Interview with expert Ruttig: “The Taliban are firmly in the saddle”

The Taliban have been back in power in Afghanistan for a year. “Of course, it takes much longer to restructure a society,” says Afghanist Thomas Ruttig, who himself lived in the country for a long time. But the Taliban would use physical and political force to force people to submit to their ideas. In an interview, he talks about parallels with the first Taliban rule, the deep turning point for girls and women, and economic policy. “The Taliban are somehow also market liberals,” says Ruttig. Are the Taliban who govern now, politically and ideologically, the same that governed from 1996 to 2001?

Thomas Ruttig: I see more parallels and continuities than differences. There are continuities in senior management: there are many who were in high positions before 2001, or in some cases their close relatives. There is a kind of “dynastic principle”. Both Taliban deputies are sons of senior Taliban leaders who have since died, the son of founder Mullah Muhammad Omar and the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani. One difference is that the Taliban have gained political experience since they were overthrown in 2001. There are many well-educated people in their young generation. They are keen to work constructively in certain areas, such as economic policy, or in the process of establishing official relations with the outside world. However, their leadership stands in the way with measures that do not fit into the 21st century.

These measures are based on their ideology?

For me, the main parallel with the pre-2001 period is the Taliban’s focus on ideological issues and their focus on Islamic law. Taliban leader Hebatullah Akhundzada has just declared that only God’s laws can be implemented, not man-made ones. This attitude is at the expense of a pragmatic policy, which would actually be important in one of the poorest countries in the world, which is currently being shaken by additional crises. And the climate crisis is also having a major impact in Afghanistan.

Was it naïve to hope, when the Taliban took power a year ago, that today’s Taliban would be more moderate?

There were legitimate hopes for that. The Taliban is a diverse organization in which there is always some room for debate. However, it was overlooked that even the Taliban, who are considered moderate, do not question their main ideological dogma, the primacy of the Sharia. There were also signs of a willingness to compromise, especially during the negotiations with the USA, when power-sharing with the existing government was still at stake. But the US withdrew, the old government collapsed – and after that the Taliban saw little reason to compromise.

Thomas Ruttig has a degree in Afghanistan, he lived in the country for a long time and also took part in UN missions. He is also a co-founder of the Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN).

(Photo: private)

The Taliban have been back in power for a year now. To what extent have they managed to transform society so far?

Rebuilding a company naturally takes much longer than a year. However, the Taliban do not rely on democratic persuasion, but use physical and political force to force people to submit to their ideas.

One aspect that is particularly observed in the West is women’s rights and, for example, their access to education. What happened there last year?

The Taliban’s takeover of power last August was a particularly deep turning point for women and girls. Nothing remains of their political and social participation, both at the local and national level. They are more and more excluded from education. This is not only a question of survival for the women and girls themselves, but for the entire country, because if half the population is excluded, it won’t get very far. Where are the doctors for women and teachers for girls’ schools supposed to come from if they don’t have access to higher education? The Taliban have not yet answered this question. Incidentally, the classes in Afghan schools have always been separated by gender, and there were shift classes. However, some in the Taliban leadership now apparently also want to push through separate schools. That would be a program for many years and would generally restrict educational opportunities for girls for so long.

Is there a discussion within the Taliban about the sheer necessity of women’s education?

There are more pragmatic voices that advocate this, including from the clergy. But the ultra-conservative Taliban leadership has stood in the way. But the debate within the Taliban continues. It is possible that at some point the pressure of the factual will cause a rethink. But for many girls and women it would be too late.

After 2001 there were many women who experienced and used more freedom and educational opportunities. Have they now retired or fled the country?

Many have fled the country, but the majority of these people are neither willing nor able to do so – if only because of the restrictions that exist in Germany, for example, when admitting activists for human rights and women’s rights. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that many advances in education or in gainful employment for women have tended to be limited to cities. Women in rural areas have rarely benefited. This also meant that the Taliban were able to gain a foothold there because Western promises were never implemented in some areas. This is not only due to Western politics, but also to the corruption of the old government and the conservative attitude of large parts of the rural population, who reject social participation for women.

