While the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan seemed to go smoother and faster than they expected, the militants now face a very different situation, with conditions in the country rapidly deteriorating. Weeks after seizing power, the militants are beginning to realize that governing is much harder than leading an insurgency.
There are massive food shortages across the country. Last month Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warned that “basic services in Afghanistan are collapsing, and food and other lifesaving aid is about to run out.”
The economic outlook is bleak, too. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Afghan economy is expected to contract by 30 percent this year as international aid dries up and foreign investment declines.
In addition to food insecurity and a looming economic collapse, the Taliban are facing a crisis in three other areas.
The first is the lack of international recognition. At the time of writing, no country in the world has formally recognized the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan, although Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran have signaled varying degrees of openness to doing so.
Although they might not admit it, the Taliban want international recognition to access aid and assistance. The Taliban are also desperate to occupy Afghanistan’s seat at the UN. The current Afghan representative is a hold-over from the previous Ghani government, and the question of Taliban participation was raised during the September 2021 UN General Assembly in New York. The Taliban have formally requested to send a representative to the UN, but so far this has not happened.
Recognition by the UN would mean the Taliban inheriting Afghanistan’s existing membership in other UN bodies, including the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Considering the Taliban’s record of destroying UNESCO cultural sites such as the two Buddhas of Bamiyan, as well as their well-established history of mistreating women and girls, it would be preposterous to allow the militant outfit in either organization.
The second problem involves internal disputes and fracturing within the group. The Taliban did a reasonably good job at hiding their dirty laundry when they operated in the shadows. Now that they are in government, stories and details of infighting are shedding light on the group’s dysfunctional internal relations.
For example, last month there was an apparent dispute between Mullah Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban and deputy prime minister, and Khalil Haqqani, the minister for refugees, over the division of power. Baradar is part of the Taliban’s Kandahari faction with close links to the group’s late leader, Mullah Omar, while Haqqani is the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s interior minister, and part of the Haqqani faction with strong influence in the east of the country.
Some reports said that the argument ended in a brawl, while others suggested Haqqani pulled a gun on Baradar and there was a shootout between their respective bodyguards. It is not clear which version is true. Either way, the Taliban have a major internal issue that must be resolved before it can start governing effectively.
Adding to the Taliban’s internal problems is the status of supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. Now Afghanistan’s leader, Akhundzada has never been seen in public and only one photo of him is known to exist. He has not even released an audio statement since the Taliban takeover, leading to speculation that he is dead. It is highly likely that the Taliban, and by default Afghanistan, are being led by someone who is no longer alive.
The third problem the Taliban face is one of internal security and the growing threat from Daesh. The self-described “Islamic State of Khorasan” was formed in 2015 when Daesh in Syria and Iraq was dominating the headlines. Since then, the Afghan branch has become one of the deadliest of all extremist groups in the country. The group recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially from disgruntled or former Taliban fighters. They have controlled, at their height, several small districts in Afghanistan and have been targeted by the US, the former Afghan government and even the Taliban in the past.
Now they operate in the shadows, while coordinating complex and deadly suicide attacks targeting everyone from Taliban fighters to Shiites. Dozens of Taliban fighters have been killed by Daesh since the August takeover. The growing presence of Daesh will continue to be a headache for the Taliban as they try to enforce security across the country.
It is clear that the Taliban are wholly unequipped for the task they face inside Afghanistan. The group is quickly learning that taking control of a province is not the same as governing it.
As winter approaches, Afghanistan is in a perilous state. Sadly, for the innocent Afghan people, there seems to be little the Taliban can do about it.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey
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