NGOs, and other foreign actors. See Andrew Watkins, “An Assessment of Taliban Rule at Three Months,” CTC Sentinel 14:9 (2021). The group’s leadership has also rotated provincial governors and other key provincial level posts at a dizzying tempo, with some tenures only lasting weeks; while some of these rotations have been reactions to events on the ground and others appear to be part of a balancing act to maintain an equilibrium of influence between different Taliban factions, the arbitrary nature of rotations and reassignments has stunted civilian, civil society, and foreign engagement with local government. Author interviews, humanitarian workers, U.N. officials, Afghan civil society activists, November 2021-April 2022.

[e] Ministers began assembling routinely, chaired by the appointed prime minister, Mohammad Hassan Akhund—an aging, consensus choice. Their ministries issued authoritative (if often vague) regulations and decrees. It took months to restore even limited functionality to many ministries, persuade or coerce many of their career staffers to return to work, and restore partial salary payments. As 2021 came to a close, the government began to fill mid-level supervisory positions in the ministries, provincial and district-level offices.

[f] In November 2021, the Taliban’s chief spokesman proclaimed, “These appointments, which are largely based on professionalism and competence, will further strengthen and standardize the structure of the Islamic Emirate.” See S.K. Khan, “Taliban bring new faces to fill Cabinet positions in Afghanistan,” Anadolu Agency, November 21, 2021.

[g] One common way of referring to competing Taliban factions was “the Haqqanis vs. the Kandaharis,” or “the Haqqanis vs. Baradar,” referring to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the first deputy prime minister, one of three deputy emirs along with Sirajuddin Haqqani, and previously head of the Taliban’s political office during negotiations with the United States. This framing oversimplifies both sides, and worse, it suggests that competition within the Taliban is binary when it is actually manifold. Kandaharis, or southerners, are the largest demographic of Taliban leadership and membership; they consist of dozens of different tribal affiliations, economic interests, and politically significant families, all engaged in contests of their own. Perhaps most importantly, there is little evidence that competition among Taliban factions over shares of authority has disrupted the group’s functionality or capacity.

[h] The U.N. sanctions monitoring team’s latest report (May 2022) characterized Hibatullah’s shifting leadership style thusly: “Hibatullah himself has reportedly been less open to deliberation with other Taliban leaders, with whom he previously held regular consultations. Towards those with whom he remains in communication … he is said to have become more autocratic and dismissive of dissent.” The team noted similarities in the evolution of Taliban’s founder and first emir Mullah Mohammad Omar’s style, from widely consultative to increasingly domineering. “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2611 (2021) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, May 2022.

[i] Due to the emir’s minimal and still mysterious public profile, rumors of his death—which spread after a bombing at a Pakistani mosque he frequented in 2019—persist to this day. Now that Hibatullah has been reported attending a handful of public events, including the July 2022 ulema gathering in Kabul, some proponents of the rumor have continued to insist Hibatullah is dead, suggesting that in each of these appearances the emir must have been represented by a body double or stand-in.

That the Taliban managed to hide Mullah Omar’s death from the world and most of their own organization for two full years (from 2013 until 2015), stands as a humbling reminder of how little is ever known/verifiable about the group. But the fallout from that deception nearly tore the Taliban apart. Proponents of the idea that Hibatullah is dead have not put forward a persuasive theory as to why the Taliban would commit the same mistake twice, this time repeatedly risking exposure by staging appearances with a stand-in. If such a ruse were discovered, that likely would be far more harmful to the group than a transparent succession, even a bitterly contested one. Moreover, unlike emirs Mullah Omar and Akhtar Mansour, Hibatullah served as a teacher and preacher for much of the past 20 years. His appearance, voice and mannerisms are well known to hundreds, if not thousands of the Taliban faithful. If Hibatullah’s public appearances had in fact been a man (or men) acting as a stand-in, then many of his former students are presumably in on the conspiracy, without any evidence-based exposé emerging to-date.

A more analytically useful question, in the absence of firm verification either way, might be: how much does an assessment of the Taliban change, of their leadership politics, their ideological inclinations and their likely policy trajectory, if it were assumed Hibatullah is dead and a complex cover-up is being implemented? It would suggest a staggering degree of messaging coordination and discipline, given the level of detail that leaked from leadership gatherings allegedly chaired by the emir this year. See Ashley Jackson, “The Ban on Older Girls’ Education: Taleban conservatives ascendant and a leadership in disarray,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 29, 2022. Such a level of discipline would further suggest that every senior member of the Taliban, complicit in the cover-up, agrees with or at least consents to policies being announced in the emir’s name. Author interviews, Afghan and Western analysts, January and June 2022.

