Introduction: Hardly any State has, throughout the past half century, lived through a history as turbulent and as violent as that of Afghanistan. Since the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghanistan has been trapped in seemingly endless cycles of violence wherein the abatement of one conflict merely appears to make space for a new one. The fault lines in this conflict are so manifold, the constellation of actors and their interests so variegated and the dynamics so intractable that it is tempting for observers to capitulate and blame the ‘natural’ unruliness of Afghans and the inherent un-governmentality of the State (e.g. Murtazashvili, 2022). Afghanistan, so the adage goes, keeps failing to integrate within the community of modern Nation-States because of its proud, but belligerent and tribalistic population whose constant struggles for the monopoly of violence thwart any progress toward modernization. The resurgence of the Taliban with its anti-modern ethos and its medieval methods to enforce an austere agenda, now in charge of the country for the second time, seems to confirm this rationale.
Yet, while from an imperialist point of view there might be some truth underpinning this line of reasoning, any narrative that attempts to reduce complex political issues to some primordial cultural characteristic of a nation’s peoples is, from an ethnographic point of view, untenable as it is unhelpful. Indeed, the understanding of Afghans as savage and untrustworthy likely derives from attempts by the British to justify the embarrassment of being defeated not in one, but three wars by a supposedly inferior enemy in the 18th and 19th centuries. The image of Afghans as somehow not quite as deserving of the preservation of human dignity conveniently stuck with subsequent invaders: From the Soviet to the American occupations that followed the British one in the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, the contempt and vileness by which foreign troops have met Afghan civilians, as manifested in a shocking disregard for ‘collateral damage’ – i.e., civilian casualties - in counter-terror operations (Jones, 2021) and incidences such as American troops posing besides desecrated bodies (Just Foreign Policy, 2012), the treatment of Afghans as unworthy of respect has nurtured resentment that may well have contributed to the State’s failure to peacefully transition toward modern interpretations of Statehood.
Somewhat more academic-minded commentators have identified conflict in Afghanistan as ‘ethnic’, ‘tribal’ or, less commonly, ‘ideological’ or ‘sectarian’. Placing social identities at the heart of conflict appears to offer itself in the case of Afghanistan, given that it is host to an array of communities with overlapping ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations which, at times, compete violently. Such characterizations appear to find backing in the fact that warring parties throughout various conflict phases were often organized along ethnic and tribal lines. Yet it is important to acknowledge that social identities are never in themselves cause of conflict; rather, they are tools for politicization and mobilization that can be used by violence entrepreneurs and aspiring political leaders in order to rally popular support for some cause – social research shows that especially in times of crisis and uncertainty, people tend to become susceptible to ‘ingroup vs outgroup’ dynamics that amplify social identities framed as antagonistic (e.g. Hogg, 2007). Without prejudice to the relevance of tribal, ethnic or sectarian affiliation in terms of conflict dynamics as they evolve over time, there are various empirical examples in the context of Afghanistan by reference to which the thesis that social identity be the cause, or even the key driver of conflict, can be refuted: Whenever the need to challenge an external enemy emerged (e.g., in the case of foreign invasion), ethnic or tribal divisions were overcome with relative ease and furthermore, ‘side switching’, even to factions dominated by a rival ethnic or tribal group, when it seemed that one’s side was the losing one was a relatively common occurrence throughout all conflicts. In the words of anthropologist and Afghanistan expert Thomas Barfield, "in Afghanistan, opportunism trumps all other ‘isms’: nationalism, socialism, secularism", whereby “affiliation [with one or another party or ideology] was more frequently based on personal relationships, regional and ethnic ties, or simple opportunism” (Barfield 2012, p 253).
