Afghanistan Under the Taliban: What We Know and Don’t Know

Afghanistan Under the Taliban: What We Know and Don’t Know

After over three years in power, the Taliban appear to be trying outreach as well as repression in governing Afghanistan’s diverse communities. 

The latest UN Secretary-General’s report on Afghanistan, a comprehensive snapshot of developments in the country prepared every quarter by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), took careful note of the Taliban’s outreach to the civilian population: “The leadership of the de facto authorities remained focused on outreach at the national and subnational levels, working through various de facto institutions to narrow the gap between the de facto authorities and the population.”

Since the 2021 takeover of Afghanistan, this aspect of Taliban governance has rarely featured in Western reporting, which correctly characterizes the group’s rule as repressive and exclusionary. Indeed, the same UN report acknowledged, “there has been no progress towards greater inclusivity in institutions and decision-making processes” and noted the Taliban faces increasing domestic political dissent on multiple fronts. Nonetheless, its complicated outreach efforts to the country’s disparate communities deserve more attention.

The practice of community outreach is a critical element of state-civil society relations and a necessary building block for any inclusive system of governance. It can also significantly impact drivers of conflict. How much and how successfully the Taliban’s regime conducts outreach to diverse Afghan constituencies is key to assessing the group’s long-term resilience. As policymakers weigh the difficulties of engaging with the intransigent group, along with widespread revulsion at Taliban violations of women’s rights, they need to have the best estimates of how long the group could feasibly remain in power.

The U.S. government should dedicate close, careful analysis to this phenomenon. Better understanding the Taliban’s attempts to engage with Afghan communities, as well as the interests and pressures those communities relay to them, is critical to ensuring policymakers have the best possible sense of realities on the ground.

What is Inclusion?

The term inclusion or inclusivity is constantly present in international statements about Afghanistan, but it has not been defined, nor is there any international consensus about what it must entail. Notably, the UN’s independent assessment of global engagement in Afghanistan, delivered to the Security Council in November 2023, referenced many of these calls for inclusive governance.

Analytically, inclusion may be important for two reasons: democracy promotion and stability. Each has virtues. Democracy, leading to the inclusion of many voices in governance, is likely to lead to less repressive governance. In a multi-ethnic state like Afghanistan, a democratic system is less likely to marginalize or mistreat ethnic communities. Less marginalization is likely to lead to greater stability as well as greater justice. While many Afghans seemed to have ambivalent feelings about the democratic system of the former Republic, this appears to have had more to do with the flaws and corruption in its practice than opposition to its principles.

Stability in Afghanistan historically has found other paths to meet a standard of inclusion under which a regime can remain in power. This is particularly true in the countryside, where traditional methods of dispute resolution and community consultation have long factored into national politics. And since armed resistance historically tends to come from the countryside, it is also there that one needs to look to measure the stability of Afghan ruling authorities.

If Western conceptions of inclusivity are largely about inclusion into government, historical inclusion in Afghan politics has followed a different course, focusing on meeting the needs of communities without their actual inclusion in the central institutions of government. Afghanistan’s multiple ethnic and popular groupings followed numerous and different patterns of organization. Not all are tribal, nor do they follow the patterns of Pashtun (Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group) sociopolitical organization that seems to dominate Western analysis. But without trespassing into the preserve of anthropologists, it is sufficient to observe that each group had its own ways of organizing its view and presenting its needs to higher authorities. 

These traditional practices were only slightly modified under the Afghan Constitution of 1964, which created an elected parliament but left ultimate power in the hands of the king. During the period of the Islamic Republic (2001-2021), an elected lower house (House of the People) and an appointed upper house (House of the Elders) provided multiple ways for communities to bring forth their demands. Under the Islamic Republic, the new and the traditional systems existed in parallel with a constant stream of individual and community representatives bringing issues directly to the highly centralized office of the president, first under Hamid Karzai and, subsequently, under Ashraf Ghani.

These methods of meeting community needs were a consistent feature of historical Afghan governance. When the central government was weak—which was almost always the case—this system ceded a great deal of de facto authority to actors and communities in the periphery. The countryside was left alone for the most part, save for occasional demands. During the rare periods when the government was stronger, it exerted relatively more control, but the basic pattern endured.

