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Back to the Past: How Taliban Rule Has Wiped Out Afghanistan’s Gains and Provided Haven for Terrorists

The United States is now in a challenging position in that it can neither abandon nor recognize the Taliban leadership.

When U.S. troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Taliban took over the government, world leaders and others braced themselves for what the future might hold for Afghanistan and its citizens. Many feared the worst, and the Taliban did not disappoint. It claimed to have reformed its ways but, with a long history of a radical religious ideology, sectarian politics, government corruption, and participation in proxy wars and armed insurgencies, skeptics were not convinced that the terrorist group had changed its ways. Their skepticism was justified.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was part of an agreement that then-President Donald Trump had negotiated with the Taliban in February 2020 but was not carried out until August 2021 under the presidency of Joe Biden, thus ending what Biden described as “America’s longest war.” The troop withdrawal empowered the Taliban. The Afghan army, however, failed to develop an effective counterattack and ultimately surrendered to the Taliban. While it has been more than a year since the Taliban returned to power, the United States and its Western allies refuse to recognize the Taliban regime. This article examines the impact of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on domestic and regional issues.

Domestic Issues

The resumption of Taliban rule in Afghanistan has halted progress on domestic issues and, in some cases, turned back the clock to a more repressive era in the country’s history. Most affected are issues related to the economy, women’s rights, opium cultivation, civic space, and ethnic tensions.

The Economy

Afghanistan’s economy was already deteriorating before the Taliban took over the country. A severe drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, large military expenditures, human and capital flight, and Taliban advances on the battlefield had impacts over the country’s economy. Immediately after the Taliban regained power, it cut off more than $8 billion per year in civilian and security aid – an expenditure that accounts for 40 percent of the country’s GDP. Western and other countries imposed economic sanctions on the government and froze the country’s foreign-exchange reserves, foreign banks refused to do business with companies in Afghanistan, and the international community suspended financial assistance to Afghanistan and implemented international economic restrictions, such as banning trade with Afghanistan. The disruption of trade sparked an economic crisis in the country. The cost of goods increased drastically, as did the rate of inflation. After the United States imposed economic sanctions on the Taliban, the Taliban successfully sought help from Russia and China. In September 2022, the Taliban finalized its first international deal with Russia to supply wheat, gas, gasoline, and diesel.

The aid was needed, as the Afghan economy has shrunk by 20 percent to 30 percent since the Taliban takeover in August 2021. A significant number of people lost their jobs and their livelihoods, and poverty and hunger have increased significantly. As a result of the economic crisis, 90 percent of Afghans now live below the poverty line. The increase in the poverty rate has forced thousands of families to migrate to neighboring countries for better economic opportunities. Those families and individuals who did not leave Afghanistan face a future marked by hunger, food insecurity, and a crisis in health care. Unfortunately, the Taliban has not been completely transparent with the public on the government’s budget expenditures but apparently has allocated large amounts of government funds to the security sector and other Taliban priorities, such as efforts to control the foreign-exchange market.

Women’s Rights

The Taliban continues to oppress women in continuation of a stance it took while ruling the country in 1996. Once again – despite assurances from the Taliban that it had changed its ways – Afghan women are being deprived of their rights to education, to work, and to participate in political affairs or serve as representatives in governing bodies. The Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs was dissolved. Girls are prohibited from attending school after the sixth grade. Women are required to cover their faces in public. Women no longer have independent freedom of movement and may leave their homes only in cases of necessity. By enforcing unreasonable restrictions on women, the Taliban is committing human rights violations.

Opium Cultivation

Opium production has long been a major issue in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations, the Taliban launched a fierce campaign and destroyed cropland when it ruled the country in the late 1990s. The NATO-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, however, presented opportunities for many farmers who returned to growing poppies. Over the 20 years of a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the United States spent $8 billion to control opium production – without achieving the expected results. Instead, the opposite occurred. Opium production continued to increase. In 2021, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported enough hectares were planted with poppies to enable the production of up to 650 tons of heroin – up from the roughly 590 tons of heroin produced in 2020. In April 2022, the Taliban announced a ban on opium; however, it is not clear that such a ban will stop opium cultivation and the production of heroin. Afghan criminal groups are already networked to global criminal groups, such that almost 80 percent of the heroin produced in the country has been transferred to destination countries in Europe through the northern trafficking route that passes through Central Asian countries or through the Balkans route that passes through Iran, Turkey, and the Balkans countries.

It should be noted that the methamphetamine industry is growing in Afghanistan. Since 2017, hundreds of methamphetamine labs have appeared, and the number of such labs continues to increase amid the ongoing economic crisis in Afghanistan. The Taliban also issued a ban on growing, producing, and distributing methamphetamine; however, most observers are doubtful that the Taliban enforce the ban, given that the cash-strapped government desperately needs the methamphetamine market to generate revenue after being cut off from legitimate financial systems. Furthermore, 10 percent (an estimated 3.5 million people) of the Afghan population is addicted to drugs. The Taliban, however, is incapable of providing health care for these people and instead rounds them up and sends them to prison-like addiction-treatment centers. It is conceivable, therefore, that the drug-related bans will yield the results the Taliban wants in terms of controlling and eliminating drug issue in the country.

Civic Space

Civic space, defined as “the set of legal, policy, institutional, and practical conditions necessary for non-governmental actors to access information, express themselves, associate, organize, and participate in public life,” was dealt a harsh blow after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The country now faces a significant deterioration in human rights and a stark humanitarian crisis. Human rights defenders are exposed to systematic intimidation, and a significant number of these individuals have been abducted or attacked. The Taliban has reacted harshly to protests and has used excessive force to disperse crowds, resulting in the killing or wounding of peaceful protesters. In response to an ongoing financial crisis, the Taliban shut down five key government departments, including the country’s human rights commission, in May 2022. According to the Amnesty International Report 2021/22: The State of the World’s Human Rights, “parties to the conflict in Afghanistan continued to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, and other serious human rights violations and abuses with impunity” to the extent that indiscriminate and targeted killings have reached record levels. Reprisal killings flooded the country after the Taliban takeover, and thousands of individuals, mainly Shia Hazaras, were forcibly ousted from the country. Civilian casualties in the first five months of 2021 totaled more than 5,000 and more than two-thirds of those deaths were attributed to the Taliban. The Taliban also maintained its rigid stance against the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) community and continued to criminalize same-sex relationships.

Ethnic Tensions

The Taliban has failed to acknowledge that Afghanistan is a multiethnic country with tribal and ethnolinguistic allegiances and that government-led efforts are needed to unify the Afghan people. Instead, the Taliban shows favoritism toward rural Pashtuns who had been deprived of developmental opportunities under the former Afghan government. The Pashtuns’ grievances against the state enabled the Taliban to expand its presence in Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan. The close relationship between the Taliban and rural Pashtuns should not be surprising, given that the Taliban are predominately Pashtuns. Opposition to the Taliban government comes, as one might expect, from non-Pashtun ethnic groups residing in Afghanistan. Ethnic Uzbeks and Hazaras, for example, launched the National Resistance Front to voice their disdain for the Taliban government. Ethnic grievances against the government are problematic because they provide ISIS-K with opportunities to recruit non-Pashtuns, such as Tajik and Uzbek fighters.

Regional Issues and Terrorism

The Taliban’s takeover of the country has presented opportunities for terrorist groups that have operated in the region to flourish.

ISIS-K

The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) is an affiliate of the ISIS terrorist organization that operates in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. ISIS-K, which adheres to a jihadist-Salafism ideology and aims to establish a worldwide caliphate, poses a security threat to the Taliban and the entire Afghan nation. Since 2015, the Taliban and ISIS-K have clashed numerous times. The inevitable conflict between the Taliban and ISIS-K is about power. While the goal of ISIS-K was to establish a worldwide caliphate, the Taliban sought to establish an emirate within Afghanistan. ISIS-K’s immediate objective, however, is to wage an insurgency against the Taliban and weaken it. After the Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan, ISIS-K gained great strength in the country because the group was no longer targeted by international forces and the former Afghan military. ISIS-K has repeatedly demonstrated its strength by successfully carrying out major attacks, including numerous high-level attacks against the Shia community in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda has praised the Taliban for taking over Afghanistan and views the action as a victory against the Western world. In the end, whether intended or not, Afghanistan has become a haven for al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda supports the Taliban leadership and is pleased to again have a base in the country. After the Taliban regained power, Ayman al-Zawahiri returned to Afghanistan with his family. In July 2022, the United States targeted al-Zawahiri’s safehouse with a drone strike and killed him. A senior administration official familiar with the U.S. counterterrorism operation revealed during a White House teleconference that senior Haqqani Taliban members were well informed regarding al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul. The Associated Press, meanwhile, has reported that the safehouse in which al-Zawahiri was residing while he was targeted is owned by a top aide to Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. The presence of al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan clearly shows that the Taliban violated the February 29, 2020, Doha peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

TTP is a jihadist group that shares an ideology with the Afghan Taliban. TTP operates on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line, the 1,640-mile land border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both the Afghan Taliban and the TTP do not recognize the Durand Line as legitimate and seek to claim the area as Pashtunistan. The inhabitants of Pashtunistan are “fiercely independent” ethnic Pashtuns – 12 million on the Afghan side and 27 million on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. Pashtunistan also is a hiding place for leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The TTP is an ally of both al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. The leader of the TTP, Noor Wali Mehsud, has pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban. After taking over Kabul city, the Taliban released all the TTP prisoners in Afghanistan. With the Taliban in power, TTP members are freely operating from Afghanistan.

The informal Pakistan-Taliban alliance is far-reaching and goes beyond the goal of creating a Pashtunistan. Without the help of Pakistan, for example, the Taliban could not have defeated the Afghan military. Pakistan’s financial and material support of the Taliban is an open secret, though Pakistan outwardly downplays the consequences of supporting the Taliban. After the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, terrorist incidents in Pakistan increased drastically. The success of the Afghan Taliban has encouraged non-state actors in Pakistan to pursue their objectives. Both the TTP and Baloch separatist groups have intensified their attacks in Pakistan.

The Taliban has been mediating the ongoing peace talks between Pakistani officials and the TTP in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s willingness to conduct peace talks with the TTP has exposed its weakness. The TTP’s two primary demands pertain to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northern Pakistan, which became a haven for several militant Islamist groups, including the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, since the United States invaded the country in 2001. The TTP is demanding that Pakistan reduce its security forces in the FATA and separate the FATA from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. If Pakistan fulfills the TTP’s demands, both the TTP and the Afghan Taliban will gain great strength on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This outcome, in turn, would empower the Afghan Taliban to expand its region because the Taliban does not accept the Durand Line. Therefore, Pakistan would never agree to these demands. In the peace negotiations, the TTP agreed to an indefinite ceasefire. At the beginning of September 2022, however, the TTP ended the ceasefire and expressed disappointment in Pakistan’s lack of effort in pursuing a successful negotiation.

To conclude, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has placed the United States in a challenging position in that it can neither abandon nor recognize the Taliban leadership. If the United States acknowledges the Taliban leadership, then it sets a precedent and encourages other jihadist groups to use Taliban’s model to achieve their goals. If the United States abandons the Taliban, then al-Qaeda and ISIS-K will gain power and use Afghan soil to carry out attacks. Under the dystopian rule of the Taliban, two decades of socioeconomic and political gains have vanished and Afghanistan is once again a haven for terrorists.

Mahmut Cengiz, Ph.D., and Asma Ul Hussna Durrani
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University. Asma Ul Hussna Durrani is a research analyst at Global Terrorism Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC). She completed her B.A. and M.A. in Global Affairs at George Mason University. She has over three years of experience in tracking international terrorist activities for the State Department project. As an expert in counterterrorism, she analyzes the recent trends in terrorist tactics and targets in the Middle East and Asia. Her research focuses on Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and Baloch Separatist groups.

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