Last update: April 2022
This update is published in the context of significant recent changes in the situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban takeover in August 2021 is likely to result in important changes in the assessment of international protection needs. However, the extent of the impact of these changes cannot in some cases be conclusively assessed in the early stages following the takeover. The current situation presents a lack of clarity regarding the policies and behaviours the Taliban will pursue. It is also unclear to what extent the Taliban members in the different regions of the country would behave differently from what is communicated by their leadership in Kabul.
Since 2001, there have been ‘multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts’ between government forces and armed groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), among others. The Taliban have been active in Afghanistan for decades and their leadership ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 when it was removed from power by the US and international forces. The group continued to conduct an insurgency following its removal [State structure, 1.1; Security June 2021, 1.2.2; Anti-government elements, 2.1].
On 29 February 2020, after more than 18 years of conflict, the US and the Taliban signed an ‘agreement for bringing peace’ to Afghanistan. The main points outlined in the Doha agreement included guarantees by the Taliban on not providing protection to groups such as Al Qaeda, that pose a threat to the US and its allies; and guarantees by the US and their NATO allies to withdraw from Afghanistan. During the intra-Afghan talks, the Taliban demanded the establishment of a strict Islamic government while the Afghan government’s highest priority was the implementation of a ceasefire. The Taliban demanded to implement the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence as the main source of legislation in the country in the future [Security June 2021, 1.1.3].
Since the Doha agreement of February 2020, the US military has been less involved in direct conflict in Afghanistan. In general, the Taliban stopped their offensives against the US troops and interests in Afghanistan while the group intensified its attacks against the ANSF. The Taliban initiated their final offensive on 1 May 2021, the same day the withdrawal of international forces was initiated [Security June 2021, 1.3; Security September 2021, 1.1.1].
During the summer months of 2021, the Taliban swept over Afghanistan and took control over several districts, notably in the northern provinces and districts encircling the provincial capitals.
In the first week of August 2021, the Taliban advanced, and in less than nine days they took control over most of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. During the last days of this offensive, key cities fell as Afghan forces surrendered. On 15 August 2021, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, the police and other government forces gave up their posts, and Taliban fighters entered the city and overtook control of its checkpoints. Taliban leaders entered the presidential palace, addressed media the following day, and declared the war to be over [Security September 2021, 1.1.1].
There were few reports of armed clashes since the last advance of the Taliban and the over-taking of Kabul in mid-August 2021. However, a resistance force emerged in Panjshir, under the name National Resistance Front (NRF). The group was controlling the Panjshir Valley, where armed confrontations took place between the opposition forces and the Taliban. The Taliban announced the seizure of Panjshir on 6 September 2021. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether fighting is ongoing and contrasting news were reported.
Since the Taliban took over Kabul, tens of thousands of people entered or assembled outside the airfield of Hamid Karzai International Airport in the city trying to leave the country. Turmoil resulted in several deaths. Emergency evacuations took place in the last weeks of August. Sources reported that more than 114 000 persons had been evacuated since 14 August and until the end of this month. Many states evacuated their citizens, persons with residence permits or similar links to their country, as well as persons that had assisted diplomatic missions or military forces, such as embassy staff and interpreters. Some countries also evacuated persons that they considered to be at risk under the new circumstances [Security September 2021, 1.1.3].
On 26 August the airport was attacked in two bomb blasts, which killed more than 170 persons and injured 200 others. Both civilians and US military personnel were killed in the attack, claimed by ISKP. During the last days of August, US sources claimed to have repelled several other terrorist attacks against Kabul’s international airport [Security September 2021, 1.1.3, 1.4.1]. On 30 August, right before midnight, the last US forces left Afghanistan as the final evacuation flights departed from Kabul’s international airport [Security September 2021, 1.3.1].
