Lessons from the Taliban’s Takeover of Afghanistan and Predictions about the Future

Afghanistan has been at the epicenter of world politics since the early 1980s when the Soviet Union occupied the country amid a civil war. By April 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a peace agreement with the Afghan government. In February of the following year, all Soviet troops had been withdrawn from Afghanistan, though civil war in the country continued. In the early 1990s, world leaders debated whether and how the mujahedeen, who fought against the Soviet Union, had become the pioneers of jihadist terrorism. By the late 1990s, Afghanistan’s Taliban government and its strict interpretation of Islam law—particularly the repression of women, who were seen as inferior to men—drew widespread attention to the country. The most salient development, however, was the Taliban’s role in harboring al Qaeda militants, the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks in the United States. To make matters worse, Afghanistan became the global leader in opium production and trafficking.

When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan after the United States withdrew all its troops from the embattled country at the end of August 2021, world attention now is on whether the Afghanistan could become a safe haven for al Qaeda to plan attacks that target the Western world. This article examines the lessons that can be learned from the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and what these lessons portend for the future.  

Unlearned Lessons

Afghanistan is another example of a country that has failed to transition to a more democratic state. It seems that the Western world did not learn any lessons from what happened in Iraqi or from the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s. The Western world wants to see more democratic states based on human rights and the rule of law but, as these examples show, all attempts to make that goal a reality have failed. The Western world pushed these states to replace their authoritarian regimes with regimes that are more democratic; however, what the Western world apparently has not grasped is that states such as Afghanistan are caught in a vicious cycle of oppressing and being oppressed. The group in power oppresses the populace. The oppressed populace rises up, assumes power, and then oppresses the former oppressors. The cycle continues, and the country becomes polarized. Rather than push or force a country change its ways and adopt a democratic system of government, the Western world should work to educate the populace about the advantages of democratic regimes and the deleterious effects of continual retaliation. For example, when Iraq adopted so-called democracy, the elections gave Iraqi Shias, who had been oppressed by Saddam’s tyrannical regime, a chance to retaliate against the country’s Sunni tribes. When the expected retaliation began, a massive number Sunni tribes in Iraq joined the ranks of al Qeada in Iraq.

The confrontations between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood groups are another example of polarization in the Muslim world. After the military coup in 2013 that resulted in the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the nation’s first freely elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood lost its ruling position in the government, and an ongoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood pushed some of its followers into the hands of jihadist groups. The Bashar al Assad regime in Syria reacted to demonstrators in his own country who were seeking more democratic rights; however, the Assad regime was afraid of losing power and therefore hesitant to retaliate against opposition groups.

Afghanistan has experienced many ethnic wars over the years, and all have failed to bring large ethnic groups under the same umbrella. For example, the Pashtuns, who were represented by the Taliban, hated other ethnic groups. This hatred and subsequent polarization precluded a smooth transition to democracy in Afghanistan. It should be noted that while democratic regimes are the most convenient for the development of states, the Western world should have been aware of the ongoing polarization among factions and the locals’ disbelief in the advantages of democratic regimes.

Another lesson that the Western world apparently has not learned is that corruption is endemic in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq, for example, continues to rank as one of the most corrupt countries in the corruption perception index. It is no surprise, therefore, that U.S. foreign aid went into the pockets of corrupt officials. The United States spent several trillion dollars in Afghanistan, but this money created wealthy elites in the country and was not used for the intended purpose of infrastructure and other development projects that would help all the people in Afghanistan.

A third unlearned lesson is the necessity of learning about and understanding the local culture of a country the Western world plans to invade. In Iraq, for example, Western military troops were criticized for lacking the skills needed to integrate with the locals. The same criticism was voiced when Western military troops failed to integrate with the locals in Afghanistan. Integration with the locals could have created a more conducive environment for Westerners to convey their message in the country. The lack of understanding about the culture isolated Western forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Predictions about the Future

Predictions about what the future holds for Afghanistan must take into account a complex mix of political, social, religious, economic, and cultural issues.

Copying the Taliban Model

The Taliban’s takeover may encourage other extremist groups to copy the Taliban model. Jihadist groups that operate in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya believe that their resilience may lead to victory against the governments they have fought. For example, a convoy of militants drove through the city of Idlib, celebrating the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Since 9/11, terrorist groups around the world have failed in their fight against Western world. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, however, may prompt terrorist groups to believe that the use of terrorist tactics will help them achieve their goals.

False Portrayal of the Taliban as a Moderate Force

Since the takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban has aimed to portray itself as a more moderate force than it had been in the past; the Taliban’s enforcement of sharia law against Afghan women proves that Taliban will continue to repress the women in the country.

Islam at the Center of Politics and Ideology

Islam and terrorism had never been used in the same context until the early 1980s. The Iranian Revolution and the consequences of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan created the right mix of circumstances states and violent groups need to put Islam at the center of their politics and ideologies. Islam is still an influential and powerful religion for its followers. Jihadist groups, starting from the early 1990s, have shaped the Western world’s perception of Islam. Bloody jihadist attacks in the Western world have created negative perceptions of Islam, leading Westerners to believe that Islam motivates violence and that Islam therefore needs to be discussed in the context of terrorism. In addition to ISIS and al Qaeda, the Taliban has played a critical role in turning Westerners against Islam and fostering Islamophobia in Western countries, and motivating far-right groups, especially those in Europe, to target Muslims. The broader media coverage of the Taliban has reinforced these biases against Islam; therefore, anti-Islam sentiment may increase around the world, potentially making life more difficult for Muslims in the Western world. In addition, terrorist groups may take advantage of increased friction between Muslims and Westerners. Terrorist groups know that Western politicians’ remarks about Islam and terrorism are hurtful to Muslims and that such criticism may turn some Muslims into reactionaries hostile to the Western world and be inspired to join jihadist groups.  

