How will the Taliban rule Afghanistan this time?
The Islamist victors claim to have changed since they ran the country twenty years ago. Few believe them.
THE TALIBAN fighters strolled into the marbled halls of the presidential palace unopposed, their dusty boots and sandals treading gingerly on the fine carpets. With their beards and capes, and an AK-47 on the table, they took up a sombre pose at the desk of Ashraf Ghani, the departed president. The Taliban’s standard was hoisted on the roof.
A couple of miles away a more harrowing scene was playing out at the international airport. American marines held the perimeter, seeking to evacuate international civilians, but inside was chaos. Desperate Afghans thronged military transporters and tried to climb up airport gantries to fight their way onto last flights out. Commercial flights were cancelled. One Afghan official recounted how his flight had been prevented from taking off when government bigwigs forced their way on and tried to order passengers to give up their seats. American troops fired in the air to try to impose some order.
Mr Ghani flew to Central Asia, where he released a message saying he had fled in order to spare the country any further bloodshed. “The Taliban won victory in the judgment of sword and gun,” he acknowledged, “and they have [the] responsibility to protect the honour, prosperity and self-respect of our compatriots.” Erstwhile allies and rivals damned him. “They tied our hands from behind and sold the country. Curse Ghani and his gang,” said Afghanistan’s acting defence minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi on Twitter. Abdullah Abdullah, Mr Ghani’s long-standing political rival, said: “God should hold him accountable.”
For a time on Sunday there was talk of a transition of power and perhaps an interim government as the Taliban said they wanted a peaceful handover. The former president, Hamid Karzai, announced on Twitter that he was forming a co-ordination council together with Dr Abdullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord who made a separate peace with the government. But the Taliban entered the city on their own terms—ostensibly to maintain order in the absence of government forces. They may see little need to engage with Mr Karzai, other than to maintain a fig-leaf of power-sharing in order to keep international aid flowing. Power is already theirs.
Government ministries will have to be carved up. “Do the Taliban have mid-senior management ready to step in and immediately run the functions of government? Or will ministry staff be asked to remain at work, for now? Those aren’t ‘major players’ but they will be critical to what happens next,” says Andrew Watkins of Crisis Group, a think-tank.
As yet, there is no international recognition of the Taliban. The West faces a dilemma: it does not want to prop up the Taliban government financially, but some governments also hope to use aid as leverage to elicit reasonable behaviour from the new rulers. But Imran Khan, the prime minister of neighbouring Pakistan, which has long supported the group, welcomed their victory. “They have broken the chains of mental slavery in Afghanistan,” he said. Pakistan’s climate minister tweeted that “people are rejoicing all across Afghanistan”. And their conquest was hailed by the country’s largest religious political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F).
Others are less enthused. “We don’t want anybody to bilaterally recognise the Taliban,” said Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister. “We want a united position among all the like-minded, as far as we can get one, so that we do whatever we can to prevent Afghanistan lapsing back into a breeding ground for terror.” Yet even Mr Johnson hinted that recognition might come if the Taliban were to meet “conditions” around terrorism, human rights “and many other things”.
The Taliban have had two decades to dream of what they will do when they restored their emirate. In the coming days the world will find out.
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