‘Why did we fight?’ Challenge of governing is wearing down Taliban.

By Scott Peterson

Despite their lightning victory in August, many Taliban are expressing disappointment, and disillusion, with what their sacrifice has bought.

To be sure, there is peace today and relative security, a balm to all Afghans after 40 years of war. And Taliban leaders, fighters, and many Afghans welcome restoration of the self-declared Islamic Emirate.

Defeating an enemy on the battlefield is one thing. Governing with vision, and a plan that benefits millions of people, is another. The stress on the so-far overmatched Taliban is showing.

But the Taliban are fast finding that winning a war is easier than governing, say analysts, and are overwhelmed by the challenge of feeding and ensuring services to some 40 million people. Amid widespread drought and displacement, and with no cash and no plan as winter approaches, a multitude of rifts are emerging among the Taliban.

And they are already breeding resentment – between regions, between haves and have-nots as they tussle over the spoils of victory, and between those who dreamed of an Islamic revolution but are getting a power grab by a movement that never thought through the basics of ruling an entire nation.

Rahmatullah, a veteran fighter, voices concern about what the internal rifts could mean. “Maybe some of the Taliban will change their ways, and leave the Taliban forever,” he says. “Now is the time for our leaders to live up to their promises to the Afghan nation.”

The veteran Taliban fighter once strove for martyrdom on the Afghan battlefield of what he considered an Islamic revolution.

But the Taliban insurgency’s lightning victory in August has yet to bring a long-promised paradise, says Rahmatullah. Instead, he fears, it’s revealing internal divisions, even resentment.

“We struggled and fought in extreme poverty. Now our leaders are ruling and have luxury cars and lots of facilities, but the majority of mujahideen don’t have salaries and their families are worse off,” says the fighter, who uses one name.

Defeating an enemy on the battlefield is one thing. Governing with vision, and a plan that benefits millions of people, is another. The stress on the so-far overmatched Taliban is showing.

“Some of the lower echelons of the mujahideen are now wondering, ‘What was the benefit of our struggle, and why did we fight?’”

To be sure, there is peace today and relative security, a balm to all Afghans after 40 years of war. And Taliban leaders, fighters, and many Afghans welcome restoration of the self-declared Islamic Emirate, and its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

But the Taliban are fast finding that winning a war is easier than governing, say analysts, and are overwhelmed by the challenge of feeding and ensuring services to some 40 million people.

The transition to governing has been made more difficult by the shut-off of critical cash from Western donors – money that propped up Kabul governance for years – as well as widespread drought and displacement, as winter approaches.

With no cash and no plan, a multitude of rifts are emerging among the Taliban. And they are already breeding resentment – between regions, between haves and have-nots as they tussle over the spoils of victory, and between those who dreamed of an Islamic revolution but are getting a power grab by a movement that never thought through the basics of ruling an entire nation.

“There is a clear understanding among the leadership that it’s way more problematic than they thought it would be, so right now they are under pressure to control their own men,” says Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based independent expert on the Taliban.

Taliban fighters stand while their comrades are praying at Deh Bori square in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 18, 2021.

The Achilles’ heel of Taliban rule may not be the threat from militants like Islamic State, he says, but how the dangers of mass hunger and a failing economy might exacerbate intra-Taliban divisions and spark broader discontent.

“The biggest thing they didn’t think about is the economy,” says Mr. Amiri, noting the importance of Western donor funds resuming. “This is way beyond their imagination, way beyond their capacity to understand.”

It’s no longer just about residents of rural and often remote areas under insurgent Taliban control, he says. “It’s about millions and millions of people.”

Leaders’ promises

When the Monitor first met Rahmatullah in February 2020 – the day after he had helped blow up a nearby bridge – the fighter whose nom de guerre of Mullah Sarbakhod means one who rushes forward wildly, without thinking, was already expressing distrust of Taliban chiefs, “if they prefer money or promotions to the dangers of the front line.”

Interviewed this week in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul, he cites frequent disputes over confiscated vehicles and property, and instances where Taliban from southern provinces like Kandahar and the Haqqani network tell groups like his, from Wardak, to leave the capital and “return to their villages,” sowing resentment as they impose their own grip on power.

“I am sure if they don’t solve these problems, dissatisfaction will arise and lead to conflict in the future. Maybe some of the Taliban will change their ways, and leave the Taliban forever,” says the fighter. “Now is the time for our leaders to live up to their promises to the Afghan nation.”