Potential for the Taliban to Form Relationships with the Western World

The presence of ISIS-K in Afghanistan may create opportunities for the Taliban to form relationships with the Western world, which would be helpful because the Afghan economy needs money. At the same time, the Taliban may create an environment that would allow ISIS-K to attack Western targets. Just as the world has forgotten about the Assad’s atrocities after the emergence of ISIS in Syria, any successful ISIS-K attacks may push Western countries to cooperate with the Taliban and perhaps bring a sense of legitimacy to the Taliban.

Use of Madrassahs to Unite Ethnic Groups

The Taliban will continue to use the power of Islam to unite all ethnic groups by encouraging the Afghan people to attend madrassahs, much like the Pakistani government did to use the power of Islam over ethnicity issues in the region. The madrassahs in Afghanistan, however, have been mostly funded by salafi businessmen who insist on the teaching of a strict and literal interpretation of sharia law. It should not be forgotten that one of San Bernardino attackers in the United States attended a madrassah in Pakistan. With the Taliban’s likely emphasis on madrassahs, the world can expect to see more activity and the radicalization of more people at these institutions. 

Failure to Include Ethnic Groups in the Cabinet Will Have Dire Consequences

If the Taliban is unable to create a cabinet represented by various ethnic groups, the government will fail, poverty and deprivation will increase, and opposition groups will be emboldened to act. Some of these opposition groups may join ISIS-K, as was seen in Syria where moderate opposition groups joined ISIS en masse.

Afghanistan Will Return to Being a Haven for Terrorists

Afghanistan again will be a haven for terrorist groups, particularly for al Qaeda. The Taliban has a strong relationship with al Qaeda and its leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, who congratulated the Taliban because of its successful takeover Afghanistan. It would seem likely, therefore, that al Qaeda will be given the green light to use Afghan soil for its operations with impunity. It is likely also that the Haqqani Network will be treated in much the same way. The Haqqani Network already had a close relationship with al Qaeda and, its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was given the position of Minister of Interior in the Taliban government.

Continuation of Government Corruption

Afghanistan has been one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The religious government the Taliban established in Afghanistan follows a sharia law, which bans bribery and corruption of any kind. However, as the governments in Malesia, Turkey, Morocco, and Pakistan have shown the leaders of political Islamist parties can be extremely corrupt. Rather than admit to their wrongdoing, they use Islamic laws to legitimize their corrupt activities. The Taliban government in Afghanistan is likely to behave the same way. It is likely, therefore, that the Taliban will speak harshly against government corruption while continuing to take advantage of endemic corruption in the country and turn blind eye to its own corrupt deeds that enhance the wealth of Taliban politicians and officials.

Expansion of Taliban Involvement in the Drug Trade

Faced with the loss of foreign aid and bans on accessing accounts overseas, the Taliban will expand its involvement in drug trade. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said, “When we were in power before there was no production of drugs.” The statement is false. The drug trade in Afghanistan grew during the times when the Taliban ruled the country. For example, opium poppy cultivation rose substantially under Taliban rule—from around 41,000 hectares in 1998 to more than 64,000 hectares in 2000, according to the U.S. State Department. Helmand province in southern Afghanistan had the most land in use for poppy cultivation when the Taliban controlled the country in 2020. Western efforts to replace opium with pomegranates and other alternative crops failed to convince Afghans to change their long-standing opium habits. The Taliban, unfortunately, is not capable of developing effective and Westernized models that can end the drug trade. The situation will only worsen over time as the already large number of drug addicts in the country increases with the Taliban in power. Afghanistan will continue to be a drug-producing country. Given the dismal economy in Afghanistan, the Taliban is likely to increase its involvement in other types of illicit trade, including illegal logging and antiquities trafficking.

Thriving Human-Smuggling Networks

Human-smuggling networks will thrive in the region. Afghans weary of persecution by the Taliban will be desperate to leave the country, creating more opportunities for human-smuggling networks. European Union countries will be the destination for many of the smuggled Afghan migrants. Turkey will open its doors to the migrants, though its capacity to do so is limited. Unfortunately, Turkey’s willingness to accept the Afghan migrants is not an expression of mercy or generosity on the part of Turkey’s current corrupt government; rather, it is an attempt to seek leverage with the EU countries and pressure them into opening their doors to Syrian and Afghan refugees coming from Turkey.

To conclude, the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan in the weeks after the United States withdrew all of its troops from the country exposed the lessons that the Western world did not learn from previous failed attempts to create a democratic system of government in Syria and Iraq. The Western world failed now in Afghanistan because the focus was on a utopian transformation that did not take into consideration the ethnic, social, cultural, and economic issues in each of these three countries. It is difficult to make predictions about the future, this time for Afghanistan under a Taliban government. Most likely, though, Afghanistan will become a haven again for salafi-jihadist terrorist groups, the government will continue to grapple with difficult political and economic issues, the drug trade will flourish, and Afghans will be persecuted under Taliban’s twisted version of sharia law.

Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Assistant Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in the research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies.