The Taliban stunned the world with its rapid military takeover of Afghanistan in August, just as the last foreign troops were leaving the war-torn country.
But observers say the militant Islamist group faces a battle to hold on to power as it struggles to transform from a guerrilla insurgency into a functional government.
The militants are grappling with a series of political, social, and economic crises that are directly challenging its hard-line rule, including a freefalling economy and a devastating humanitarian crisis. The hard-liners have also been undermined by widening internal rifts, international isolation, and the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group.
Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist who has reported on the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s, says the militants have been basking in their victory rather than trying to govern.
“They are stuck inside a bubble,” Yousafzai told RFE/RL. “War was one chapter. Managing the economy, keeping Afghans united, and gaining international recognition are others.”
Experts warn that the Taliban is likely to face growing internal resistance to its rule. Since regaining power, the militants have rolled back many rights, committed widespread human rights abuses, and sidelined many of the country’s ethnic and religious groups.
Such a scenario could unleash a new civil war in Afghanistan, observers warn, making the country a breeding ground for transnational terrorist groups again.
Afghanistan’s estimated 38 million population has paid a high price since the Taliban regained power.
Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has largely collapsed after many foreign donors suspended assistance. The militant group has received direct aid, including cash and basic food items, from only several countries.
The Taliban has repeatedly urged Washington to unfreeze some $9.4 billion in Afghan central bank reserves held in the United States. But American officials have voiced reservations about releasing funds to a group that retains links with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and whose leaders are under international sanctions.
That has left Afghanistan facing cash shortages, along with bank closures and the suspension of money transfers into the country from abroad -- fueling hyper inflation and rising food costs.
The Taliban takeover has also aggravated the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where international organizations have warned of a looming catastrophe.
The UN has said that more than 23 million Afghans could become dependent on food aid this winter.
“The Taliban will, for the foreseeable future, be up against having to cope with a collapsed economy and a humanitarian crisis pressing the government for action,” says Marvin Weinbaum, the director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “In all probability the Taliban will make do with minimal governing even while it continues to rule.”
No country has recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and foreign governments and organizations have been wary of sending direct assistance to the regime.
Weinbaum says withholding recognition from the Taliban is the only leverage the international community has over the Taliban.
“Virtually all these states would have preferred a government in Kabul where the Taliban did not monopolize power, and their early call for the Taliban to form an inclusive regime and moderate social policies tested their influence,” he says.
“By largely defying them, the Taliban made it difficult to go ahead with formal recognition, at least for the time being,” he says.
Since regaining power, the Taliban has tried to project a more moderate image to convince the international community that it has changed.
But the militant group has reimposed some of the same repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its rule from 1996 to 2001.
The Taliban has excluded women from their new interim government. It has also banned secondary school education for many girls and ordered the vast majority of women not to return to work.
Afghan women have taken to the streets to demand their rights, including in Kabul. But the Taliban has dispersed the small demonstrations by brute force, often beating and detaining protesters.
Rights group have also accused the Taliban of committing widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture.
Despite promises of amnesty, the militants have been accused of targeting former officials, ex-members of the armed forces, and civilians who have publicly criticized them.
The Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, has also alienated many of the country’s ethnic groups, including non-Taliban Pashtuns.
It has been accused of forcibly evicting hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks, Turkmen, and members of the Shi’ite Hazara minority from their homes and land.
The militants have also monopolized power, with virtually all government posts going to Taliban veterans and loyalists.
“Resentment among the Tajik and Uzbeks, even within the Taliban ranks, is increasing by the day,” says Yousafzai.
“Haunted by hunger and economic collapse, some people in the non-Pashtun regions are waiting to join any armed anti-Taliban resistance or even Daesh,” he added, referring to IS-K by its Arabic acronym.
Barnett Rubin, an academic and former adviser to the U.S. State Department on Afghanistan, says exhaustion from the long war in Afghanistan will prevent its neighbors and regional powers from supplying arms to any opposition group in the foreseeable future.
“They don’t want a continuation of armed conflict,” he says.
He argues that the Taliban’s discipline and resourcefulness will ensure its regime endures, saying the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate “may change gradually.”
But Weinbaum says there is likely to be growing discontent in the longer term.
“Pockets of resistance will rise and, importantly, discontent is likely to increase within the Taliban’s ranks,” he says.
Retaining power and maintaining internal cohesion has been the Taliban’s “number one” priority, he says.
But internal rifts are emerging within the Taliban leadership just as it needs to focus on dealing with multiple crises.
Analysts say the possibility appears greater than ever that the unity of the Taliban could splinter. There is believed to be growing rifts between the Haqqani network -- a Taliban faction based in the east -- and a Kandahar-based faction of Taliban co-founders in the south of the country.The threat of a civil war reigniting in Afghanistan is serious, experts say.
“It would provide the kind of ungoverned space that the U.S. and West believe is conducive to the strengthening of global terrorist organizations,” says Weinbaum.
The Taliban has waged a deadly crackdown on Afghanistan’s small Salafist community, an ultraradical sect under Sunni Islam.
Salafists accuse the Taliban of detaining and killing members of the community. They also allege the Taliban has raided and closed down dozens of their mosques and madrasahs, or religious seminaries.
The Taliban’s clampdown has coincided with its escalating war with IS-K militants, many of whom are Salafists. There are believed to be several hundred thousand Salafists in Afghanistan, mainly concentrated in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, and Nuristan.
“IS-K directly challenges Taliban legitimacy,” says Rubin. “They are dealing ruthlessly with IS-K and Salafists generally, committing brutalities that would draw universal condemnation if not directed at Daesh.”