[j] This dynamic of the emir and top echelons of Taliban leadership decentralizing their authority out of necessity, especially on issues beyond the most critical military aims, is extensively documented in Antonio Giustozzi, The Taliban at War (London: Hurst, 2019), especially chapters 3, 4, and 8 (entitled “The Impossible Centralization of an Anti-Centralist Movement”). It is also reflected in Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri’s study of the Taliban’s establishment of hierarchical structures to administer limited civilian governance; the theme of de facto autonomy ceded to local commanders by the emir and his top lieutenants is prevalent throughout. See Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri, “Insurgent Bureaucracy: How the Taliban Makes Policy,” United States Institute of Peace, November 19, 2019.

[k] One former Taliban described the overrule of such a solid consensus among the leadership as unprecedented; other affiliates of the movement began to gossip aloud whether Hibatullah was being influenced by pernicious influences hoping to see the Taliban fail (meaning Pakistan, historically accused of seeking a weakened Afghan state). Author interviews, former Taliban and Taliban affiliates, Doha and Kabul, March-May 2022.

[l] In one small but telling anecdote, a foreigner visiting from Kabul was hosted by an interlocutor with strong connections to a wide range of Taliban leaders. The interlocutor offered coffee or tea to his Western guest, even though it was the middle of day during Ramadan, while he (and all of Kandahar) was strictly fasting. Author interview, Kabul-based interlocutor, April 2022.

[m] These include figures such as the notorious Ibrahim Sadr, for years the chief of the Taliban’s entire war effort, who was ostensibly named a deputy minister of defense but whom more than one analyst doubts has ever set foot in the ministry, and whose remit in shaping the formal security forces under acting Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob is unclear. Author interviews, Kabul-based analysts, April-May 2022.

[n] Hadud, meaning mandated by God/Islamic law; these include the amputation of hands for theft, public execution for capital crimes, and other acts made notorious by the Taliban’s emirate in the 1990s. See “Islamic Emirate Leader Vows to Enforce Islamic Law Across Country,” TOLO News, July 9, 2022.

[o] Taliban enthusiasm for these punishments appears to be part of a general sentiment of frustration at the perceived ‘softness’ of the Taliban for the degree of amnesty they have provided soldiers and officials of the former government or how extensively their diplomatic relations have developed with non-Muslim nations. Author interviews, Afghan researchers, Kabul, March-May 2022.

[p] Former and active Taliban figures with insight into how higher-level meetings are conducted speak of a ‘culture of silence’ and very few dissenting views being aired during the course of actual meetings. Elaborate “courtly” behavior takes place, wherein proponents of a particular idea canvas other leaders before and during sidebars of important meetings, in order to shore up or “whip” opinion in their favor without ever needing to openly confront or debate opposing views. The dysfunction and lack of structure in Taliban policy debate is evident in other foundational governance issues, as well. At the same Taliban leadership conference in Kandahar in March, several participants said there was discussion on a roadmap to establishing a permanent government, establishing a formal and sustainable structure for the Islamic Emirate, including a constitution of sorts. Not only did those discussions stall, but since then, individual Taliban leaders have issued controversial public statements that undercut the work of a formally appointed constitutional formation committee. Author interviews, summer 2020, November 2021, March 2022. See Abdul Ghafar Saboori, “Parwan Governor, Citing Supreme Leader, Says Previous Constitution Invalid,” TOLO News, August 4, 2022.

[q] Prominent examples of this motivation include the evolution of Mullah Baradar’s position as first deputy prime minister; in the months since his appointment, his office has taken to referring to the position as the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, not the original title Taliban officials provided. Baradar has attempted to corner the market on economic development, citing it (somewhat implausibly) as the Taliban’s “number one priority.” Similarly, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani has approached foreign diplomats and U.N. officials with multiple proposals and entreaties to modernize and professionalize the ministry of interior according to international norms and standards. See Najibullah Lalzoy, “Plans underway to eliminate poverty and create work opportunities: Baradar,” Khaama Press, February 6, 2022; author interviews, U.N. officials, December 2021-March 2022.

