How Does the Present Taliban Regime in Afghanistan Differ From the Previous One?

In the book 'The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan After the Americans Left', Pakistani author Hassan Abbas delves deep into the emerging worldview of the Taliban, the internal factions, and its engagement with the wider world.

Hassan Abbas is a professor at the National Defense University, Washington, but before turning to a life in academia, he was a senior police officer in Pakistan. This background combined with his scholarly credentials has given a granular feel and an equally strong analytical rigour to his past works on Pakistan’s security and strategic dilemmas and challenges. In an earlier work published in 2014 (The Taliban Revival. Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier), Abbas had looked at an already significant phenomenon – the Taliban revival and fightback in the badlands of the Af-Pak border region.

Hassan Abbas
The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan After the Americans Left
Yale University Press (May 2023)

In his latest book, The Return of the TalibanAfghanistan After the Americans Left, he takes the story forward and focuses on the situation that has emerged after a particularly dramatic event in contemporary South and South West Asia – the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in August 2021 amidst the collapse of the architecture assembled by the United States since 2001.

The drama of this twin process – the triumph of an insurgency and the failure of an enormous US and international effort to create a ‘new’ Afghanistan – provides the entry point for this book to examine the Taliban and its worldview today.

The main contours of the story of the collapse of the older order are well known – its corruption and dysfunctionality were barely cloaked by the fact that this was very much a US enterprise. The debilitating impact of the US-Taliban Agreement in Doha in February 2020 was obvious to many when it was signed. That the whole show would come down quickly like a house of cards now seems almost inevitable in retrospect, but at the time, perhaps, very few anticipated that the existing structure would fold so very quickly. Abbas’s narrative fills in this picture with anecdotal and analytical detail mined diligently from a number of sources.

“The disoriented government in Kabul collapsed on live television with the world’s eye on them, as state institutions crumbled one after the another, triggering fear and chaos,” writes Abbas.

Those who expected a cataclysm and blood baths to follow were, however, even more surprised. The only power that appeared focused and single-minded where its objectives were concerned was the Taliban itself – tactically adept both as a force on the battlefield and at cutting deals to ease their transition back to power and equally in taking advantage of errors of judgment by the US.

Also read: The Taliban: What Could Its Return to Power Mean For Afghanistan?

In the drive to Kabul, as provincial capitals fell, the Taliban became the only party conveying some sense of order: “…during the Taliban capture of the important cities of Herat, Kandahar, and Mazar-i-Sharif in the first half of August, there were no reports of largescale violence, massacres or executions of captured Afghan officials. Taliban foot soldiers were not rampaging through cities and were visibly operating in an organised, and somewhat careful manner.”

What’s new this time around? 

So, has the Taliban changed as they resumed power and in the subsequent period as they struggle to run the government of Afghanistan?

This question runs through the entire narrative of the book. Abbas’s answer is derived from his own experience of studying the Taliban for a long period of time and equally close interactions with Taliban figures and those who are familiar with them. In brief, it may be summarised: the Taliban may not have changed in ideological and intellectual terms but “Afghanistan has and they (the Taliban) have no choice but to adapt whether they like it or not”.

In Abbas’s telling, the Taliban leadership is canny enough to recognise this altered reality and while their doctrinal and intellectual position may not have evolved, their politics does have the extra flexibility and nuance required now to manage the transition from running an insurgency to running a government.

Taliban fighters march in uniforms on the street in Qalat, Zabul Province, Afghanistan, in this still image taken from social media video uploaded August 19, 2021, and obtained by Reuters

The task is obviously not easy. For many in the Taliban rank and file, victory obviates the need for change, and obviously, this strengthens those in its upper echelons resistant to newer modes of interaction with the outside world. There is also the real fear, Abbas describes this at some length, of being outflanked in its own territory by an even more radical and sectarian-oriented Islamic State Khurasan (ISK).

The Taliban never was, and is not today, a coherent and homogeneous entity however much that may be the impression it evokes. Akbar’s treatment delves deep into these current differences that range from the ideological and intellectual to those between the upper echelons that till recently were in different Gulf locations or in Pakistan and the field commanders and foot soldiers on the ground. Combined with this are ethnic, geographic, and tribal divisions. There are also inevitable personality clashes that emerge from these differences but are also significant in themselves.

In one telling description, Abbas points to a continuity that has straddled the August 2021 divide and President Ghani-Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s rivalry that had brought the previous government to a state of extreme dysfunction, now reflected again in Kabul:

“The political climate in Kabul today is surprisingly not very different from that during the previous government in Kabul. Then it seemed Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah were running parallel governments. According to an insider I interviewed, today the Afghan presidential palace is operating in four adjacent buildings – where staff from one part cannot go to another without a body search. One part of the palace is under the control of Prime Minister Hassan Akhund, another is shared between Mullah Baradar and Yaqoob, a third under Deputy Prime Minster Maulvi Kabir, and the final quarter under Siraj Haqqani.”

Then there is the Kandahar factor and the role of Habitullah Akhundzada – described at one point as “a cleric without charisma”.

Abbas summarises all these different factions and interests as also a constant struggle between conservatives and those who see the necessity for change. Issues such as women’s place in society and their right to education, or the questions surrounding the status of Muslim minorities such as Hazaras, are the terrain over which some of the debates between the conservatives and pragmatists have raged and continue.

Also read: ‘Will Raise Voice Against Injustice’: A Year After Taliban’s Return, Some Women Fight for Freedom

On the women’s education issue, Abbas comments: “There is an invisible war within the Taliban between the old and the new, representative of the fragility, chaos and confusion that plagues this new government and era for the country. The problem is that we do not know who is going to win.”

But in this fractious and somewhat chaotic structure, there is also a spine of stability and this comes from the Taliban itself being cognizant of these drawbacks: “Just as they were serious about re-entering Kabul after two decades of struggle, they are serious about forming a solid government recognised by the world.”

Abbas’s book has an additional value in that it situates the Taliban and its worldview today in a wider context in terms of its relations and approaches with key regional countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, India, some Gulf sheikhdoms, and others.

While Pakistan figures frequently in the book, and inevitably so with regard to the parallel Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan resurgence, one would wish there was a fuller treatment of that relationship in all its contradictory aspects since August 2021. Certainly, the current confusion in Pakistan raises the spectre of wider instability in the Af-Pak border, and how the Taliban views these developments in their most important neighbour is an area that Prof Hassan Abbas could have delved into further.

Overall, however, very evident in their external postures is the quest for recognition, and in this, the Taliban leadership has proved adept in using different instruments – “Slowly but surely, the Taliban are proving that diplomacy is no longer their Achilles heel.”

Also read: For Afghanistan’s Immediate Neighbours, Cautious Engagement With the Taliban

The central point Abbas wishes to hammer home is that notwithstanding its origins and the fact that the core of the Taliban, and in particular its foot soldiers, remains glued to an older conservative worldview, the government in Afghanistan today comprises an amalgam of the old and the new. It is therefore very much of a work in progress: “…. the contemporary Taliban inevitably have recognised they cannot go on like their predecessors in 1990s.” His recommendation is to increase engagement with it since “…any effective, sustained and meaningful engagement with them has the real capacity to empower the relatively pragmatic and moderate elements…”.

As we approach the second anniversary of the Taliban’s return this book certainly provides the platform for a wider debate on this issue. It can be read with profit by both the South Asian specialist as also the general reader. Perhaps a South Asian edition will appear quickly.

T.C.A. Raghavan is a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan.