Assessing the Geopolitical Implications of the Taliban’s Return to Power in Afghanistan


The Taliban's 2001 Destruction of Afghanistan's Ancient Buddhas: A Painful Loss to World Heritage. The Pick Up vehicle of Taliban that reads: "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." Also "Police in the Service of People." Photo: @AADIL for ADN

By Shahmahmood Miakhel

On August 15, 2021, the Taliban retook control following a twenty-year period of brutal war. The political, economic, and military institutions were dismantled on this day, marking the beginning of yet another terrible chapter in Afghan history. Afghanistan was plunged into the dark ages, and millions of people lost hope in their country. Afghanistan has faced similar historical difficulties before. It has endured this kind of turmoil time and time again, and each time the country makes progress, it regresses tenfold because of intervention from the regional countries and beyond, as well as internal discord. Afghanistan’s contemporary history is exemplified by the changes and advancements brought about by Ghazi Amanullah Khan’s reign (1919–1929), President Daud Khan’s regime (1973–1978), and the fall of succeeding administrations.                                                   
The Taliban and their allies celebrate this day as the defeat of US and NATO forces, and they take pride in having overthrown superpowers. This is untrue; in reality, the movement had the support and backing of local intelligence services. The Taliban received training and refuge from Pakistani intelligence networks. Another piece of evidence that helped the Taliban return is the infamous DOHA agreement.

In addition to providing financial and military backing, Pakistan and Iran actively advocated for the Taliban’s return, working with regional countries like Qatar, China, and Russia to whitewash the group. Everyone asserted that Taliban 2.0 has undergone reform and will not commit the same atrocities as its predecessors, such as preventing girls from attending school, violating human rights, and impeding advancement. 

Although, Americans left the country, their influence has not ended; rather, it has been replaced by Pakistan. According to Abbas Stanikzai, the de facto Taliban’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, drones from the US and Pakistan continue to operate in Afghan airspace, suggesting that the country is still under occupation. It is no secret that residents of Kunar, Zabul, and Paktika provinces have seen drone operations by American and Pakistani military, which resulted in the death of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on July 31, 2022. In order to lessen Pakistan’s and the US’s influence in Afghanistan, Iran and India also have a part to play in normalizing relations with the Taliban.                                  
The General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) of the Taliban collaborates with Pakistani and American intelligence services. Additionally, the international community donates $40 million in humanitarian aid, and credible sources claim that GDI secretly receives an equivalent sum of money in exchange for intelligence sharing.

The international community adhered to the UN charter during the republic’s era, which outlined the roles and responsibilities of US and NATO forces operating in Afghanistan as well as bilateral government-to-government relations. Afghanistan had active embassies throughout the world and participated actively in the UN. Despite the fact that the Americans and Afghanistan’s neighbors helped the Taliban take control, no country has recognized the Taliban in the past two years. On the global scene, Afghanistan is alone, and the Taliban still do not have a seat at the UN. The Taliban have not yet taken control of the majority of Afghan embassies abroad; instead, Republican diplomats are still in charge. Since several of these nations do not recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan, some Taliban representatives who have gained access to a few embassies are not protected by diplomatic immunity.                                                                                                            
In interviews, members of the Taliban negotiation team in Qatar have stated time and time again that they oppose demolishing institutions and preventing girls from pursuing an education. Their disingenuous messaging misled Afghan politicians, high-ranking Afghan officials, and the Afghan negotiation team in Qatar into believing that the Taliban have changed and that peace talks will be successful. In order to protect their places and interests in the new structure under the interim administration, everyone attempted to get in touch with the Taliban. In Moscow, Islamabad, DOHA, Dubai, Tehran, Beijing, and other places, they had both public and private talks with Taliban representatives. In order to overthrow President Ashraf Ghani and prepare the way for their own regime, the Taliban pledged their assistance with a number of lawmakers and high-ranking government officials. President Ashraf Ghani is under increasing political, economic, and military pressure from the United States, particularly from US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who decided it was in the best interest of the US to sign the infamous DOHA deal with the Taliban rather than collaborating with the Afghan government. They desired the resignation of President Ghani and the power to be handed over to someone supported by the Taliban.                    
In the future, analysts and academics will discuss in great detail the internal dynamics of the nation, the effects of the surrounding area, and the intricate structure of international geopolitics that ultimately led to the fall of the republic. History bears witness to all the events and those who fell prey to their own covert deals.                                            
The initial idea was for the Taliban to integrate into the system and for the previous republican administration, led by President Ashraf Ghani, to go through some reforms. However, the fall of the republic was a significant political blow for the neighboring countries, the US, China, Russia, Qatar, Afghan leaders, President Ashraf Ghani, and the people of Afghanistan. I urged Afghan politicians to back the republic in a 2014 essay that appeared in Pajhwak News Agency because the Taliban, not Afghan politics, will take over if the republic falls. Given the Taliban’s worldview, which is founded on an extremely stringent interpretation of Sharia, they ought to consider if they can coexist and work with them under one roof.              
Due to their illegal takeover of power and their inability to secure both domestic and international legitimacy after two years in office, the Taliban also suffered a significant political loss with the collapse of the republic. I think it’s important to give a quick assessment of the Taliban’s leadership over the past two years. 