[r] This was vocalized bluntly by the emir in the fiery speech he delivered at the ulema gathering in Kabul in July 2022. He said, “They fought us so they could silence us and the voice of jihad and sharia. That fight still has not ended. It continues until this day, and it will continue until the Day of Judgment.” For more on the emir’s appearance, see Fazelminallah Qazizai, “For Now, Ideology Trumps Pragmatism in Afghanistan,” New Lines Magazine, July 13, 2022.

[s] The U.N. sanctions monitoring team, in its May 2022 report, said this on the TTP’s gains since the Taliban’s takeover: “TTP has arguably benefitted the most of all the foreign extremist groups in Afghanistan from the Taliban takeover. It has conducted numerous attacks and operations in Pakistan. TTP also continues to exist as a stand-alone force, rather than feeling pressure to merge its fighters into Afghan Taliban units, as is the prospect for most foreign terrorist fighters. The group is estimated to consist of 3,000 to 4,000 armed fighters located along the east and south-east Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.” “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.” On the triangular relationship between the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan, and the TTP, see Asfandyar Mir, “Pakistan’s Twin Taliban Problem,” United States Institute of Peace, May 4, 2022.

[t] The analyst Borhan Osman assessed Hibatullah’s 2017 treatise as follows: “Worldly pursuits such as fame and power threaten the cohesion of the Taleban movement and therefore its effectiveness. To reverse, or even just decelerate the movement’s descent into worldliness, the Taleban leader has come up with strong words from the Islamic tradition on the value of piety and the rules for the validity of armed jihad.” Borhan Osman, “AAN Q&A: Taleban Leader Hebatullah’s New Treatise on Jihad,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 15, 2017. Osman also notes how the emir foretold of the need to “continue the jihad after the infidels were expelled.”

[u] The inverse sentiment has been expressed by those rebutting the Taliban’s ultraconservatives. An Afghan political figure in Kabul has said, “Haibatullah’s only constituency is the dead. His entire worldview seems fixated on Taliban martyrs and what they fought for.” State builders also recognize the power and political optics of this paradigm; one of Sirajuddin Haqqani’s first public appearances was an event hosting the surviving relatives of Taliban suicide bombers, where he promised them lasting benefits from the state. Author interviews, foreign diplomats and Afghan political figures, December 2021 and April-May 2022. Abdul Sayed, “The Haqqani Network’s Martyr: Inside Afghan Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani’s Reception Honoring Suicide Bombers,” Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, November 5, 2021.

[v] One seasoned analyst cited an Afghan proverb on this dilemma: “‘There is a saying in Pashto that you can’t hold two watermelons in one hand,’ he says. ‘In this case the watermelons are the jihadi supporters of the Taliban on one side, and the international community on the other.’” Scott Anderson, “Afghanistan mystery: Why was Al Qaeda’s leader in Kabul?” Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2022.

[w] While this paragraph explores the continued policy tug-of-war over girls’ education, tensions surface in a variety of other policy areas as well: For example, in July, acting Defense Minister Yaqoob traveled to Qatar with all the ceremony of a state visit. Yaqoob later told Afghan media the Qataris had proposed a security assistance agreement, a pact that could render his government somewhat dependent on a foreign state. Yaqoob’s remarks on erecting a strong national army echo historical statements made by multiple previous Afghan governments the Taliban has decried as corrupt. Yet, Yaqoob has also given speeches to Taliban fighters replete with references to moral propriety and Islamic purity. See Akmal Dawi, “Taliban Seeking 110,000-Strong Army After 6 Months in Power,” VOA News, February 15, 2022, and Saeed Shah, “Afghanistan’s Taliban Warn Foot Soldiers: Behave, and Stop Taking Selfies,” Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2021.

[x] Stanekzai is somewhat of a black sheep in the senior levels of the Taliban, but as one renowned scholar of Afghanistan put it, “Stanekzai has support on this, among the movement’s most influential figures. He wouldn’t still be walking around if he didn’t.” Remarks made under Chatham House rules at an academic roundtable, Washington D.C., July 2022. On Stanekzai’s remarks, see citation 47.

[y] Analysts based in Kabul almost universally note that in concrete terms, a great deal of apparent work remains—one noting that it is no surprise the Taliban have prioritized issuing uniforms to police and other forces in urban centers, if nothing else to superficially demonstrate progress. Author interviews, Kabul-based analysts, April and June 2022.

[z] In the spring of 2022, as resistance flared back up in Panjshir, the Taliban dispatched forces and new commanders from Helmand Province in the south.

[aa] Threats to women not only manifest as harassment, detention, or abuse by the Taliban; women’s rights activists also report serious increases in domestic violence and crimes carried out against women, with impunity.

[ab] It is worth noting that the author has received reliable reports of petty corruption among junior Taliban officials in a range of ministries, much of it seemingly rooted in the economic deprivation afflicting the entire country. Author interviews, Kabul-based interlocutors, December 2021 and April 2022. On the macro-level formal metrics of corruption, see Alcis, “Changing the Rules of the Game: How the Taliban Regulated Cross-Border Trade and Upended Afghanistan’s Political Economy,” Xcept, July 2022.

[ac] After several meetings with Talban officials on the topic, U.N. officials privately expressed concern that the group will lay the responsibility for alternative livelihoods at the United Nations’ feet; they presented very little planning or forethought of their own. Author notes from a Chatham House-rules discussion, June 2022.

[ad] Other states in the region, including China, Russia, and Iran, emphasize this as well.

[ae] Senior Taliban figures have made this awareness clear in private talks with regional and Western diplomats, as well as in their repeated messaging on the need for friendly relations. Author interviews, regional and Western diplomats, U.N. officials, April-June 2022.

[af] In the emir’s speech to the July ulema gathering in Kabul, he said that the Taliban’s war with disbelievers [with prior reference to them as ‘the West’] was not over, and would never end, that continued jihad in defense of Afghanistan’s Muslim identity was a never-ending obligation. “Ameerul—Momineen full speech with english subtitles,” YouTube, July 3, 2022.

[1] See Ashley Jackson, “The Ban on Older Girls’ Education: Taleban conservatives ascendant and a leadership in disarray,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, March 29, 2022.

[2] For a primer on the history and politics of the institution of the loya jirga, see Scott Smith, “Loya Jirgas and Political Crisis Management in Afghanistan: Drawing on the Bank of Tradition,” United States Institute of Peace, September 30, 2019.

[3] For more on this gathering, see Michael Scollon, “Taliban’s Handpicked ‘Grand Gathering’ No Place For Diverse Opinions — Or Women,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 30, 2022, and “Taliban Loya Jirga? / The Afghan Brief, Episode 4,” Afghan Eye Podcast, July 6, 2022.

[4] See Andrew Watkins, “An Assessment of Taliban Rule at Three Months,” CTC Sentinel 14:9 (2021).

[5] Author interviews, researchers, former Taliban, U.N. officials based in Kabul and Doha, January-July 2022.

[6] Author interviews, researchers, former Taliban, U.N. officials based in Kabul and Doha, January-July 2022.

[7] See Watkins, “An Assessment of Taliban Rule at Three Months.”

[8] Author interviews, U.N. officials and foreign diplomats in Kabul/Doha, April-May 2022.

[9] Author interviews, U.N. officials and foreign diplomats in Kabul/Doha, April-May 2022. Also author interviews, Western and former Afghan officials, Washington, D.C., April-May 2022.

[10] S.K. Khan, “Taliban bring new faces to fill Cabinet positions in Afghanistan,” Anadolu Agency, November 21, 2021. See, for example, Watkins, “An Assessment of Taliban Rule at Three Months” for notes on early struggles between the ministries of interior and defense, which instead of assigning forces functional tasks historically associated with each ministry, left the command of forces divided along the same geographic lines as the two Taliban leaders appointed to head those ministries had commanded during the insurgency.

[11] See, for instance, Jeff M. Smith, “The Haqqani Network: The New Kingmakers in Kabul,” War on the Rocks, November 12, 2021.

[12] Author interviews, security analysts, U.N. officials, Afghan researchers, September-December 2021. See also Andrew Watkins, “Five Questions on the Taliban’s Caretaker Government,” United States Institute of Peace, September 9, 2021.

[13] On Hibatullah’s still shadowy in-person appearances, see Fazelminallah Qazizai, “The Mysterious Public Appearances of the Taliban’s Supreme Leader,” New Lines Magazine, December 20, 2021. On the vague official statements on the emir’s role in the state, see Watkins, “Five Questions on the Taliban’s Caretaker Government.”

