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Warlords, Drugs, Democracy
Warlords, Drugs, Democracy
A Short Visit to the Taliban’s Tense and Quiet Capital
A Short Visit to the Taliban’s Tense and Quiet Capital
Op-Ed / Asia

Warlords, Drugs, Democracy

Originally published in Chatham House

Elections in Afghanistan have been postponed until September as a result of security worries and the low level of voter registration achieved so far. Democratic progress there might be a useful asset for American President George Bush in his re-election bid, but serious long-term international attention is needed to prevent a return to chaos and civil war.

WHERE IS AFGHANISTAN HEADING?

More than two and a half years after the ousting of the Taliban,is the state moving, as some optimists believe, towards a new phase of post-conflict reconstruction? In their view, most of the deadlines laid down in the Bonn Accords of November 2001 have been largely met. A fully representative government will replace the semi-representative Transitional Administration after national elections in September. A constitution, created in the presence, if not with the whole-hearted support, of most political factions, has come into being. The new political arrangements it ushers in will be moderate and democratic and respect Afghan traditions.

The international security presence has expanded outside the capital Kabul. Assisting reconstruction are small civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams. With between eighty and two hundred members each, the teams have dual roles of development and security. The international community has successfully overseen the most difficult phase of post-Taliban reconstruction.

Pessimists, however, believe that there are as yet no signs of either political stability or military security. The resurgent Taliban poses an ever-increasing threat to the government, to international security forces, and to local and international non-governmental organisations.

Warlords and commanders refuse to accept Kabul's authority, running their own mini fiefdoms and extracting revenues through extortion and other criminal activities including narco-trafficking. Many warlords, aligned to the US-led coalition, are using this relationship to expand their political and military authority at Kabul's expense. American efforts to strengthen the government are thus undermined by its reliance on warlord allies to fight Al Qaeda and eliminate the remnants of the Taliban.

The international community's failure to reconstruct a democratic, liberal, representative government foreshadows grave consequences for the future. The legitimacy of the newly created government institutions is weakened by the way in which they were formed. A manipulated emergency loya jirga undermined the Transitional Administration's authority, just as a manipulated constitutional loya jirga has undermined the constitution's legitimacy. Pessimists have little faith that the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be either free or fair.

BETWEEN CONFLICT AND PEACE

The truth lies somewhere between doomsday scenarios and euphoria. Afghanistan remains suspended somewhere between conflict and peace, but the international community has clearly opened windows of opportunity for security and good governance. The overthrow of the Taliban and the creation of a relatively representative state are a vast improvement.

International commitments and assistance for recovery and reconstruction have helped, in some measure, to revive an economic infrastructure destroyed by years of civil war. Security is far from guaranteed for most citizens, yet the international military presence has helped keep at bay domestic despots such as the Taliban and their allies, as well as international terrorists.

Given continued international support - political, economic and military - the country could move towards a sustained peace, but the threats to that peace require greater international muscle and the political will to reconsider some unwise policy choices.

SHORT CUTS DON'T PAY

Action will have to be taken, and soon, to prevent the conflict from resuming the shape of an all-out civil war. The international community, which is overseeing and thus responsible for reconstruction, needs to recognise that:

  • The process of reconstruction will be slow and painful. Twenty-three years of civil war and external intervention have taken their toll on the state and remaining political structures. The international community will have to be prepared to play a hands-on role for many years if stability is to be restored. Short cuts will simply not pay.
     
  • The wide gap between existing resources, fiscal and military, and those promised will have to be redressed. A failure to bridge the gap will undermine the progress so far.
     
  • Popular participation and representative government are essential for a sustainable peace. External interference or acquiescence in domestic manipulation of political processes will only make matters worse.

FACING AFGHANISTAN'S CHALLENGES

How can the most pressing challenges be met? It would be counter-productive to manipulate the electoral process. Government and UN officials expressed concern about a credible electoral exercise by the first deadline in June, citing insecurity, lack of resources and prior planning.

The UN intends to open 4,200 registration offices by this month. As yet, there are only 54 sites in eight cities. A little over ten percent of the ten and a half million eligible voters have been registered so far, and this includes only two percent of eligible women. Even political parties are yet to be registered.

Elections due in June have been postponed until September. If sufficient numbers of voters cannot be enrolled, if there is no freedom of association and expression, and if security conditions do not permit a free and fair process, then elections should be postponed. Anything less would undermine the authority of a future elected government. Yet a definite date for elections is necessary. Otherwise the Transitional Administration's legitimacy will fast erode, since its mandate expires in June. It is essential that elections for the president and parliament should be held simultaneously. Bypassing parliament, even before its creation, would only generate more friction in an already fractured society.

WARLORDISM

The problem of warlordism can no longer be swept under the carpet. The US-led coalition does need local allies to fight terrorism and its agents, but warlords are not the answer. If anything, their presence is contributing to growing popular acceptance, if not support, for a resurgent Taliban.

In the south and east, for instance, the main area of coalition military operations, this continued reliance only serves the Taliban's purposes, as the coalition alienates the very people who welcomed international intervention and the regime's demise.

The coalition must recognise that the warlords have been unreliable allies, providing misinformation that has several times produced civilian casualties. Many, including a number of prominent Kabul warlords, use a thriving drug trade to arm private militias.

Beyond Kabul, and to a lesser degree even within the capital, warlords employ extortion and violence in a culture of impunity. Some Afghans now remember the Taliban days with nostalgia.

Washington might opt for a quick fix to deal with increasing insecurity and the slow growth of a national army and police. Almost a quarter of the ten thousand army recruits have already absconded. According to coalition commander General David Barno, US special forces would train a five thousand-strong National Guard from provincial commanders' soldiers. Transforming the militias would only legitimise them while undermining international efforts to demilitarise.

As yet only 2,300 fighters have been demobilised in Kabul and the cities of Kunduz and Gardez, the first phase of a three-year disarmament programme. The south and east are inaccessible because of Taliban activity, while warlords certainly don't want to disband their militias. Giving these commanders a military role will only promote factional fighting and lawlessness. And it will not help to extend Kabul's authority.

Continued insecurity, including the Taliban revival, is seriously undermining recovery. Slow economic progress is in turn adversely affecting political and social reconstruction. How can this chicken-and-egg dilemma be dealt with? Since demilitarisation and the formation of a credible national army and police have faltered, an expanded, invigorated international security presence is the only way out.

MILITARY MISSION

NATO's decision to take over and expand the International Security Assistance Force's presence outside Kabul is certainly an encouraging first step. In a reversal of US policy, the Bush administration is keen on a more vigorous NATO role. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ultimately wants the alliance to take over all international military operations. Yet the present shape of its first out-of-area mission leaves much to be desired.

In August, NATO took over the six thousand-strong Assistance Force in Kabul. Two months later it agreed to expand beyond Kabul and in January, Germany took charge of a provincial reconstruction team in Kunduz, a relatively safe area. The thirteen thousand mostly US coalition troops command a number of such teams, led by the US, Britain and New Zealand, and intend to set up more.

Despite appeals from Secretary-General George Robertson and his successor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO member states are reluctant to deliver the ground troops, logistical and intelligence support and communications necessary for meaningful expansion. For instance, only Turkey and the Netherlands have agreed to provide three Black Hawk helicopters each.

To provide security during the forthcoming electoral process, Washington wants at least ten more NATO-led reconstruction teams, making sixteen in all. Britain, Italy, Turkey and Norway are committed to leading one team each outside Kabul. The Netherlands, Romania and Lithuania have indicated interest in contributing. The French have proposed to deploy a five thousand strong Franco-German brigade from the Europcorps, but only for six months and in Kabul.

Non-NATO states Sweden and Finland have expressed a willingness to contribute. Yet is unlikely that these teams will be in action by the middle of the year, since member states are reluctant to provide troops in the absence efforce protection from the US-led coalition.

NATO intends to set up a northern command in Mazar-e-Sharif and one in Herat in the west, but the growing insecurity in both centres might discourage member states from committing ground troops in any meaningful manner. The south and southeast most need an international security presence, but it is here that NATO is reluctant to tread.

Even if the teams are finally set up, this modest presence may not be sufficient to deal with multiple challenges and demands: the threats posed by the Taliban, warring warlords and drug dealers; the extension and protection of governmental authority; and safeguards for a free and fair election.

DRUGS AND WAR

Since the departure of the Taliban, poppy production has surged. This includes those areas controlled by President Hamid Karzai's allies. The proceeds of the trade are financing warring factions and undermining Kabul's authority. It is also a source of funds for the Taliban and their allies as well as Al Qaeda.

Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, providing almost three-quarters of global production. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), poppy production last year amounted to 3,600 tonnes. 1.7 million people, seven percent of the population, is directly engaged in it. Almost half a million people globally are involved in the Afghan opium trade, while farmers' and traffickers' income totalled $2.3 billion last year. In mid-February, at an anti-drug conference in Kabul, UNODC Chief Antonio Maria Costa cautioned the international community against inaction, saying that the next two years will be crucial.

The conference discussed ways of combating the problem, including providing alternative livelihoods, strengthening law enforcement and creating a functioning criminal justice system. Economic alternatives for poor farmers could include the development of horticulture and agriculture as well as the provision of micro-credit. Washington's preference is for drug eradication. The destruction of crops would alienate farmers but targeting laboratories would hurt the pocket books of the traffickers who benefit most.

Britain is training an Afghan Special Narcotics Force but local capability is some distance away. Until then, the US-led coalition and NATO will have to be more proactive. In January, American warplanes destroyed a narcotics laboratory, but this followed bloody infighting between two northern warlords.

DECIDING DESTINY

Afghanistan's reconstruction is also dependent, to some extent, on its neighbours. Relations between Kabul and Islamabad remain tense, largely because of Pakistan's perceived support for the Taliban. Most domestic and international observers believe that Islamabad still backs the Taliban since it continues to use Pakistani territory as a sanctuary and recruits from Pakistani madrasas and Afghan refugee camps. There is also a long-standing border dispute, as Afghan governments have been reluctant to accept the Durand Line as the international boundary dividing the two.

Nothing less than zero tolerance for Pakistani intervention will do, especially from Washington. Operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan might have led to the arrest of some Al Qaeda operatives but they have failed to net any key Taliban leader. Only American pressure can force the military government to take decisive action.

However, the international community will also have to address Islamabad's security worries. An anti-Pakistan stance by key officials in Kabul and intervention by traditional adversaries such as Iran and India only feed perceptions that Afghan territory will be used to undermine Pakistan's security. For too long Afghanistan has been the battleground for external powers' Great Games. It is time for the Afghans to be given a chance, with international support, to determine their own destiny.

"Demilitarisation and the formation of a credible national army and police have faltered. An expanded, invigorated international security presence is the only way out."

Elections in Afghanistan have been postponed until September as a result of security worries and the low level of voter registration achieved so far. Democratic progress there might be a useful asset for American Pres George Bush in his re-election bid, but serious long-term international attention is needed to prevent a return to chaos and civil war.

Our Journeys / Asia

A Short Visit to the Taliban’s Tense and Quiet Capital

The future of Afghanistan remains deeply uncertain – mostly because the Taliban have not decided what path they will chart for their new government, as Crisis Group expert Graeme Smith discovered in Kabul.

The Taliban are still finding their way around Kabul, the capital they took with the rest of Afghanistan last summer, and some of the former insurgents look a bit lost as they adapt to new lives as government officials. On a recent day, an armoured vehicle with black government licence plates arrived at a large supermarket, a local landmark. The Taliban official behind the wheel – a Pashto-speaking out-of-towner – struggled with Persian, a language of government here for centuries, as he asked a guard, “Is this a supermarket?” The guard looked up theatrically at billboards of fruits and vegetables and the word “supermarket” in the signage. “Is this a supermarket?”, he grumbled, repeating the phrase under his breath. His mockery was barely audible; residents know it’s not a good idea to upset the city’s new masters.

It’s not just that the Taliban are disoriented by the jumble of streets, unsure of the urban landscape they have conquered. More broadly, many still talk with amazement about the fall of the previous government last August, and a few of them admit feeling daunted by the task of running the national government after emerging from the countryside where they fought for decades. In some ways, they are faring better than at any point in their lives, breathing easy without the threat of U.S. airstrikes, cruising around the city in expensive vehicles with accessories in hand: the latest iPhone, U.S.-made assault rifles. But their duties also weigh heavily. “It’s better here than in the mountains”, said a Taliban official, strolling past the flowerbeds inside a ministry compound. “But we did not imagine the government would be this big. We thought it was a few thousand people, but we got here and discovered that it’s hundreds of thousands”.

I myself am still figuring out how to navigate the new Afghanistan, after recently returning with my colleague Ibraheem Bahiss for a short visit. We had been away for years, since the pandemic started, and we were curious to see whether we could resume the first-hand research that our organisation had been conducting in Afghanistan since 2002. We approached the question cautiously, having learned to mistrust first impressions. Over and over in recent decades, outsiders like myself have failed to understand what is happening in this country. On this occasion, our view of the situation was coloured by the way we landed in Kabul, with permission from the Taliban and carrying foreign passports, and we knew that a two-week trip allowed only the smallest window into a complicated situation.

The relative quiet is something you feel almost every moment of the day.

Still, we took away a few impressions. The first thing is the remarkable degree of calm that has settled over Kabul, despite recent attacks. The relative quiet is something you feel almost every moment of the day. I slept with the windows open and the only sounds I heard at night were the calls to prayer, a contrast with previous years when I grew accustomed to gunfire or the roar of low-flying helicopters in the darkness. Body searches at the entrances to many buildings have been downgraded from intense screenings to quick pat-downs or a desultory shrug. My room overlooked a roundabout near the presidential palace, a place where security forces used to yell through megaphones to warn off vehicles. It was now guarded by a few Taliban fighters slumped silently in office chairs. Parts of that intersection were flattened by a truck bombing in 2017, the kind of mass-casualty attack that has now become less common. Down the street was the Emergency Hospital, the city’s best trauma ward, run by a valiant Italian charity, a place where relatives of war victims thronged at the gates when the violence was at its height. At the time of our visit, the wards were getting only a trickle of gunshot cases, mostly a result of the rising crime rate, nothing like the carnage of previous years.

Not that the killing has stopped altogether. Soon after we departed Kabul, the sound of explosions boomed over the city again as an affiliate of the Islamic State group continued its intense campaign of terrorism against the Hazara, an ethnic and religious minority, and other minority groups such as Sufis, whom the extremists hate. More than 100 people were killed in a particularly bloody two weeks in April; this death toll paled in comparison to the one a year earlier, when daily casualties often exceeded that number, but it underlined the persistence of insecurity. The Taliban have been battling the local Islamic State affiliate since it emerged in 2015, but the group still inflicts mayhem, and such violence will not be easy to quell: in the 1990s, the Taliban struggled for years against earlier militant Salafist groups in the east – the same terrain where the Islamic State affiliate now fights the Taliban.

From the northern provinces, as well, reports have emerged of attacks by anti-Taliban insurgents claimed by a dozen or so groups connected with parts of the previous government, which the Taliban toppled last August. The Taliban view these claims as exaggerated, although Taliban spokesmen sometimes admit they face large numbers of resistance fighters. It’s hard for analysts to get reliable information about the number of attacks and casualties; the UN’s latest report found a 91 per cent decrease in violence from the previous year, and a U.S. intelligence report predicted that the Taliban “will maintain control”, but their data are difficult to verify. Former Afghan military officials are promising further anti-Taliban attacks as the new government’s repression generates grievances. For now, though, the Taliban still travel the highways with little personal security. We saw them driving north into the green valleys for pleasure, enjoying picnics in the alpine scenery, taking selfies and grilling over campfires.

There is something eerie about the placid atmosphere. An old friend pointed to a street-cleaning truck and admitted that he likes the tidiness of the new Kabul, but he attributed it to the economic downturn: “Nobody can afford petrol, so the roads are not so busy”. It’s true that business has slowed – the need for economic revival is a major focus of Crisis Group’s research – but that’s not the only explanation for the sleepiness. A troubling aspect of the subdued mood is the reduction in the number of women in public. I had walked the central neighbourhoods for years and routinely passed women in full burkas, colourful hijabs and, in a few cases, no headscarves at all. This time, I didn’t see a single woman showing her hair and I saw remarkably few women in general. The biggest gatherings of women were crowds of beggars asking for handouts at bakeries. The scene looked nothing like the rollicking Kabul of previous years, so different from surrounding villages that it was nicknamed the “Kabubble”. In many countries, life in cities is very different from that in the countryside, but in Afghanistan the contrast was especially stark. Now the bubble has burst, leaving Kabul more like the rest of the impoverished country.

Illustration of rural homes in the Worsaj valley in north Afghanistan. George Butler, 2014

Even the conservatism that I saw on the streets was not enough to satisfy the Taliban leadership. After our departure, they issued new edicts demanding stricter adherence to dress codes for women. A Taliban ruling requires that women cover themselves from head to toe, including their faces: in other words, millions of Afghan women woke up to discover that their clothing is illegal, that the outfits that their mothers and grandmothers had worn for generations were banned. The rules might seem uncontroversial to many people in the villages of southern Afghanistan that produced the Taliban, mirroring local customs and reflecting mainstream views among the Taliban of religious requirements. But in other parts of the country, especially urban neighbourhoods, the new requirements are seen as outrageous. Some Taliban described the rules as a compromise, allowing variations of dress other than conservative burkas. Other Taliban wish that their colleagues would only advise citizens instead of forcing them to wear different outfits, but in practice these Taliban officials seem less powerful than the more extreme social conservatives in their movement. Enforcement seems to be happening: Taliban officials claim to be deploying thousands of religious officers to ensure compliance.