Taliban’s Ongoing Struggle for International Legitimacy 

In an article published by The United States Institute of Peace in October, 2021, I suggested that governing will be more difficult than fighting for the Taliban and that the group will have difficulty gaining both internal and international legitimacy. It is impossible to enhance governance and find practical answers to Afghanistan’s security, economic, and humanitarian crises under an administration that lacks both local and international legitimacy.                                                                              
Both national and international legitimacy establish the foundation of a government or system. Governments devoid of both international and domestic legitimacy are unable to guarantee the physical and mental safety of their citizens. Thus, the Taliban’s greatest setback over the past two years has been its inability to acquire both local and international legitimacy.  
The majority of its domestic and foreign backers are starting to voice their disapproval of the Taliban. We sadly have to disappoint the hopes and optimism that the international community, as well as regional countries, had placed in Taliban 2.0. Every country is compromising with the Taliban and establishing intelligence contacts only to secure their own national interests. The expansion of terrorism in the area and the Taliban’s influence are other issues that worry regional and international stakeholders. Other countries and Afghanistan’s neighbors fear radical groups operating within the country and want the Taliban to destroy them and put an end to their activity. Russia and China fear that the US may turn the Taliban against them. In a similar vein, the US is terrified of the influence that China, Russia, and Iran have on the Taliban.                     
As a result, while the international community and Afghanistan’s neighbors do not want the Taliban to expand its radical ideology and win greater power, they also do not want to remove the Taliban from power because there is no other alternative. The Taliban’s fall is not seen favorably by Afghanistan’s neighbors since it could worsen the country’s predicament. They also oppose the establishment of a powerful, independent Afghan government at the same time.                                                                             
For the Taliban, striking a balance between fulfilling the expectations of every country in the region and beyond and taking decisive action against extremist groups is also a challenging task. The Afghan people do not benefit from or believe that the current void is sustainable. Afghanistan will pose a serious threat to both the wider region and the world at large if current events continue. Afghanistan will once again serve as a theater of operations for proxy conflicts, and the absence of a legitimate government is precisely what extremist groups require to thrive. Afghanistan is the only area in which these terrorist organizations can thrive and continue to operate in such conditions.