Failure to meet expectations – among Taliban faithful and civilians alike – could lead to an unraveling for the jihadis, who are already deeply unpopular in many provinces, and often thin on the ground.

“They don’t have the means to provide economic improvements to the community, and people get hungry,” says Mr. Amiri. “Crime will increase. A time could come when people will take arms against them because of lack of jobs.”

A man pushes a wheelbarrow filled with bananas at the market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 18, 2021. Analysts say the threat of hunger this winter is among the many challenges the Taliban face.

A father’s story

That would not surprise the father of Mullah Zahid, a 22-year-old former Taliban fighter who joined the insurgency at the age of 16 in Wardak province but today exemplifies how some true believers have been forced to steal to get by.

According to his father, Mullah Zahid said, “The Taliban promised us that after victory they would give important positions; everyone will be paid a good salary.” But the son received no money while deployed in Kabul, and ate only bread and water, recounts the father, who was contacted in Kabul and asked not to be named.

Mullah Zahid told him: “There was nothing to eat, so we started stealing because there was no other option. Several times we stole from people’s houses, and it was a big shame for us to threaten people to pay us. Also, we stole computers from government offices and sold them in the bazaar, and sold our weapons, for food money.”

Such moves were once unthinkable, from a group that made its name imposing harsh punishments like amputating the hands of thieves.

When Mullah Zahid asked Taliban officials to pay for food, he was told to keep waiting. “We saw they had luxury cars and homes; they had a lot of money and enough food, but we were always hungry,” his father quoted him as saying.

Last week, Mullah Zahid left the Taliban and went to Iran, in search of work.

“There was no jihad,” says the father. “The Taliban fights for money and power, but our sons give big sacrifices. We will never forgive them.”

“An ill-thought-out power grab”

Such sentiment will do little to help the Taliban consolidate power, as the former insurgents struggle to satisfy a population dramatically changed since the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago.

“A lot of Afghans have concluded it isn’t an Islamic revolution; it’s an ill-thought-out power grab, which rather delegitimizes the Taliban,” says Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert at Queen’s University Belfast and former adviser to the European Union in the country.

Afghan women march in a women's rights protest in central Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2021.

Another abiding impression among Afghans is that the Taliban “are steeped in their clannishness,” and used their power grab “to distribute the fruits of victory within their own very well-defined circles, so there’s no issue of serving the population,” says Mr. Semple.

One scenario Afghans suggest is that “the sheer inability of the Taliban to cope ... means they really won’t survive more than six months – I think that has to be taken seriously,” he says.

Yet, whether or not an overthrow is even feasible, the “basic point is the current Taliban administration is incredibly, inherently fragile, for now,” Mr. Semple says. “There’s nothing inevitable about the Taliban remaining in power in this form.”

Recognizing that risk for themselves, the Taliban “really are moving fast to deploy an authoritarian apparatus to try and snuff out all forms of resistance, civil or military, before they really take hold,” says Mr. Semple.

An obligation to improve lives

But the Taliban are finding that they control far fewer variables than they once did, when they could count on widespread anger about the foreign military presence, corruption in Kabul, and their Islamist message to fill their ranks.

Suleiman Roostami, a long-bearded and young-faced Taliban district commander in Wardak, is hopeful that his years of fighting were not in vain, and that Taliban chiefs “will give the rights to all people, including women.”

At the same time, he voices concern that the quest for power by some in the Taliban will overshadow their obligation to improve the lives of the Afghan people.

When the Monitor first met Mr. Roostami in early 2020, he noted the futility of continued war – a realization that stemmed from an attack by his unit on a police post. A dozen people died in that clash, but nothing changed. He expressed the hope then that both his young sons and daughters could all be educated.

But now he tells how his unit, among the first to enter Kabul, was forced to hand over vehicles, captured facilities, and heavy weapons to Taliban from Kandahar and the Haqqani network. They “despise” Wardakis, he says, and “are seeking to gain more power ... which may become a big problem in the future [and] very bad for the Taliban.”

Also important is “social justice” for fighters who have sacrificed for years, he says. Failure to provide that could mean most regional Afghan warlords “will be against the Taliban, and it will pave the way for a new conflict and war,” says Mr. Roostami.

Taliban leaders should also improve citizens’ quality of life, says Mr. Roostami. “If they don’t pay attention to this, I am sure all the nation will be against us.”

Hidayatullah Noorzai and a correspondent in Maydan Shar, Wardak province, contributed reporting for this article.