The Taliban Won Afghanistan's Civil War. But Will it Win the Peace? | Opinion

There is no disputing the reality in Afghanistan anymore: after a weeks-long blitz, the Taliban are now the dominant actor on the ground. In fact, with the group in full control of Kabul, a city of 5 million people, the Taliban have taken on the trappings of Afghanistan's de-facto government.

Right now, Taliban fighters are in a boisterous mood. With the last American C-17 departing Kabul on Aug. 30, the Taliban's position is now virtually unchallenged except for a small resistance front in the Panjshir Valley that is now surrounded by Taliban fighters. Celebratory gunfire rang through Kabul during the night on Monday, the final day of Washington's 20 year-long presence in the country. The once impenetrable Green Zone is now a Taliban fiefdom, with the movement's political leaders setting up camp in former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's old offices. "Afghanistan is finally free," Hekmatullah Wasiq, a top Taliban official, said after the last U.S. troops evacuated. "Everything is peaceful. Everything is safe."

In the ensuing weeks and months, however, the Taliban may discover that trying to administer an impoverished, land-locked country divided along tribal, ethnic and political lines is in many ways more difficult than overthrowing a corrupt, foreign-dependent government in Kabul. While the Taliban has some experience operating shadow ministries in the provinces, collecting taxes over the people it rules and meting out justice as it sees fit, running an entire country of nearly 40 million people is a totally different ballgame.

Afghanistan's economic situation, never good on a normal day, is now in crisis mode. For the last 20 years, the nation's economic productivity has hinged almost entirely on the generosity of the United States, the European Union and other wealthy donors who paid for everything from the salaries of police officers to large infrastructure projects. The international community accounts for almost 80 percent of Afghanistan's public expenditures. But with the Taliban now in power, all of these monetary contributions are cut off for the time being. The Biden administration has no intention of rushing into recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government, which means the economic resources, grants and goodies Afghan politicians and bureaucrats grew to expect on an annual basis are now frozen. Ordinarily, a government in such a predicament would have to tap into its foreign reserves to stabilize the currency and make up for the shortfall. Unfortunately for the Taliban, they don't have access to those reserves, roughly $9 billion of which is held in overseas banks, including the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The same goes for the European Union. Before Kabul fell to the Taliban, the EU was scheduled to spend roughly $1.1 billion on Afghanistan-related projects over the next seven years. Those funds are now in jeopardy of being re-appropriated; according to EU officials, the money will only be dispersed if the Taliban meet strict human rights benchmarks.

Taliban fighters patrol on vehicles
Taliban fighters patrol on vehicles along a street in Kabul on Sept. 2, 2021. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Global lending organizations won't step up to the plate either. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have blocked hundreds of millions of dollars that were previously earmarked for Afghanistan. Because the member states that make up both organizations don't consider the Taliban to be Afghanistan's formal governing authorities, the funds are now held in limbo, inaccessible to Kabul's new overlords. Concerned about violating U.S. sanctions against the Taliban, financial institutions will remain cautious before participating in the Afghan market. Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, are spending hours in line trying to get to an ATM so they can withdraw funds, which are now limited to $200 per customer nationwide. Many return home empty-handed because the banks have run out of money. Afghans who work in the public sector haven't been paid in months.

The Taliban will be able to weather the storm for a short time, particularly as it begins to open up trade with neighboring countries and if it successfully convinces countries like Russia and China that they are no longer the closed-fisted brutes who ran Afghanistan in the mid to late 1990s. But at some point, the financial pressure may become too much to bear for the movement and perhaps for Afghans, which after two decades of economic growth (granted, on the backs of contractors and thanks to infusions of foreign cash) expect more from their leaders than basic subsistence. The Taliban recognize this, which is why they have spent the last several weeks pleading for civil servants to go back to their offices and for educated Afghans to stay in Afghanistan instead of fleeing to the West.

Taliban fighters spent 20 years seeking to return to power, a goal they finally accomplished recently. But sustaining an insurgency is not the same thing as running an even semi-competent government. The Taliban have won the war but are in the beginning stages of trying to win the peace. This will require some degree of constructive cooperation with the world, most specifically the United States, the very adversary it spent so long fighting. If the Taliban want access to the cash and banking channels needed to manage a country in the 21st century, the leadership may have no choice but to start finding a way to prove its worth to Washington on issues like counterterrorism.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.