What happened to the Taliban fighters after they took power last year? Have they returned to their hometowns?

There is no major demobilization or exodus. Afghanistan’s very weak economy would also have hardly any absorption capacity. The consequences of war are enormous, especially in rural areas, and the climate catastrophe has dramatic consequences. The fighters cannot return to their villages at all. If they were sent home en masse, although they could hardly survive there, revolts threatened. Of course, the Taliban leadership also knows this and therefore tries to continue to pay the people as police officers, members of the army or in other ways.

Is there resistance to the Taliban regime?

There is both political and armed resistance. However, both are relatively marginal. The Taliban are firmly in the saddle for the foreseeable future. They quickly crushed political resistance, such as demonstrations by small women’s groups against disenfranchisement. In addition, their armed fighters create an atmosphere of fear, so that people are less and less daring to take to the streets to protest. Other institutions, including civil society, collapsed after Western troops withdrew because development payments stopped.

And military resistance?

The armed resistance is essentially based on forces of the old regime. There are about a dozen such groups that carry out smaller attacks. They have limited and local popular support due to the previous government’s corruption or involvement in human rights abuses and war crimes, and often develop along ethnic lines. In addition, after 40 years, people are fed up with the war. There were also several revolts within the Taliban regime, but they too are localized and were quickly put down or contained.

What role do terrorist groups currently play in the country?

There is the local affiliate of the Islamic State, ISKP, which continues to fight against the Taliban with weapons, carrying out attacks. ISKP would like to take over the state – which is unrealistic, however, because the group lacks any social base in Afghanistan. That is the difference to the Taliban, who have always been able to fall back on traditional conservative sections of the population influenced by the clergy. Otherwise there is al-Qaeda and militant groups that come from neighboring countries. In my opinion, the Taliban have them relatively securely under control. They are also not interested in attacks being carried out again from Afghanistan, because they don’t want to attract international attention again.

Afghanistan is currently experiencing a wide variety of crises: a famine, the weak economy, the earthquakes of the past few months. Can the Taliban handle it?

The Taliban are trying to respond, including through their regional authorities. But they are just as incapable of providing large and comprehensive aid as the previous government would have been. They are therefore dependent on international support and here there are more realistic approaches in their practice: They work together with the UN and with aid organizations that have often been active in the country for decades. Humanitarian funds continue to flow to Afghanistan from the West, so help can be provided in concrete crises. However, this does not eliminate the causes. Ultimately, this means that Afghanistan has to swing from year to year, from crisis to crisis. That cannot be in the interest of the international community either.

What are the causes of the deep economic crisis?

40 years of war have led to the impoverishment of large parts of the population. Then the western withdrawal aggravated the situation, which lasted for several years. Key sectors of the Afghan economy depended on the presence of international soldiers and collapsed after 2014 when the IASF mission ended. As a result, development funds from abroad also fell and many jobs were lost, including in civil society and with aid organizations. After the hasty withdrawal of the remainder last August and the Taliban takeover, they were completely discontinued and large parts of the health and education sectors could no longer be paid because they were financed from abroad. Added to this is the climate crisis. Afghanistan is more than averagely affected by global warming and thus dehydration. Agriculture, the country’s economic base, is severely affected. This can only be countered with long-term development programs.

Do the Taliban have an economic strategy?

There are to some extent. As strange as it sounds, the Taliban are somehow also market liberals. They let the private sector, which has brought the country through the crises for many decades, continue to do business. In addition, the war is over and economic activity is picking up again. For example, more is exported. The Taliban are also cracking down on corruption, boosting government revenues. Overall, however, Afghanistan always operates at the lower end of the survival spectrum and every new, additional crisis can plunge the country into a catastrophe.

With Thomas Ruttig said Markus Lippold

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