Since taking power in Afghanistan on Aug. 15, the Taliban have encountered a new set of problems. As an insurgent group, they aimed to undermine security in the country, but as they transition to full state control, they now need to maintain law and order. Forming a conventional army appears to be one of the group’s security objectives, but they will face obstacles in sustaining an organized fighting force and formulating a model that fits the Afghan context, including few financial resources, low technical skills, significant security threats, and intra-Taliban friction.
The Taliban are not making this transition out of military necessity; they have confidence in their own ability to control the Pashtun belt (although this might be misplaced given the intensifying Islamic State activities in the east). Instead, the Taliban are concerned about their image. For the international community, seeing Afghanistan under the control of a former insurgent force, without uniforms and clearly identifiable chains of command, only makes it harder to seriously consider cooperation with the new regime.
The Taliban had their own security governance system before their takeover of the country, centered around local Taliban units (essentially village militias), an intelligence system, and a shadow government, inclusive of provincial and district governors and courts. The system was geared toward controlling the population, especially in areas of strong Taliban presence, and toward hampering the old regime’s efforts to spy on their movement. Population control was effective: The Taliban tracked individual movements in and out of their areas of operations, and their hit teams killed close to 1,000 “collaborators” each year.
The Taliban’s courts administered justice based on the group’s interpretation of Islamic law, while “political” cases rarely ended up in front of a judge. Sentences were largely based on oral evidence and investigations that would not meet the standards of any modern nation state. Considering that the Islamic Republic was even worse in delivering justice due to very high levels of corruption, however, the rural public was overall relatively appreciative of Taliban justice. The new minister of justice announced that the services of the judges trained under the previous regime would not be needed, which indicates how the Taliban are seeking to export their judicial system to the cities as well.
A New Set of Problems
The Taliban, which cast themselves as the party of Islamic law, are comfortable chasing criminals, but there is more to maintaining order. For example, the group has been confronted with the task of dealing with street demonstrations. The police of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan were ineffective at maintaining public safety, despite having riot control units trained by European advisers. Typically, the police would shoot when faced with rioters, and most riots ended with loss of life. By those standards, the Taliban have been better at maintaining order in Kabul, although they have not faced a real riot yet.
Now that the Taliban have taken over the Ministry of Interior, they are saying they plan to re-establish a police force and have in fact already appointed chiefs of police in the provinces, although it is neither clear how they are going to pay for it, nor what it will look like. For the protection of the leadership and of key assets, the Haqqanis have formed the Badri 313 unit, which according to Taliban sources has 5,000 men countrywide and uses equipment and uniforms taken from the old Afghan commando forces.
For now, the justice system seems hardly operational; there have been several public hangings of criminals, with little trace of serious trials. However, the Taliban have largely delivered on their promise of amnesty to previous government officials; out of hundreds of thousands of potential targets, there have only been some tens of violations per month, suggesting that revenge and aggressive behavior by rogue Taliban have largely been kept in check.
A Regular Army
The Taliban have also announced that they intend to form a regular army, with a structure mimicking that of the old National Army of the now defunct Islamic Republic, from an army corps down to the smallest units. They say that they want to attract former members of the National Army into it, likely mainly in specialist, administrative, and technical positions. They are also trying to reactivate the Afghan Air Force, having managed to recruit a few pilots from the old AAF, though the Taliban currently are only able to fly a handful of helicopters inherited from the AAF and there is no evidence that they are able to maintain them.
In November, Taliban sources started circulating the claim that the new army would be small, possibly as few as 40,000 men. It is not clear whether they intend to have other structures under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defense, such as a border guard or a territorial army. Also in November, local sources reported that the Taliban were introducing conscription in some provinces, such as Kandahar and Kabul. Recruits were offered the option of buying their way out of military service, but given the plans to cut the size of the army down, the conscripts might well be destined for some kind of territorial force.
In the past, the Taliban had debated internally which model of armed force to adopt, with some, notably leading military commander Ibrahim Sadr, advocating for a force styled after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that specializes in asymmetric and hybrid warfare. There is no interest in the Revolutionary Guards’ specialization in covert operations abroad; their focus is on a force that could resist any invaders. Arguably, a conversion of the Taliban’s armed forces into such a military would be easier to achieve than turning the Taliban into a conventional army. The Taliban’s elite units are already to a considerable degree styled after the Revolutionary Guards. Their hybrid tactics would arguably be more likely to help defend the Emirate against any external enemies than the poorly resourced and trained regular army that the Taliban are likely to be able to scrape together.
If a force styled after the Revolutionary Guards was established, it would not imply a preference for close relations with Iran – some of the Taliban’s best hybrid warfare units belong to the Haqqani network, which has no sympathy for Iran. In any case, the Taliban’s leadership appears to have gone for a more conventional model, even if a parallel Revolutionary Guards-style force might still be retained. The decision might have to do with Taliban leadership’s anxiety over not just achieving international legitimization but also looking like a state.
