Everything is not really okay in Afghanistan

Hassan Abbas’ portrayal of the Taliban’s first year in power tracks the difficult transition from insurgent group to cabinet government, and argues for engagement for the sake of the Afghan people.

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul, Afghanistan, May, 2023.
A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul, Afghanistan, May, 2023. Credit: AP Photo / Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan After the Americans Left, by Hassan Abbas, Yale University Press (2023)

‘Don’t worry, everything will be okay,’ said the director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, as he sashayed through the lobby of the Serena Hotel in Kabul on 4 September 2021. But okay for whom? The Serena Hotel, inaugurated by President Karzai and the Aga Khan in 2005, had been where the elites hung out in Kabul: the aid set, the security set, the journalists. Now General Hameed was meeting the Taliban who were back in charge. The question of who it was okay for, and whether it will ever be okay again, is at the heart of this book by international relations scholar Hassan Abbas.

It begins with the collapse, and a reminder of an earlier collapse. I was in southern Uzbekistan in 1996 when the news arrived that the Taliban had seized former President Najibullah from a UN compound in Kabul, mutilated and executed him and hung him from a traffic pole. I remember the shock of the brutality. Twenty-five years later, those in Afghanistan who could remember the event expected the same. That explains, in part, the decision by President Ghani to flee when it became clear that the US had abandoned him, and it explains every individual, personal decision taken across the country by members of the Afghan national army, police, and security forces who could see what was coming — the cumulative impact of which was a dramatic folding as the Taliban advanced.

Abbas sets out the onslaught against President Ghani, who was first marginalised by the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad. The US then did not invite the Kabul government they supported to join negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. Taliban legitimacy was enhanced because they were the sole negotiating partner against the US. Ghani was undermined. The fact that Khalilzad and Ghani had known each other since 1965 was a hindrance rather than a help. On 29 February 2020 the US and the Taliban signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. Mike Pompeo, then-US secretary of state, and President Trump had given Khalilzad the go-ahead to negotiate a withdrawal to zero; the collapse began, in hindsight, much earlier than thought. This was a betrayal not just of Ghani’s government, but of all Afghans, and especially the female members of the Afghan National Assembly.

The Taliban succeeded through a clever mix of tactics and thuggery. Influential tribes and elders opted for deals to avoid reprisals afterwards. Kabul was opened to them. Abbas then focuses on how the Taliban began the process of transforming itself from an insurgent group to a government. An entire generation of Afghans had known nothing other than US-led occupation. There are some thought-provoking vignettes: 21-year-old ‘Khalid,’ a young Taliban member who had no memory of the group’s vicious rule in the 1990s, entered Kabul on 15 August 2021 on a Honda motorbike without even knowing where he was. On entering the presidential palace, his unit, greeted by a security official still wearing Afghan military fatigues, expected to be ordered to burn the palace down. But instead they were instructed to find a place to sleep. To Khalid’s surprise, his new task was to secure the building. The shift from destroyer to governor was swift.

This book describes how factions formed through 20 years of fighting, and is instructive on the winners and losers when new interim cabinet posts were handed out. Sirajuddin Haqqani, scourge of the US and close to the Pakistani ISI, notoriously won the coveted minister of interior slot but had probably hoped for more. Mullah Barader, best known to the Americans as the head of the political office in Doha, was probably the biggest victim in the power struggle. He had aspired to be supreme leader, but instead the post went to the reclusive Deobandi cleric Hibatullah Akhundzada.

As always in political movements, there is nuance that does not end up in the policies. There are widely differing positions in internal debates about women’s access to education and the need for legitimacy to unlock aid and address the appalling, desperate conditions in the country. Ironically, the Taliban now face the same challenge the US did: stability requires reconstruction, which requires stability, which requires reconstruction. The Taliban knew if they made it impossible to bring about order and structure then they would win in the end.

Now they have to reckon with IS-Khorasan Province, Daesh’s local branch. With the announcement of the existence of the caliphate in 2014 the Taliban were challenged in a new way. Is an Emirate only a halfway house? What should an Islamic State be? Where some Taliban had seen hard politics in the negotiations with the US, others saw unacceptable compromise. Daesh, a terrorist group ready to attack minorities in Afghanistan exactly when the Taliban claimed that in certain circumstances they are ready to protect them, challenge their ownership of the narrative. Abbas attributes this to the peculiarly Afghan nature of the Taliban —particularly their adherence to Deobandi rather than Salafi traditions — although he devotes time to recognising and lamenting the loss of Afghanistan’s Sufi poetic and musical culture.

While this book is about the aftermath of the Taliban triumph, a quieter theme running through it is the devil-dance between Pakistan and the Taliban; the constant, itchy, score-settling that underlay the failure of the US to embed a lasting political system in Kabul. Did Pakistan get what it wanted with the Taliban victory? What looked at first like a triumphant victory over India, whose intelligence service Pakistan believed was in league with the US-supported Afghan National Directorate of Security, soon started to unravel. ISI’s intention had been to make sure that their men (led by Sirajuddin Haqqani) dominated the new Taliban government, but they ended up with only a fraction of the key posts. Pakistan is unpopular in Afghanistan and the Taliban government are careful not to be seen to be too closely aligned.

In addition, Pakistan faces a new period of domestic instability. It has harboured the Taliban’s Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network, among others, as a means of undermining Afghanistan and — by extension — India, but has simultaneously been fighting its own Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik i Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), which was attacking Pakistani government and civilian targets. Driven into Afghanistan from the northwest of Pakistan in 2014, the TTP are now using the country as a base from which to renew attacks in Pakistan. The trigonometry seems impossible: if the Taliban take action against TTP it will push their members towards IS-KP; if they don’t then the TTP will continue to use Afghanistan as a stronghold from which to attack and destabilise Pakistan. This will play into the mire of Pakistan’s internal political contest between the army and the political movement led by Imran Khan.

This book does not tell us what will happen next — how could it? But it does point out dilemmas that must be resolved. Abbas advocates engagement — not endorsement —with the Taliban if the people of Afghanistan are to stand a chance, since it might empower the pragmatists, while not engaging would cement the hard lines. With countries in the region they are getting somewhere: it is noteworthy that Afghanistan is one of four states with ‘observer’ status at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (the others being Iran, Mongolia, and Belarus). The Taliban have also embraced social media, and every cabinet member since 2021 has an official Twitter account with millions of followers.

The recurring themes are compromise and pragmatism: the defining splits within the Taliban are between the pragmatists and absolutists; the region’s alliances are based on pragmatism rather than shared values, and then comes the final, complicated, argument for the West: how pragmatic should it be in its relations with the Taliban now? Abbas’ best-case scenario is that the Taliban are able to build on the relative peace, and that moderates will rise to the top. His worst-case is leadership rigidity that brings more division and violence. These choices are yet to be made, but it is worth noting that it is still possible to book the ‘Presidential Suite’ at the Serena Hotel.


Suzanne Raine