The prevailing system was temporary, tactical, and transactional rather than institutional. When this system functioned well, it correlated with eras of stability, such as the forty-four years of peace preceding the 1973 coup that overthrew the monarchy and the communist putsch in 1978. In both of these cases, the challenge for power came from within the center, Kabul, and not from popular revolt. When the system failed to deal with community-level grievances, it produced a revolution, as in the uprising against the domestic communists that preceded the Soviet invasion.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan had periods in which the center granted enough local demands to produce stability and peace. This article raises the issue of whether the Taliban may be trying to recreate these earlier patterns of governing. The argument is not that they are succeeding but that concerted efforts may be taking place, which need to be more carefully watched and analyzed.

What We Know Thus Far

The UN and other observers in Kabul have noted the outreach efforts of certain senior Taliban officials, as well as Taliban efforts at the subnational level. Cabinet officials that appear particularly dedicated to outreach include two deputy prime ministers, Abdul Kabir and Abdul Salam Hanafi (the highest ranking ethnic Uzbek in the cabinet); Noorullah Noori, minister for tribal and border affairs (and detainee in Guantanamo Bay for over twelve years); and to a lesser extent, M. Manan Omari, stepbrother of the Taliban’s founding leader Mullah Omar, who has held two ministerial positions and is close to Omar’s son Yaqoub, the powerful minister of defense. Other cabinet leaders travel the country and meet with various stakeholders frequently—including the notorious minister of interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani—but what distinguishes the officials noted above is a dedicated program of engagement with minority community representatives.

At the provincial and local levels, there is a great deal of variation, both in terms of how much community outreach takes place and how it is undertaken. In other words, subnational outreach is at the prerogative of individual officials—and not standardized or structured as a formal government priority. In many areas—especially where the Taliban’s presence and local relationships were weakest during the war—local interlocutors report that officials pay little heed to their needs.

In recent months, the UN reports that the Ministry of Education has tasked local officials to canvas some of the country’s most conservative communities, making a case for the Taliban’s scheme to elevate religious education in madrasas alongside the state-run system built up under the previous government. This is a more targeted, systematic outreach than most of the Taliban’s efforts to date.

Among subnational officials who are said to prioritize outreach, some possess surprising profiles. Mohammad Dawood Muzamil, known as a fearsome figure in the Taliban’s security apparatus before he was appointed as Balkh’s governor in 2022, was assassinated by ISIS-K in early 2023—in part due to security protocols, reportedly issued by Muzamil personally, that encouraged an “open door” atmosphere where citizens could meet him at the governor’s palace. 

The provincial governor of Bamyan, Abdullah Sarhadi, was a Taliban commander in the province during the 1990s, present during multiple reported abuses and the demolition of the Buddha statues. When Sarhadi first assumed the governorship after the Taliban’s takeover, many Bamyan residents were fearful he would usher in a new chapter in the long history of authorities’ persecution of Hazaras. Yet one of the authors’ interviews with Bamyan residents last fall suggested that Sarhadi was “as good as a Taliban official is going to get.” While there were numerous complaints and concerns about the Taliban’s rule, multiple stories were shared about Sarhadi’s community outreach activities.

Land rights—and their potential to fuel local grievances—loom large in Taliban outreach efforts. This is reflected in its handling of longstanding tensions between settled farmers of the often-discriminated Hazara community and nomadic herders (called Kuchis, who are of Pashtun ethnicity, like most of the Taliban’s leadership). In local conflict mediation, legal rulings, and official policy, the Taliban tends largely to favor the Kuchis over Hazara communities. However, the Taliban is clearly dedicating attention and resources to this dynamic. The Taliban have managed to dampen annual cycles of Kuchi-Hazara violence witnessed under the Republic, and numerous local courts and commissions have been set up to resolve disputed land claims. The Taliban’s record favors the Kuchis, but they are not simply enforcing mass discrimination under judicial cover. They continue to restrict nomads’ access to the best grazing areas in Hazara areas, at least thus far—the Taliban have prevaricated with expectant Kuchi leaders for several years. Instances of confiscation of farmers’ land to redress old claims, like in the province of Daikundi in 2021, have not been repeated en masse or instituted as national policy.