[14] For analysis of this characterization and why it was mistaken, see Andrew Watkins, “Taliban Fragmentation: Past, Present and Future,” United States Institute of Peace, March 2020.

[15] Author interviews, Kabul-based political analysts, January, May, and July 2022.

[16] See Jackson.

[17] See Antonio Giustozzi, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s organization and structure,” Landinfo, August 2017.

[18] Michael Semple, “Rhetoric, Ideology and Organizational Structure of the Taliban Movement,” United States Institute of Peace, January 5, 2015.

[19] See, among others, revealing anecdotes in Bette Dam, Looking for the Enemy: Mullah Omar and the Unknown Taliban (New York: HarperCollins, 2021).

[20] For more on this strain as the insurgency grew, and Taliban leadership’s careful balancing act between autonomy and obedience, see Watkins, “Taliban Fragmentation.”

[21] Author interviews, U.S. and European defense officials, April 2022.

[22] See “Taking Stock of the Taliban’s Perspectives on Peace,” International Crisis Group, August 11, 2020. Disclosure: The author was a key contributor to this report.

[23] See Jackson.

[24] Ibid. Also author interviews, Afghan analysts and researchers, April-June 2022.

[25] Author interviews, Afghan researchers and Kabul-based foreigners, April-May 2022.

[26] Author interviews, Afghan researchers and Kabul-based foreigners, April-May 2022.

[27] Author interviews, Afghan researchers and Kabul-based foreigners, April-May 2022.

[28] Author interviews, Afghan researchers and Kabul-based foreigners, April-May 2022.

[29] Author interview, Afghan business leader, Doha, March 2022.

[30] See Dam and Fazelminallah Qazizai, “The Taliban Still Depend on Mullah Omar’s Legacy,” New Lines Magazine, May 2, 2022.

[31] See, for example, Ahmed-Waleed Kakar, “In Afghanistan, Vice and Virtue Are Front and Center,” New Lines Magazine, April 25, 2022.

[32] For an overview of this historical context, see Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). See also Antonio Giustozzi and Noor Ullah, “The inverted cycle: Kabul and the strongmen’s competition for control over Kandahar, 2001–2006,” Central Asian Survey 26 (2007).

[33] Author interviews, foreign aid officials and diplomats, January, April, and May, 2022. These interviewees corroborated difficulties in securing meetings with several ministers, deputy ministers, and department directors due to prolonged and repeated stays in Kandahar.

[34] Jackson.

[35] Clark B. Lombardi and Andrew F. March, “Afghan Taliban Views on Legitimate Islamic Governance: Certainties, Ambiguities, and Areas for Compromise,” United States Institute of Peace, February 2022.

[36] “Taking Stock of the Taliban’s Perspectives on Peace,” International Crisis Group, August 11, 2020.

[37] Numerous examples of the Taliban’s moderation of policy over time are explored in Thomas Ruttig, “Have the Taliban Changed?” CTC Sentinel 14:3 (2021), as well as in Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri, “Insurgent Bureaucracy: How the Taliban Makes Policy,” United States Institute of Peace, November 19, 2019.

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

[39] Mujib Mashal, “How the Taliban Outlasted a Superpower: Tenacity and Carnage,” New York Times, May 26, 2020.

[40] Author notes from a Chatham House-rules roundtable hosting researchers of the Taliban, November 2021.

[41] See Kathy Gannon and Mohammad Shoaib Amin, “Taliban clamp down on drugs, announce ban on poppy harvest,” Associated Press, April 3, 2022.

[42] Author interviews, Afghan political analysts, Kabul, April-May 2022.

[43] On ethnonationalist Pashtun political and cultural thought, see Shahida Aman and Muhammad Ayub Jan, “A Historical Analysis of Trends in Pakhtun Ethno-Nationalism,” South Asian Studies 30:2 (2015). On how it plays into recent history and the Taliban’s ideology, see Abubakar Siddique, The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Afghanistan and Pakistan (London: Hurst, 2014), and Anand Gopal, “The Combined and Uneven Development of Afghan Nationalism,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 16:3 (2016).

[44] Author interviews, political analysts, Kabul and Doha, September 2021 and February 2022.

[45] See Thomas H. Johnson, Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict (New York: Oxford, 2017).

