When the Taliban swept into power last August, many expected they would reprise the draconian governance of their 1990s emirate. Despite pledges of moderation and reform from some Taliban factions, one year later those predictions have largely turned out to be prescient. The group has yet to establish a formal governance structure, with the interim cabinet appointed early in their tenure still intact. But the Taliban have swiftly reinstated many of their harshest policies, pushing women out of public life and brooking no dissent. USIP’s Andrew Watkins explains how the Taliban government functions, who’s really in charge and how the Taliban have dealt with challenges to their authority.

Khalil Haqqani, the current interim minister for refugees of the Taliban's government, center, leads a gathering of tribal elders in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 26, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Khalil Haqqani, the current interim minister for refugees of the Taliban's government, center, leads a gathering of tribal elders in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 26, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

What is the structure of the Taliban’s government? How does it function?

The Taliban’s political system, in the words of one legal analyst, is “highly underspecified and undertheorized.” The Taliban refer to their government as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the title of the first regime they established in the 1990s, which they used to refer to themselves throughout their two-decade-long insurgency. The emirate is organized around a supreme leader, the emir, believed to be endowed by God with authority to oversee all affairs of state and society. Yet since their takeover, the group has only offered vague insistences that they will rule in accordance with “Islamic law and Afghan values,” and has rarely spelled out the legal or political principles that guide their rules and behaviors.

After their takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly moved to assume the authority of the state. Within weeks they announced “interim” appointees for all but one ministry under the structure of the previous government (the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was left vacant and later disbanded). All acting ministers were senior leaders within the Taliban; no outside political figures were appointed, the overwhelming majority were Pashtun, and all were men. Since then, the Taliban made various changes to the internal structure of various ministries, and they revived the Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, made notorious under their 1990s tenure for operating as a harsh “morality police” enforcing strict dictates on social behavior: gender integration, dancing, music and even TV and radio were banned. While thousands of civil servants fled after the takeover, the vast majority returned to work, now serving under Taliban appointees.

In spite of labeling their government an “interim” cabinet, the Taliban have taken few steps to establish a more permanent government, and they seem far off from drafting and formalizing a constitution (an exploratory committee was appointed months ago but offers no public reporting on its status). Currently Afghanistan lacks any basis for rule of law; Taliban security forces determine what is criminal on the spot, and Taliban courts issue judgments.

In spite of this lack of clarity, one tenet of government is clear: taxation and revenue collection has become streamlined and centralized. This is perhaps the only major undertaking the Taliban have managed in the economic realm, which collapsed completely and immediately after Western donors withdrew billions in aid, as the group took power. As a result of this economic collapse, humanitarian organizations now tell us there are more people at severe levels of hunger in Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world. The Taliban have demonstrated that they understand the scope of this crisis, but have also revealed just how little they can do to change the ultimate course of the economy, or even to provide for the Afghan people — without depending on significant foreign aid, much like the former government.

Who is really in charge of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate? What is the role of the emir?

For the first six months of their rule, it appeared as if the cabinet, chaired by the prime minister’s office, would shape governance policies — but ministers have been increasingly overruled on issues large and small by the emir, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, based in Kandahar. This dynamic, which is still evolving, came into public view on March 23, when the long-promised return of girls to high school was overturned by the emir at the last minute. Since then, girls’ education and other controversial issues have stalled as pragmatic Taliban leaders defer to the emir, who seeks counsel from ultraconservative Taliban clerics. Foreign diplomats have begun to describe “dueling centers of power” between Kabul- and Kandahar-based Taliban.

But the emir and his Kandahar circle of advisors and confidants are not micromanaging every aspect of governance. Several ad hoc committees have been appointed to study policy and seek consensus, while others have been implementing processes such as the reconciliation and return to Afghanistan of political figures. Many policies still vary greatly from one province of the country to the next. Taliban officials, much as they did throughout their insurgency, have proven somewhat flexible depending on local community expectations. Moreover, many issues are still resolved via personal connections with influential Taliban figures, regardless of whether their official position in government is responsible for the issue.