Following the sudden collapse of the former government of Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of the capital Kabul, the Taliban announced the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), which was previously in power in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. In October 2021, the Taliban called on Afghan media to refer to them as the IEA and not to use terms like the ‘Taliban group’ or ‘Taliban faction’. They further stated that they controlled the entire territory of Afghanistan and provided service to the people. The Taliban searched for international recognition, as well as assistance to avoid a humanitarian and economic disaster in Afghanistan. However, no country officially recognised the IEA, and the UN referred to the Taliban as the ‘de facto’ authorities. Yet, some countries kept their embassies open in Kabul, for instance China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and Qatar, and some engaged with the announced interim government. In late October 2021, the Taliban declared that they met the conditions for international recognition, as several stakeholders met with them, including the US, some EU Member States, Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan. The Express Tribune, however, reported that Pakistan, Russia, China and the US had agreed on a continuation of ‘practical engagement’ with the Taliban but had asked them to follow ‘moderate policies’, and to ‘do more’ before a formal recognition could be considered [Country Focus 2022, 1.1.1].
The Taliban announced an interim government on 7 September 2021 and two additional rounds of appointments followed. As of 5 October 2021, the interim government was composed of over 30 ministries, including the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Under the previous Taliban rule, one of the main functions of the body was to enforce the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia and there are reports that the new Ministry already has issued guidelines on topics related to ‘Islamic values’. All appointments to the interim government consisted of persons from within the Taliban movement. Many of them had served in the government of the 1990s. Furthermore, the cabinet comprised several persons registered on the UN Security Council’s sanction list, and also included three out of five senior Taliban members that were held by the US in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade. Regarding the Taliban’s affiliation with armed groups, the Haqqani network was included in the interim government by the appointment of Serajuddin Haqqani as Minister of Interior. The appointments to the interim government were all-male, and most were Pashtuns and clericals. Only few appointments included persons from other ethnicities than Pashtuns, such as members from the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara communities. There were some reports on ethnic representation on local level, for instance in Panjshir (which is predominantly populated by members of the Tajik community) and in Bamyan from the Hazara community [Country Focus 2022, 1.1.2].
The Taliban did not announce in detail how they intend to govern Afghanistan, nor which type of political system they envisaged to adopt. Instead, there was a tendency to refer to Sharia as the legal system they were going to impose. During the first press conference after the takeover, Taliban spokesmen said that the Taliban had changed during the past 20 years in terms of experience, maturity and vision, but that Afghanistan was still a Muslim nation and that there would be ‘a strong Islamic government’. They announced that they intended to act on the basis of their principles, religion and culture, and emphasised the importance of Islam and that ‘nothing should be against Islamic values’. After the announcement of the interim government, the Taliban did not give any time indications on how long it would hold office or on which constitutional basis it would function, and they did not indicate that they would hold elections. The interim government was considered to be ‘modelled on the same system’ as in the 1990s with both a spiritual leader and a prime minister heading the government. Looking at its decision-making structure, the announced emirate could be described as a religious theocracy ruled by the commander of believers and supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada [Country Focus 2022, 1.1.3]. Sources pointed at ideological differences between factions within the Taliban and tensions between an ‘older’ and a ‘younger’ generation. Other reports speculated on internal competition and in-fighting [Country Focus 2022, 1.3].
As they had the complete state apparatus to manage after the takeover, as well as the need to provide basic public services, an initial approach seemed to be to incorporate elements of the existing civil service into the new administration. Appointments were made to central ministries and within the provincial administration and persons, working for the previous administration were asked to return to work. Women public servants were only invited back to resume work in some positions. However, many employees within the state administration evacuated in August, some did not resume their jobs despite the general amnesty that was issued after the takeover, and there were also reported issues in paying salaries [Country Focus 2022, 1.2.1, 2.3.1].
The Taliban have also started to build up security institutions. In September 2021, it was announced that the Taliban were working to form a regular army. Taliban officials made public statements indicating plans to improve organization and marshal fighters and called on members related to defence, interior and intelligence agencies to move to military bases. It was also stated that a training programme is underway, that professionals will be deployed on all levels and called on former police personnel to return to work [Country Focus 2022, 1.2.2].
With regard to the justice system under the Taliban see section 4. Actors of protection.
