By Maleeha Lodhi
A month and a half into office, the Taliban have quickly consolidated their power. Whether they will be able to govern Afghanistan and surmount the multiple challenges they face is another question. It is much too early to assess if their rule will be a throwback to the past or a departure from the way they wielded power in the 1990’s. But they have yet to fulfil many of the promises they made to the international community before seizing control of the country.
One of the Taliban’s key assurances was that they would establish an inclusive government. But the all-male cabinet initially announced consisted entirely of Taliban leaders many of who served in their previous government and included figures either on the UN sanctions list or with a US terrorist designation. The subsequent expansion of the cabinet raised expectations that representatives from non-Taliban minorities and women would be added. This didn’t happen. The addition of a few members from ethnic minorities – all associated with the Taliban – was aimed at demonstrating ‘inclusiveness’. But the absence of women and the predominantly Taliban character of the government didn’t add up to a broad-based regime that met the test of inclusivity.
The Taliban repeatedly said before their assumption of power that they would allow girls to resume school and college and would not revert to the past when they had barred girls’ education. But so far girls have not been permitted to go to secondary school. This has prompted widespread international concern. Qatar’s foreign minister called the Taliban move “a step backwards” and there were widespread voices of international disappointment and disapproval. The Taliban’s record on their claim to respect women’s rights has not been encouraging on other counts too. The women’s affairs ministry was wound up and replaced by one whose name invoked the past – propagation of virtue and prevention of vice. Although female employees have been allowed back into some ministries, most haven’t been allowed to return. All this suggests a reversion to past practices which involved sweeping curbs on women’s public roles.
While the Taliban have been urging the world to recognize their government, they have not shown the responsiveness hoped for by the international community, beyond reassuring words. So far, no country has recognized the government although most countries are engaging with the Taliban and a handful have their embassies functioning in Kabul, including Pakistan. Perhaps content with such engagement and construing this as a prelude to recognition, Taliban leaders feel little need to respond to international demands. For its part the international community is in a wait-and-see mode and is willing to give the new government time to deliver.
International support is essential if the Taliban are to avert an economic collapse, which is their greatest challenge. With a cash shortage, IMF-World Bank assistance suspended and the country’s foreign exchange reserves frozen by the US, as most are held by American banks, the situation is dire. Funds are needed to pay the salaries of government employees in the months to come. Although salaries have been paid for now, the outlook for the future appears uncertain.
Most international banks are also unable to function in Afghanistan which means that difficulties are being faced to remit money even for humanitarian relief. The banking crisis must be resolved as it is compounding an already grim economic and humanitarian situation. The UN has continued to warn that the deepening humanitarian crisis can morph into a catastrophe if assistance doesn’t reach people in desperate need. According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, one in three Afghans don’t know where their next meal will come from. Half the population is said to be in need of humanitarian help.
Among the Taliban’s challenges are also to resolve the infighting among its leaders and within its ranks. From what has been reported, these tussles seem to be as much about personality clashes as differences between moderates or pragmatists and ideologues. Credible reports suggest that pragmatists such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a deputy prime minister and Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai have been sidelined. Tensions between Baradar and hard-line ideologues had apparently boiled over but are now said to have been defused. This does not mean that the underlying source of friction has disappeared. If anything, differences are likely to resurface over governance – whether to break from or revert to the harsh strictures of the past – and how to deal with the international community. There is also resentment in some Taliban circles about the power wielded in the government by the Haqqanis. Future power struggles between different factions cannot be ruled out as Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund is not known to be a strong figure with decisive authority.
Pressure on the new government from within and abroad makes governance an onerous task for the Taliban. But the economic and humanitarian crises also make it necessary for its leaders to deliver on their pledges to the international community whose help will be crucial to successfully address these challenges. The international community does not want to see an economic or state collapse in Afghanistan. But that shouldn’t be reason for the Taliban to think they can get away with a relapse into the harsh ways associated with their past rule.
(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)