Afghanistan, 1 Year Later: ‘It’s a Really Dire Situation’

Two experts on the Taliban’s governing style—and why Pakistan has “buyer’s remorse.”

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Men in colorful outfits stand around on a sandy road.
Men in colorful outfits stand around on a sandy road.
Taliban fighters stand along a road in the Paryan district of Panjshir province, Afghanistan, on July 8. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Monday will mark the first anniversary of an event that shocked America’s sharpest military minds as much as it did the rest of the world. Taliban fighters, energized by U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement that his troops would withdraw from the country, seized the presidential palace in Kabul and made their own declaration: “The war,” they said, “is over.”

But what happens when the forever war ends? The killings don’t stop, for one. The Taliban, Foreign Policy columnist Lynne O’Donnell told me in an FP Live this week, are “a regime that is uncomfortable with anything but violence.” O’Donnell should know: She was reporting from the capital for Foreign Policy when it fell, and she was detained by the Taliban on a return trip last month.

I had other big questions about the state of Afghanistan one year on, too—like what the U.S. drone strike that killed al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri tells us about how the Taliban are governing the country, and whether Pakistan regrets its tacit endorsement of the Taliban now that the group’s brutality is once again in full view. I put those questions and more to O’Donnell and Michael Kugelman, the Afghanistan expert who writes Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

Monday will mark the first anniversary of an event that shocked America’s sharpest military minds as much as it did the rest of the world. Taliban fighters, energized by U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement that his troops would withdraw from the country, seized the presidential palace in Kabul and made their own declaration: “The war,” they said, “is over.”

But what happens when the forever war ends? The killings don’t stop, for one. The Taliban, Foreign Policy columnist Lynne O’Donnell told me in an FP Live this week, are “a regime that is uncomfortable with anything but violence.” O’Donnell should know: She was reporting from the capital for Foreign Policy when it fell, and she was detained by the Taliban on a return trip last month.

I had other big questions about the state of Afghanistan one year on, too—like what the U.S. drone strike that killed al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri tells us about how the Taliban are governing the country, and whether Pakistan regrets its tacit endorsement of the Taliban now that the group’s brutality is once again in full view. I put those questions and more to O’Donnell and Michael Kugelman, the Afghanistan expert who writes Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

Subscribers can watch the full interview here. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Foreign Policy: Lynne, what did your recent experience of being detained by the Taliban reveal to you about their ability to rule?

Lynne O’Donnell: I think that it’s a really good question, because it takes it beyond me and my experience and into the realm of what it’s really like in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and that was the reason that I went. It had been almost a year since I left Afghanistan on the 15th of August, as the Taliban were entering the city, and there’s been so much confusion about what the situation there is really like. And so I wanted to go and see for myself.

What I learned was, aside from a kind of comical level of incompetence, was the impunity with which Taliban officials believe that they can operate. I was threatened and held against all conventions of human rights and international law. People who I came in contact with were later detained and interrogated. My driver was held incommunicado for three days. He was beaten up, deprived of sleep. His phone and his car were kept, though were given back to him after about a week. But … even the manager of the guesthouse where I stayed was threatened. He was told, we can come and shut you down whenever we want. So there is this undercurrent of violence, and we’ve been hearing for the past year some terrible stories about arbitrary detentions and beatings. A lot of people are still in prison and in hiding. And a lot of people have fled over land borders.

It’s a regime that is uncomfortable with anything but violence, and the only way of pressing its authority is through the threat or the use of violence.

FP: Michael, what did the strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri [on July 31] reveal about the Taliban’s ability to govern the country?

Michael Kugelman: Certainly that strike exploded the myth propagated by the Taliban that they are denying space to terrorist groups. And it was a clear violation of the Doha Agreement, which was the agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban in 2020, which says that the Taliban will not let Afghan soil be used by those that threaten the security of the U.S. For many, the Doha deal is viewed as a source of international legitimacy for the Taliban. So it’s a big blow in that regard.

Clearly, Zawahiri could not have been living where he was, for as long as he did, without someone high up in the Taliban knowing—and, indeed, the Taliban had been known to control that neighborhood where he was very tightly. And there have been multiple reports indicating that a close aide of Siraj Haqqani owned the house where Zawahiri was. And, of course, Siraj Haqqani is a top leader in the Haqqani network, and he happens to be the interior minister of the Taliban regime. So I think that it will certainly make it harder for the Taliban to get the international recognition that many, but not all, of their leaders want. But I’d argue that for many countries, the biggest concern is about terrorism risks and concerns that the Taliban is not doing enough to curb terrorism on its soil. Clearly, when the head of al Qaeda is discovered to be living right in the middle of Kabul, it’s going to raise those concerns even more.

FP: Michael, how is Islamabad viewing the Taliban’s rule and dealing with it? I know you watch Pakistan very closely.

MK: My sense is that perhaps Pakistan has had a bit of a buyer’s remorse, in the sense that the Taliban is now in control in Kabul. Initially, I think that may have been welcomed by many within the state, because for many years Pakistan’s main interest in Afghanistan is for there to be a government in Kabul friendly to Pakistan. And, of course, the Taliban has had a long relationship with Pakistan, but we’ve seen over the last year that a number of tensions have cropped into the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban.

One of them is over the issue of the border. The Taliban has never accepted the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and that’s in line with just about every government in Afghanistan that’s been in power since Pakistan became independent. All Afghan governments in recent years have not accepted that border, and the Taliban hasn’t either, and Pakistani soldiers have been trying to put up fencing along the border, and they got into a bit of a tussle with Afghan fighters.

The other issue is the Pakistani Taliban. Indeed, this is a threat to Pakistan. It’s ramped up its attacks in Pakistan in recent months. It’s based in Afghanistan. And Pakistan might have hoped that the Taliban would try to curb that threat, but it has not. The Taliban has mediated talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani state. They haven’t gone very well. They’ve reached an impasse. And so, as a result, Pakistan does have a problem on its hands.

Now, the relationship certainly between the Pakistani state and the Taliban in Afghanistan is more complex than many suggest. There’s always been some disagreements. Some within the Taliban have mistrusted Pakistan for a number of reasons, but I think that’s sort of been brought out a bit more now that the Taliban is in power. But for sure, despite all that, I think the Taliban does look to Pakistan as a country that it hopes can assist, whether in terms of financial assistance or assistance beyond that. But again, no country, including Pakistan, has been willing to recognize the Taliban regime yet, which is significant.

FP: You mentioned the phrase “buyer’s remorse.” India, on the other hand, which definitely didn’t want this situation at all, has just reopened its embassy in Kabul. They’d obviously prefer a democracy in the region, but they are now engaging in diplomatic discussions with the Taliban. How is that working out?

MK: For me, one of the most striking takeaways are the regional geopolitics. There were many observers that thought that once the U.S. left, that countries like China and Russia and Pakistan would swoop in and be willing to work with the Taliban, and that would disadvantage India, which had been very close to the non-Taliban governments but clearly does not have a friendship with the Taliban. And Taliban fighters have attacked Indian interests and Indian nationals in Afghanistan in the past. But instead, Pakistan has had these problems with the Taliban, and India has indeed moved in, partially reopened its embassy. And I think it’s in some ways a very shrewd decision in the sense that New Delhi likely believes that it’s easier to pursue its own interests in Afghanistan with more of a presence on the ground.

India does have a long history of providing development assistance to the country. It wants to keep exploring how to pursue its own interests regarding its concerns about terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which do have a presence in Afghanistan and threaten India. I think India certainly wants to be able to try to counter potential Pakistani and Chinese moves in Afghanistan.

And, finally, India wants to try to facilitate access to Central Asia, a critical region for India, looking to markets and energy resources there.

FP: Lynne, I want to ask you about the broader humanitarian situation on the ground. You’ve obviously covered this over the last year, but also in the years when you were living there. What’s your sense of the additional steps that the international community could take to make more of a difference?

LO: It’s very difficult to answer. I think there’s been an awful lot of revisionism in the last year with people wanting to believe that the Taliban takeover has made things terrible, whereas they were pretty terrible under the republic as well. Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world. Its government was one of the most corrupt. Even before the collapse of the republic, U.N. agencies were predicting 11 million people would be facing hunger and children would die last winter. The Taliban have made that worse, of course, because they don’t know how to run an economy, and they don’t seem to be trying. And even though there are attempts to say that they’re much more efficient and much less corrupt, for instance, collecting taxes at the borders, that money isn’t going into feeding people, creating jobs, developing an economy where people have the hope that things will get better tomorrow.

I would say probably a first step would be to get moving on the negotiations for the release of not just 50 percent but 100 percent of the $9 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. There has to be a way of making sure that that money can reach Afghan people. You have to get money flowing so that businesspeople can pay employees, buy supplies, and really get the economy moving. What I found when I went there was everything had stopped. There was no commercial activity at all. Bread prices tripled. People queuing up at the very rare functioning construction site for work as day laborers. No cars on the streets, because petrol is unaffordable, and the Taliban have stolen cars owned by private citizens. It’s a really dire situation. One diplomat suggested to me there could be food riots, there could be mass demonstrations against the humiliation of the poverty that people have been plunged into.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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