Complex social relationships do not inevitably breed crises as protracted and violent such as the one Afghanistan finds itself in, and the present paper therefore argues that, instead of cultural characteristics or social identity, conflict in Afghanistan is best explained by reference to political dynamics with the most salient fault line dividing Afghanistan’s population being between those who wanted to modernize the State in line with some external (Soviet or Western) blueprint, and those who favoured a return to an imagined Islamic past. The ascent of the Taliban thereby may be understood as a prevailing of the latter; the reason for this, in the present interpretation, being the consistent failure of progressive reformers to account for the interests and realities of Afghan (rural) life. It is argued, in particular, that Afghanistan for the past 50 years has found itself in a crisis of legitimacy or, to use a somewhat different vocabulary, the failure to establish some social contract between ruler and ruled as the result of the social and political disruptions brought about by colonialism, externally-steered modernization and globalization.
Afghanistan Within a Globalizing World
“The fundamental reason for the high cost of European state building [in terms of human death and suffering]”, writes Ayoob (2007, p 13) “was its beginning in the midst of a decentralized, largely peasant social structure. Building differentiated, autonomous, centralized organizations with effective control of territories entailed eliminating or subordinating thousands of semiautonomous authorities. Most of the European populations resisted each phase of the creation of strong states”. The same problematic, according to Ayoob, now haunts post-colonial States that are expected to replicate a State-building process a la Europe within a few decades (Demmers 2017, p 66).
Any account that looks for the sources of conflict in Afghanistan in its failed attempts to establish centralized authority with effective reach much beyond Kabul that, in a Hobbesian sense, can cater to the security needs of its citizens must consider its demography and geography. The State’s territory is compartmentalized into large swathes of forbidding terrain – mountainous regions and vast, arid steppes - that historically have served as natural limits to effective government control. The inhabitants of many such territories, from the nomadic communities (‘Kuchis’) to its South to the mountain tribes to the Centre and Northeast have, in relative isolation, away from the influence of any political centre over time established their own, localized governance systems which, given the low profitability of the territories they inhabited, ruling dynasties and invading empires had little incentive in interfering with. Regarding those portions of the State that did have economic value - in particular urban centres and communication and transport links towards India - governing elites often found it easiest to come to a political accommodation with local peoples than to continually fight them (Barfield 2012, p 69).
The chaotic reality of fragmented and overlapping systems of governance with diffuse power concentration was a two-edged sword: On one hand, it proved useful in preventing colonial powers from taking foothold in Afghanistan by, in Barfield’s words, “making the country so ungovernable that [foreign occupiers] wanted to leave” (Barfield 2012, p 255). On the other hand, it also constituted a vulnerability as Western empires with unprecedented military and technological capabilities undertook to slice up the ‘uncivilized world’ into spheres of influence among themselves. While perhaps unable to exert direct control over its people, the lack of centralized political or military authority as well as the strong sense of identity and solidarity based on local and tribal, rather than national, affiliation made it an easy feat for the Western colonial powers to manipulate Afghanistan’s political landscape to their own respective advantage, thereby tearing apart the delicate power balance that had provided a sense of stability ahead of the onset of the Western imperialist enterprise in South Asia.
The Great Game: A Goat between Lions
Afghanistan, as a territorially demarcated entity in line with the Westphalian model of Statehood, started taking shape in the 19th century as the invasion of the British into Afghanistan, at the time ruled by the Pashtun Durrani dynasty as a loose entity later described as a ‘tribal confederacy’, introduced Western-style ideas about State administration (Sheikh 2020). The British prerogative in Afghanistan was to make it a buffer State between its highly profitable territories in the Indian Raj and the dangerously expansionist Russian Empire, putting Afghanistan in a situation described by later Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman as ‘goat between two lions’ (Swami 2022). Unable to take effective control of the Afghan central government, the British crept into the State apparatus by paying off client governments to realize their own respective vision for Afghanistan in line with military prerogatives, namely as a strong State with centralized administration and military, and with effective control over its frontiers (Dorrensoro 2005, p 25).
