Afghanistan News

Here Is Why the Taliban Cannot Change

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021, many observers naively believed their promises to instate a more moderate rule. Mustafa Suroush, an Afghan native and a former government official, explains why this was never possible. The Taliban’s ideals, methods and resources are incompatible with any kind of real liberalization.

Kabul, Afghanistan, August 10, 2021, Old Taliban tanks and guns on the outskirts of Kabul city © Trent Inness /

July 17, 2023 23:24 EDT

The Taliban’s ban on women’s access to work and education is the latest example of the regime’s incapability to change and moderate. If there was initially any realistic hope within the international community of the Taliban reversing their discriminatory and extreme policies, those hopes appear to be evaporating. 

The US-Taliban agreement signed on February 29, 2020, and the cowardly escape of President Ashraf Ghani paved the way for the final collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in the face of the Taliban’s assault on August 15, 2021. Afghanistan was submerged back into an age of darkness.

The political and humanitarian crisis only grows larger and deeper. In response, NATO member states, along with the UN and other humanitarian organizations, have been sending aid to Afghanistan to uplift the Taliban-made crisis. The country has received some $2.4 billion in aid since the start of 2022.

The international community has been attempting to influence the Taliban to moderate their discriminatory policies, form an inclusive government, respect human rights and prevent the spread of terrorism outside of Afghanistan. However, engaging with the Taliban in the hope of change remains unrealistic, because moderation is against the Taliban’s ideological necessities.

The ideological ends

The Taliban are a Pashtun tribal and Islamist ideological group whose their ideology and practice consist of three elements: ends, ways and means. First, let us speak of the ends.

They have two types of goals: earthly life, and the afterlife. In the afterlife, their grand vision is to go to heaven.

In this life, they primarily want to implement their self-invented sharia (Islamic law) by establishing an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA)—an Afghanistan where an emir or supreme leader rules, and the rest unquestionably obey and practice the Taliban’s version of sharia. The Taliban arrive at their legal conclusions by a creative application of sunna (practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad), ijma (juridical consensus), qiyas (reasoning based on analogies with other rulings), and the principle of sadaqah (benevolence).

Mullah Haibatullah, the purported supreme leader of the Taliban, ordered full implementation of sharia. “You have used the mother of all bombs and you are welcome to use even the atomic bomb against us because nothing can scare us into taking any step that is against Islam or sharia,” Haibatullah said, addressing the United States.

Further, the Taliban have been subjugating non-Pashtun ethnic groups, particularly the Hazaras. Taliban leaders lay stress on the execution of Pashtunwali—the Pashtun people’s traditional code of ethics—in an ethnically diverse Afghanistan. It includes a number of principles, but the most important ones involve the subjection of women, the promotion of revenge and the protection of honor, property and country by any means and resources at one’s disposal.

Understanding the Taliban’s end goals is therefore crucial for better making sense of their policy intentions and objectives. 

The ideological ways

The Taliban’s approach is elimination, exclusion, suppression and submission. Their manifesto prescribes terminating any resistance against the IEA by force. Maulawi Mujeeb Rahman Ansari, one of the Taliban’s ideological allies, said that “anyone who opposes the current government should be beheaded.”

Following their supreme leader’s instructions, the Taliban have killed hundreds of their opponents since their 2021 takeover of the country. Last year, the Taliban massacred 8 Hazaras including, children aged 6–14 and women and men from the same family in a mass shooting at their home in Daikundi province. In a separate incident, Hasht e Subh Daily reported that the Taliban had shot dead 27 people on suspicion of having affiliations with the National Resistance Front in Panjshir. The Taliban’s IEA consistently opts for annihilation over dialogue and negotiation.

The Taliban have excluded and repressed others. Their cabinet is composed of 33 male members who have monopolistically come from the Pashtuns (30 members), Tajiks (two members) and Uzbeks (one member). This arrangement excludes four major ethnic groups and more than a dozen other ethnic groups that live in Afghanistan.

Citizens have been turned into subjects. They must obey the orders of the IEA. They must grow their beard, dress and worship per the Taliban’s version of Islamic principles, an intrusion into the private affairs of the people.

In a similar fashion, the IEA has tragically enslaved women and reinstituted gender apartheid. They believe the woman’s domain is completely isolated from the public sphere and that a woman’s job is to take care of the home, cook, bear children and serve men. This is why they denied the rights to education and to work for women, removing half of the population from social, political and economic activities, imposed the burqa (full cover) and banned travel without chaperones.

The Taliban have responded to the women’s civil protests with gunshots. Moreover, the remaining civil society organizations and political parties are silenced by systematic subjugation. There is no sign of tolerance in the IEA’s conduct for others who are not members. 

In addition, the Taliban view modern values—e.g., democracy, elections and human rights—as un-Islamic. They contend that their IEA alternative is a flawless and ideal socio-political arrangement. The IEA opposes modern education. Mullah Haibatullah said, “Over the past 20 years, there have been a lot of anti-sharia and anti-Islam rhetoric and laws which are made by the people are not implementable.” Their manifesto instead dictates that (male) citizens attend obligatory Islamic education at religious seminaries. They have begun turning modern schools into Madrasas and religious seminaries. Eradicating the liberal institutions, which were primarily imported by the Western coalition post-9/11 into Afghanistan, is now a top priority for the IEA.

The ideological means

The Taliban enjoy abundant resources in line with their ideological aspirations and modus operandi. Domestically, they mobilize their human resources from among the most illiterate and poorest Pashtun communities, normally coming out of religious seminaries and rural areas. Before ousting the democratic government in 2021, they had 60,000 core fighters and another 140,000 auxiliary members.

Financially, the Taliban rely on two main sources of income. They collect taxes and extract natural resources, and they receive aid from backers abroad. The IEA collected $270 million in tax revenue between August and November in 2021. The IEA utilizes illegal opium cultivation and drug trade, illicit mining, unlawful export, extortion and illegitimate taxation. According to NATO, the Taliban made $1.6 billion from illegal sources only in 2020.

In terms of foreign money, the Taliban used to receive generous support during their insurgency period. The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) reported in January 2021 that the Taliban were enjoying a great deal of financial, logistical and technical assistance coming from neighboring and Gulf countries, private donors, cross-board extremist groups and the al-Qaeda network. The Taliban are hence one of the wealthiest extremist groups in the world.

The Taliban will not change any time soon

Many in the international community and some political actors in Afghanistan expected the Taliban to have positively changed prior to returning to power for the second time in August 2021. The argument was that the Taliban must have learned from their past colossal mistakes made during their 1996–2001 rule.

The most glaring of those mistakes was the stubborn refusal of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s founder and supreme leader, to surrender Osama Bin Laden to US authorities after the 9/11 attack. That refusal prompted the US to lead international coalition forces which ousted the IEA in November 2001.

Thereafter, the Taliban claimed that they had softened their fundamentalist views and behaviors. It proved to be a tactic to deceive the people of Afghanistan and the international community.

Expecting the Taliban to moderate themselves was naive. They are the product of a rigid, absolutist and fundamentalist Islamic and tribal value system. Democratic governance, human rights and scientific knowledge threaten their existence. Implementing self-interpreted Islamic-divine laws, together with Pashtunwali principles, is their core objective. The Taliban’s ideologues realize that they are stronger if they stick to their radical ideals as a way of survival and endurance.

The international community has two options. It can continue the ongoing engagement with the Taliban, which would further harm the citizens of Afghanistan and jeopardize regional and global security. Or, it can subvert the Taliban by opening avenues for dialogue and supporting various democratic adversaries of the Taliban, such as women leaders, political activists and representatives of ethnic groups and importantly the young generation. These groups can take a hand in determining Afghanistan’s future.

The international community must stipulate specific conditions for aid going to Afghanistan. It must terminate free travel and prevent any direct engagement with the IEA. The Taliban’s arrogance and impudence will with time be sapped while the international community’s negotiation power increases.

[Christian Hadjipateras and Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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