How To Understand The Taliban

The Afghan Taliban are a deeply hierarchical organization, and with power concentrated at the top, it is unlikely that diplomatic overtures or the inducement of international recognition will meaningfully change their approach to governance.

How To Understand The Taliban

The Taliban have now been in existence—in one form or another—for nearly 30 years. Yet, the world’s understanding of this obscure militant group is still rudimentary. Time and again, the world’s misunderstanding of the Taliban has led to misleading expectations from the Taliban. For instance, some still believe that if the international community recognized the Taliban government, it would help soften the Taliban’s hardline position on such issues as women’s rights. As I argue below, this belief is a classic case of misunderstanding the Taliban.  

The Taliban picked up matters where they had left off

As a signing party of the 2020 US-Taliban Deal and as the Taliban’s Head of Political Office in Doha, Qatar, Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar—a former deputy defense minister as well as a Mulla Omar deputy—started attracting much press attention in 2020-21. Although Baradar had little independent decision-making authority, the international community looked at him with cautious optimism as face of the new Taliban to work with.

Due to Baradar’s rising political star at Doha, the world remained focused on the possibility of his becoming the Taliban prime minister after the US left Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership, however, surprised everyone in September 2021 by announcing a so-called caretaker cabinet headed by the hardliner Mulla Hasan Akhund. Baradar had been sidelined and would now be one of Akhund’s two (and later three) insignificant deputies.

The Taliban were picking up matters where they had left off in 2001. A few examples below will suffice to illustrate the point. First, Hasan Akhund’s selection for premiership was logical from the Taliban’s perspective, as he had served as deputy prime minister to Mulla Rabbani until his death in April 2001. As part of the caretaker cabinet, the Taliban also appointed Mawlawi Abdul Kabir, another former deputy prime minister as well as acting prime minister after Rabbani’s death, as a deputy prime minister. Kabir has now replaced Akhund as prime minister.

Moreover, the Taliban appointed Mulla Amir Khan Muttaqi, a former Taliban minister of information, as foreign minister. Furthermore, the current Taliban minister of information Mulla Khairullah Khairkhah used to be the Taliban interior minister in the 1990s. Additionally, the Taliban appointed Abbas Stanikzai as deputy foreign minister, a post he had held in the 1990s. Through these appointments the Taliban were telling the world that the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan by NATO was a mere interruption to their rule.

The focus should be on Hibatullah

In line with the Taliban leadership’s desire to stick to the way things were during their first reign, the Taliban have imposed strict restrictions, including bans on working most government jobs and getting a secondary and post-secondary education on women. The primary source of the restrictions is the Taliban’s obscure leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada. Since the Taliban’s coming back to power, Hibatullah has made several appearances at various gatherings in Kabul and Qandahar. Given the content of his speeches, Hibatullah sounds bold and defiant. Hibatullah has made it clear at the June-July 2022 gathering in Kabul that the Taliban’s fight with America was not over money or power. The fight was between the two sides’ competing belief systems.

The problem with foreign officials and analysts, however, is that in their dealings with or analysis of the Taliban, they focus on mid or low-ranking Taliban, who have little decision-making authority. This is a misleading approach to understanding the Taliban.

Hibatullah has stated repeatedly that he is going to enforce (his version of) Shariat in Afghanistan, without any compromise with the rest of the world, no matter what. He would not let the sacrifices of his fighters go in vain. Hibatullah has similarly made it clear that he has pardoned former Afghan government officials, but they shouldn’t expect to be included in any future (Taliban) government. In practice, despite assurances to the contrary to the international community, the Taliban have spared no efforts in translating Hibatullah’s words into action.

Therefore, when dealing with the Taliban, one’s focus should be primarily on Hibatullah. No matter what other Taliban officials say, at the end of the day it’s Hibatullah who calls the shots. The problem with foreign officials and analysts, however, is that in their dealings with or analysis of the Taliban, they focus on mid or low-ranking Taliban, who have little decision-making authority. This is a misleading approach to understanding the Taliban. 

For instance, Taliban officials have time and again expressed their displeasure at not being recognized by the international community, which has serious concerns about the Taliban’s restrictions on women. Proponents of engagement with the Taliban try to link the above two issues by advising recognition of the Taliban in exchange for more rights for women. This is a simplistic view, usually propagated by pro-Taliban circles. Although recognition might raise the stature of some Kabul-based Taliban, the Qandahar-based Hibatullah (who doesn’t want women to step outside the house) won’t reopen schools and universities for girls in exchange for international recognition or lack thereof.  

The Taliban Manifesto

Amongst the many Islamist movements that sprung up in the twentieth century, the Taliban are the least literate, thus continuously suffering from a lack of intellectual sophistication. To remedy this defect, the Taliban’s current chief justice Abdul Hakeem Ishaqzai published in 2022 a book titled “The Islamic Emirate and its System.” Hibatullah wrote the foreword to Ishaqzai’s book, endorsing its contents. Thus, it is fair to call Ishaqzai’s book the Taliban Manifesto, which is mostly influenced by classic conservative jurisprudence with little relevance to today’s world.

The Manifesto offers a window to peek into the Taliban leadership’s thinking, especially regarding women. The overall picture, which has so far influenced Taliban policy, is not very encouraging. For instance, Ishaqzai states that women belong in the house, and are not worthy of leadership, which is an exclusive domain of men. Likewise, Ishaqzai maintains that women are not allowed to participate in politics either, as women are best suited for raising children.

Amongst the many Islamist movements that sprung up in the twentieth century, the Taliban are the least literate, thus continuously suffering from a lack of intellectual sophistication.

Specifically with regards to girls’ education, Ishaqzai says that Islam allows girls the right to education. However, it is better that girls be educated at home. If a girl must go outside her house for education, her teacher should be a woman. If this is not possible, then a curtain should separate the female student from her male teacher. Ishaqzai concludes that subjects such as chemistry and geometry are unnecessary for girls.

In addition to Hibatullah, the Taliban Manifesto is an important document that provides answers to important questions about the Taliban and how they want to govern Afghanistan. I hope those dealing with the Taliban read the Manifesto and realize its influence on current Taliban policies.

No further engagement needed with the Taliban

Some mid-ranking Taliban in Kabul will probably have little problem with girls returning to schools and universities as some of their own daughters also go to school outside Afghanistan. Yet, mid-ranking Taliban don’t have the authority or courage to ask or pressure Hibatullah to let girls back in schools and universities. In other words, mid-ranking Taliban (including some ministers or their deputies in Kabul) who want both engagement with the international community and girls returning to schools and universities, do not have the authority to bring about meaningful changes in Taliban policies. Therefore, all their commitments and pronouncements should be taken with a grain of salt.

Those Taliban (primarily Hibatullah) who can bring about meaningful changes in Taliban policies, couldn’t care less about engagement with the international community. Hibatullah, Ishaqzai and their inner circle are focused on making sure Afghans make it to Heaven in the afterlife. They neither have any workable policies for today’s world, nor do they care much about it. Interestingly enough, those who have seen Hibatullah, report that he doesn’t even have or use a mobile phone, an indication of his being out of touch with today’s world.

Therefore, further international engagement with the Taliban, including recognition of their Mulla-dominated exclusive government, will not soften the Taliban’s hardline position on any issues, much less those of women. Engagement with the Taliban since 2021 has had no positive effect on the group’s behavior. On the contrary, the Taliban have only gotten stricter. It is also very probable that with the passage of time, the Taliban will get even stricter than what they are right now regardless of whether or not the international community recognizes their government. 

Arwin Rahi is a former advisor to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan.