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SITUATION UPDATE 24 August, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

Konrad Pialucha

Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

Summary

  • The Taliban took control of Kabul on 15 August, reinstating the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
  • Taliban forces outmanoeuvred the Afghan government by mapping themselves onto tribal structures
  • Those who fear reprisals for cooperating with the US and NATO have opted for exodus
  • Immediate challenges for the Taliban will be maintaining stability via decentralised power structures
  • Pakistan stands to benefit from the Taliban takeover and India stands to lose, while consequences for Iran and China are mixed

Situation

Taliban forces took control of Kabul on 15 August in a culmination of the faction’s rapid territorial gains, thereby reinstating the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Capitulation of the US-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan comes despite the US spending around 2 trillion USD on the conflict in Afghanistan and subsequent state-building over the preceding two decades. While Washington strove for the creation of a centralised bureaucratic state, the Taliban opted to conform themselves onto Afghanistan’s tribal ethnography by building ties with village elders, which then facilitated their advance through the country. Endemic corruption within the Afghan government forces was another factor that worked to the advantage of the Taliban, with the siphoning of US-supplied items for personal material gain being commonplace at all levels of the military.

Since taking control of the country, efforts have been made by the Taliban to present itself as a capable guarantor of security, with the group publicly pledging adherence to an amnesty for those who have opposed them over the preceding decades and vowing to ensure that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terroristic activity.

Contradictorily, over the past week information has emerged casting doubt on the promises, such as a UN report divulging that the Taliban are conducting house searches to locate those who are known to have collaborated with US and NATO forces. In a similar vein, while the Taliban have made vague public statements assuring that women will be able to enjoy their rights “within the limits of Islamic law”, published reports suggest stark changes in Afghanistan’s cities, such as the expulsion of female students from educational institutions and the displacement of women at places of work in favour of employing a male.

Implications

The developments have spawned an exodus of those who fear reprisals for cooperation with US and NATO forces. US President Joe Biden has previously stated that there are around 15,000 Americans and 60,000 Afghan allies who need evacuation, clarifying on 22 August that thus far 28,000 have been evacuated. On the same day, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the use of commercial aircraft to assist in the mass relocation. The weeks ahead will see a continuation of efforts predominantly by the US to extract those Afghans who cooperated with the West, conditional on the Taliban standing by their pledge to grant evacuees safe passage to airports. While this may be the policy of the Taliban’s leadership, the group’s decentralised structure confers volatile circumstances, whereby those Taliban who disagree with allowing the evacuations could deviate from the official line and in turn cause a deterioration of the delicate security situation.

Immediate challenges for the Taliban will be forming a government that is able to preside over Afghanistan’s ethically plural population and accompanying tribal leaders who wield local power. Their evidenced capability in power projection to the end of resisting US influences exemplifies their capacity to do so to some extent, though henceforth in the absence of a common enemy the parameters of their dealmaking will be pressured towards tangibility.

In preparing for and during the swift conquest of Afghanistan, the Taliban likely made pledges to local chiefs regarding division of power, material benefits and autonomy in the case of victory that must now be realised in a manner that satisfies an assortment of community leaders. A mismatch between the reality of benefits derived and those that were promised could stoke ferment and proliferate quickly owing to the Taliban’s decentralised power structures. Avoiding such discord is critical amidst the potential for overt resistance from the northern Tajik, Uzbeks and Hazara ethnic groups that have historically opposed the predominantly Pashtun and hence southwardly originating Taliban.

In terroristic terms, the Taliban’s success could work to embolden Islamist groups via a motivational boost associated with witnessing the Taliban undoing US interventionism. Al-Qaeda has retained its links to the Taliban as suggested in a UN Security Council report published on 1 June, which stated that the two groups “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties”. With the departure of the US and NATO, Al-Qaeda can reinvest itself in Afghanistan free from concerns about efforts to displace it. Another relevant organisation is the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), which the Taliban view as a threat. On 19 August, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan remarked that the US is “laser-focused” on the threat of an attack by IS-K against Kabul airport as evacuations are underway. In broader terms, jihadists from around the world will now likely be drawn to Afghanistan and perceive it as a safe haven for Islamists, which could in turn foment the emergence of new networks.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan significantly alters the geopolitical dynamics of Central and South Asia, most pertinently strengthening the position of Pakistan. Islamabad has supplied the Taliban with diplomatic support and has been accused of providing material backing in tandem with physical sanctuary for the group. While the departure of US and NATO influence in Afghanistan eases geopolitical pressure on Iran, Tehran stands to lose in the event of a mass refugee wave of Afghans attempting to reach Europe. The country already hosts 3.5 million Afghan refugees and any additional inflows would likely aggrieve Iran’s population, in turn pressuring the ruling class.

In China, the country’s leaders could opt for accelerating foreign direct investment to gain larger sway amidst Afghanistan’s power reconfiguration, though any such action would be balanced against any perceived terroristic threat, particularly the possibility of Taliban coordination with Uyghur networks. As the Taliban are perceived as a Pakistani proxy by India, a key concern in New Delhi is likely to be the possibility that the new Taliban government has the potential to provide support to anti-India militants that could create instability in India-administered Kashmir, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.