The parallel with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is particularly interesting when viewed through the prism of U.S. policymakers. The U.S. has faced obstacles in classifying the IRGC for decades because though it is not a rogue militia, it is also not Iran’s formal army and has been a consistent nuisance to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere. An explicit styling of the Emirate’s armed forces after the Iranian model would likely unnerve the U.S.
Another important aspect of the Taliban’s decision to go with the conventional model has to do with the priority now being assigned to maintaining internal order over fighting external enemies. Although resourcing the new conventional army is a concern (given that what was inherited from the Afghan National Army will be hard to maintain), the Taliban might have reasonable expectations of receiving equipment from the neighbors, especially China.
Since the group reactivated Bagram Air Base in October, rumors have been circulating that Chinese transport planes have been landing there. Local sources confirm several large transport planes landed in Bagram by night, although they could not confirm the nationality. A senior source within the Taliban, however, indicated that some 40 advisers from China (including some military ones) deployed to Afghanistan on Oct. 3, although there has been no confirmation from other sources. If confirmed, it would not be surprising if deliveries of military equipment were to follow. These deliveries would likely focus on strengthening Afghanistan’s internal security and border management, and their impact on U.S. regional interests would be negligible.
The Taliban need to establish a functioning logistical system for their armed forces; at present, the rank and file are still relying on an increasingly hungry local population to feed them. In that regard, Taliban leadership has recently ordered fighters to move into barracks and vacate the houses where they had been quartered. The worse the economic situation becomes in the country, the harder it will be for the Taliban to feed its forces, though ultimately, they will be given priority over the general population.
Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism
The Taliban have already fought the first internal conflict of the revived Emirate: a short campaign to bring Panjshir under their control. Their operational plan involved concentrating sufficient forces to saturate the valley and combining a conventional advance along the main road with the infiltration of small units through the mountains. The most powerful equipment deployed was rocket launchers and a few old tanks.
At the same time, the Taliban have also been engaged against the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), whose main bases are all in remoter locations than Panjshir. In Kunar, the Taliban have been relying on the support of Pakistani militias such as Lashkar-e Taiba to fight IS-K, forcing them to abandon a couple of districts in recent weeks. However, taking the larger bases will require a major commitment of manpower by the Taliban, who already are stretched too thin.
The IS-K headquarters in the district of Jurm, Badakhshan, would represent an obvious target for the Taliban, even if the area is full of Central Asian fighters and the Taliban are likely to try to relocate them before going on the offensive. In any case, it is now too close to the cold season to start a campaign there. IS-K’s other main bases are in Chapadara, Nuristan. There are at least several hundred IS-K members in each base, and the difficult geography would require the Taliban to concentrate a large force in the region.
Taliban sources in Kabul say the group struggles most with terrorist and insurgent cells in urban environments, and as a result, IS-K has been able to intensify operations in Kabul and Jalalabad. Unable to effectively track down the culprits, the Taliban appear to have unleashed death squads against alleged members and sympathizers of IS-K, many of whom have turned up dead in recent days. Others have been detained, and in some provinces, such as Kunar, there has even been a crackdown on Salafi mosques and madrasas.
These indiscriminate repressive measures are causing a backlash. A delegation of Salafi leaders told Taliban leadership in September that if such measures were to continue, the Salafis would resist, to the benefit of IS-K. Worried about the consequences, the Taliban’s leaders have dismissed the strongly anti-Salafi governor of Kunar, Osman Turabi, and replaced him with a more moderate figure, Mawlavi Qasim. That was not easy, however; Turabi refused to leave office, and his sizeable following mobilized street demonstrations. The episode shows the growing pains of the Taliban’s chain of command as it tries to adapt from a decentralized, flexible insurgency to a state authority.
A thorough campaign to wipe out IS-K is a card that the Taliban hold if they want to motivate Western powers, especially the U.S., to seriously re-engage with the Emirate. Unlike the Taliban, the Islamic State does not seek international appeal or to look like a state. Its chaotic, brutally violent methods could make the Taliban appealing to the U.S. as a “lesser evil.”
The Taliban suffer from manpower shortages, with just some 70,000 men in their mobile units as of September. Some of the reservists who had been mobilized during the May-August offensive have been released from duty, compounding the problem. Manpower is concentrated in the cities, especially Kabul and Panjshir, and along the border with Tajikistan. In the average district, the Taliban are only able to deploy 20-30 men, who guard the district center facilities and carry out occasional patrols, riding motorbikes on the roads. They are rarely seen at all in the villages, where the Taliban have appointed one to two representatives for each village who are tasked with reporting on the village to the Taliban. Should the small district garrisons turn out to be unable to deal with a problem, the Taliban’s command dispatches a larger force from the provincial capital.
