KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers face difficult economic and security challenges as they come back to power in a country very different from the one they left 20 years ago.
When they last ruled in the late 1990s, Afghanistan was a poor agrarian nation and the Taliban were busy imposing harsh Islam on an already deeply traditional and largely compliant population.
This time they inherit a more developed society with a small, educated middle class, but also an economy ravaged by war and corruption. Even before the Taliban overran Kabul on August 15, the unemployment rate was over 30% and more than half of Afghans lived in poverty, despite two decades of US involvement and billions in aid.
The Taliban have tried to reassure Afghans that they have changed since 1996 when they ruled with a heavy hand. Men had to grow beards and women had to wear the all-encompassing burqa. Girls were denied education and avoided entertainment such as music and television.
That past haunts many Afghans, and there is an underlying fear that the old Taliban lurk beneath the surface of the country’s new rulers. It is preventing many people from returning to work despite assurances from the Taliban and has induced thousands to seek futures outside of Afghanistan.
“The main challenge for the Taliban is to … involve others in the government of Afghanistan,” said Torek Farhadi, a former advisor to the overthrown, Western-backed government.
“They feel they have won a military victory and it may seem strange to their ranks that they now have to transfer positions of power to others,” Farhadi said.
A new government can only be successful if all Afghans, including women, can feel represented.
Several of the Taliban leaders now in charge of Kabul were part of the tougher regime of the 1990s, but they appear to have changed during their years in exile.
In 1996, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar hardly wanted to travel to Kabul and contented himself with staying in the southern provincial town of Kandahar. But in recent years he has become the leading political negotiator living in Qatar, the Arab Gulf nation that housed a Taliban political office. Baradar stood alongside high-ranking Russian, Chinese and even American politicians.
Today’s Taliban were conciliatory, pushing former opponents to return to the country and pledging not to take revenge.
Your first major test is the formation of a new government. They have promised to include non-Taliban members as well, but it is not clear whether they are really ready to share power.
An inclusive government could go a long way towards slowing the mass exodus of Afghans, especially young and educated people, and persuading the international community to continue to send much-needed aid.
The Taliban have contradicting demands and constituencies to satisfy. Even among leaders, there are conflicting views on how to govern. In addition, the tribal elders of Afghanistan are another powerful group that cannot be ignored.
Then there are the thousands of fighters whose formative years were spent on the battlefield and who are steeped in a sense of victory over a superpower. It is exhilarating for many of the young fighters, and convincing them that compromise is for the common good can be difficult, if not impossible.
In the past, groups of Taliban militants who believed the movement had betrayed their original tough convictions have defected to the Islamic State group, which is now a major security threat in the country. Last week, an IS suicide bomber blew himself up outside Kabul airport, killing 169 Afghans and 13 US soldiers, and disrupting Taliban’s efforts to facilitate a massive US airlift.
Time is not on the side of the Taliban either.
The economy has been in a doldrums for years. When peace reigns in Afghanistan, its citizens will increase their demands for economic aid – an almost impossible option if the international community, which funded 80% of former President Ashraf Ghani’s government, withdraws its support.
A new government needs to deliver quickly and alleviate the economic crisis, said Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Wilson Center, a US think tank.
If that fails, “you need to start thinking about the possibility of large-scale protests against the Taliban, which would clearly be a major challenge for the Taliban in trying to consolidate their power,” he said.
But how far the Taliban will bow to allay international concerns while remaining true to their own convictions, could further widen divisions among the leadership, especially among those with a more rigid ideology.
Farhadi said there is a reservoir of expertise among Afghan expatriates for the Taliban to draw from, but much is on the face of the new government.
Kugelman said the Taliban need this know-how. .
“You have a regime that is inexperienced in dealing with politics when you have a major political crisis made worse by the fact that the international community will cut off access to funds for this Taliban government,” he said.
“And as always, the people, the Afghans, will suffer the most,” he added.
Kathy Gannon, AP’s news director for Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been reporting on the region since 1986. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KathyGannon