The Taliban will discover that ruling is harder than fighting

The country they are governing is very different from the Afghanistan of the 1990s, and faces a formidable set of problems


12/3/2021 10:39:00 AM

For an international community facing both humanitarian disaster and an unreconstructed Taliban in Afghanistan, the choice will be to engage or isolate. Both carry risks WorldAhead

The country they are governing is very different from the Afghanistan of the 1990s, and faces a formidable set of problems

FGHANISTAN’S LONG-SUFFERINGpopulation will begin 2022 entering a new, but sadly familiar, phase of the country’s long turmoil. The withdrawal of American andNATOtroops triggered the stunning collapse of the internationally backed government, a return of the Taliban and the re-establishment of their Islamic emirate.

The Taliban maintained ahead of their victory that they had learned the lessons of their failed, repressive regime in the 1990s, and had changed. Early signs suggest otherwise. The movement’s old guard has taken charge. Women have again been kept from work, and female education is on hold. A moral-crimes ministry has been restored. Order is again imposed by force.

The Taliban’s victory ended a war in which hundreds of people were killed each month, but the country still faces a formidable set of problems. Drought, the covid-19 pandemic and war had all combined to create a humanitarian crisis long before the Taliban took over. That crisis is now quickly worsening because the Taliban’s victory has precipitated an economic meltdown. The new emirate has no money and no serious plans for how to obtain any. The previous administration had three-quarters of its budget funded by foreign aid, but that has now been frozen. The United Nations has warned that 1m children are at risk of starvation.

Animals in space

The Taliban appear to have a total grip on Afghanistan, but that may prove fleetingFor an international community facing both humanitarian disaster and an unreconstructed Taliban, the choice will be to engage or isolate. Both carry risks. Abandoning the country will cause great human suffering, large waves of migration and the loss of any ability to steer the Taliban toward moderation. Yet any engagement will be seized upon by the Taliban to validate their rule and strengthen their grip on power.

The international community’s other pre-occupation will be watching for signs of the return of international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Intelligence assessments heap doubt on Taliban assurances that they will prevent such groups from using Afghanistan as a base once again. Moreover, the Taliban’s victory against a superpower will energise jihadists around the world.

At the outset of their new rule, the Taliban appear to have a total grip on the country, but that may prove fleeting. Their new administration is a government of conquest and not suited to long-term peace. The previous political class has been totally excluded, as have ethnic groups from outside the Taliban’s Pushtun heartland.

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Resistance to this imposition is likely to take root and grow. And while the Taliban may not have changed, the country they are governing is very different from the Afghanistan of the 1990s. Civic, social and perhaps military resistance will make governing difficult. All this could in turn expose rifts inside the movement itself. It took only weeks after the fall of Kabul for reports to emerge of infighting between moderates who wanted a more inclusive government and hardliners who did not.

As the last American military transport plane took off from Kabul airport and disappeared over the horizon in August, many in Washington declared the war to be over. But for Afghans a new chapter of turbulence and hardship may just be starting.Ben Farmer: Freelance correspondent, The Economist, Islamabad

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