This undertaking involved, firstly, the demarcation of borders. Besides the Wakhan corridor separating India from Russia and thus giving Afghanistan its border with China, the British established the so-called Durand Line between Afghanistan and India in 1893 which, drawn up purely in line with British strategic interests, cut through Pashtun tribes which now found themselves on different sides of the new border (Dorrensoro 2005, p 24). The frontier areas along the Durand Line later became the bone of contention between Afghanistan and what was later to become the Pakistani State, a lawless area where terror networks and criminal syndicates would hide out and smuggle goods and people using trade routes that had existed since time immemorial. Moreover, in order for the new State to be able to effectively protect its new borders, the British channelled large funds to the Amir in order to facilitate power concentration at the centre. This necessarily required weakening local ruling elites and tribal militias and with it the established system of patrimonialism – viewed as corrupt and inefficient by the British but in reality, a necessary evil to prevent usurpation by rivals - and the practice of minimal interference with the State’s periphery tried and tested by previous rulers (Barfield 2012, pp 110).
The unrest that consequently flared up among peripheral populations, dethroned elites and the mullahs - Islamic preachers who opposed the import of secular ideals to Afghanistan - were put down by an ever-more powerful State machinery funded by the British, who willingly released resources following the logic that a strong State could better withstand Russia’s imperial ambitions (Barfield 2012, p 133). Yet this foreign-funded centralization unwittingly replaced a power balance that had allowed the Durrani dynasty to rule Afghanistan for some 200 years: Making obsolete the need to come to an accommodation with local tribes and rival elites, in this new model of allegiances the Amir’s power position depended on continued sponsorship and military support by the British, hence making State authority responsive to the interests of his foreign sponsors rather than those of his own population. Tribal power brokers and their communities, who until then had been left alone for all practical purposes, had a hard time acknowledging that they should submit to an abstract and far-away State whose dominating elites they viewed as the puppets of not only foreign but, even worse, non-Muslim powers; those dominating elites, in turn, increasingly depended on British money and military support and the use of brute force in order to maintain their power positions. This vicious circle reached its peak towards the end of the 19th century when Afghanistan was ruled by Amir Abur Rahman (1880-1901) – the ‘Iron Amir’ – who installed a police State that quashed any warning sign of unrest with unforgiving force (Dorrensoro 2005, p 40). While this did work for the time being and allowed Rahman to stay in power for 20 years before he, as the last ruler of Afghanistan, retired from power peacefully, it hardly provided a sustainable model of governance, and it seems almost natural that once the British withdrew their support to the Afghan government in the wake of decolonization the system unravelled: the period of the decades between 1919 and 1973, at a time when the State again became weak and the regions relatively autonomous, tellingly constituted the most stable period in Afghanistan’s recent history (Byrd 2012).
Unbothered by such considerations, those regimes governing Afghanistan in contexts of foreign occupation after 1979 – first the Soviet-backed Marxist regime and then, in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’, the quasi-democratic regime supported by the international coalition led by the US – sought to enforce their reform agendas using the same technique as the British had, namely the channelling of resources into the political centre in Kabul to facilitate power concentration at the ‘top’, which was then expected to enforce a reform agenda on their behalf: each wanted to create an Afghan State according to its own, peculiar vision – a secular socialist State in the communists’ imagination a democratic, liberal one in the post-2001 invasion - and to this end the messy reality of decentralized governance and local autonomy of ‘backward’ communities was deemed unsuitable. Ignorant of the fact that neither the Soviet nor the American visions were shared by any significant portion of Afghans, and underlined by the widespread maltreatment of civilians by foreign troops, intense resentment grew among Afghan local populations vis-à-vis the Western-sponsored governing elites and the West itself.
