Farzad Ramezani Bonesh, Senior Researcher and Analyst of International Affairs
Beginning in May 2012, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda intensified their advance through Afghanistan, capturing the provincial capitals, and ultimately taking the capital, Kabul, on 15 August 2021. There primary reason the jihadists were able to advance so rapidly was U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to adhere to the deal his predecessor, Donald Trump, made with the Taliban, and the withdrawal of U.S. military support for the Afghan government. There were secondary factors that perhaps contributed to the rapidity of the collapse, of which the corruption would be one. It has been nearly a year since the Taliban and its allies took power, and it has shown some strengths in trying to stabilize itself, while continuing to show weaknesses.
The Rise of the Taliban’s Opponents and Moving Towards Civil War
Since the return of the Taliban regime, about eight military groups have been activated against its rule. The most important opposition force is the National Resistance Front (NRF) under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, which by some estimates has up to 8,000 troops, made up from the former military, local militias, and civilian volunteers.
There are resistance groups around certain individuals, such as General Qadam Shah Shahim, one of the survivors of the security institutions of the fallen Afghan government, who has men from the special units of the army and units loyal to the former Ministries of Defense and Interior at his disposal. Other important groups include the Supreme Council of Resistance led by Atta Mohammad Noor, pro-Abdul Rashid Dostum soldiers, the National Liberation Front centered in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran, and some Hazara and Turkmen commanders.
These groups can challenge the Taliban in local areas, and in combination could seriously weaken the Islamist regime.
There are other anti-Taliban elements who could pose a problem, notably the possible return of a significant part of the Afghan Air Force, which currently has 62 helicopters and planes located in neighboring countries (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).
There is then the internal threat from disgruntled Taliban commanders, especially the non-Pashtun members, who represent about 35,000 fighters. For now, however, the Taliban now has the upper hand on the battlefield. The Taliban has sent senior leaders to Panjshir and the north, where they have made steady progress in isolating and overcoming these centers of opposition, and is meanwhile building a 100,000-strong army to try to prevent opposition groups from gaining any further ground.
For all that, the Taliban remains structurally weak in several areas. Militarily, despite having stolen the tens of billions of dollars of weapons left over from the Afghan army, the Taliban has little capacity to use them or advanced tactics. The Taliban’s reliance on small arms and massed attacks might be enough against opponents who are even less-well-armed and more scattered, but the military situation is deteriorating and if the opposition groups find a stream of foreign support this could get much worse. The Taliban has foreign supporters, above all in Pakistan, and might gain some additional political support from Russia as part of Moscow’s escalating confrontation with the West; this is unlikely to translate into a systematic training and equipping program that improves the Taliban’s military capabilities. Then there is the economic difficulties.
The Collapse of Economy
The reduction of foreign aid, the freezing of about $9 billion by the United States, the departure of elites, the collapse of the banking system, and the arbitrary actions of Taliban officials have all brought the Afghanistan’s economy to the brink of collapse. The economy is on course to shrink by 20 to 30 percent a year.
In this situation, the help of the World Bank, the extension of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the expansion of sanctions exemptions, international conferences for financial assistance to Afghanistan, and direct injections of cash into the Afghan economy are sorely needed to stabilize the Taliban regime—but precisely because that would be the outcome of these actions, most of them will never be taken. Without them, the worsening economic crisis, and potential famine, an even higher risk since Russia’s war on Ukraine has disrupted the world food market, could further weaken the Taliban’s hold on power.
Internal Taliban Divisions
The three main factions of the Taliban—the extremist faction (mostly eastern Pashtuns and the Haqqani Network), a more moderate faction (mostly southern Pashtuns centered on Kandahar), and the non-Pashtun Taliban (notably Uzbeks and Tajiks)—have differing views on a range of subjects.
A senior Taliban official, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, nominally the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, made remarks recently that intended to open space for the Taliban factions to sort through their differences to correct mistakes and arrive at a consensus. The practical outcome, however, might simply be to highlight—and exacerbate—the divisions within the Taliban on important issues.
While the Taliban was able to recruit non-Pashtuns in the north and elsewhere to its cause this time around, the leadership remains dominated by the same cadre of ultra-extremist Pashtuns who ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and oppose any compromise over the regime’s ideology and power structure. If the Taliban is able to find a successful formula for uniting these factions, it will consolidate the regime; if not, it will weaken the group’s hold on the country and potentially push some of the non-Pashtun factions into open, kinetic opposition.
International Recognition of Taliban
The more moderate spectrum within the Taliban are desperately seeking international recognition, seeing this as a way to strengthen the regime by opening up trade and aid, among other things. To date, no state has recognized the Taliban’s government, and with the exception of the Russians, mentioned above, no state has shown a serious inclination to do so.
The other major players—the United States, China, the European Union, Iran, and India—have given, explicitly or tacitly, different conditions that a Taliban government would have to meet in order to gain recognition, such as the formation of an inclusive government, the protection of human rights, and fighting against terrorism. The Taliban is unlikely to meet some of these conditions—the powerful hardliners will never give up on the imposition of a harsh version of the sharia, for example—and in some cases the Taliban cannot meet the conditions.
