The Taliban’s new order: ‘we’ll introduce a system for the world’

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A delegation of Islamic scholars from across the Muslim world recently flew to Afghanistan to meet the country’s Taliban rulers. Their mission: to influence the Kabul regime’s policy platform.

The delegation, affiliated with the intergovernmental Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which represents 57 states, hoped to convince the militant group to allow teenage girls to attend school. But despite citing Koranic verses as evidence of “this clear divine command”, they left with only vague affirmations of the Taliban’s intention to do so.

Days after the trip in late June, the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada — who, according to a person familiar with the visit, refused to meet the delegates — made clear his displeasure with the sustained international lobbying efforts. “They say, ‘Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?’” he said, according to a translation of an address he gave to Afghan scholars in Kabul on July 1. “Why does the world interfere in our work?”

After seizing power in August last year, the Taliban set about overturning the way the country has been governed since they were first ousted in 2001. The new rulers, isolated internationally and mistrustful of foreign powers, said they are creating the world’s only true Islamic regime, and believe they have little to learn from outsiders.

“Until now we’ve not seen a real Islamic system,” said one Taliban official. “Even though Iran and Saudi Arabia call themselves Islamic, we’ll introduce a new system for the world.”

To this end, the Taliban are dismantling much of what they see as the corrupt state and social norms of the western-backed governments that preceded them. They have installed ideologues and combatants to senior government positions while consolidating power by cracking down on local warlords. They aim to end the country’s dependence on foreign aid by boosting and centralising revenue collection, and are imposing hardline social strictures, including curbs on women’s rights.

Taliban forces gather around a poster showing supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. In March he barred older girls from school indefinitely © Stringer/Reuters

“Islamic law is the baseline of what will be applied in Afghanistan. It won’t be socialist or democratic,” said Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a spokesperson for the Taliban’s foreign ministry.

No country has yet recognised Afghanistan’s new government. As the Taliban took over in the wake of departing Nato troops, western donors swiftly sought to cut the regime off from international support and finance.

The US and its allies imposed sanctions, froze Afghanistan’s $9bn foreign reserves and halted the foreign aid that made up about three-quarters of the previous government’s budget. The measures triggered a dramatic economic contraction and pushed about half of the 40mn population into acute food insecurity, according to the UN.

While the Taliban have appointed a Kabul-based cabinet of veteran leaders, they remain subservient to the supreme leader and his close advisers in Kandahar, the group’s stronghold.

Although senior Islamists head Afghanistan’s ministries, many bureaucrats from the previous government have been allowed to stay on and the Taliban have urged others to return.

Women and children in the street in Kabul. The Taliban have imposed hardline social strictures, including curbs on women’s rights © Oriane Zerah/FT

However, although some ministries are trying to continue the previous government’s work, others have diverged radically or been shut down. The women’s affairs ministry has been replaced with the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

To boost the economy, the Taliban have sought to slash regulation and paperwork for traders to ease exports of goods such as fruit and coal to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan. The UN expects Afghanistan’s exports to rise to about $1.8bn this year from $1.2bn in 2019.

The Taliban said measures like these have allowed them to put together a modest budget for this year of 231bn afghanis ($2.5bn), compared with more than 440bn afghanis in 2020, which will allow them to pay public sector salaries but leaves little for new investment.

Afghanistan’s reliance on aid meant the country had not developed “the necessary capacities” to exploit its resources, said Balkhi. “We want sanctions to be lifted so that Afghans can build a level of security and a right to life — not through aid.”

Abdul Qahar Balkhi, Afghanistan’s foreign ministry spokesperson, centre, on a flight with other senior Taliban officials. He said Islamic law would be the government’s ‘baseline’ © Eyepress/Reuters

Central to this economic project is ending the corruption the Taliban and independent experts said was rampant under the previous government, from regional warlords involved in smuggling to police exacting bribes at checkpoints.

A UK Foreign Office-funded study released in July estimated the Taliban had “drastically reduced” up to $1.4bn in bribes estimated to have been siphoned off annually on cross-border trade alone.

Under the previous government, “mining was in the hands of warlords and the economy in those of a few families”, said finance ministry spokesperson Ahmad Wali Haqmal. “It’s hard to say we’ve eliminated corruption, but we’ve minimised it.”

Analysts and foreign officials said the regime has achieved this largely through strict internal discipline, fear and military strength rather than improved state capacity.

In June, for example, Taliban forces launched an offensive against rebellious leader Mawlawi Mehdi in the coal-rich Sar-e-Pol province, a power struggle stemming in part from tension over the lucrative trade in the fossil fuel. The regime reasserted control in a bloody campaign that displaced thousands of families and reportedly led to civilian deaths.

Taliban members stroll in Kabul. The Taliban segregate places of leisure on gender lines, with certain days reserved for men or women © Oriane Zerah/FT

But despite their discipline, the Taliban have faced intense internal rivalries since seizing power, notably over girls’ schooling, according to some officials.

Haibatullah’s decision in March to bar older girls indefinitely from school divided the group. Some senior figures such as supreme court chief Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai supported the ban, while others including defence minister Muhammad Yaqoob and interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani opposed it, according to people familiar with the matter.

“Ninety-nine per cent of Taliban — high, mid and low-ranking — support the resumption of girls’ education,” one official said.

“The Talibs are . . . a very strong and cohesive movement to the outside world, but internally there are a lot of fractures,” said an international official. “Before they were a resistance movement with a clear objective — taking power. Now things are much more complex.”

But analysts and Taliban officials said that with discipline honed by two decades of insurgency, any disputes are far from erupting into an open confrontation that could split the regime.

“Obedience in the Taliban is very high,” said one veteran member. “When the [supreme leader] announced that girls’ schools were closed, in my heart I didn’t want it. But I will obey.”