The growing number of regulations governing personal conduct has started to give the new regime a greater resemblance – superficially, at least – to the Taliban government of the 1990s. Recent months have witnessed Taliban decisions blocking unaccompanied Afghan women from aircraft; instructing broadcasters to stop airing international news in local languages; announcing separate times for men and women to visit parks and universities; instructing teachers and students not to wear neckties; and imposing other restrictions.

Taliban at checkpoints seem extra attentive as they check fellow Taliban.

The Taliban’s zeal for regulation also includes a close watch over the behaviour of their own personnel. Under previous governments, navigating traffic often involved steering away from convoys of politicians, senior officials and other powerful figures who rode in armoured vehicles with sirens blaring and cruised through checkpoints with their government licence plates. Now it’s less common to see official vehicles getting preferential treatment; in fact, Taliban at checkpoints seem extra attentive as they check fellow Taliban. Guards wave down their comrades and scrutinise credentials, looking carefully at the laminated cards that identify officials from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

One explanation for the intensity of Taliban checks of their own colleagues might be the new regime’s determination to fight corruption. Early data on customs and tax revenues suggest a clean-up of graft under the Taliban. They are also confiscating unregistered weapons, and some Taliban told us that checking Taliban vehicles prevents the theft or misuse of government property. (One such “misuse” of Taliban weapons may include revenge killings of people connected with the former government.) A Taliban official touted the wide application of these new measures as evidence that theirs is an egalitarian movement. He noted that a senior Taliban figure was recently photographed making the day-long journey on a passenger bus from southern Afghanistan to the capital. “We are not afraid of the people, unlike the last government”, he said.

Perhaps there is a sense in which the Taliban behave with more humility than their predecessors: as we spoke, the Taliban official was waiting at an iftar buffet in a busy restaurant, where crowds of men who had been fasting all day thronged around steaming dishes. The Taliban official was powerful enough to skip the line, but he said that the government tries to avoid alienating people. He waited an hour before getting a full plate.

Exhaust pipe fitter's shop in Herat. George Butler, 2014

All the same, many people do feel alienated – or, indeed, much worse, in case of many women, girls and minorities. Nor is there anything humble about the way Taliban decision-makers shield themselves from public scrutiny. Most of the new government belongs to the secretive upper echelons of the Taliban movement, predominately ethnic Pashtun and entirely male. They have not clarified under what constitution or according to what laws they will govern, although a legal review is rumoured to be progressing rapidly. Their heavy-handed restrictions on the media suggest a regime that is not comfortable answering questions: several journalists have been beaten and arrested, and others expelled from the country.

As a result, the tone of Afghan media coverage has become more cautious. Some days, the lead story on a local news platform will be the results of a cricket match, a worrying sign in a country where important events are unfolding. At the same time, as Afghanistan falls down the rankings of press freedom, the country still rates better than most of its neighbours. In one of the largest newsrooms the number of women has increased – although they are now forced to cover their faces. Chat shows sometimes feature Taliban debating people who disagree with them, a surreal contrast with previous years when such differences played out on the battlefield and not under the lights of a television studio.

During our visit, we did not meet a single person who supported the Taliban decision in March to shutter girls’ secondary schools.

Still, the real arguments about policy seem to be happening far away from the spotlight, among senior clerics in Kandahar, and it’s often difficult to guess what’s coming next from the reclusive leadership. During our visit, we did not meet a single person who supported the Taliban decision in March to shutter girls’ secondary schools, but none of the Taliban leaders who made the ruling have explained themselves in public. Taliban officials often told me that “good news is coming” allowing teenage girls to resume their schooling, but these officials did not seem to know (or were unwilling to say) when that might happen or how exactly their movement formulates policy. One of the most powerful figures in government, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, recently repeated the promise of “good news” in a television interview. His statement gave hope to millions of girls who want an education, but it also sent a confusing message: if Haqqani was waiting for news, who was making the decisions? That even the most senior officials cannot explain the factors that influence policy, or elucidate the restrictions under which girls will be allowed to return to school in the future, offers little assurance to Afghans. It also leads to befuddlement among the diplomats who must report back to their capitals about how to understand Taliban claims.

The confusion over how the government runs itself became a little more understandable after we visited a few ministry offices. Taliban officials say they retained all staff who want to keep working, keeping the existing roster of 440,000 personnel with only about 4,000 new appointees. This estimate probably understates the number of new officials, while inflating the payroll, but the upshot is that Afghan institutions are now hybrids of old and new. Cooperation is not always easy between officials who until recently served on opposite sides of what was the world’s deadliest war. After the ugly toll of the conflict in previous years, it’s astonishing that these officials can work side by side at all – but they do, and we noticed that civil servants hired under previous governments sometimes feel confident enough to take the lead in meetings, while their Taliban colleagues take notes.

Traffic and people feeding pigeons outside Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque in central Kabul. George Butler, 2014

Some former officials are not so confident of the Taliban’s tolerance and the new regime’s blanket amnesty, which should protect all ex-government staff, in theory: one person I met in Kabul had burned all documents that linked him to the previous administration and he lives in fear. Reprisal killings against members of the previous government are concentrated mostly among sections of the former security forces, however. For most civil servants, life under the Taliban is more about adapting to the new bosses and worrying about keeping their salaries. Pay scales have been reduced as the new regime grapples with financial constraints; the latest budget anticipates a deficit of $500 million, with no indication of how the Taliban will make up the shortfall. A Taliban official told us that staff cuts might be required, which could be painful in a country where the government is the largest employer, in the middle of a hunger crisis.

Everywhere we turned, it was obvious that the country is in dire economic straits. I walked past familiar stores with the metal shutters rolled down. Tens of millions of lives hang in the balance as Afghanistan teeters on the brink of famine, with more starving people than anywhere in the world. Afghans cannot survive forever on emergency handouts which will no doubt diminish when UN and other humanitarian agencies scale back the massive operations they’re running this year. Pulling back from the precipice of a more profound disaster will require ending the country’s isolation, attracting development aid, and persuading Western and regional governments to help with economic recovery. Crisis Group has recommended that donors invest in regional stability by easing sanctions, returning frozen assets, reviving the central bank and encouraging financial institutions to resume transactions with Afghanistan. We have called for the World Bank and other development actors to re-engage to sustain essential services. In short, we have been urging the world not to exile this impoverished population to the economic wilderness.

Unfortunately, the Taliban themselves may choose a path of isolation. Of course, isolation is not official Taliban policy: their diplomats and spokesmen continue working for international recognition, trying to bridge the gap between themselves and most of the world. It’s a chasm that may grow, however, if the Taliban push ahead with social regulations that make outside engagement with the regime politically toxic. The first major test with implications for foreign assistance beyond short-term humanitarian relief was the reopening of girls’ secondary schools back in March – a test the Taliban failed in front of a global audience, with the last-minute decision to shut teenage girls out of classrooms. Television crews that hoped to record an historic moment of post-war compromise instead witnessed crying girls turned away from the gates of their schools. That triggered the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in World Bank assistance; more broadly, international donors grew more concerned about how to engage with Taliban leaders who seem wary of influences from the outside world.

Deeper engagement with the Taliban is urgently required.

Deeper engagement with the Taliban is urgently required, in part because Afghanistan is not well equipped to handle the price increases expected in the coming months for food, fuel and fertiliser as a result of the war in Ukraine. But any efforts to find technical solutions will matter less than the political direction that the Taliban choose for themselves and the country. The Taliban have won the war and the current lull in violence represents one of the most peaceful moments in generations. They now exercise more territorial control than any single political actor has enjoyed since the 1970s. Nobody in the country has more power than the Taliban, but our conversations with them suggested that they are still considering how to use it. Some of them told us that the outlines of their “Islamic system” have not yet been defined.

Some observers of the Taliban who worked in the country during their previous regime have predicted, with deep cynicism, that such questions will never get answered – that, as in the 1990s, the Taliban will remain cloaked in obscurantism. Personally, I’m less convinced that we can discern the Taliban’s overall direction at this stage. Serious debates are now happening among senior Taliban in a way that would have been unthinkable in previous years. As the lead UN envoy said recently: “They have not yet truly defined how they plan to move the country forward, how in fact they’re even making decisions”. I tend to agree with the well-known journalist in Kabul who referred to an internal struggle between the past and future, as some Taliban stalwarts look back to a version of their previous regime and others look forward to something new, possibly a Taliban government that finds a better way of relating to its citizens and the world. Like so many people who are bewildered by the new Afghanistan, the Taliban are still finding their way.

Illustrations for this article are by George Butler.