The Complexities of Taliban Governance 

As previously stated, it is simpler for the Taliban to fight than to govern since, in the latter case, international and national laws hold the leaders accountable. The Taliban does not adhere to good governance, which calls for the appointment of officials based on competence and meritocracy. Mullahs occupy every position, from the top to the bottom, and some are even held by illiterate and ignorant individuals. Simply by virtue of their designation as Mullahs, they are appointed and hired. The minister of higher education for the Taliban declared in public that one’s status increases with the number of bombs they had detonated. Under the Taliban, nepotism and personal friendships determine who gets promoted.         
Girls’ intermediate and higher education schools are closed. There is a brain drain occurring within the country as thousands of highly qualified people have gone and continue to leave. The cost of a bribe to obtain a standard passport has risen to $2–$3,000. In order to raise a new generation of radicals, they are constructing “madrasas” in nearby districts and provinces, and the quality of education has drastically declined. The government does not offer any services in exchange for the taxes it collects from the population through various interest-based schemes.                                                              
Leadership positions in government necessitate constant communication with constituents and dissemination of critical information in order to maintain good governance. The majority of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) officials and members, including Taliban leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, live in hiding from the public and his cabinet. This explains why there is so much disagreement over whether or not he is real. Additionally absent is Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, the Taliban’s acting prime minister in Kabul. Only a few occasions have people seen him speak in public, and both instances were quite unsatisfactory. In his inaugural address, he informed the audience that they had not made any promises to the people about jobs or services. He went on to say that you should cry out to the Almighty and ask for anything you need. Every Talib simultaneously serves as an executor, a prosecutor, and a judge. There is no municipal ordinance or constitution, and each Talib applies the law and Islam according to his own unique understanding.                                                                           
Because the Taliban’s ranks were so unified in their allegiance to Mullah Omar during their previous reign of terror, Taliban 2.0 is even worse than they were. This time around, senior Taliban officials even made remarks criticizing some of Mullah Hibatullah’s policies, and the Taliban rank and file is less devoted to him. While Mullah Hibatullah and his close colleagues think education should be voluntary, prominent Taliban figures in Kabul think it should be mandatory.  Many Taliban commanders in Kabul are upset that girls’ schools have been closed, and they are working to persuade the international community that school closures will soon be lifted. The Taliban disagree greatly with each other, the people, and the rest of the world on how to run things and are moving in the wrong direction. Another indication that the Taliban leadership does not care about the suffering of the people is the recent earthquake in Afghanistan’s Herat Province, which left over 20,000 people injured, tens of thousands of people displaced, and over 3,000 dead.

Desperate Times in Afghanistan: Two Years Under Taliban Rule

The economic engine of Afghanistan has stopped working after two years of Taliban rule. The banking industry is paralyzed. There’s no one to blame. The financial circumstances of common Afghans are really alarming. Poverty and hunger are growing daily. 

Fear and unemployment are causing thousands of Afghans to flee. According to UNHCR estimates, since August 15, 2021, 1.4 million Afghans have fled to Iran and Pakistan. There are currently 8.2 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran alone.                        
The former government left the Taliban with more than enough resources and assets but maintaining them is difficult and most of them have been looted. The rate of infant mortality is rising, and hospitals lack the essential medical supplies and staff. Afghanistan has been repeatedly alerted to the serious humanitarian aid crisis by both the UN and the World Bank. Only in 2023 has the amount of foreign aid dropped by two billion dollars. Given the need for international aid in other countries across the world, it is anticipated that the volume of aid will continue to decline.

Two thirds of Afghanistan’s population, or 28.3 million people, are in desperate need of immediate aid. The humanitarian situation is becoming worse by the day, according to the estimations above and reports from inside the country, and the Taliban’s current system of administration is not meeting the requirements of the people.

Women’s Rights in Afghanistan 

According to the United Nations Agency for Refugees (UNHCR), Afghanistan is the worst place in the world for women, who make up half of the country’s population. We can never argue that human security is guaranteed in Afghanistan as long as half of the population lacks immunity and the ability to pursue an education.

When it comes to security, every person in a country should be able to exercise their rights to employment, education, free expression, and political engagement. Unfortunately, this freedom is directly denied to half of Afghanistan’s population, while other Afghans are also deprived of all these liberties inadvertently. Thus, it may be concluded that not all Afghans feel safe in their own country.

Challenges to Security and Stability in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan 

Regarding physical security, we observe that there are still criminal incidents, explosions, targeted and extrajudicial killings, and suicide bombings occurring in Afghanistan. The Taliban is at the pinnacle of moral decay, and daily accounts and videos of people invading people’s homes and respect are making the rounds on social media. While ordinary individuals driven by extreme poverty face severe penalties for small-time thefts, Taliban officials are shielded from crime and violence.

In addition to reports on dozens of other cases where Taliban officials forcibly entered people’s homes, raped women, and even married underage girls, there have been a lot of comments on social media regarding the cases of Saeed Khosti, Abdullah Haqqani’s brother, and Haqbeen.