The Soviet and US invasions: In the claws of Bear and Eagle
During Afghanistan’s however slow-paced modernization and the accelerating institutionalization of the State in the period between its independence (1919) and the Soviet invasion (1979) when Afghanistan was a constitutional monarchy, an educated class had emerged, most of whose members had migrated to urban centres while the large share of the countryside-based Afghan population hardly experienced any improvement to their living conditions. The rift between the comparably wealthy, educated and Western-oriented urbanites and the traditional, often strongly religious rural population which was largely excluded from the benefits of modernization would over time accelerate as Kabuli governing elites attempted to impose their ideas about Statehood on the diverse regions across the country irrespective of the resentment and the disruption of local traditions and customs it brought about. Barfield (2012) even goes so far as to propose that the harsh restrictions the Taliban imposed on Kabul with regard to music, dance and other ‘luxuries’, rather than a manifestation of Islam, was a manifestation of the resentment built up among puritanical rural villagers who had been at the yoke of ‘sinful’ Kabuli elites up until the Taliban’s rise to power (Barfield 2012, p. 65)
Be that as it may, the cautious opening of Afghanistan to the world and improvements in education around the 1950s allowed innovative ideas to enter and spread. This led to increasingly loudly voiced discontent among urban classes with the corrupt and inefficient constitutional monarchy and the emergence of political factions with different visions regarding Afghanistan’s future political trajectory. Yet the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan's (PDPA) success in bringing down the monarchy in a coup in 1978 was hardly the result of large-scale popular support for communist ideals - indeed such support was limited almost exclusively to young and educated Kabuli urbanites - but rather of the Marxists’ ability to bring members of the police and army into their fold, many of whose members had been trained in the Soviet Union and were therefore receptive to Marxist ideas (Dorrensoro 2005, p 69). The PDPA however was divided, brutal and poorly organized, and its radical reform program provoked popular insurgencies across the country that would swiftly have brought its government down had not the Soviet Union intervened in order to ensure Afghanistan’s absorption into its sphere of influence within the context of Cold War competition. Although the measures imposed by the PDPA government, such as the re-organization of land ownership and the regulation of marriage and dowries, as well as literacy initiative, were not necessarily immediately rejected by Afghans, it was, in an interpretation by Dorrensoro, the manner in which reforms were implemented that precipitated popular resistance. Governors on local levels, for example, were not sourced from the localities they were tasked to govern but were sent from Kabul, were often dressed in European fashion and professed values alien to rural populations, and tended to interact with villagers arrogantly or even violently: A manifestation as well as proliferation of the ever-widening rift between governing elites and the people (Dorrensoro 2005, p 94). As the PDPA’s radical program did not elicit the reactions it had hoped for, it increasingly resorted to harassment, purges and mass assassinations of religious authorities and educated elites, further antagonizing the public and nearly causing a State collapse (ibid).
In 1979, less than two years after the PDPA’s coup, the Soviets resolved to ‘save’ the communist revolution in Afghanistan. For the next 10 years to come, the Soviets would pull the strings in Kabul by steering policy-making of the PDPA government which was utterly dependent on the Soviet Union for its survival, by attempting to ‘Sovietize’ the population through indoctrination and propaganda, and by attempting – unsuccessfully – to retake control of those areas controlled by rebels against whose guerrilla tactics government-affiliated militias and the national army, underfunded and unacquainted with unconventional warfare, were unable to prevail (Dorrensoro 2005, p 173). Yet while the practice of artificially propping up ‘desirable’ regimes in Afghanistan deepened its dependence on foreign funding and reinforced the divide between governing elites’ and their subjects across the State, what ultimately plunged Afghanistan into utter chaos was the decision by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to selectively sponsor militant counter-Soviet insurgents, the Mujahideen, in order to prevent Soviet hegemony in South Asia. These Mujahideen factions originally were indigenous forces that had grown out of the popular uprisings against the PDPA of 1978, yet much of their success in exhausting Soviet morale was owed to the billions of dollars and top-shelf military equipment that now poured into Afghanistan’s armed resistance. Still, it took a 10-year war to repel the Soviets – a victory that was, however, achieved at an extraordinary cost for Afghans.
