The dramatic fall of Afghanistan’s government on August 15, 2021 was unexpected even for the Taliban’s negotiating team in Doha. One year later, the group celebrated August 15 as the day of victory. Tellingly, the streets of Kabul were almost empty.
The Taliban may be in power but their government faces challenges on multiple fronts. Afghans are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis with 90% of the country facing some sort of food insecurity. The economy is still in freefall with an estimated 97% of the population under the poverty line. The Taliban still has no access to $9.5 billion of Afghanistan’s assets held by the US Treasury.
The new rulers have been bitterly criticized for banning girls from high schools and imposing harsh restrictions on women’s rights. After more than a year, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan still struggles to gain international legitimacy. On July 31, dreaded al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, raising renewed questions about the Taliban providing a haven for terrorists.
Some Taliban leaders aim for global recognition. They believe this would help in the survival of their government. The Taliban had started serious efforts to achieve international recognition long before seizing power in Kabul through their supporters. However, this recognition has been hard to come by because the Taliban lack legitimacy in the eyes of Afghanistan’s citizens.
What is level of social support for the Taliban?
History and current evidence indicates that Afghanistan’s people do not support the Taliban.
When the Taliban were removed from power in 2001, the public celebrated the end of their barbaric regime. Millions of refugees returned to Afghanistan. Conversely, when the Taliban took charge last year, thousands of Afghans thronged the Kabul airport to flee from the country. About 120,000 sought refuge in the US. Thousands fled to Europe, Australia, and Canada. Another 300,000 escaped to neighboring Pakistan and about 1.5 million to Iran.
In February 2022, a Gallup survey indicated that 94% of Afghans are suffering under the Taliban regime. Over half of those surveyed want to leave the country permanently. Other reports reveal the rise in cases of depression and suicides among Afghan women under Taliban rule.
The Asia Foundation’s survey results show that popular support for the Taliban has been declining since 2017. Afghans who reported having no sympathy for the Taliban had risen from 80% in 2017 to 85% in 2019. This might be because the people believe that the Taliban were fighting not for the country but to gain power. Afghans also resent the fact that the Taliban are backed by Pakistan and other foreign countries.
These findings show that the Taliban’s claims of representing the Afghan people are spurious. The Taliban have claimed that their insurgency was a popular one to free Afghanistan and to implement Islamic law. Instead, a considerable number of Afghans view the Taliban as foreign puppets engaged in a power grab.
Declining public trust was a key factor that led to the fall of the previous regime. Voter turnouts had dropped and only 2.2 million Afghans cast their ballots in the 2019 presidential elections. The Taliban are repeating history by losing public trust.
Source: Survey of the Afghan people 2017
Why are the Taliban losing social support?
Wrong policies, atrocities, fundamentalist Islamic laws, and curbing of human and women’s rights are all leading to the loss of public trust in the Taliban.
In February 2022, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan conducted a house-to-house search in Kabul and other cities. This move has spread fear among the public. Kabul residents reported that the search was indiscriminate. Some Afghans regard the search to be against their traditions. The European Union mission criticized the search and called for the immediate end to house searches, arrests, and violence against ordinary Afghans. Instead, the Taliban responded with a new wave of searches in August 2022.
Since their return to power, the Taliban have brutally cracked down on the opposition. In August, they mercilessly slaughtered Mawlawi Mahdi, their first Hazara commander. His appointment as chief intelligence officer of a central province was supposed to be an example of the new inclusivity of the Taliban. Mahdi had revolted against the group’s leadership. He argued that Shia Hazaras are not given their rights by the hardline Sunni Taliban government. After his killing, thousands of Hazaras have fled either to the mountains or to Iran to avoid massacre and torture.
When the Taliban first ruled in the 1990s, no other group was persecuted more than the Hazaras. Following a hardline Sunni theology, the Taliban massacred thousands of Shia Hazaras. They declared them to be heretics and their cultural heritage sites. This time, the Taliban are proving to be no different.
It is not just the Hazaras who are being killed. There is also evidence that the Taliban has killed Tajiks in the northern provinces. In other provinces, the Taliban have carried out summary executions of opposition fighters who have surrendered. They have tortured people whom they suspect of supporting any opposition group. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been active in condemning abuses by the Taliban.
In their first press conference on August 17, 2021, the Taliban promised to provide safety to those who worked for the previous government or the US and international forces. These included the members of Afghanistan’s national security forces. Reports reveal that the Taliban have not kept their promises. Hundreds of former government staff, particularly security forces, have been killed or have disappeared across Afghanistan. Former members of security forces have also been tortured.
The Taliban have ties with 18-20 regional and international terrorist groups. Some of these ties go back to the 1990s. Before the fall of the previous government, there were already 6,500 foreign fighters in Afghanistan. This number has increased. The Taliban remains close to al-Qaeda, which now enjoys more freedom of action.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has also curbed women’s rights and freedoms. Violence against women has increased dramatically under the Taliban. Afghanistan is now the only country where girls are not allowed to attend high school. Many women who used to work in senior positions during the previous administration are languishing at home. Women who demonstrated against the taking away of their freedoms have been arrested and tortured. In one egregious case, the Taliban killed the wife of a former member of the security forces despite the fact that she eight months pregnant. This has not gone down well with the people. Under the Taliban, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has become an exclusive mullah government. State institutions are dominated by Pashtun members of the Taliban. Many of them are noted international terrorists. This Taliban government is persecuting women, minorities and the opposition. Like the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the current regime is using violence and oppression to enforce it ideology and policies. In the process, the government is losing public support by the day.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.