Opinion | How Will the Taliban Rule? Here’s the Early Evidence.

For all the recriminations and finger-pointing about how the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan so rapidly, there is a hard truth that needs to be reckoned with: The Taliban have spent years preparing for the eventual U.S. withdrawal. Despite numerous military surges, relentless airstrikes and thousands killed on all sides, no one was able to stop them. Year by year, Taliban soldiers methodically gained ground as they coerced and co-opted large swaths of the population now living under their rule and set up a shadow state. The Taliban exploited anger at the abuses of foreign forces and Afghan government corruption to gain support in village after village.

The question now is what kind of government the Taliban will impose and what that will mean for Afghans.

To some extent, the world already knows how that will work, because the Taliban have been essentially controlling parts of Afghanistan for years. And yet it is far easier to capture territory as an insurgency than it is to govern it. This was one of the more painful lessons for the Taliban in the 1990s, which quickly swept to power but was a disaster when it came to governing. So we don’t yet know how the Taliban intend to govern the nation as a whole.

Already their administration is rudimentary and stretched thin, and there are stark differences between the deeply conservative areas that have long been under Taliban influence and the mainly urban and relatively more progressive areas they have recently gained control over. There is little indication that the Taliban are equipped to govern the cities — or the country as a whole — on their own. Afghanistan’s social complexity is more nuanced than a simple urban-rural divide, but since 2001, city dwellers have generally benefited more from the security, aid and opportunities provided by the international intervention. Women have moved relatively freely, worked and attended school, and social norms writ large have sharply diverged from the Taliban’s mentality.

In areas the Taliban have long controlled, courts enforce their version of Islamic law and settle disputes. The Taliban shadow state has appointed officials to monitor schools and regulate NGO-run clinics. But their administration is largely parasitic, seeking to take credit for what others provide. Public services are heavily dependent on aid programs and foreign assistance; grants account for some 80 percent of Afghanistan’s public spending. Both are almost certain to rapidly decrease under any Taliban government.

I’ve spent much of my career in Afghanistan and during that time interviewed scores of Taliban and hundreds of Afghans living under their control. Among the hundreds of Afghans I’ve met in Taliban areas over the years, few favor the insurgency. Most people leverage their obedience to the Taliban to lessen their suffering. Some have even persuaded the insurgents to behave more like the responsible government they say they wish to be. Depending on how well the local populace has bargained and how much pressure they have mustered, the Taliban’s policies — for example, on whether girls may attend primary school — have differed from place to place.

Some local Taliban have in recent months even sought to reassure the population and assume control of government institutions so that they kept running. In some cities, like Kunduz, reports have emerged of Taliban officials attempting to persuade civil servants to return to work. Elsewhere, as in parts of Ghazni Province, however, there are reports of Taliban retaliating against anyone associated with the government or security forces and destroying property.

The Taliban broadly face a choice: Lay siege, seek revenge and destroy the vestiges of the post-2001 intervention or absorb what they can and strike deals with those people and factions that can be persuaded to cooperate. It’s not clear even the Taliban know what they want here. Aware that the world is watching, their political leadership is eager to counter negative press and avoid becoming a pariah state, as it was in the 1990s.

“We are the servants of the people and of this country,” a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told the BBC on Sunday. “We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe — there will be no revenge on anyone.” After the fall of Kabul, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in a video message, urged Taliban fighters to show “humility.”

But Taliban military leaders and fighters on the ground might not be on the same page. While the Taliban have now said they will not take revenge on those associated with the former government, reports of score settling, retaliatory attacks and potential war crimes have already mounted. Their forces are often young, politically undereducated and ill prepared for life after the war. “The Taliban here are mostly 18 or 20 years old,” Zahir, a university student in Faryab, told me. “The only thing they know about government is how to kill the people that work for it.”

Many Afghans I’ve spoken with in cities now fear the worst, recalling what life was like under Taliban rule before 2001. The urban areas arguably suffered worst, as they represented moral danger and corruption to the Taliban.

“As the Taliban seems to have been feeling triumphant, we’re seeing practices on the ground that are often indistinguishable from the 1990s,” said Heather Barr, who works in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “There does not appear to be any Taliban 2.0.”

One real test for the Taliban will be whether they can govern — and govern with — those who radically disagree with them. Recent history offers the lesson that exclusionary political settlements do not hold: Afghanistan is too large and diverse, and exclusionary politics has repeatedly sowed conflict. This was just as true in 2001, when the Taliban was excluded from the Bonn Agreement, which reconstituted the Afghan state after the U.S. invasion, as it was in the 1990s, when the Taliban refused to accommodate its adversaries.

The best that can be hoped for is that the new Taliban government will be more pragmatic than the last, recognizing that international aid and recognition are essential to their survival. But no matter how the Taliban decide to govern, Western countries will have to find a way to engage with them on counterterrorism, human rights and humanitarian issues. Cutting off the relationship now will negate any leverage the United States and other nations may have left and leave Afghans to the worst fate of all.

Ashley Jackson is a co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute and the author of “Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan.” Currently based in Oslo, she lived in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012 and from 2017 to 2019.

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