The Taliban have pledged to create an open and inclusive government after their fighters took control of Kabul, but most observers fear little has changed in 20 years and expect the swift return of repressive theocratic rule in Afghanistan.
"Life, property and honour of none shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen," said the Taliban's Doha-based spokesman Suhail Shaheen on Monday, the latest message from the Islamist extremists trying to assure Afghans that they would be safe.
The Taliban’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda had been obvious before the takeover of Kabul. During a diplomatic offensive to regional powers in recent months, polished Taliban representatives made promises to respect women’s rights and rein in terror groups on Afghan soil.
But experts said that, despite promises of reform, Taliban rule could resemble the dark days of the 1990s. Back then, women’s rights were all but eliminated and cruel criminal punishments, including public executions, were the norm.
Many of the movement’s current top leaders were in power when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when US forces toppled the regime following the September 11th attacks launched by al-Qaeda, an Islamist group with links to the Taliban.
Supreme leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, the "commander of the faithful", served as the religious adviser to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, another co-founder of the movement, is the Taliban's political chief and is tipped to be president.
“The Taliban will govern the way they did before, with some modification,” said Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Their goal is implementing Islam, as they understand it, not develop a modern country.”
Hours after rifle-carrying Taliban fighters entered the presidential palace, a spokesman for the group declared that “war is over” in Afghanistan. Yet in the chaos that followed the takeover of Kabul, it was unclear if the militants would shape a new government through consensus or force.
"The Taliban face a dilemma. If they don't go for inclusion, then that will be a lack of legitimacy from the start of their regime," said Ali Yawar Adili, country director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“It remains to be seen if they enter negotiations to try and get consent from the society. The second question is what kind of governance system they will establish,” said Adili, speaking from Kabul.
The Taliban have been clear on their objective of re-establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with a strict version of sharia law, and have ruled out holding elections.
One unknown was whether the Taliban central command that committed to reforms could keep the field commanders in line, said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, associate professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We don’t know if the centre of the Taliban will hold, but it sure seems a lot stronger than many of us thought it would be,” she added.
The Taliban arrived in Kabul with significant resources. The group’s income from poppy cultivation and the drug trade, though still significant, has for years been dwarfed by revenue from taxing transit goods and fuel, according to a report released by the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think-tank.
The Taliban's impressive tax collection is a reflection of its administrative power, which lessens the importance of humanitarian aid for its survival, said David Mansfield, an Afghanistan analyst.
In Nimroz, a southern province that is a market hub for opium and illegal drugs, only 9 per cent ($5.1 million) of the Taliban’s finances were earned from drugs last year, while 80 per cent ($40.9 million) came from taxing legal goods, Mansfield said.
Sajjan Gohel, a south Asia expert at the London School of Economics, said that even if the Taliban did create an inclusive government, there was a strong possibility it would be temporary, with a final outcome similar to what happened in the Iranian Islamic revolution: "Over time, the theocracy took over and basically banished everyone else."
"The Taliban are being media-savvy. You've got the guy in Doha saying he has no problem with women's education, but what's happening on the ground is completely different," said Gohel, referring to reports of women in the Afghan cities of Ghazni and Herat being turned away from school and told to wear a burka.
The offensive that ended with the takeover of Kabul demonstrated how the Taliban had evolved politically during the US war, said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace.
“The Taliban induced a political collapse – they put pressure on critical nodes, like border checkpoints, and then they were cutting deals with local brigade commanders, warlords and governors,” said Mir. “It was clear to the other side that if they didn’t take the deal, the Taliban would roll them over.”
Taliban: The political and financial leadership
Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada
Known as the “commander of the faithful”, he is a former religious adviser to Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar, who died in 2013. Akhundzada heads the Rahbari Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council. He took that role after his predecessor, Akhtar Mansour, was killed in a US drone strike near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2016. Akhundzada fought against the Soviets, but he is known more for being a religious scholar.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar
He is the Taliban’s top political leader and one of the four figures that founded the movement in the 1990s. Baradar was captured in a joint US-Pakistan operation in 2010 and released in 2018 on the request of the US to participate in peace talks. He was part of the Taliban’s negotiating team whose remit was to broker a political deal that could pave the way for a ceasefire.
Leader of the Haqqani network, a loosely organised group that oversees the Taliban's financial and military assets across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, he is the son of prominent mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. The powerful group has been blamed for several high-profile attacks in Afghanistan including a raid on Kabul's top hotel, an assassination attempt on then-president Hamid Karzai and a suicide attack on the Indian embassy.
The religious and military leadership
A former military chief with nationwide responsibility for the insurgency. He has overseen the Taliban’s use of a variety of tactics, ranging from roadside bombings to assassinations and suicide attacks. Sadr first came to prominence within the group’s ranks in the 1990s as commander of the air force.
Abdul Hakim Haqqani
He heads the Taliban’s negotiating team. Haqqani, who was a judge in Kandahar’s court during the Taliban regime, helms the militia’s powerful council of religious scholars.
Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob
Yaqoob is the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar. He oversees the group’s military operations and local media reports have said he is inside Afghanistan. Yaqoob is believed to be in his 30s and is widely seen as having had limited battlefield experience. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021