The degree of ignorance and lack of foresight by which the Soviet Union and the counter-Soviet alliance operated in Afghanistan during the 10-years occupation indeed is baffling. Saudi ‘humanitarian aid’ was used to set up madrassa schools – religious seminaries following Wahhabi traditions – where Afghan refugee children were indoctrinated and from which the Taliban (‘Students’) would later emerge; the University of Nebraska designed “suitable” schoolbooks for Afghan children which featured guns and mines and where dead Soviet soldiers were used to visualize applied math problems (Thadoor 2014); and the consolidation of the narcotics industry was deliberately facilitated by US and Pakistani handlers because it was viewed as a source of income, and therefore strength, for the Mujahideen (Gregory, 2007). If inter-communal relations had been delicate ahead of the war, the psychological and social effects of 10 years of warfare and the purposeful radicalization and criminalization of society tore apart its social fabric. It is hardly surprising that rather than national reconciliation, the retreat of the Soviets simply heralded a new violent episode for Afghanistan as the Mujahideen factions, now lacking a common enemy, turned against one another to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan’s political centre in Kabul, thereby looting what was left of Afghanistan’s cultural and economic wealth and reducing the capital city to rubble (Singh & Peiro 2002).
One of the strategic decisions that would turn out fateful for Afghanistan was to leave choice of the elements the counter-Soviet alliance chose to bankroll to Pakistan and its Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) in particular. In fact, there initially was a variety of movements with different ideological affiliations; the Islamic character the resistance would eventually take on was at least in part Pakistan’s doing. Pakistan’s military government for long had pursued the strategic imperative of installing a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan that could function as counterweight to the Indian archenemy, and therefore agreed to enlist itself as the front-line State channeling US and Saudi aid and equipment to Mujahideen fighters; in return, the ISI was granted discretion in the selection of the beneficiaries of the funds (Gregory 2007). Having its own strategic interest in mind, Pakistan, itself at the time in the process of Islamization, opted to channel the lion’s share of the funds to the Hizb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a radical Islamist who professed his loyalty to Pakistan in order to ensure a steady stream of funding in his direction (Dorrensoro 2005, p 145). Yet Gulbuddin was notorious for his brutality and ruthlessness and barely concealed his close links to the narcotics industry he helped consolidating in collusion with the Americans and the Pakistanis (Gregory 2007). Later, as it became difficult to deny that Hekmatyar’s military capability was contrasted with marked political incapacity, the ISI turned its attention toward a new candidate to be mobilized for the role of a potential client: The Taliban, an puritanic Islamist movement consisting to a large part of refugees who had fled the war in Afghanistan and had been educated in Saudi-sponsored madrassas in Pakistan, emerged in Afghanistan in 1994 and, by 1996, had swept over the country and taken control of Kabul. Although initially welcomed by a war-weary population that was easily persuaded by the Taliban’s puritanic ‘law and order’ outlook that sharply contrasted with the Mujahideen’s destructiveness, the Taliban in the years to come alienated any potential ally in and outside of Afghanistan by enforcing their increasingly austere agenda through barbaric penalties, by destroying cultural heritage, insulting foreign governments and by providing safe havens to international jihadi groups (Barfield 2012, pp 261). This latter aspect provided the point of departure of the to date last invasion of Afghanistan by an external power, this time justified by reference to the ‘Global war on Terror’ following the 9/11 terror attacks on New York: Now, the international forces led by the US fought the very same force that had been nurtured to strength with American dollars. The Taliban were driven out of government with ease, but far from defeated continued their guerrilla-style resistance from their rural hide-outs in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, upon the withdrawal of American troops in the summer of 2021, with equal ease re-took charge of the government. The aforementioned Durand Line, that is, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, proved pivotal to the Taliban: the state of lawlessness at the frontier and the well-established cross-border smuggling networks between Pashtun tribes on both sides of the border offered safe routes for the transport of weapons and fighters between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Although the to date last undertaking by the international community to mould Afghanistan into a shape acceptable to the former – the US invasion of 2001 within the context of the global ‘War on Terror’ – was, in principle, better planned and more inclusive of Afghan interests than previous ones, a number of further strategic failures prevented a true and positive transformation. Ignorant of the effects of previous attempts to centralize power, the US again embarked on heavily investing into central political and military institutions thereby, again, establishing a top-down regime that needed not to account for the interests of local Afghans (Murtazashvili 2022). Corruption, clientelism and ill-conceived ethnic identity politics precipitated further mismanagement of the State, and the 20-year survival of the quasi-democratic system was possible only through the stationing of US soldiers whose presence prevented militant non-State actors from taking over Kabul. Facilitated by a gradual decline in public trust extended to the highly inefficient government, the period leading up to 2021 precipitated a Taliban comeback particularly in Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated South where the movement re-took territorial control and installed a shadow government with parallel administrative and justice structures. Finally, in August 2021, the Taliban took hold of the State within weeks of the withdrawal of foreign troops.