In some parts of the country, the Taliban seem satisfied with this level of garrisoning. Among these is Nangarhar province, despite IS-K activity there. Elsewhere, however, the Taliban do not display the same self-confidence. In the northeast, for example (Takhar and Badakhshan), the Taliban have asked village elders and mullahs to set up new local Taliban militias, which for now do not seem to be receiving any training. These militias, akin to other militias that the Taliban have had for many years in areas where they were influential, have only a few tens of members to police local areas.
Village elders in Nangarhar report that IS-K has resumed recruitment in the districts, after the bulk of the Taliban’s armed forces were moved to the cities and to Panjshir, leaving the villages unguarded. Travelers along the country’s highways report that the Taliban’s checkpoints are often abandoned or staffed only by local boys. IS-K appears to have been able to spread its cells to areas where it had never been active before, such as Charikar (Parwan), where it has been able to carry out several attacks recently.
Trappings of the State
The ability of the Taliban to set up a security governance system better rooted in the rule of law will to some extent depend on the financial resources they will be able to gather. The transition could turn out to be long and difficult, and an all-out war against IS-K, which appears inevitable, might divert many of the resources needed. Before their takeover, the Taliban could maintain the military force (85,000 men at its peak) with a few hundred million dollars per year because they did not have to maintain vehicles, aircraft, and bases.
Now, however, even a force of comparable size will cost significantly more. The captured Afghan National Army vehicles the Taliban currently uses are running out of fuel reserves. Buildings and vehicles will have to be maintained without the financial assistance the United States provided the previous government. Moreover, 20-30 men per district likely will not be enough for serious policing needs.
The Taliban are looking for ways to reduce the cost of their security establishment and seeking external sources of funding. At the same time, they remain protective of their independence and are unlikely to seek an external security guarantor.
The adoption of the trappings of a regular armed force also likely will contribute to push costs higher as it grows into a command hierarchy supported by a ministerial bureaucracy. Even a downsized bureaucracy will still cost more than the Taliban’s old system, which was quite lean. The Taliban never had a separate police force and were relying on their local militias, under the supervision of their judges, for that purpose. The appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as minister of the interior suggests that the ministry is meant to carry real weight; Sirajuddin is not a man who would be satisfied running a ministry for show only. It appears that the governors will be placed back under the control of the ministry after the disbandment of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance. Sirajuddin will also make sure that the Ministry of Interior will have its own armed force and is already arguing that Badri 313 should be under its control.
The U.S. will most likely avoid cooperating openly with any official army formed by the Taliban. With other countries like Russia and China likely willing to accept such a force, the Taliban might enlist some security cooperation there, and some sources suggest this has already started, albeit on a small scale. A Russian military source has indicated that some Russian specialists have arrived to help the Taliban operate their small fleet of Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. The same source indicates that the Taliban and Russia already are cooperating over intelligence about IS-K.
The U.S. must figure out how it intends to address the growing IS-K threat. Without a partner on the ground in Afghanistan, the U.S. has little to no leverage in combating IS-K, unlike its standing in Iraq or Syria. The U.S. could resort to pre-emptive drones or airstrikes, but given the absence of over-the-horizon capabilities and a recent strike that killed an Afghan family, such an approach will face pushback from both Congress and the public. Mediation through trusted partners who maintain contact with the Taliban, such as Qatar, could be feasible.
Perhaps the easier route for the U.S. to take is to cooperate with the Taliban secretly, as it appears to be doing with Hayat Tahrir as Sham in Syria. The Taliban would complain publicly about U.S. airstrikes on Afghan territory but would likely be pleased if those strikes targeted IS-K and perhaps would even secretly supply intelligence to facilitate them. From the U.S. point of view, helping the Taliban destroy IS-K would likely have little significance in terms of counterterrorism but would reduce the leverage of Taliban factions such as the Haqqani network and of foreign jihadist groups such as al Qaeda, strengthening the hand of Taliban leaders who want to marginalize them.
Dr. Antonio Giustozzi is Senior Research Fellow in the Terrorism & Conflict program at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Dr. Giustozzi is the author of six books on the Afghan Taliban including “The Taliban at War” (Hurst, 2019). Guistozzi received his PhD at the London School of Economics, and is a frequent columnist on issues pertaining to Afghanistan. He tweets at @ AntonioGiustoz2.
Rasha Al Aqeedi is a Senior Analyst and the Head of the Nonstate Actors program in the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute. Prior to joining the Newlines Institute, Al Aqeedi was the editor in charge of “Irfaa Sawtak,” a U.S.-based platform that offers insights into post-conflict communities in Iraq and Syria. She has also served as a Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and tweets at @RashaAlAqeedi.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute.