A little over 50 years ago, I spent a brutal winter in a tiny hamlet-- two families in two compounds-- in the Hindu Kush in northwest Afghanistan, just beyond the legendary Panjshir Valley. Legendary? Oh yeah. It's where many Tajiks live and where they have fought off everyone who has tried to conquer them, most recently, the Taliban and before that the Soviets. Today, after Ashraf Ghani fled to Tashkent and then the UAE with every dollar he could find, the Panjshir Valley is the redoubt of Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who claims he's the legitimate president of Afghanistan, and Ahmad Massoud, son of former anti-Soviet Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who fought off the Soviets and the Taliban in the past. They've already asked Biden to supply their fight against the Taliban.
Two of the worst of the GOP warmongers-- both part of the military-industrial-complex-- Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and war profiteer Mike Waltz (R-FL)-- are insisting Biden recognize them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. They wrote that they were calling "on President Biden to designate the Afghan Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and we urge him to publicly support Congressional efforts to stand with our friends in the Panjshir Valley who will serve as a bulwark against regional terror."
The Taliban will never turn Afghanistan into a liberal democracy. In fact, it's likely to be run in ways most Americans will find distasteful if not repugnant. One savvy wag joked that we were right in the middle of turning Afghanistan from a 12th century country into a 14th century country. The Taliban is a nationalist bunch who have managed to get along with the U.S. before 9/11 and seem to be getting along with the U.S. right now. I think they may even turn out to be allies. Warmongers might want nothing to do with that, real realpolitik seems to be moving in that direction.
Reporting for The Guardian from Pakistan yesterday, Emma Graham-Harrison assumes that with the U.S. gone the Taliban will soon show their true colors. She expects the worst. She may be right-- or not. "The Taliban," she wrote, "have made clear they want to avoid a repeat of their 1990s rule when they presided over an international pariah state, mismanaged the economy and increased repression as discontent spread. What is less clear is whether they can achieve that, or how they will attempt it. The pivot from fighting an insurgency to managing the government was always going to be difficult, and the Taliban have had less time to prepare than they expected. The speed with which Kabul fell caught even the Taliban by surprise, co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar has admitted, and it is clear the group had not yet pinned down who would rule, and how.
[T]hey have been fighting IS [ISIS-K] for half a decade now, and if they cannot contain it, and if complex suicide attacks continue in Kabul and elsewhere after foreign troops have left, it will undermine their authority, sap resources and may damage their legitimacy. It also raises the spectre of another episode opening in Afghanistan’s long civil war, possibly fought on more than one front, with others vowing opposition from the Panjshir Valley.
Negotiations for a transition period, in return for President Ashraf Ghani's surrender, might have given them time to at least start addressing questions about handing over everything, from the country’s banking system-- largely shut down and with its reserves frozen-- to its now devastated airport.
...Leaks so far suggest a structure perhaps similar to neighbouring Iran; one senior official in an interview with Reuters categorically ruled out democracy.
The Taliban’s reclusive leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada-- of whom there is only one known photo-- is expected to take on some kind of supreme leadership. Below that there may be a cabinet-style council.
There have been internal talks between powerful Taliban factions, and several meetings with members of the old government who did not join the flight overseas, as well as with powerbrokers such as former president Hamid Karzai.
Senior spokesmen have said the group wants an inclusive government and have kept the health minister and Kabul mayor in their posts in a show of goodwill. But even if those officials stay on, or other similar appointments are made, the Taliban will hoard real power for themselves. And any spirit of compromise is not expected to extend to women.
Once a government is in place, it can start clarifying how it intends to rule. The terror of many Afghans, based on the Taliban’s track record in areas they do control, and atrocities committed last time they dominated the country, is manifest in the terrified crowds at the airport trying to get out.
So far, their promises of amnesty have been met with scepticism, amid widespread house searches for people linked to the government and security forces. Promises to respect women’s rights, within the Taliban’s concept of sharia law, have sat badly with militants forcing women from their workplaces at gunpoint, or ordering them to stay home because of “security” issues.
And hopes for a more generally moderate version of Taliban rule have been dimmed by bans on music and even popular pastimes such as card games in some areas.
But they do also have popular support, including among those who share their worldview, or who lost relatives to American or former government forces. Several people have noted that people they worked with or interacted with regularly, from a colleague in an aid organisation to a bank teller, were undercover operatives.
Even the most senior militants themselves may not know exactly what their government will look like or how it will rule, as different factions battle for control.
Part of the group’s success in recent years was in giving local commanders a considerable degree of latitude in how they governed areas they seized, so one commander in the eastern Logar province actively promoted education for all children, while in Helmand others effectively banned schooling for girls, said Jackson.
It is not clear, however, how they will balance competing visions when running an entire country, where laws and regulation will need to be more standardised. And they have seized control of a country that already had formidable problems, reliant on foreign aid, riddled with corruption and facing a crippling drought in western regions this year.
The fates of those left behind once the evacuation has ended, and the millions more who never thought of leaving-- there are nearly 40 million people in Afghanistan and only a tiny proportion has fled-- will depend on the Taliban’s ability to switch from fighting to administration, and whether the west will continue to fund aid.
The UN and other organisations are already warning of a humanitarian crisis and food prices are soaring, which may leave western governments facing a terrible choice between working with an extremely oppressive government or leaving the poorest Afghans to pay a heavy price for leaders they did not choose.
“My concern is that calling out the Taliban is important, but historically they respond to punishment sanctions that are applied without incentive by digging their heels in,” Jackson said. “There are no good choices-- there are only choices that are marginally less horrific for Afghans and that should be the moral obligation now, because of what happened.”