*How Might the Taliban Govern?*, The Interpreter

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On our minds: A new chapter for Afghanistan.

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How Might the Taliban Govern?

Members of the Taliban in Kabul. The sudden exile of President Ashraf Ghani gives the Taliban little incentive to negotiate a transitional government for a country in crisis, U.S. officials said.Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

It is impossible to say for sure what will happen as the Taliban formalizes its reconquest of Afghanistan. New governments, especially those established by rebels, can behave in surprising and hard-to-predict ways.

Still, the Taliban is hardly be the first insurgency to seize power. And while no two cases are exactly the same, certain patterns have repeated throughout modern history.

What follows are three of the most common and what they could mean for Afghanistan.

All three patterns have a common purpose: consolidating authority, which is almost always the paramount concern for a rebel government. The insurgents might have seized government ministries and vanquished government forces, but that is not the same thing as governing or winning public consent.

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That distinction was on display this week in the provincial capital of Kunduz. There, Taliban fighters easily expelled government forces but are struggling to persuade locals to participate in the new order. Basic services like electricity, water and trash pickup are faltering. Taliban officers are not so much governors as overseers of anarchy, signaling the start of a struggle typical of such victories but no less uncertain than the war that preceded it.

That yearslong process, the civil war scholar Terrence Lyons has written, is shaped as much by “the nature of victorious insurgent groups” — hardened, disciplined, ideological — as it is by their existential need for “post-war legitimacy and power consolidation.”

(1) Purges, Often Deep and Violent

A new rebel government — focused on fears of being rejected as illegitimate, undermined by those loyal to the old order, or challenged by a rebellion of its own — will often purge widely, in a final campaign for victory over society itself.

When Mao Zedong’s rebels conquered China’s capital and proclaimed a Communist state in 1949, one of his first major initiatives was to jail or expel those accused of supporting the old nationalist government. But Mao’s purges went far beyond that, targeting whole social classes that the Communists feared as potential sources of opposition.

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One such class was rural landowners, an economically powerful group that was considered sympathetic to right-wing politics. The Communist government rounded up thousands and encouraged local villagers to do the same. Many were sent to forced labor camps — in many cases, a death sentence — or were beaten to the death on the spot. Mao later estimated that the campaign killed two million or more of his own citizens. Though some historians put the death count lower, in the hundreds of thousands, few dispute that it re-engineered Chinese society on terms that Mao considered more favorable to his rule.

Even this paled in comparison to the purges conducted by Cambodia’s Communist rebels after seizing power in 1975. Those insurgents, the Khmer Rouge, forcibly emptied whole cities, relocating their residents to the countryside. The government subsequently killed millions belonging to social or economic groups considered loyal to the old government, including businessmen, journalists, civil servants, lawyers and students, as well as certain racial or religious minorities.

China and Cambodia represent the furthest extreme. In 1975, in a more typical case, Communist Vietnamese forces jailed or killed hundreds of thousands of civilians accused of supporting the American-backed South Vietnamese government. It is a fate that many in Afghanistan fear could threaten the hundreds of thousands who worked with their own American-backed government. Because that system lasted 20 years, it employed a wide range of society, including not just civil servants and soldiers but also teachers, drivers, translators and cooks.

(2) Mass Exodus and Social Change

Vietnam was typical in another way; as Communist forces advanced, civilians who feared reprisal or suppression fled. First to cities like Saigon and then, for many, out of Vietnam altogether.

In later years, about a million fled by boat, including many Catholics. The United Nations later estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 of them died at sea. The United States took in about 130,000. Other Western countries absorbed another half million.

Such numbers are not unusual. Cuba, a much smaller country, saw about 250,000 flee after Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover. Termed the “golden exile” because many belonged to Cuba’s middle and upper classes — considered enemies by the new government — it permanently changed the social and political makeup of both Cuba and Florida, where many landed.

That makeup is typical too. Such exoduses tend to disproportionately represent educated middle classes, which are often considered complicit in the old system, and minority groups. The resulting brain drain can cripple the country’s ability to reconstitute itself for a generation or more.

