This aphorism aptly portrays the prevailing attitude towards the Taliban regime. Nevertheless, it is critical to inspect the general behaviors towards this regime and some of its assertions. Primarily, the government’s judgment should be based on a spectrum of values, abilities, and services that constitute the public’s perception of governmental quality. Given that these elements are not clearly defined in Afghanistan’s public culture, where the “state” apparatus is viewed as distinct from society and a sense of ownership towards state institutions is weak, the criteria for evaluation also remain vague.
To illustrate, if we use a swimmer as an analogy, a good swimmer is one who covers the most distance in the least time; thus, the metrics for assessment are clear. However, gauging the performance of, say, Kabul’s mayor involves various indices that are either inaccessible to the public or have been hindered by decades of war from being established and familiarized. Therefore, discerning between the best and worst mayor of Kabul often hinges on personal preference rather than a benchmark. Perhaps in stable countries with intricate institutions, not all standards are accessible to the public, but some degree of them likely inform public judgments.
Expectations of the Taliban regime, given such cultural context and recognition of this group as violent, bellicose, and staunchly anti-progress, are naturally low. To revisit the swimmer analogy, public expectation of the Taliban for swimming might parallel that of someone who has devoted a lifetime to learning tree-climbing. Indeed, the ambiguity in standards and low expectations of this regime amplify even the slightest governance achievement in the public perception.
“A severe detriment to governance culture in this situation is the consolidation of the minimal values, display of the slightest abilities, and delivery of the bare minimum services by this regime as an achievement (i.e., the person proficient in tree-climbing even presents stepping into the water as a swimming accomplishment in public view!) If a government’s possessed or provided values, abilities, and services are clear, such a governance ruse would be impossible (for swimming, swimming skills would be the standard.)
Conversely, some of the Taliban’s governance claims fundamentally conflict with the concealment of specific details. One such claim is the promise of security stability, which, particularly in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan, due to its substantial prior absence, had obstructed public access to services in cities and villages. The Taliban’s arrival has seemingly resolved this issue. However, in response to this claim, we must inquire: what elements primarily contributed to the sustained insecurity in the past?
Unquestionably, the foreign military’s presence was a factor, but these forces weren’t meant to persist in Afghanistan so expansively and for two decades. The Taliban insurgency was the principal element prolonging these forces’ presence, especially in the country’s south and east. Initially, the foreign forces’ military program, led by the United States, involved a brief operation focused on apprehending Osama bin Laden and disabling Al-Qaeda’s military capacities. These two tasks were largely achieved by January 2002, except for the arrest of this organization’s leader who managed to evade capture. His arrest could have occurred without the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan, as it eventually did, with bin Laden being apprehended and killed in Pakistan.
Indeed, the United States didn’t intend a long-term stay in Afghanistan and sought to exit the country ASAP with a “light footprint” strategy. The United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, helmed by Lakhdar Brahimi, also disapproved of a prolonged foreign forces presence in Afghanistan. With the interim and transitional government’s advent, Afghanistan’s matter was slated to be concluded, and the country was to transition towards the “post-crisis”stage.
The escalation in foreign forces was earnestly pursued when the Taliban insurgency presented a severe challenge to the post-Bin Laden political system. Though ISAF forces planned to extend beyond Kabul, they had to increase their presence as the insurgency intensified. Furthermore, civilian casualty figures, which UNAMA office started compiling from 2008, show that the Taliban were responsible for the majority of civilian fatalities in the country nearly every year.
In this context, the Taliban can be identified as the key contributor to the war’s prolongation. The current relative security in the south and east of Afghanistan results from the cessation of a war that the Taliban played an instrumental role in perpetuating. In effect, the present relative security isn’t an achievement, but it indicates that if the Taliban had withdrawn from the war earlier, economic growth and improvements in people’s living standards during the republic could have been considerably greater.
The instability engendered by the Taliban insurgency prevented Afghanistan, despite the massive foreign aid, from achieving this.
The current level of relative security is also dubious due to the persistence of its contentious foundations. Since the Taliban’s entry into Kabul, two opposing movements have emerged that could jeopardize this regime’s fate. On one hand, there’s the radical opposition, represented by the regional branch of the Islamic State or ISIS, and on the other, a push for a return to democracy and political pluralism, represented by the National Resistance Front and the Afghanistan Freedom Front. In the middle, there are various other factions, but they don’t present a military or security challenge, including widespread civil movements centered around women’s rights both inside and outside the country.
Tax collection is another area where the Taliban regime purports to have made strides, but without further details and a free press, it’s impossible to verify these claims. Nonetheless, tax collection in itself is nothing more than imposing a significant financial burden on citizens, with the assurance that a legitimate institution (the government) has certain obligations within the law’s framework. If these are not articulated or fulfilled, collecting money in the name of tax doesn’t differ much from theft. The biggest indicator of a ruling group’s status as a government in this regard is its commitment to providing services within the laws’ framework.
Yet, public services, including education and health services, during the 21 months that the Taliban regime has returned to power, have mostly been delivered by foreign institutions led by the United Nations. It’s unclear where the money that the Taliban regime has collected as tax has been spent, and it appears that this regime’s officials have no intention of providing financial transparency.
As the Prime Minister of the Taliban, Mr. Mullah Hassan Akhund, articulated in his inaugural speech after assuming his position, the objective of the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban isn’t to provide public services and secure livelihoods. Therefore, it’s unclear what this regime’s aim is, and the standard by which it is evaluated remains ambiguous. Amidst such uncertainty, people might misconstrue a life slightly better than death as an achievement.