Who actually has power in the Taliban still seems determined by multiple factors, many of them rooted in norms established during their insurgency. Formal government titles are rarely determinative, on their own. Many commentators have tried to assess how powerful certain factions have become but since their takeover the Taliban have engaged in a constantly shifting balancing act to maintain equilibrium among their various elements and interests. The Taliban obsess over their own cohesion, and the outward appearance thereof; it is difficult for outsiders to fully grasp power politics within the movement.

How are the Taliban managing to govern the country’s cities, after fighting a 20-year rural insurgency? What about areas traditionally outside of their control?

The Taliban have struggled to transition their ranks into formal roles of state security forces — it has been a top priority, but a mammoth undertaking that appears likely to take years. In more remote parts of the country, Taliban fighters operate much as they did before the takeover, most still lacking formal training. In cities and larger towns, where Taliban fighters spent very little time (if any) over the last 20 years, many of them now serve as police or oversee civil service offices.

The group has also struggled to manage challenges in urban areas and regions of the country home to non-Pashtun ethnic communities, especially historically marginalized communities. On one hand, the Taliban have had difficulty protecting some: the local branch of the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted Shias and Hazaras in parts of Kabul since the Taliban came to power. At other times the Taliban themselves have posed the threat, carrying out invasive raids and arrests in neighborhoods home to ethnic Tajiks from Panshir and other regions where anti-Taliban resistance has been most active. Reports of extrajudicial killings, among former security forces and suspected anti-Taliban groups, number in the hundreds. Broadly, the Taliban have responded to perceived threats from other armed groups with overwhelming use of force, flooding problem areas with fighters from around the country. The approach often has been brutal but also effective, at least in the short term; the Taliban has consolidated control over the vast majority of the country.

Most of the Taliban’s leadership, including many top military commanders, are Pashtuns from a handful of southern provinces. In several instances, this has led to popular unrest among minority communities seeking greater representation within the Taliban’s government, most notably in the northern majority-Uzbek province of Faryab in January 2022. In spite of apparent ethnic favoritism and militarized crackdowns, the Taliban have also invested in building relationships with a wide range of local stakeholders — with mixed results.

How have the Taliban approached free speech, political activity and challenges to their authority?

As noted above, the Taliban have responded to armed resistance activity with overwhelming force — at times including brutal treatment of detainees and credible reports of summary executions. This has included the group’s response to the local branch of the Islamic State, which has adopted the same insurgent position the Taliban did with the former government. The Islamic State has attempted to position itself as the most legitimate jihadist group in the country, challenging the Taliban’s authority in a series of targeted killings of their fighters, as well as occasional terrorist attacks against civilians, almost all of them directed at ethnic and religious minorities. The Taliban have weakened the group, but have struggled to restrict their violent attacks — and their violent crackdowns against the communities that have traditionally supported the Islamic State in Afghanistan have laid seeds for future recruitment and continued conflict.

At other times, the Taliban has gone out of their way to promote its enforcement of a general amnesty order, applying to members of the former government and military even highlighting efforts to encourage select senior political figures, many of whom evacuated, to return to the country.

The Taliban have emphatically suppressed free speech and organized political activity — not through overwhelming force but with carefully applied, selective instances of arrest, detention, beatings and the power of coercion. Taliban fighters broke up the first instances of protest, many organized and led by women in Kabul and other major cities in the days after the international withdrawal was complete. In the months that followed, handfuls of activists and intellectuals who marched in protest or made critical comments in the media were detained by the Taliban’s intelligence arm, some of them for days and others for months, many without any official acknowledgment of their fate. Most were released, but the effect was chilling, and from media to academia, the intelligentsia and activists who remain in country now censor themselves thoroughly. Stirringly, the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover was marked by dozens of women who organized a march Kabul, chanting “bread, jobs, freedom” while Taliban police fired weapons in the air to disperse them.

Though their methods have varied and are likely to continue evolving, the Taliban’s intent has been consistent: to establish uncontested and unquestioned authority over Afghanistan’s state and society.

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