The US presidency has famously been called “the loneliest job in the world”. But the supreme leader of Afghanistan, Taliban jurist Haibatullah Akhundzada, could give any American leader a run for their money.
Mr Akhundzada’s isolation is entirely self-inflicted. Since coming to power in August 2021, he has not met with foreign officials. Although he has, allegedly, attended some religious gatherings – both in Kandahar, where he is thought to be based, and in the capital Kabul – he has never been photographed in public. Like a black hole, his presence is not detected visually, but instead by the way it warps everything around it. His Afghanistan is one warped to shut women out of public life, prohibit criticism of the leadership and deny any capable, inclusive governance.
Afghans who want to question the decrees being issued by Mr Akhundzada in Kandahar have no formal means of doing so, and any informal means (such as airing their views on television or social media) risk landing them in a detention room.
UN officials and foreign envoys do not have to suffer such indignities, but they cannot meaningfully raise any objections either. Mr Akhundzada’s decisions, made unilaterally, have reportedly caused plenty of dissent within Taliban ranks, with some of the movement’s junior leaders in lock-step with the supreme leader’s extreme ideology and others wishing their fledgling government were more pragmatic. After all, at this point the Taliban has everything to gain in the way of public support and international aid money from even the smallest concession.
Nonetheless, there is no mechanism in the Taliban system to appeal against the supreme leader’s decisions. So when foreign representatives complain to Taliban officials in Kabul, they are met with either sympathy or rage, depending on which camp the official falls in. But the conclusion is always the same: there is nothing anyone can do about it.
The Taliban’s opaque leadership is the first of three major political problems that are standing in the way of a solution to Afghanistan’s deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.
The second problem is the near-complete paralysis of the country’s civil society. The loudest voices advocating resistance against the Taliban right now are coming from outside the country – from exiled officials of the old republic, diaspora activists and an assemblage of ex-warlords and their militiamen, many of whom seem to want a return to civil war. This state of affairs has made it easy for Taliban officials to get into the rather cliched habit of dismissing any campaign for reform as “foreign interference”.
The emergence of a grassroots civil society movement that engages in non-violent resistance would certainly help send a message that there is nothing foreign about opposition to the supreme leader’s most draconian writs, and perhaps even encourage his silent detractors within Taliban ranks to speak up. But collective resistance and collective bargaining are, as things currently stand, not viable options for a very simple reason: the economy is structurally a shambles and everyone in it is too poor. There are no unions who could go on strike, for example, because there is barely any industry, commerce or economic development. There are no internal levers powerful enough to push for reform.
Addressing this requires solving the third problem: the international community’s incoherent and unconstructive strategy for engaging with Afghanistan and the Taliban. It is the most vexing problem of the three, if only because it should be the easiest to solve.
Afghanistan’s institutions are not strong enough, at present, to support a well-functioning economy. But they cannot get even halfway there as long as the international sanctions that prevent banking, investment and trade persist. The obstacle to lifting these sanctions is entirely political; western powers, the primary enforcers, are first and foremost afraid of facing accusations (many of them from the aforementioned diaspora and ex-republic activists) of empowering the Taliban if they take any steps that could be seen as normalising relations with Afghanistan. Second, they want to save face; western countries were left humiliated by the Taliban’s rise to power and subsequent posturing, and they appear unable to stomach doing anything that could increase the Taliban’s tax revenues, or that the Taliban could spin as a “win”.
The logic of this stance was dismantled very capably by former UN official Mukesh Kapila in a recent op-ed for The National, in which he wrote: “Pragmatic realpolitik, not bruised ego, is the better basis for relations with the Taliban.” A large win for Afghanistan – and its civil society – in the form of a functioning economy outweighs a small win for the Taliban.
An even more troubling aspect of the international community’s Afghanistan strategy, however, is the fact that, after 20 years and considerable sacrifice dealing with the Taliban, it still seems to fundamentally misunderstand the group’s own allergy to pragmatism. This is best showcased in the ongoing saga over the country’s $9 billion of reserves, stored overseas and withheld by the US and European countries. The international community’s present solution for getting this money back into Afghan hands is to transfer part of it to a trust in Switzerland, whence it is to be disbursed to Afghanistan on an ad hoc basis, in tranches, for projects vetted by the trust’s American, Swiss and diaspora-Afghan board members.
The plan is, so far, not working because it overlooks a rather obvious problem: getting so much money into Afghanistan is difficult to do without the Taliban’s acquiescence, and the group is not giving it. And that is because the Taliban will not take any amount of money – even billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s own money – if it is at the expense of the group’s principle that it is the country’s sovereign government and should have the right to decide how the funds are spent.
Giving the Taliban that kind of recognition is emotionally difficult. The steps the international community is having to take to avoid doing so, however, are bordering on farce. And they affect more than just money; last year, the International Criminal Court was trying to notify Afghanistan’s “competent authorities” (i.e. the Taliban) that it was proceeding with an investigation into Afghan war crimes, only for its letter to be forwarded by UN officials to the Afghan mission in New York, an office staffed by the republican government-in-exile. All of this theatre over what is essentially a semantic point (whether or not to call the Taliban a government) prevents anything meaningful from getting done for the benefit of Afghans.
It would be convenient to pretend that these three problems – Afghanistan’s opaque government, the paralysis of civil society and the inefficacy of the international community response – are a Gordian knot that no one can untangle. But they are not. They can be solved, step by step. The first step is for the international community, where reason ostensibly still matters, to unlock the gears of the Afghan economy, even at a moral cost. The second is to use those gears to build an Afghan society that is capable of demanding things from its government in non-violent, but still extremely effective ways. And the third is for that society to force changes, on Afghanistan’s own terms, and to show Mr Akhundzada's camp that progress cannot be achieved in supreme isolation.