Afghanistan, a year after the Taliban takeover
15 Aug 2022|

Today is the anniversary of the takeover of Kabul, and control of Afghanistan, by Taliban forces. It’s been one year since the end of the 20-year war by UN-mandated US-led coalition forces to install and preserve rule by democratic processes, at a cost of more than US$2 trillion—and over 100,000 casualties, combatant and non-combatant. But what have the Taliban achieved during the past year, what of the future, and what are the policy implications for Australia?

Historians will come up with multiple political and military reasons why we lost. The reasons are complex; it’s Afghanistan, after all, a graveyard of empires. I’ll put forward one overarching reason: our failure yet again to recognise that ‘victory’ is political. It’s about winning hearts and minds. War is one means to this end, not the endgame.

That the Taliban now run the country, at both the national and provincial levels, is not in doubt. They are in control, and for an indefinite period. However, no country has yet officially recognised a Taliban ‘government’: UN references to ‘de facto authorities’, ‘de facto ministers’, and ‘caretaker cabinet’ are fitting, pending resolution. Ultimately, that resolution could depend on the Taliban creating an ‘inclusive’ political process or government of some sort, but under the current regime the sharing of power, if any, would be essentially symbolic.

Not unexpectedly, Taliban rule during the past year has been by intimidation and force. They are not widely popular, but neither were their predecessors. Survival has long been about playing by the rules, whoever is in power.

Open-source information suggests that the Taliban are ‘united’ under leaders who, with few exceptions, are Pashtun and Sunni. However, while longstanding tensions do exist between Pashtun tribes, and between the Pashtuns and other ethnic groups such as the Tajiks and Uzbeks , there’s no evidence of serious fractures, including among senior personalities, within the Taliban ‘coalition’. However, these differences are, and always have been, sources of potential volatility and vulnerability for the Taliban and previous governments.

Although the overall level of violence in Afghanistan has dropped significantly during the past year, some armed resistance does exist. This comes mostly from elements of Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K; the local IS affiliate) and the National Resistance Front (NRF; led by Ahmad Massoud, son of a legendary warlord and guerrilla leader assassinated by al-Qaeda in 2001).

IS-K is concentrated in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kuna. The NRF is mostly in the northeastern provinces of Panjshir and Baghlan. However, the numbers of both are reportedly small, and neither appears to have external support, at least at present, from neighbouring governments.

Both resistance forces are being actively targeted by the Taliban. Besides conventional combat operations, the Taliban’s tactics reportedly include the detention, torture and extra-judicial killing of the groups’ alleged supporters. Both forces are largely contained and don’t constitute any significant threat to the Taliban.

The quality of government over the past year under the Taliban has been poor, and the economy is in sharp decline. According to a recent UN report, Afghanistan since the takeover has witnessed an ‘unprecedented economic, financial, and humanitarian crisis’ that has left ‘[s]ome 24.4 million people, or 59% of the estimated population … in need of humanitarian assistance’. This includes food, shelter, medical treatment, water, sanitation and hygiene. Nearly 20 million Afghans are facing ‘acute hunger’ and more than six million face emergency levels of food insecurity.

There are several major causes for this. One is the serious decline in foreign donor funding to pay for imports of food, medicines and other necessities. Another is the serious decline in administrative competence across the civil service, due to the loss of many experienced officials who fled Afghanistan before or after the takeover and their deliberate replacement with inexperienced members of the Taliban. To help correct this, the UN and other agencies have sought increased humanitarian support, the unfreezing and repatriation of Afghanistan’s funds overseas, and the expansion of UN and other agencies’ in-country missions including, where possible, taking on expanded administrative and specialist roles.

Human rights have also taken a hard hit during the year. A UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan report on human rights released last month delivered a range of negative findings, including limitations on freedom of expression and assembly, restrictions on journalists, arbitrary detention, torture and extra-judicial killings.

One major concern was the Taliban’s imposition of new regulations on women and girls, including stricter dress codes, gender segregation, denial of access to secondary education, and restriction of employment almost exclusively to the education, health and humanitarian sectors. These changes have driven hundreds of thousands of women into unemployment. Their loss of income has further lowered their living standards. These changes are unpopular and not all Taliban leaders agree with them, but this interpretation of sharia law by key clerics prevails, for now.

Iran, the Central Asian republics, Russia, China, Pakistan and India—Afghanistan’s neighbours and near neighbours—all have direct interests in its stability. Economics is one strong reason. Afghanistan offers opportunities for increased trade, transit trade and potential exploitation of its vast mineral resources. Security is another, and especially whether the Taliban rulers are willing, or able, to prevent Afghanistan from again being a safe haven for jihadist groups from which they pursue cross-border agendas. These groups include al-Qaeda, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and others comprising Russian Chechyans, Uzbeks, Tajiks and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Peace and stability across this war-ravaged state; implementation of an inclusive political process and ideally an inclusive government; management of the humanitarian crisis, especially in the areas of food security and health care; and restoration of basic human rights for women and children are all issues of high policy concern to Australia. Australia must continue to pursue its existing actions and initiate appropriate new steps to help find solutions to these challenges.

For the most part, this will necessitate working through the UN and other international organisations to maximise results. There is also the issue of immigration. The government must be seen to meet its moral obligations in this important humanitarian area.