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Rebel rule of law: Taliban courts in the west and north-west of Afghanistan

Briefing/policy paper

Written by Ashley Jackson, Florian Weigand

Briefing/policy paper

When the Taliban came to power in the 1990s, they became well-known for brutal sharia courts. After emerging as an insurgency in 2001, justice provision soon became an essential part of the Taliban’s strategy. Seizing on widespread dissatisfaction with the lack of access to justice in Afghanistan, Taliban courts quickly settled disputes that state and customary mechanisms could not. Justice provision also enabled the Taliban to infiltrate new areas, soften the ground for future operations and enforce a strict set of rules on the civilian population.

The Taliban have gradually uprooted and replaced customary and state systems of conflict resolution and justice with their own courts in the areas they influence and control. Taliban justice is the only justice system millions of Afghans are now able to access. 

This briefing note, based on more than 200 interviews with claimants and defendants in civil cases in Taliban courts, traces the evolution of the post-2001 Taliban justice system and explores civilian experiences in the courts. Understanding this system will become increasingly important, particularly when any intra-Afghan political talks commence (during which the Taliban system will presumably have to be reconciled with the current government system). 

Key messages

  • Taliban courts are becoming increasingly widespread across Afghanistan. They were seen by those interviewed as more accessible and easier to navigate than state courts, as well as quicker, fairer and less corrupt. However, those living in Taliban areas do not have much choice but to pursue their claims through Taliban courts.
  • The Taliban have used their courts not only to delegitimise the state and erode state justice provision, but also to disempower and replace customary dispute resolution. This has undoubtedly helped them to consolidate control over territory and compel civilians to follow their rules. 
  • Understanding this system is becoming increasingly important, particularly for the prospect of peace talks and any intra-Afghan negotiations that may commence. It has implications for the future of justice in Afghanistan as well as the fate of legal norms and rights embodied in the current Afghan constitution.
  • Questions remain, including around how women, government supporters and ethnic minorities experience Taliban justice. Further field research is also needed in other areas of the country, on criminal and capital cases, and on Taliban official policies and judicial norms. This will only become more relevant as intra-Afghan negotiations progress.