Afghanistan’s Islamic Emirate Returns: Life Under a Resurgent Taliban
The Afghan Taliban are experiencing a revival. Today, they find themselves in control of much of the territory they claimed before 9/11, a new version of the Islamic Emirate that the U.S. intended to eliminate. Instead of focusing on public statements, policymakers trying to assess the Taliban’s motives must closely examine what life in Taliban-controlled territory looks like.
In 1992, after groups of guerrilla fighters known as mujahideen succeeded in toppling Afghanistan’s communist government, which had been backed by the Soviet Union, they quickly turned on each other, kicking off a civil war. In response, a group of young clerics in the southern province of Kandahar took up arms themselves, promising to restore order and establish an “Islamic system.” The Taliban movement, as the clerics became known, spread rapidly across the south and east of the country until 1996, when they ousted the fractious coalition of mujahideen and conquered Kabul.
For the next five years, the Taliban governed most of Afghanistan. They extended their administration to all parts of the country under their control, which at the height of their power was about 90 percent of Afghan territory. Supreme authority rested with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and the Taliban renamed the Afghan state as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden.]
Away from the front lines of continued fighting against the mujahideen, the Taliban were largely successful in restoring security. They were also notorious for harshly enforcing their strict interpretations of religious rules. Afghanistan became increasingly isolated internationally, especially after the United Nations and the United States sanctioned the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden and hosting his al-Qaida training camps. The Islamic Emirate nevertheless remained in place until 2001, when the United States military invaded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Listen to Michael Semple discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. His audio starts at 21:59.
But while the U.S. war in Afghanistan, now in its 18th year, succeeded in driving the Taliban from power in Kabul, the Taliban never went away, as underscored by their gains against the Afghan military in recent months. Instead, for more than a decade and a half, they have appealed to widespread grievances stemming from rampant corruption under the new, U.S.-backed government, while framing themselves as defenders of the country’s territory, and of Islam itself. They have also capitalized on the failures of the government to re-integrate Taliban commanders and their men into Afghan society.
These strategies have allowed the Taliban to experience a revival of sorts. Today, the Taliban find themselves again in control of much of the territory they claimed before 9/11. In short, they have succeeded in constructing a new version of the Islamic Emirate that the U.S. intended to eliminate.
This is not to say that there has been a complete return to the pre-9/11 state of affairs in Afghanistan. Structurally, there are two main differences this time around. First, the Taliban’s national leadership issues orders from Pakistan, rather than from Kabul or Kandahar. Second, a dualist system has been established in Afghanistan, one in which the Islamic Emirate operates in Taliban-controlled areas while in government-controlled areas—mainly administrative hubs and some areas in the center and north of the country—officials report to the government in Kabul.
The Taliban are now headed by an emir, Sheikh Haibatollah, and two deputies: Mawlvi Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar who is responsible for the west of the country; and Khalifa Seraj, who is responsible for the east. The movement shields its leaders from public view but puts out frequent statements in the name of the emir. The statements call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the full restoration of the Islamic Emirate. They also assert that the Taliban’s fight in Afghanistan is a legitimate jihad, that the Taliban have no ambitions outside Afghanistan, and that they are open to peace as long as U.S. troops leave.
But policymakers who are looking to make peace a reality in Afghanistan, and who more broadly are trying to grasp how the new Islamic Emirate functions, should not rely solely on political statements and positions taken by the Taliban’s diplomats in Qatar and elsewhere. Rather, they should focus on what the movement has actually done in the areas under its control.
I recently interviewed Afghan field researchers who have access to Taliban-controlled areas and Taliban personnel, in order to understand what life is like under the resurgent Taliban. The researchers have established a track record of accuracy over time, and, where possible, I validated their material by cross-checking with other sources and observers in Afghanistan.
The Rule of Rahm Dil
Afghanistan is administratively divided into 387 districts, within 34 provinces. Analysts have estimated that the Taliban control up to 61 percent of the districts, though this figure is contested. While the Taliban operates “commissions”—in effect, government departments—at the provincial level, few of them maintain a presence at the district level. This enhances the power of men like Rahm Dil, a Taliban uluswal, or district administrator, for Chapa Dara, a Taliban-controlled district in the Pech Valley region of Kunar province in the northeast of the country, bordering Pakistan’s tribal areas. A cleric in his mid-40s, Rahm Dil governs in a manner that seems fairly typical of how the Taliban exercises power nationwide. A close examination of his fiefdom is a snapshot of life under the Taliban today.
The Taliban have succeeded in constructing a new version of the Islamic Emirate that the U.S. intended to eliminate.
You can access Chapa Dara by road from Asadabad, the capital of Kunar. Pickup trucks carrying passengers leave from a bus stop in Asadabad, which is fully under the government’s control, and drive along the main road through Pech Valley, following a river that passes through the district centers of Watapur and Nangalam, which are also government-controlled. There are government security posts along the main road and in the district centers. But for much of the route, Taliban fighters are free to operate along the far bank of the river and within 100 meters of the road.
After a slow drive of about three hours, you come to the last two government security posts that mark the turnoff into the Chapa Dara valley. Once the pickup turns onto the Chapa Dara road, it is in territory fully controlled by the Taliban, though there is no post or checkpoint demarcating any kind of border.
Similarly, Taliban fighters do not man permanent posts along the road. Instead, they conduct patrols. At any point while moving through the valley, the pickup may be stopped and passengers searched and asked to identify themselves.
Rahm Dil generally operates out of the guest quarters of a house close to the Chapa Dara bazaar. His main responsibilities fall under the categories of faisla, which means “decision” in Dari, and jabha, which means “front.” This means he adjudicates disputes among civilians while commanding a fighting force of about 50 men, though he could call on more forces if necessary.
Under the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, much like under the government based in Kabul, district administrators like Rahm Dil play a quasi-judicial role because people involved in criminal or civil disputes go to them first. If the administrator can offer a fair solution that is acceptable to both parties, the dispute goes no further.
The disputes Rahm Dil hears typically involve issues like land ownership, grazing rights, debts and elopement. He has a district judge, known as a qazi, at his disposal, to whom he can refer difficult cases. But because Rahm Dil enjoys a reputation for fairness—a reputation he clearly values—he is generally able to get the parties to any given dispute to agree to a settlement.
Even critics of the Taliban acknowledge that this system of dispute resolution is efficient, eliminating the need for bribes or lengthy appeals procedures. District administrators like Rahm Dil do charge fees, but these are considered “official” rather than evidence of corruption. For example, when Rahm Dil releases members of the national army his men have detained, he charges 500 Pakistani rupees—around $4—for each day each soldier has been held, a fee that is intended to cover the cost of boarding them. In marked contrast to the Kabul-based government, Rahm Dil and his men do not have a reputation for enriching themselves as they administer justice.
In addition to adjudicating disputes among civilians, district administrators like Rahm Dil function as the main arbiters for Taliban personnel facing difficult decisions. If a Talib in Chapa Dara arrests someone on suspicion of committing some kind of infraction, for instance, he will always quickly refer back to Rahm Dil for guidance on whether to hold, release or kill the person.
The Taliban in Chapa Dara also operate a unit of the once notorious Amr bin Maroof, or religious police. The unit is headed by Mawlvi Abdul Rauf, who is subordinate to Rahm Dil but, unlike Rahm Dil, has a reputation for cruelty. As in the pre-9/11 Emirate, Abdul Rauf and his men enforce the Taliban’s cultural norms, looking out for men who trim their beards, women who breach the strict requirement that they be fully covered in public, and anyone who skips out on attending prayers. Yet the religious police are less powerful than they were before. And in principle, at least, Abdul Rauf’s men offer advice in the case of a first infringement, only resorting to beatings for repeat offenders.
Taliban and Afghan security forces in a Taliban-controlled village in Kunduz province,
Afghanistan, Nov. 4, 2016 (AP photo by Najim Rahim).
Residents of Chapa Dara are nonetheless terrified of the religious police. Abdul Rauf has previously served with one of the more brutal Pakistani jihadis, Mangal Bagh, who in 2006 launched his own jihadi movement, Lashkar Islam, styled on the Taliban, close to the Khyber Pass. Abdul Rauf is known to have killed people he’s suspected of being spies. No one doubts that he would be happy to execute adulterers or homosexuals if he ever got his hands on any.