UNDP warned in November 2021 of a possible collapse of the banking system within the coming months due to the inability to repay loans, cash liquidity crunch and lower deposits. Since the Taliban takeover, maintaining the electricity supply has been a major issue as power bills have not been paid, and WSJ reported on Kabul facing blackouts in October 2021. In September 2021, the WHO Director-General described the Afghan health system as ‘on the brink of collapse’ and pointed out the cuts in donor support leading to reduced operations and health facilities shutting down. Schools reopened after the takeover, except for secondary education for girls which remained closed in most parts of the country. Difficulties to pay salaries to teachers and other staff were also reported. On 6 October 2021, the passport distribution service reportedly begun in Kabul, although it later halted due to technical issues. There were reports that passports had been issued in some provinces and that the Taliban announced the service would be provided in additional provinces, although only passports of the previous government style were issued [Country Focus 2022, 1.2.1].
Interruption of international aid and disruption of trade and the banking system followed immediately after the Taliban took over the country. Foreign grants, amounting to around 8.5 billion dollars a year, were frozen due to sanctions on insurgent movements and their leaders. Besides the largest part of the international aid, Afghanistan’s currency reserves were also frozen. These financial sanctions, which paralysed Afghanistan’s economy, were the primary cause for ‘the dire humanitarian situation’ in the country, according to UNAMA [Country Focus 2022, 3.4].
The prices of food commodities in Afghanistan were reported to have increased significantly from June to September 2021, and most of the Afghanistan’s population reported a decrease in household incomes compared to 2020. According to Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis for September 2021, nearly half of Afghanistan’s population was reported to experience ‘high levels of food insecurity,’ while the figures of ‘food insecure people’ were the highest since the first IPC analysis in 2013, which made the situation in Afghanistan ‘the world’s second-largest food crisis, in absolute terms. Based on World Food Programme (WFP) surveys, for the first time, urban residents were reported to have faced the same level of food insecurity as rural residents, with ‘virtually no family’ in urban and rural environments that would be able to ‘afford sufficient food’. The reasons behind the deterioration in food access were reported to comprise climate conditions (droughts), high food prices, international sanctions, increasing unemployment, and ‘possibly increased displacement’ [Country Focus 2022, 3.4].
In September 2021, the WHO Director-General described the Afghan health system as ‘on the brink of collapse’ and pointed out the cuts in donor support leading to reduced operations and health facilities shutting down. According to the statement, cuts to the country’s largest health project, Sehatmandi, have left thousands of health facilities without funding for medical supplies and salaries for health staff, with only 17 % of Sehatmandi health facilities being fully functional. Since then, there have been additional reports on a deteriorating situation with, inter alia, unpaid salaries to medical personnel, shortages in medicines and equipment as well as a decreased access to healthcare among women, and a drop in rates of skilled birth attendance [Country Focus 2022, 1.2.1].
Taliban’s perception of people who decide to leave Afghanistan remains unclear. On one hand, it seems that Taliban understand the economic aspect of someone’s decision to leave the country. For this reason, they have prioritised the issue of passports for Afghans labours working abroad as that would mean an income for the country. On the other hand, there were also negative perceptions of people leaving Afghanistan by the Taliban, including narratives describing them as lacking Islamic values, not being 'good Muslims' or being on the run for things they have done [Country Focus 2022, 2.11].
At the time of writing, the situation in Afghanistan is still evolving, rendering particularly difficult in some cases conclusive assessment of international protection needs. The following elements can be highlighted:
Due to the transitional period that Afghanistan undergoes at the time of writing, a number of forward-looking questions related to the type of state and rule that may be established by the Taliban are difficult to answer with certainty at this stage.
While the future behaviour of the Taliban lacks certain predictability, profiles who were previously targeted by the Taliban may be at an increased risk, taking into account this actor’s increased capabilities and territorial control.
The level of indiscriminate violence in the country is considered to be significantly lower than before (the Taliban takeover). However, the future risk of indiscriminate violence in any part of the country, should always be based on the most recent information concerning the dynamics in the particular area as well as the country as a whole.
Limitations with regard to reliable reporting should also be taken into account, as underreporting from Afghanistan or certain parts of the country is likely.
Taliban’s perception and potential treatment of individuals leaving Afghanistan remains unclear.