Q&A

As Afghanistan Nears Collapse, Taliban ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’

The country’s former intelligence chief said the Taliban are torn between placating their foot soldiers and meeting Afghans’ and the international community’s expectations.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Taliban members stand guard inside a prison cell.
Taliban members stand guard inside a cell at Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul on Oct. 17. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Since Afghanistan collapsed to the Taliban on Aug. 15, the country has nose-dived into poverty, hunger, misery, conflict, and uncertainty. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, and many more are trying to escape. Law and order is disintegrating. Afghanistan has no friends in the international community, and the Taliban, themselves riven by factional disputes, have no diplomatic partners.

Foreign Policy spoke with Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), about the challenges facing the country. Nabil left former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government in 2015, dissatisfied with his divisive policies and tolerance of corruption, but keeps a close eye on Afghanistan and the region. He spoke with Foreign Policy about challenges facing the Taliban, growing resistance, and accountability for former officials who looted the country and now live abroad.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Since Afghanistan collapsed to the Taliban on Aug. 15, the country has nose-dived into poverty, hunger, misery, conflict, and uncertainty. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, and many more are trying to escape. Law and order is disintegrating. Afghanistan has no friends in the international community, and the Taliban, themselves riven by factional disputes, have no diplomatic partners.

Foreign Policy spoke with Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), about the challenges facing the country. Nabil left former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government in 2015, dissatisfied with his divisive policies and tolerance of corruption, but keeps a close eye on Afghanistan and the region. He spoke with Foreign Policy about challenges facing the Taliban, growing resistance, and accountability for former officials who looted the country and now live abroad.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: What is your assessment of the current security situation in Afghanistan?

Rahmatullah Nabil: I think there was some miscalculation among the Taliban. In 1996, they were received by the public as the saving angels. At that time, I was in Kabul; people were throwing flowers on them because they were totally fed up with conflict between the warlords. Now, the situation is totally different. The expectation is high, the generation has changed, and at least there was a system—whether it was corrupt, a monopoly of power, there was a system. More than 60 to 65 percent of Afghans are aged 30 or younger and never experienced the Taliban era. And at that time, Mullah [Mohammad] Omar had charisma as the leader of the Taliban. Now, nobody knows how [Taliban leader] Mullah Haibatullah [Akhundzada] thinks, how [Prime Minister] Mullah Hassan [Akhund] thinks, how [Taliban deputy leader and interior minister] Siraj Haqqani thinks.

The security situation is deteriorating in certain areas. In Nangarhar, there are two or three cases of beheading on a daily basis. Poverty is causing disruption to law and order. The security situation will get worse over the winter, but spring will present a big challenge for Afghans, for the Taliban, as the economic situation is bad and internal conflict is worsening. There are a lot of factors favoring recruitment for the Islamic State-Khorasan Province. Of the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] who were left behind, I am receiving reports from different areas that, in order to have some protection, they see the Islamic State as a better platform for themselves. And I think the Islamic State is accepting them.

Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), shows his weapon collection during an interview at his home in Kabul on June 22.

Rahmatullah Nabil shows his weapon collection during an interview at his home in Kabul on June 22. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

FP: What challenges are the Taliban facing, and what challenges have they created for their supporters in Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China?

RN: Taliban leadership in general is between a rock and a hard place.

If they make some changes and include educated Afghans, technocrats, or women in their system, they will lose the support of their foot soldiers who have been brainwashed for 20 years that a victorious Taliban would implement sharia law: no women, no technocrats, no one who worked for the “puppet” government of the American occupiers. This was the only way to recruit fighters. If they cede to pressure from the international community, they will lose their war engine. And they are afraid the extreme young generation of their fighters may join the Islamic State-Khorasan, which has a regional agenda.

If they lose the support of the population because they are unable to alleviate poverty or deal with the economic situation, this will have an impact on their legitimacy throughout the region. Russia, Iran, Pakistan, all of them are playing a double game.

Iran was thinking in the beginning they could work with the Taliban once the United States exited the region. They want to have a relationship with the Taliban because they are not controlled by the United States, and so they can reduce the pressure of [U.S.] sanctions by trading through Afghanistan. Now, they see the monopoly of power is in the hands of a small group—no Shiites, no Hazaras—and so they worry about their strategic interests.

The Russians are playing a double game, trying both soft- and hard-power approaches, through Uzbekistan, which can help with big projects, and Tajikistan, where they allow the resistance to be based in case they need them in the future.

The Chinese were excited in the beginning, as they thought they could use the Taliban to control the East Turkestan independence movement [a Uyghur group that challenges Beijing’s authority over China’s Xinjiang region]. But now, they see that is not the case, as the regional terrorist organizations have more power than the Taliban in the north of Afghanistan, where the movement is based.

Within the Taliban … the Haqqanis have taken control of Kabul, and Siraj Haqqani is turning the Ministry of Interior Affairs into a “super ministry” through which he wants control of the borders, airports, passports, district governors, and police chiefs. He has security and intelligence. 

The Ministry of Defense will not be strong because they think that because they are not fighting another country, they do not need a strong army—just 60,000 or 70,000 to find a place for their soldiers and corps commanders. This is increasing tensions between the factions.

Pakistan has thrown all its support behind Haqqani to become a “super minister.” But they are worried about the way the Taliban are running the show so far. If the Taliban collapse, then Pakistan will pay a very high price because they have invested 20 years and lost a lot of international support. They are trying to convince the Taliban to include pro-Pakistan technocrats in their system in return for lobbying for international recognition. And they are worried about a backlash from the Pakistan Taliban because the victory of the Taliban has boosted the morale of all extremist groups worldwide.

These are many different challenges: international, regional, internal, economic collapse, women’s resistance, the new generation’s resistance. Afghanistan has changed. So far, it seems the Taliban have not changed. 

FP: How credible is the anti-Taliban resistance movement gathering around its leaders, Ahmad Massoud and former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, in Tajikistan?

RN: The resistance is yet to have any unity of message and purpose. It will take some time. I’m pretty sure there will not be just one resistance under Ahmad [son of late anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud]. Probably there will be several others with different approaches and strategies. People like me, who are in the majority, believe we shouldn’t push for armed conflict but try to have a resistance for a moderate system, in which the traditional and modern societies of Afghanistan come up with one solution because we have been ignoring each other for 40 years. The communists were ignoring the traditional society in the villages. The mujahideen and Taliban are ignoring the educated Afghans. We should find a middle way in which everyone sees themselves together within the system. Monopoly of power should not be part of any discussion, whether it is based on ethnicity or way of thinking, generation, or gender. 

FP: The Taliban remain the world’s biggest drug-producing and trafficking cartel, with control over the global heroin market and a recent move into methamphetamines. Why is this not being discussed more?

RN: One of Russia’s biggest agenda items is to convince the Taliban to stop the drugs business because Russia has a lot of vulnerability from this. Iran is benefiting from it as most of these drug lords are paying around $2,000 tax per kilogram for safe passage [across the border]. In Pakistan, some military officers do the same, transporting the drugs from Chaman to Karachi. That’s why nobody is talking about it. 

As far as the Western countries are concerned, they are hoping that as things settle down in Afghanistan, this situation will also gradually change. The Western alliance couldn’t do anything about the drugs during their 20 years in Afghanistan, and now they are not taking it so seriously. So this is why nobody is talking about the drugs.

FP: It has been more than two months since former President Ashraf Ghani and his team fled Afghanistan amid accusations of theft of public funds. Do you think they should face investigation?

RN: Everyone who was involved over the past 20 years should be investigated and brought to justice, not just Ghani. But he should be at the top of the list.

There are so many things that should be investigated: from the pardon of the people who looted Kabul Bank to the collapse of the armed forces. This would be of some help to those Afghans who believed in democracy and governance and sacrificed their lives while others who came from abroad and looted the country are now living a comfortable life. Nobody should be allowed to feel that whatever they did there has no accountability—including me, as I was the head of the NDS and a lot of Taliban were thinking that I have the blood of Afghans on my hands. I quit my job [in late 2015], and the reason was because I did not agree with Ghani’s monopoly of power, [Pashtun] ethnic dominance, corruption, nepotism, human rights violations. All of this should be investigated, and transitional justice should be applied.

It will take a long time, but the international community can help and the governments of countries where people who stole a lot of money have fled to. Those governments know how much money they have, and they can freeze those assets. That money should be returned to the Afghan people for whom it was meant, who are now struggling to survive this winter while there are people enjoying their fancy lives in different countries and they are not bothered with what happened in Afghanistan.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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