Smartphones and memory cards are a new focus for the religious police—something they didn’t need to concern themselves with as much in the pre-9/11 days. They seize and destroy any smartphones and memory cards they can find because of the devices’ ability to facilitate “moral corruption”—via music videos, for example—and spying. Yet Rahm Dil’s men make exceptions, as many Taliban officials use smartphones and memory cards smuggled into Chapa Dara for their work.
This is just one example of a parallel system of rules at work within the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. Another example, one that is more important for most people’s daily lives, is that the religious police and other units of the Taliban generally enforce rules only in public places, like the bazaar, and when they carry out searches along the road. Within the villages of Chapa Dara, social norms and peer pressure normally suffice to ensure compliance with Taliban rules—a deterrence effect magnified by the fear surrounding Abdul Rauf.
The Taliban’s main economic function in Chapa Dara consists of maintaining security, thereby allowing businesses to operate safely. These businesses, including retailers, tailors, carpenters, and dentists, are then taxed to fund the local administration. In keeping with Afghan practice, the Taliban imposes a general tax on production and capital as well as specific taxes on regulated activities, such as transportation.
Public Services Under the Taliban
The Taliban actively involve themselves in the provision of public services, but the actual resources for those services come from elsewhere. In the education sector, the government in Kabul funds schools in the Chapa Dara valley, but Rahm Dil and his Taliban are in effect in control of these budgets. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education also officially appoints the headmasters and all staff members at the schools, but many of these people are unwilling or unable to serve in a Taliban-controlled area. Therefore, they negotiate arrangements with locals who are able to live and work in Taliban territory. Under such arrangements, the government-appointed personnel remain on the official books, but they share their salaries with those who actually show up to the schools and do the work. Many of these fill-in teachers are members of the Taliban.
In a remote area like Chapa Dara, those who have completed basic instruction in a madrassa, or religious school, are among the most educated people available. Although the curriculum is ostensibly the same one approved by the government, teachers have to practice self-censorship. The Taliban have made it known that they will close down any school that teaches anything they do not endorse; history and even handwriting are subjects that the Taliban have objected to in the past. Meanwhile, Taliban leaders are currently awaiting the arrival of newly printed Islamic Emirate textbooks.
The Kabul-based government has more of a presence in the health sector. For example, a small government-funded health clinic in the village of Badgah, also in the Chapa Dara valley, is staffed with officially appointed personnel. But other, private clinics and pharmacies in Chapa Dara are staffed by ordinary residents. The Taliban attach a high priority to maintaining functioning health facilities because they have a steady stream of wounded fighters. In cases where fighters are seriously wounded, they are referred over the border to Pakistan, where the Taliban’s own Health Commission has a standing arrangement with the Pakistani authorities to treat wounded Taliban in hospitals in Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi.
Unlike their counterparts in Kabul, Taliban personnel are meticulous about obeying authorities and the chain of command.
Rahm Dil also tolerates minor public works projects like culverts and road repairs in his district. Locals refer to the personnel implementing these projects, many of whom are urban-based professionals employed by construction companies or NGOs, as “engineers.” An engineer wishing to work in Chapa Dara must approach Rahm Dil, who determines whether the project in question would threaten Taliban interests before issuing a written permit. In exchange for the permit, Rahm Dil claims a portion of the budget provided by the aid agency or government ministry funding the project. Like the other fees he collects, this is understood as a contribution to Taliban revenue rather than a bribe.
Locals comment that a key difference between the Taliban and the Kabul-based government is that Taliban personnel are fairly meticulous about obeying authorities and the chain of command. The Taliban consider this obedience to be essential to the legitimacy and ultimate success of their jihad. They believe that a breakdown in discipline would threaten their sacred collective purpose.
This holds true even though young fighters in Chapa Dara have little visibility when it comes to what goes on above the level of their district administrator. Rahm Dil is generally accessible to the people he rules and is able to go about his daily business with little interference from above. But he takes his orders from the provincial governor, who, like him, is appointed by the Taliban’s leadership in Pakistan. Anyone with a grievance about decisions made by Rahm Dil’s superiors would have to make the trek across the border to Peshawar or Quetta, where they would struggle to locate and petition members of the Taliban’s Military Commission, higher judicial bodies, the two deputy emirs or even the provincial governors, who spend much of their time in Pakistan.
Stuck Between Two Systems
The frictionless border between government territory and that of the new Islamic Emirate means that trade and the movement of civilians between the two zones continue relatively unimpeded. But anyone venturing into the Taliban-controlled area is still subject to the Taliban’s authority. This is particularly relevant for people serving in the government or Afghanistan’s armed forces, as well as their relatives.
The Taliban are currently pursuing a campaign to encourage government personnel to resign from their posts en masse. As part of this campaign, Rahm Dil can issue a safe conduct letter to soldiers from Chapa Dara who want to desert the Afghan military and return home.
But those who wish to stay in their posts can sometimes be forced to cut ties with their home districts. One soldier from Chapa Dara with close family connections to the Taliban recently sent word to Rahm Dil that he wished to return to the district to get married. But because he was not prepared to desert the military, which would mean giving up the benefits associated with serving, the young man ended up having to marry in Jalalabad, the closest big city, and shift his family out of Chapa Dara.
This policy has significant implications for inequality and social cleavages in Afghanistan. Government service has long been one of the principal avenues of advancement for residents of Afghanistan’s rural areas. By forcing people like the soldier from Chapa Dara to choose between serving and living in Taliban-controlled areas, the Taliban’s restrictions provide incentives for the educated and ambitious to migrate to towns and cities and cut ties with their home villages, reinforcing the country’s deep urban-rural divide. Those who have no alternative stay in their villages and depend on whatever income they can generate from farming, with little prospect of improving their lives. These people are effectively stuck between competing systems—the Taliban or the Afghan government.
This is just one way that the Taliban alienate local populations. Broadly speaking, while the Taliban in Chapa Dara see themselves as a benevolent force that is living up to its mission of implementing an Islamic system based on their own strict rules, it’s not clear that they’ve been able to win over non-Taliban.
at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 6, 2017 (AP photo by Rahmat Gul).
Outside Chapa Dara, there are areas where the new Islamic Emirate is more openly contested by Afghans. A system with no local accountability or participation is poorly suited to manage a pluralistic society like Afghanistan’s. Many districts, especially in the north of the country, are multi-ethnic, and the local administration must balance the needs of competing groups. Achieving cohesion can be difficult, and the Taliban have come up short in some cases. In 2017, the sense among Uzbeks—one of several ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan—that they were being excluded from Taliban power structures prompted some Uzbek Taliban fighters in the north to join the self-styled Islamic State.
There are also recurrent tensions in the north between Taliban officials appointed by leaders in Peshawar and Quetta and those who have a local support base. The concentration of power in the hands of an inaccessible Pakistan-based leadership reinforces the tendency of the Taliban to be impervious to important local considerations. For example, earlier this year the leadership prioritized the prosecution of a military campaign in northwest Afghanistan and sent a regional commander there to mobilize for the fight. But the area was severely affected by a drought. Had the Pakistan-based leadership been more attuned to local concerns, they might have made more concessions to civilians who were struggling simply to survive and were therefore unable to bear the burden of conflict.
The perception among at least some Chapa Dara residents that the Taliban are honest also does not hold throughout the entire country. In the northern provinces and in Helmand province, in the south, reports have emerged of Taliban commanders abusing their positions to get involved in the narcotics trade for their own financial benefit. As a general rule, the visible parts of the illicit economy, such as heroin processing labs and drugs and arms bazaars, as well as smuggling routes, tend to be located in Taliban-controlled areas. And while it is correct to say that the sense of purpose among Taliban fighters tends to be much more ingrained than in the government ranks, some in the movement have become deeply cynical and view the jihad as a pretext to pursue heroin dealing and the acquisition of property, new wives and fancy cars. Evidently aware of this problem, the Taliban leadership have recently started to appoint officials responsible for institutional reforms and overseeing the spending and revenue-earning departments.
Navigating Taliban-Government Relations
This new version of the Islamic Emirate reveals much about what an Afghanistan under full control of the Taliban would look like and whether the Taliban have changed since they last ruled the country. The fundamentals of Taliban governance, in Chapa Dara and dozens of districts like it, hardly seem different from the system that was in place in the years before 9/11. Even with the induction of a new generation of Taliban fighters, the movement has largely preserved its political culture, for better or for worse.
Even with the induction of a new generation of fighters, the Taliban have largely preserved their political culture, for better or for worse.
The main achievements of the Taliban in the areas they control include establishing a modicum of security and creating a system of local administration that is less corrupt than the Kabul-based government. These achievements alone may prompt some to flirt with the idea that a nationwide Islamic Emirate might not be so bad.
But a closer look at the realities of the new Islamic Emirate offers plenty of warnings about possible adverse consequences if the Taliban were to further extend their influence. The movement’s narrow sociopolitical base and resistance to any serious local participation or accountability mean that it would struggle to maintain popular support. And the Taliban’s willingness to incorporate the illicit economy into their system of governance suggests that a Taliban-run Afghanistan could be even more crime-ridden than the country is now.
Rahm Dil and his peers across the Taliban’s tightly controlled districts have not faced the challenges of running the large, modern institutions that exist in cities, nor have many of them overseen multi-ethnic districts. And the way they have pursued the aggressive banning of soldiers and government personnel suggests that if they ever had a chance to take over urban areas, they would again cut themselves off from much of the population. These are just some of the reasons to suspect that the relative stability in Chapa Dara could not be replicated across Afghanistan.
When it comes to pursuing peace, places like Chapa Dara offer some sense of what the Taliban might seek in return for a deal. At the grassroots level, the Taliban are proud of their successes in removing predatory or corrupt government officials. They have also used their military and political strength to install their cadre in positions of relative power and influence, whether through taking over the judicial system or assuming teachers’ posts. The Taliban can be expected to try to preserve and extend these gains.
It’s unclear how the Taliban could reconcile peace with the government with their conception of themselves as custodians of Islam—a conception that has shaped the system of rule they’ve developed in Chapa Dara and elsewhere. In the event of peace talks, if the Taliban were to stand by their demand for an Islamic system, there would be a need to develop consensus on what that should look like.
And even if negotiators could do that, there’s no guarantee that Afghans would go along with it willingly. People in Taliban-controlled areas, of course, are not free to express their opinions about Taliban rule, so it’s hard to say how, despite the relative calm in Chapa Dara, the Taliban are genuinely perceived there. At the national level, though, survey evidence indicates that 80 percent of the population has no sympathy for the Taliban.
For now, there are signs of an emergent modus vivendi between the new Islamic Emirate and the Kabul-based government. Yet there are four major factors preventing the government from building on this arrangement.
First, the Taliban remain committed to their violent jihad against the government and use control of the countryside as an asset in that campaign. This includes recruiting and basing fighters in places like Chapa Dara.
Jan. 23, 2018 (AP photo by Rahmat Gul).
Second, the fact that the Taliban pay no mind to the wishes of the civilian population is important. A national government could not sign off on the Taliban, or any other non-state actor, using violence or compulsion without sacrificing its own legitimacy.
Third, a very real sovereignty issue arises in any kind of dealings between the Kabul-based government and the Taliban. Rahm Dil and his men acknowledge the authority of the Islamic Emirate’s judiciary and leadership, which is located in Pakistan. Given the sensitivities around sovereignty in Afghan political culture, it would be untenable for an Afghan government to accept a local administration that takes orders from bosses on the other side of the border.
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Finally, the elephant in the room is terrorism. Taliban commanders claim there are no al-Qaida cells in Kunar province, the home of Chapa Dara district and one of the places where al-Qaida has historically been based. Nevertheless, the alliance between the Taliban movement and al-Qaida is intact. A U.S.-supported Afghan government cannot responsibly accommodate the Taliban without some guarantee that they will help keep out the terrorists.
As frustration grows over the lack of progress toward implementing a nationwide peace process, there has been increasing talk of possible local cease-fire deals. But these deals would run into the same challenges impeding a broader deal between the Taliban leadership and the Afghan government.
Therefore, if Taliban administrators like Rahm Dil really are looking for closer cooperation with the government, they will have to be prepared to make major changes. This would require a level of flexibility that none of the war’s actors have shown. Instead, the most likely scenario is that the war will drag on and the dualist system that has characterized the new version of the Islamic Emirate will remain in place. Meanwhile, the government and the U.S. will bomb the Taliban whenever they catch sight of them, and the Taliban will use the districts they control as launchpads for attacks on remaining government territory. This can continue for as long as the U.S. continues financing the Afghan government.
Michael Semple is a professor at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast.
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