Can the Taliban govern?

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By Maleeha Lodhi

If more proof was needed that the Taliban continue to be at a loss at governance, it came in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake that struck Afghanistan on June 22. The death toll was well over a thousand with many more injured and displaced by the earthquake that mainly impacted the eastern provinces of Paktika and Khost, near the Pakistan border. For days the number of people trapped under the rubble remained unknown with casualties rising as no earth-moving machinery was available in that remote region to remove the wreckage.

This tragedy in a country that has already suffered decades of war, strife and poverty, has only magnified the plight of its people and intensified the humanitarian challenge. As rescue teams from UN humanitarian and aid agencies scrambled to help, the Taliban authorities themselves seemed clueless over how to respond to this natural disaster. They made no formal appeal to the international community for relief and assistance. Nor did they convey to those offering help what specifically they needed to deal with the situation, made more challenging in remote parts by the mountainous terrain and inclement weather.

Pakistan moved swiftly by sending relief supplies and offering other help. In a senior level interaction, the top Taliban leadership was asked by the Pakistani side what Kabul’s immediate requirements were. According to reliable sources the acting Afghan Prime Minister Mohammed Hassan Akhund is said to have only asked for tents for earthquake victims, and nothing else, suggesting he wasn’t aware of what relief needs were. To Pakistan’s offer to send doctors, the Afghan leadership apparently responded by saying their country had enough doctors. By then Pakistan had already dispatched doctors and later a 40-member medical mission. Islamabad sent much more – truckloads of tents, food, medical supplies, clothes and other relief goods. Border crossings were opened to facilitate the movement of people and treat the critically injured in Pakistan.

The earthquake received little coverage in the international media. Western media and governments remain preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and its far-reaching economic fallout. That should have been reason enough for the Taliban government to reach out to the international community to focus their attentions on their country’s urgent humanitarian needs. It didn’t do that. Nor did it issue a formal appeal for assistance. It is true that several countries came forward to announce help. The US, China, UK, Qatar, UAE and Australia pledged assistance. Many also made contributions to UN agencies. The UN quickly put together a three-month emergency appeal to respond to the catastrophe. This aimed “to scale up and expedite the delivery of humanitarian and resilience assistance to nearly 362,000 people in the two provinces, Paktika and Khost, that were most affected.” Reports that only 34 percent of the earlier UN 2022 humanitarian appeal was met (by end June) were however cause for concern.

Afghan Taliban patroling in capital Kabul

Notwithstanding the logistical challenge, the Taliban did not move as speedily as the disaster warranted. Nor did they seem to understand how to respond to the devastation and engage the international community in this regard. This laid bare how little they seem to have learnt about governance and managing the country – this at a time of another tragedy for Afghanistan. A natural disaster poses a tough test for the leadership of any country but in this case Taliban authorities were found wanting.

The Taliban seem to be frozen in time. As far as governance goes, the same issues persist that were there when the Taliban assumed power ten months ago. In fact, the Taliban have reneged on pledges made to the international community after they seized control of the country. The latest report of the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team takes note of perceptions “that the Taliban’s governance has been chaotic, disjointed and prone to reversing policies and going back on promises.”

While the Taliban authorities have secured themselves and consolidated their control, they have done little to dismantle the bases of terrorist groups or contain them. This prompted the UN’s May 2022 report to observe that the presence of terrorist groups and fighters on Afghan soil “gives cause for concern to neighboring Member States and the wider international community.” Pakistan is of course directly affected as the Tehrik- e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) continues to find refuge in Afghanistan and carry out attacks against Pakistani military personnel and targets. An indefinite cease-fire is supposed to be in place but talks between TTP and Pakistani military officials for a broader agreement don’t seem to be going anywhere. 

This isn’t the only promise that Kabul hasn’t lived up to. Closing down girls’ schools, restrictions on women, curbs on media freedom and human rights, demonstrate that Taliban leaders have gone back on commitments they solemnly made to the international community. This relapse into the past is troubling. Governing requires more than issuing religious and ‘cultural’ edicts. The governance challenge is being complicated by tensions and differences among the Taliban between hard-liners and so-called pragmatic leaders. What continues to be in doubt is whether beyond imposing repressive measures, the Taliban have the capacity to govern. Their handling of the earthquake has not inspired confidence on this count.

(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)