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The Taliban Is Back. So What Happens Next?


Taliban fighters in Laghman Province on August 15.

The situation in the Afghan capital, Kabul, is changing rapidly as the Taliban has moved into the city and taken over parts of it, including the Presidential Palace. This happened as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and security forces in the city melted away.

Though much is unknown, here are some of the key questions for the war-torn country as the militant Islamist group takes control of the entire country.

What Happened To The Democratically Elected Afghan Government?

The internationally recognized government in Kabul has largely collapsed.

President Ghani flew out of Afghanistan on August 15, effectively ceding power to the Taliban as its fighters surrounded the capital and later entered it. He landed in neighboring Tajikistan and was reported to be headed to a third country.

Key members of Ghani's administration -- including National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib and and Fazel Fazly, the head of the administrative office of the president -- also fled the country.

Some senior government officials, including cabinet ministers, remain in the city.

Who's In Charge Now?

Afghanistan's security forces appeared to be partially in control of the city as of late on August 15 but were ceding it rapidly to Taliban fighters.

After initially pledging not to enter the city, the Taliban said it had sent its fighters into "some parts" of the city, allegedly to maintain order and prevent looting. There were some reports of sporadic gunfire around the city, but there did not appear to be major fighting.

Some Afghan soldiers and police officers were seen abandoning their posts, taking off their uniforms, and fleeing with their weapons.

The Taliban fighters quickly took control of key government buildings and Taliban commanders were shown walking through the Presidential Palace and taking down an Afghan flag in what appeared to be Ghani's office.

Kabul's international airport is still controlled by a few thousand U.S. troops who are securing the safe departure of foreign diplomats, expats, and Afghans who worked for foreign entities from Kabul.

Afghan security forces stand guard at the entrance gate of the airport in Kabul on August 15.
Afghan security forces stand guard at the entrance gate of the airport in Kabul on August 15.

Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat in Europe, said that "there are security units all over but no commander in chief at the helm after the top echelon fled the country."

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's influential ex-president, announced the creation of a "coordination council" on August 15. He said the body would oversee the peaceful transition of power.

The three-man council includes Abdullah Abdullah, the second-highest government official in Kabul, and Hekmatyar Gulbuddin, one of Afghanistan's most notorious former warlords and a former militant leader.

"It seems this council is in charge," says Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul. "But it's unclear who has authorized such a council," he added. "The formation of the council has yet to reassure the people of Kabul."

What Government Is Likely To Emerge?

Afghan Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal said power would be handed over to a transitional administration. But the Taliban appeared to quash those claims, insisting that the group expected a complete handover of power.

"I fear that the Taliban will take over directly or we will have an interim government that is essentially a Taliban proxy," said Haroun Rahimi, an assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. "In that case, the future political system is unlikely to be inclusive leading many Afghans to perceive it as imposed and illegitimate."

U.S. officials had said that Washington would not recognize a Taliban government if the militant group forcibly seized power.

The Taliban has previously said they favored a transitional government if Ghani stepped down. But it is unclear if they will follow through on their pledge.

"Now that Ghani has fled, we will know over the next day or two whether we are headed toward a broad-based set-up or a one-party system, even though the signs point to a more inclusive interim period," Samad said.

Torek Farhadi, a former adviser to the Afghan government, said if there is a more inclusive interim setup, the Taliban was likely to be dominant but there could be room for other political actors, although he expects it to be lesser-known personalities and stakeholders rather than figures from the current political elite in Kabul.

"The Taliban will probably form a government of their choice, with representatives from all provinces and ethnic groups, but not necessarily from the political figures we know," Farhadi said.

What About Longer-Term?

A Taliban-dominated government in Kabul is likely to emerge, analysts say.

During its rule, power was centralized in the hands of an "Amir ul-Momineen," or leader of the faithful. The supreme leader was the head of state and had ultimate authority. This was Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader and founder.

The Taliban has rejected democracy and elections, branding them "foreign imports."

It is unclear if the Taliban will reestablish its brutal former regime. When it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the fundamentalist Islamists oppressed women, massacred ethnic and religious minorities, and banned music and television.

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Early indications suggest the militants will reimpose many of their repressive laws and retrograde policies in Kabul -- as they have done in other captured cities and towns throughout Afghanistan.

The extremist group has banned women from working outside the home, severely limited girls' education, and required women to be accompanied by a male relative if they leave their homes. There have also been several reports of young women being forced to marry Taliban fighters.

Even then, the militants have sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women's rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans. "We assure the people, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on August 15.

What Leverage Will Outside Powers Have?

Western powers had previously pledged to remain engaged in Afghanistan even after the departure of all foreign forces from the country by August 31.

"It is crucial that, as promised, the international community does not once again walk away and abandon Afghanistan as was the case between 1989 and 2001," Samad said.

"It is also imperative that the Taliban behave in a manner that can retain international attention and support, especially regarding their policies on human [and] gender rights and certain core liberties like freedom of expression."

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Analysts say the United States and other foreign powers can influence Taliban behavior by offering international aid to the destitute country and official recognition to the group. Some say Washington is betting that the Taliban will be reluctant to rule as an international pariah, as it did in the 1990s.

But it is unclear if international legitimacy is still important to the Taliban given that it is on the verge of capturing the entire country -- late on August 15 it controlled 27 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

"If the Taliban show that they are not interested in gaining domestic legitimacy through an inclusive government, then international legitimacy could be one of the few sources of leverage left," Rahimi said.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a focus on politics, the Taliban insurgency, and human rights. He has reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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