This process has already begun in Afghanistan. This year, 400,000 Afghans have been forced from their homes, according to the U.N. Just in recent days, many have fled Taliban-captured cities for Kabul, which fell last. The capital has been described as teeming with displaced families looking for shelter and food. Aid agencies and neighboring governments are bracing for an exodus of refugees who, some fear, could number in the millions.

The consequences can be severe. In Rwanda, in 1994, rebels seized power in part to halt the ongoing genocide. They formed a unity government and implemented a peace and reconciliation process that is still considered a global model. But, even there, two million civilians fled: mostly ethnic Hutus who feared the new Tutsi-led government. The refugee outflow became first a humanitarian crisis, pushing scores into desperate poverty, then a political one. Armed groups organized within the camps, training and recruiting young men to raid in neighboring countries, feeding into the region’s yearslong cycle of violence.

(3) Search For Legitimacy

There is another side to rebel governments’ imposition of their rule: a quest to prove to their new subjects at home, as well as wary governments abroad, that they should be treated as the rightful and established rulers.

This typically involves seeking public acknowledgment from social and religious leaders, or from the war’s losers, who can confer legitimacy on the new order. But much of the focus, especially at first, is often international.

Rebel governments tend to pursue “international legitimacy, support and aid,” the civil war scholar Monica Duffy Toft has written. This brings something even more valuable than money for postwar reconstruction: implied legitimacy. This serves as proof to the country’s various political factions, power brokers and institutions that the victors are now rightly in charge.

China’s Maoists, after years of military conflict, pivoted almost immediately to the softer battle for diplomatic recognition. Even with the Soviet-led Communist bloc recognizing them immediately, Beijing’s new rulers spent decades seeking — and often designing domestic and foreign policy around winning — global acknowledgment.

It took the Maoists 22 years to secure United Nations recognition, with many foreign capitals following only years or decades later. Half a century later, Beijing considers the mission ongoing, with some capitals still recognizing the government in Taiwan as China’s rightful one.

International recognition has been a top priority of the Taliban for decades. During its brief initial rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it won recognition only from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but it sought many others’.

In more recent peace talks, perhaps having learned of the dangers that a lack of recognition brought, Taliban negotiators have put special emphasis on gaining international recognition from, and “positive relations” with, foreign governments, including Washington.

“The quest for diplomatic and political recognition has been a constant in the Taliban’s struggle,” Barnett R. Rubin, an Afghanistan scholar, wrote this spring. “They reject being labeled as terrorists and seek to be recognized as a legitimate movement and, ultimately, a government.”

Taliban emissaries and negotiators, Dr. Barnett added, seemed now to understand that, whatever their advantages on the battlefield, they would always be subject to foreigners’ terms to some degree.

“The Taliban’s quest for recognition and eventual eligibility for aid provides some of the most important leverage that other actors have over them,” Dr. Lyons wrote.

And not just from the West. Chinese state media have begun hinting that Beijing would send aid to a Taliban government if it keeps “its promise to cut off all ties with terrorists, extremists and separatists.”

There is some suggestion that the Taliban, like other rebel governments before it, will seek to prove that it will moderate itself in power. Rwanda’s insurgents made a point of including other ethnic groups in their post-war government. Ugandan rebels, after seizing power in 1986, sought to prove that their new government would tolerate and embrace civilians who supported the other side.

Taliban spokesmen, surely aware of the group’s reputation, have insisted in recent interviews that the group would not reinstitute its 1990s-era ban on women working or receiving education.

But such promises do not always hold up. A frequent challenge facing rebel governments is reconciling tension between hard-liners, who often rise during wartime, and relative pragmatists. Who prevails will depend in part on who the outside world empowers. But it will also depend on internal dynamics, whose outcome may become apparent only as the Taliban attempts to govern the Texas-sized territory it now holds.

What We’re Reading

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  • The world’s collective problems, from the economic to the environmental, might not be addressable without China’s help. Is that still possible in a time of growing Chinese-Western tension?

How are we doing?
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