[46] See Sabawoon Sanim, “Policing Public Morality: Debates on promoting virtue and preventing vice in the Taleban’s second Emirate,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 15, 2022, and Kakar.

[47] Author interviews, Taliban researchers, Kabul, May-June 2022. On public statements, see Stanekzai’s remarks both before and after the ulema gathering in Kabul: “Taliban leader says women should be provided with their rights based on Afghan culture, Islamic values,” ANI News, May 23, 2022, and Toba Walizada, “Stanekzai: No Country Can Develop Without Education,” TOLO News, July 27, 2022.

[48] On Deobandi clerical opposition to the Taliban’s policy, see “Mufti Usmani urges Taliban to reopen girls’ schools,” Express Tribune, April 22, 2022. On cultural justifications being incorporated into Taliban statements on religious edicts, see one example in Ayaz Gul, “Taliban Rebuff UN Calls for Reversing Rules on Afghan Women,” VOA News, May 27, 2022.

[49] For this deep-rooted theme see, in particular, the manuscript (in Arabic) authored by the current chief justice of the Taliban’s supreme court, Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, which Taliban interlocutors report was published in the spring of 2022 with the blessing of the emir. For a summary, see Dr. Jawad Borhani, “The Islamic Emirate And Systems: An Overview of the Taliban’s Manifesto of Statehood,” Reporterly, June 2022. The Taliban’s view of education under the republic as a weapon against them and their values is covered well by Fazelminallah Qazizai in “Why the Taliban View Education as a Weapon,” New Lines Magazine, April 4, 2022. Qazizai concludes the article by noting: “As far as a lot of the Taliban are still concerned, education led to occupation, it did not lead to independence. Freedom was won by the Quran and the gun, nothing else.”

[50] This quote was shared in Qazizai, “Why the Taliban View Education as a Weapon.”

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

[52] For a synthesis of how power dynamics are perceived between these key Taliban leaders, see the latest U.N. sanctions monitoring team report: “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2611 (2021) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, May 2022.

[53] See, for instance, headlines and reporting such as Abubakar Siddique, “‘Unprecedented Differences’: Rifts Within the Taliban Come Out in the Open,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 2, 2022.

[54] For much more detail on this discovery, the strike that killed al-Zawahiri, what it reveals about the Taliban and what it says about counterterrorism in Afghanistan, see the extensive interview with the head of the U.N. sanctions monitoring team in this issue. Paul Cruickshank and Madeline Field, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Outgoing Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 15:8 (2022).

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

[56] Matthew Lee, Nomaan Merchant, and Aamer Madhani, “Biden: Killing of al-Qaida leader is long-sought ‘justice,’” Associated Press, August 2, 2022.

[57] Author interviews, diplomats and aid officials, Kabul, December 2021, February and May 2022.

[58] See “Exclusive: Amanpour speaks with Taliban deputy leader,” CNN, May 16, 2022.

[59] Pamela Constable, “Taliban denies knowing of al-Qaeda presence after Zawahiri killed in Kabul,” Washington Post, August 4, 2022.

[60] On the region’s collective concerns, yet steady acceptance of the reality of the Taliban’s rule, see Andrew Watkins, “Afghanistan’s Neighbors are Learning to Live with the Taliban,” World Politics Review, May 23, 2022.

[61] See Fazelminallah Qazizai, “For Now, Ideology Trumps Pragmatism in Afghanistan,” New Lines Magazine, July 13, 2022.

[62] See public reporting in Cathal O’Gabhann, “The West Is Getting Afghanistan Wrong, Again,” National Interest, June 12, 2022; author interviews, humanitarian aid workers, Kabul, June 2022.

[63] Author interviews, humanitarian aid workers, Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, June-July 2022.

[64] The author has reviewed transcripts of six speeches made at the gathering and the final summary of the proceedings, and interviewed more than one source who attended.

[65] On public statements, see Stanekzai’s remarks both before and after the ulema gathering in Kabul: “Taliban leader says women should be provided with their rights based on Afghan culture, Islamic values;” Walizada, “Stanekzai: No Country Can Develop Without Education.”

[66] See Toba Walizada, “Committee Formed to Reopen Girls’ Schools: Islamic Emirate,” TOLO News, May 26, 2022.

[67] See Jackson and Amiri.