The Presence of Terrorist Groups in Afghanistan
The most obvious condition the Taliban cannot meet to secure external recognition is the expulsion of terrorist groups. The Taliban is entirely entwined with Al-Qaeda and its derivatives like the Haqqani Network and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Although the Taliban claims that there are no foreign fighters in Afghanistan, the United Nations reports that training camps run by Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network are in operation, and, just like last time, the country has become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda.
Then there is the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP or ISIS-K). Despite the Taliban’s claims to be fighting ISIS-K, most countries, especially in the West, have little confidence in the Taliban’s promises. In the months since the Taliban takeover, ISIS-K has visibly grown in strength and reach in Afghanistan, weakening the Taliban’s regime. This is mostly because the Taliban is incapable of suppressing the group, but there is a further complication because the expansion of ISIS-K is not only a threat to the Taliban regime; it is an opportunity.
Domestically and internationally, the presence of ISIS-K makes the Taliban look much more moderate and acceptable, and if the international community becomes convinced that it must act against ISIS-K, it may choose to do so in alliance with the Taliban, as happened at times when the U.S.-led coalition was in Afghanistan. Security assistance to the Taliban ostensibly to fight ISIS-K, and the de facto recognition of the Taliban government that would go with it, would strengthen the Taliban’s hold on power considerably.
Taliban Views on an “Inclusive” Government
The Taliban taking control of most of Afghanistan last year brought to an end the intra-Afghan peace talks, which the Taliban was almost certainly insincere about to begin with and which were in any case fruitless. In the months since Kabul fell, there have been some “dialogues”—between the Taliban and the NRF in Tehran, and a round of Taliban-Afghan civil society talks in Norway—but these failed, and there has been no significant progress in intra-Afghan talks.
Although the Taliban sometimes considers the talks constructive from a tactical point of view, even in holding the Loya Jirga, it has shown no willingness to create a roadmap for Afghanistan that includes anti-Taliban elements in the governing system in a serious way, which means there can be no progress on the other issues like the separation of powers, popular participation, or the role of ethnic minorities.
This kind of unilateralism may be seen as a show of strength by the Taliban, but the consequences may ultimately weaken them. Likewise the growing number of reports of human rights abuses, from torture and killings, to forced migration, purging public officials, and excluding women from education: in the short-term, the terror helps to strengthen the Taliban, but over the long-term the reaction, internally and abroad, might be against the Taliban’s own interests.
The Taliban’s exclusionary approach to the political sphere has led the opposition abroad to seeking to consult closely with regional partners to form a High Council of Resistance, and to mobilize armed groups, and public anti-Taliban sentiment, within the country. This has the potential to weaken the Taliban, and it could get worse if the major foreign players and neighbors, most of whom have emphasized the need to form an inclusive government, decide that the only way to get there is to militarily force the Taliban, or to remove them entirely. Signs of this are appearing, with the United States meeting the anti-Taliban NRF.
The Taliban has some advantages in this situation, at least if it is able to retain its own cohesion, because the military-political opposition groups lack practical unity and (for now) lack financial resources. If the opposition groups inside Afghanistan and abroad continue to act in a fragmented and incoherent manner, this can work to strengthen the Taliban in Afghanistan, since they can pose as offering order to a population that has been through four decades of war. If the Taliban is unable to improve the security and economic picture, however, and if external states help the opposition organize into a more unified bloc, with better resources, this could weaken the Taliban.
Opium Poppy Cultivation and Drug Transit
With about 85 percent of the world’s opium production in Afghanistan, the United Nations estimates that income from opiates in Afghanistan amounted to some $1.8-$2.7 billion in 2021. Although drug trafficking strengthens the Taliban’s power and financial and political power, it can also encourage other terrorist groups that oppose the Taliban in the country and provoke negative reactions from foreign actors.
The Afghan Refugee Crisis and Border Disputes with Neighbors
A new wave of migrants from Afghanistan into Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Europe, and Central Asia, many of them illegally, increases the scope of foreign and domestic opposition to the Taliban. The escalation of Afghans leaving the country is due to the Taliban’s inability to manage the country economically and politically. While this may be an opportunity to reduce political opposition to the Taliban at home, it will lead to wider opposition abroad.
In addition, Taliban forces have clashed with Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan over the past ten months. The Taliban may seek to create an external enemy to gain internal legitimacy, but the consequences of border clashes with neighbors in various dimensions could weaken the Taliban in Afghanistan if one of these states responds seriously.
Looking at the variables affecting the strengthening and weakening of Taliban power in Afghanistan, many of the factors point towards a weakening of the group. Right now, the Taliban is in the ranks of bankrupt governments, with the pathologies that led to this proliferating, and their political authority and sovereignty gravely threatened. Nothing is certain about what happens next. A lot will depend on the future choices of the Taliban, whether in the security-military, political, economic, or geopolitical realms. The Taliban may recognize the situation, and move in the direction of compromise and reform to set its regime on a wider base, allowing it to consolidate. But the Taliban’s history suggests this will not be the strategy. If the old ways continue to be pursued, increasing instability of the Taliban regime and another civil war could be in Afghanistan’s future.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.