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Risk Intelligence Report

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Focusing on specific, topical issues and created through innovative methodologies and inputs from globally renowned experts, DRI Monthly Reports cut through noise and ephemera to tell you what you absolutely need to know – today and tomorrow.

Report No. 06 | June-July 2021

Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0 Political Drivers, Taliban Strategies, and Domestic Implications

Based on exhaustive in-house research and interviews with 10 leading experts, the report looks at the domestic and international drivers behind the collapse of the Afghan government on August 15 and the return of the Taliban to power two decades after they were ousted. The report also probes Taliban 2.0, the group’s possible economic strategies, as well as the social implications of their return to Kabul.

This edition of the Diplomat Risk Intelligence Monthly Report analyzes the domestic and international causes that have led to the Taliban coming back to power in Afghanistan after being ousted two decades ago. Based on exhaustive in-house research and interviews with 10 leading experts, it seeks to understand what changes, if any, the current Taliban – Taliban 2.0 for a lack of a better moniker – could make to its style of governance. It focuses on recognizing the inherent drivers of conflict in Afghanistan, while seeking to understand the manner in which the Taliban could consolidate their political and economic position with the Afghan polity. While acknowledging the fact that the Taliban is unlikely to make a complete break with their radical Islamist ideology, the authors of this report realize that the group is eager to present a façade of evolution in order to maintain a degree of international acceptance and legitimacy.


Political Backdrop

Kabul’s “sudden” fall to the Taliban on August 15 shocked many and captured global headlines, but a political crisis was long brewing in Afghanistan. Roughly two decades of political in-fighting and bickering in the country structurally hampered the Afghan political system, which was in dire need for reform. This chapter probes former President Ashraf Ghani’s polarizing, centralizing, and contentious political style and rivalries within the-then government in Afghanistan. It also looks at developments in Washington’s Afghanistan policy since 2016, complemented by expert analyses to provide a comprehensive political backdrop that helps the reader understand the Taliban’s rapid victory over the apparently superior Afghan forces.

Understanding Taliban 2.0

This chapter provides insights into how the Taliban managed to so swiftly capture Kabul, routing a technologically and numerically superior national army, by analysing its political and military strategy. It summarizes the evolution of Taliban 2.0, with a focus on what the current leadership looks like and existing internal rivalries. It also provides expert insights on the plausible reasons for the Afghan government’s collapse and Taliban victory in such a short time span, and what Washington could have done to avoid this.

Mapping the Afghan Economy

The chapter presents an overview of the state of Afghan economy prior to the collapse of the republican government in August, and traces major economic trends in the country over the past two decades using external assistance, both bilateral and multilateral, government revenue generation, and remittances as indicators. It looks at how the Taliban expanded economically despite the United Nations Security Council’s Taliban sanctions regime. It concludes with assessments of experts DRI consulted for this report about the economic pathways in front of the Taliban at it assumes power in Kabul.

Religion, Society, and Equity

Afghan society is one of the most complex in the world, with not only diverse ethnic groups but also ones that are divided into sub-tribes. This chapter serves a primer into this complexity and also looks at the historic position of women in Afghan society. It does so with an eye towards discerning what changes—if any—the Taliban will seek to make from how they have treated women and ethnic minority groups in the past. Experts dissect the Taliban’s avowed calls to ensure equal treatment of women and minorities under their rule, and assess the possibility of the group granting amnesty to those who had worked for the Afghan government and the U.S and coalition forces.


Ibraheem T. Bahiss

Consultant, International Crisis Group

Michael Kugelman

Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia, Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C.

Franz J. Marty

Independent Kabul-based journalist

Dr. Asfandyar Mir

Affiliate, Center for International Security, Stanford University, and Senior Expert, United States Institute of Peace

Dr. Avinash Paliwal

Senior Lecturer in International Relations, SOAS University of London and Deputy Director, SOAS South Asia Institute

Dr. Nilofar Sakhi

Nonresident Senior Fellow, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council

James Schwemlein

Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former Senior Advisor to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State

Chayanika Saxena

President Graduate Fellow and PhD candidate at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore

Col. David O. Smith (Retd.)

Distinguished Fellow, South Asia Program, the Stimson Center, and former senior executive, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency

Elizabeth Threlkeld

Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, South Asia Program, the Stimson Center, and former Political and Economic Officer, U.S. Consulate-General, Peshawar, Pakistan


Kriti Mathur Shah

Kriti M. Shah is an Associate Fellow in the Department of Strategic Studies at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Her research primarily focusses on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where she studies their domestic politics as well as their relationship with each other, the Taliban, the United States, and the larger South Asian neighborhood.

Rushali Saha

Rushali Saha is Research Analyst at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Previously, she served as a Research Associate at the Center of Air Power Studies, New Delhi. She holds a Master’s degree in Politics with International Relations from Jadavpur University. She graduated summa cum laude from the same university with an undergraduate degree in political science.

Abhijnan Rej

Abhijnan Rej is Director of Research at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. His areas of expertise include Asian geopolitics, India’s defense policy, emerging technologies, and geopolitical risk. Rej also has significant professional experience as a quantitative researcher in academia and the private sector.

Malvika Rajeev

Malvika Rajeev is Research Analyst at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Her work focuses on conducting statistical analysis of economic, demographic, and public health data, along with data visualization. She has worked as a graduate statistics instructor at UC Berkeley, where she also received her Master's.