[68] See “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team” for summaries of U.N. member state assessment of the state of the Taliban’s formal security forces.

[69] See Ibid., encapsulated in the line: “The Taliban have defaulted to Pashtun favouritism, alienating minority communities in Afghanistan and running the risk that ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Taliban will become disillusioned.”

[70] For background on Mehdi, see Thomas Ruttig, “The case of Mawlawi Mehdi and Balkhab District: Are the Taleban attracting Hazaras?” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 23, 2020.

[71] Author interviews, security analysts, Kabul, July 2022. See also Stefanie Glinski, “Taliban Wage War Over Coal in Northern Afghanistan,” Foreign Policy, July 5, 2022.

[72] Ibid. For a history of ethnically motivated, sectarian violence against Hazaras, see Farkhondeh Akbari, “The Risks Facing Hazaras in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan,” George Washington University Program on Extremism, March 7, 2022. On the displacement in Balkhab, see Banafsa Binesh, “OCHA Claims 27,000 Displaced in Balkhab Conflict,” TOLO News, July 8, 2022.

[73] Author notes from a Chatham House-rules conference, June 2022.

[74] Published report forthcoming; author personal notes, July 2022.

[75] See Bruce Pannier, “Taliban’s Arrest Of Ethnic Uzbek Commander Sparks Clashes In Northern Afghanistan,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 29, 2022.

[76] Author interviews, Kabul-based analysts who traveled to the regions in question, January-February 2022. See also details cited in “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”

[77] Author interviews, Afghan civil society activists, February 2022.

[78] Author interviews, foreigners based in Kabul, March, May, and July 2022.

[79] On Virtue and Vice, see Kakar, and Sanim. See also reflection on GDI in Fazelminallah Qazizai, “The Different Meanings of Taliban Rule,” New Lines Magazine, February 7, 2022.

[80] See Susannah George, “Taliban launches sweeping house-to-house raids across Kabul in search of weapons,” Washington Post, February 27, 2022.

[81] Ibid. Also author notes on Taliban public statements.

[82] “Afghanistan: Taliban Execute, ‘Disappear’ Alleged Militants,” Human Rights Watch, July 7, 2022.

[83] Based on the author’s tracking of testimony from Afghan interlocutors, foreign humanitarian aid workers, and public reports on social media.

[84] Author remote interviews, security experts, Kabul, May-June 2022.

[85] See William Byrd, “Taliban Are Collecting Revenue — But How Are They Spending It?” United States Institute of Peace, February 2, 2022, and Alcis, “Changing the Rules of the Game: How the Taliban Regulated Cross-Border Trade and Upended Afghanistan’s Political Economy,” Xcept, July 2022.

[86] See Ruttig as well as Jackson and Amiri.

[87] See Byrd.

[88] See David Mansfield, “Will the Taliban’s efforts to control drugs succeed?” Alcis, June 13, 2022.

[89] See series of reports on Afghanistan Analysts Network, entitled, “Living in a Collapsed Economy,” December 2021, February and March 2022.

[90] See, for instance, Barnett Rubin, “Leveraging the Taliban’s Quest for International Recognition,” United States Institute of Peace, March 2021.

[91] See Jackson and Amiri.

[92] Unpublished public opinion polling, conducted by a Western multilateral organization, late 2021-early 2022; other surveys include author interviews with monitoring organizations based in Kabul.

[93] See Watkins, “Afghanistan’s Neighbors Are Learning to Live with the Taliban.”

[94] See Asfandyar Mir, “Pakistan’s Twin Taliban Problem,” United States Institute of Peace, May 4, 2022.

[95] Aamir Latif, “Afghan Taliban confirm Pakistan-TTP ‘indefinite’ cease-fire,” Anadolu Agency, June 18, 2022.

[96] See an excellent summary of these developments in Rupert Stone, “China Won’t Save the Afghan Taliban,” National Interest, March 29, 2022.

[97] Author interviews, U.N. officials, June 2022.

[98] Ali Latifi, “Afghanistan: UAE beats Qatar and Turkey to sign airports deal,” Middle East Eye, May 25, 2022.

[99] Ibid.

[100] For further on this, see Tricia Bacon and Asfandyar Mir, “India’s Gamble on Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, July 11, 2022.

[101] Author interviews, Afghan researchers and journalists, U.N. officials, Kabul and Kandahar, June 2022.

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