For nothing more than a Facebook post, numerous people have been slain, tortured, and threatened. For additional information and statistics, the Taliban’s own records indicate that, in just one and half years, they have detained 12,500 individuals on suspicion of crimes. Oppression is pervasive. International and local agencies have documented a portion of these instances.
There are still extremist organizations in the country, and Afghanistan’s neighbors are also concerned about the country’s instability. There is fear that Afghanistan’s security conditions will worsen, making the country a serious threat to both the region and the rest of the world. Because these organizations collaborated with the Taliban in their illegitimate fight against the country for twenty years, the group is unable to purge its ranks of extremist and criminal elements. They are extremely close, and the world’s and the region’s intelligence networks have enough clout within their ranks to bring down the Taliban government with ease.

In conclusion, since the Taliban have regained power, both foreigners and Afghans believe that the current state of affairs in Afghanistan is concerning and that there is no practical way to resolve the crisis. This is because the Taliban hold different views from the majority of Afghans, politicians, the countries in the region, and the international community regarding how to handle the situation in Afghanistan.

Afghan Diasporas’ Political Dilemma 

The Taliban claim that they took power by force. They advocate for monopolistic politics and reject the ideas of democracy and sound governance. Everyone has no say in the government, and living under the Taliban seems like an unfair prison term. Within the context of Islam, they do not feel accountable or responsible to the people, nor do they believe in individual freedoms; instead, they treat people and the nation as war loot and property. While they are open to communicating with the outside world, they oppose any kind of peacemaking with their fellow Afghans.

Additionally, past Afghan politicians have not taken any lessons from history. They have struggled to reach a consensus on a national agenda over the past two years in order to build credibility and support on a national and international level. It is also impossible to comprehend the combat resistance against the Taliban. More so than the Taliban, Afghanistan’s former politicians suffer from a lack of identity and credibility because most of them are on several countries’ “blacklists,” and it is because the public, regional governments, and foreign governments don’t trust them.

The Afghan diaspora is home to a number of political movements, but they haven’t been able to win over the essential public and foreign confidence. The divisive climate on social media has made it difficult for Afghans to integrate, and there are now more gaps than ever between them in terms of religion, ethnicity, language, and geography.

The international community and Afghanistan’s neighbors are unable to agree on a particular approach since they have diverse objectives for the country. As there is no credible alternative to the Taliban, they have decided to compromise and tie the recognition of the Taliban to a number of demands that the Taliban are not yet prepared to meet. This was evident in the May meeting of this year in Qatar, where representatives of other countries in the region and the world were invited under the auspices of the United Nations.
Afghanistan’s future appears bleak, and if current trends continue, the country might pose serious challenges to both its citizens and other countries in the region. Perhaps some countries, like the US, are content with the status quo since it allows them to accomplish their strategic goals in a variety of ways. It is clear that the Biden administration has other priorities and is more interested in the Middle East, the Far East, and Ukraine than it is in continuing to devote political and military resources to Afghanistan. During a roundtable discussion, a senior US official stated that if a significant event occurred that went against US interests, the US would not respond by repeating September 11; instead, it would launch other military and surgical strikes and refrain from sending troops back to Afghanistan.

Navigating Afghanistan’s Dilemma: Realistic Courses of Action  

In political equations, it is crucial to consider the types of options and resources available. Which course of action is more realistic? Afghans, regrettably, are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils since they are without viable options. Here are some recommendations:

  1. The globalization of the Afghan dilemma is crucial if Afghanistan is to have some degree of protection from the evil that exists among its neighbors. However, Afghanistan has once again fallen to the bottom of the world priority list due to the manner the former Soviet Union disregarded the country after its forces left and President Najeeb’s rule fell. The Afghan problem is seldom ever covered by the Western media. It is untrue that the international community will end the problem in Afghanistan, despite the fact that many Afghans still feel their country is at the center of global affairs.                                                  
    The majority of Afghans are not satisfied with Afghanistan losing its significance on the international scene, just as they did not support the removal of US and NATO forces from their country. Even while Afghanistan is significant to some countries, like the US, they may accomplish their particular goals in a variety of ways with minimal commitment. It is also not a wise decision to wait for the international community in the hopes that the Afghanistan situation will be resolved in the coming years. 
  2. Even though Afghanistan has become a more regional dilemma, I believe that the countries in the region lack both the political will and the ability to come to an agreement on the matter of Afghanistan. Wishing for the region to resolve the Afghan situation also appears hopeless at this point.
  3. By simultaneously upholding the interests and desires of the Afghan people, the international community, and Afghanistan’s neighbors, the Taliban is unable to balance all of their balls. Consequently, the Taliban will never be able to realize their dream and will finally crumble under increasing pressure from both the inside and outside of the country. 
  4. There is also disagreement about a national agenda among Afghan politicians and other active movements that are developing in exile. They are unable to make any significant progress and are not well-established or known on a national or worldwide scale. 
  5. Nor are there military or political circumstances that would support the war effort; neither is war the answer to Afghanistan’s problems. 
  6. An uprising against a dictatorial regime would not be possible at this time because it would take time and happen gradually, making popular public uprisings impractical. 
  7. The option that appears more realistic, given all of the above scenarios, is for the crisis to worsen and for the nation’s security and economic conditions to continue to decline.
  8. Establishing the foundation for an intra-Afghan dialogue framework is the best course of action.

With all of the options listed above, the Taliban, together with military and political opposition to the Taliban, political movements that are currently underway, and Afghans in general, have no other effective alternatives. Even though the governments, politicians and people of Afghanistan have, historically, always turned opportunities into crises; But if the Taliban and all Afghans use insight in light of the above realities, they can turn the current crisis into an opportunity and pave the way for the last option –  which is intra-Afghan dialogue.

There is a rural expression in Afghanistan that if others do not shoulder the burden of your dead, you are on your own/you must grieve on your own. The Taliban need to realize that this is not how they can survive. If republican politicians were accountable for their previous shortcomings, then they are also accountable for the current and upcoming crises. If the Taliban’s decisions result in the persistence of proxy conflicts, poverty, and isolation as well as continued meddling in Afghanistan by neighbors and other countries in various forms, then they have some of the blame. They should take into account the reality of Afghanistan and the rest of the world, as well as historical lessons, to realize the futility of monopolizing power.
It would be preferable to have a clear plan for gaining popular legitimacy and not take Afghans for granted rather than racing to Islamabad, Doha, and other countries for talks with foreigners. Governments that are unpopular with the people are doomed to fail.
As a result, the Taliban bears primary responsibility for establishing and institutionalizing good governance in accordance with national values. The Taliban will gain from this as well as the people of Afghanistan. It’s possible that the Taliban and certain radical ideologues are unaware of how important this issue is. Islam and having a constitution, freedom of speech, equal rights for men and women in the workplace, and democracy are not incompatible, and neither Afghans nor Islam should be made fun of on the international scene. There’s a proverb in Pashto that goes, “If you can easily open a knot with your hand, there’s no need to open it with your mouth.” It is imperative that the Taliban clear the path for a substantive intra-Afghan conversation.

To gain credibility both domestically and internationally, Afghan politicians and other active movements need to see past their idealistic project-based programs and wishful thinking. They should also agree on a national agenda that aligns with national values and work toward a reasonable solution to the country’s problems.

The Taliban should be included in the negotiations for a genuine intra-Afghan discussion, since war is not the answer to a long-term problem. Rather than aiming for an inclusive government, everyone should work for an inclusive process.

Setting aside our differences and focusing on goals beyond linguistic, cultural, personal, and religious, we can create the conditions for a fruitful internal discussion with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Rather than dwelling on the past or allowing it to impede our progress, both the Taliban and the Afghan people as a whole ought to draw lessons from it.

To put it succinctly, in order to profit from the current situation, it is critical that the Taliban and Afghans open the door to a substantive internal dialogue “themselves,” as the outside world is not prepared to enter the Afghan crisis at this time.

Without external assistance or interference, the Taliban and other politicians and active movements may readily provide the foundation for an intra-Afghan discussion if they have the political will and intend to rebuild Afghanistan. Even with the greatest of intentions, outsiders and neighbors will never be able to address Afghanistan’s issues if its people are unable to do so on their own. Given the hostility that exists between Afghans, their neighbors, and outsiders, it makes no sense to hold any expectations from them. 
God does not change the condition of those people who do not take the initiative to change their own. Afghans must now determine which course to take. Do they want to make things worse or do they want to take action to improve the situation and achieve peace? 

Shahmahmood Miakhel is the former Governor of Nangarhar Province, currently leading Pro-Democratic Movement of Afghanistan (PDMA) (جمهوري غوښتونکو خوځښت)

Note: The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the articles. 

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