Taliban Could Lose Power Amid Governance Struggles, Experts Say
The Afghan people could rise up if food shortages, access to medical care and unemployment worsen without international help.
For the Taliban, winning was easy but governing is proving to be harder.
Two months after the terrorist group seized control of Afghanistan, fighters who have spent the past two decades as insurgents are struggling to govern the country’s 40 million residents, experts say. If the Taliban government fails to provide for citizens’ basic needs, including food, water and medical care, it too could find itself pushed out of power sooner rather than later, said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.
“We might see another collapse over the next six months, maybe 12 months, a little bit down the road. The Taliban are really struggling to govern the country,” Mir said at the Soufan Center’s Global Security Forum in Doha. “It’s a real crisis that is brewing in that country, and I don’t see any international actor having much interest in extending a helping hand to the Taliban.”
When the Taliban was an insurgent group, they were able to pick and choose the government services they would to provide to supplement what the U.S.-backed government was doing, said Jason Campbell, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. For example, Taliban fighters and judges of sharia law would travel the country to set up “mobile courts” to settle conflicts such as land disputes.
That level of governance is “fine, until you take over the country,” Campbell said. “There is absolutely the risk of being the proverbial dog that caught the car, because now you don’t get to pick and choose where you provide services….They are ill-equipped from a financial standpoint and even a bureaucratic standpoint to manage and organize.”
Since international aid has stopped flowing into the country, only five percent of Afghan households have enough food to eat, according to a World Food Programme survey published last month. And it’s no longer just rural Afghans who are suffering. For the first time, rural and urban Afghans are facing similar levels of food insecurity, the New Humanitarian reported. The country’s economy and healthy system are also collapsing as the unemployment rate soars.
In addition to that, about 300,000 Afghan soldiers are out of a job and trained to use a weapon, making them prime candidates for an uprising, Mir said.
The Taliban “are realizing that 25 years later after not being in power, it is a very different landscape. If they want to remain in power and not revert to their insurgent roots, they have to figure out how to stabilize the economy, and get people employed,” said Javed Ali, an associate professor at the University of Michigan. “I think they have underestimated the scope of the challenge and now the world is watching to see how they’ll respond.”
If the Afghan people did rise up against the Taliban, the terrorist group would likely be able to use force to keep control of the country in a way the U.S.-supported government could not, Ali said. And even if Afghans overturned the former insurgent group, it’s not clear who would take their place.
“Right now, I don’t see another political or even fighting entity on the ground in Afghanistan that is organized and equipped enough to put an immediate threat to the Talibans’ current dominance,” Campbell said.
Some in the international community are trying to help avert a humanitarian crisis. In September, members of the United Nations pledged more than $1.2 billion in humanitarian aid, including $64 million from the United States. More recently, the European Union on Tuesday announced that it would send 1 billion Euro to support the Afghan people.
“We have been clear about our conditions for any engagement with the Afghan authorities, including on the respect of human rights. So far, the reports speak for themselves. But the Afghan people should not pay the price of the Taliban's actions,” European Union President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement.
The United States and NATO allies, who have spent the past 20 years working in Afghanistan, are “the most well equipped” to offer help, because of their existing networks and contacts within the country that are critical to both delivering and distributing aid, Campbell said.
Mir agreed that the United States is the only country that can solve the crisis, but said that he sees “absolutely no appetite” within the Biden administration to intervene.
China and Russia were both initially more open to recognizing and partnering with the Taliban, but both are now being more cautious and not providing significant help, the experts said.
“Initially, I thought they would take more of a lead,” Mir said. The Chinese “have not seen the kind of action they expected from the Taliban after the Taliban assumed power. The Chinese have major terrorism concerns...The Taliban are not delivering on some of these concerns.”
For countries that do want to deliver aid, there’s many questions about how to support the people of Afghanistan without bolstering and legitimizing the Taliban, and whether the Taliban will even allow aid groups to operate safely and independently in the country, Campbell said.
“That remains the crux of the immediate issue and one of the factors senior Taliban leadership have to be considering pretty closely,” he said. “There’s a balance between the political ramifications [for the Taliban] of pushing away this aid versus their inability to independently provide for it without some significant amount of outside help.”