In short, the crises Afghanistan has found itself in since the 1980s, and the ultimate prevailing of the Taliban, can be traced back to strategic decisions made in line with foreign interests. Part of this was also due to Afghanistan’s lack of significant marketable wealth or a taxable population, which made the mobilization of internal resources problematic for rulers and precipitated chronic State and institutional weakness that would offer itself for exploitation (Dorrensoro 2005, pp 61). The legitimacy crises that followed saw leaders ascend and descend in a rapid (and often violent) fashion; it is illustrative that since 1901 – the peaceful death of the ‘Iron Amir’- every single Afghan ruler had been expelled from office by force, had been exiled or assassinated.
The Taliban’s ascendance, both in 1996 and then again in 2021, can be interpreted as an antithesis that is the result of decades of suppression of custom and tradition that so many empires and their client governments had attempted to eradicate and that is taking back control in a bizarrely radical form. Barfield expresses this colourfully: “The hope of recovering a lost homeland is a particularly powerful ideal, but as time passes the view of this homeland becomes more and more mythical because refugee children know it only by hearsay. The past is idealized because the present is so miserable and the future so uncertain” (Barfield 2012, p 256) . The key question is whether the Taliban, like other rulers with grand visions for Afghanistan, will fail in their social engineering project as dream clashes with reality, or whether they will be able to adapt to local realities and their new role as governance provider.
Upon taking over Ashraf Ghani’s government shortly after the US troops’ withdrawal in early August 2021, the Taliban called out the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and undertook to institute a socio-cultural program and administrative structure that, despite of promises to follow a more moderate line, bear close similarity to that of its previous regime in 1996-2001. It installed a tight top-down command and control structure that relies on intense policing of public spaces, the use of force and intimidation to enforce compliance with strict public order policies and moved on to reverse liberties tediously attained over the past 20 years, including such ones related to press freedoms and the rights of women and girls (Terpstra 2020).
The use of coercive means to silence dissent in the wake of power transitions is relatively common in contexts defined by institutional weakness and political instability, yet the longevity of an ascending regime is hypothesized to ultimately depend on its ability to achieve supremacy over its competitors and consolidate its rule with some minimum degree of consent by its citizens: constant and indiscriminate repression is costly, and will be difficult to keep up for a regime that does not have the military and financial capacity to suppress dissenters and rivals indefinitely (McCullough, 2015). In a setting wherein the recourse to violence is well-practiced and where weapons circulate freely any government will need to attain some sense of legitimacy – or at least acquiescence – in order to survive on the long term.
The Taliban’s legitimation claims rests on two central arguments: firstly, its moral legitimacy as an endogenously Islamic Afghan government that does not act in the name of some foreign, non-Muslim interest group; and secondly, their performance-based legitimacy as a provider of human security and social order.
Moral legitimation claims
The importance of the moral legitimacy claim is derived from Afghanistan’s historical experience with the humiliation and violence of Western occupation and may also be closely linked to Islamic principles that permit Muslims to rise up when confronted with non-Muslim domination, while subordination to Muslim rulers is expected even if they rule unfairly because unjust rule be preferable to the social cost of insurgency (Barfield 2012). Indeed, while throughout Afghanistan’s history Amirs often had to deal with rivals either from within their own ranks or rival elites, the only truly popular uprisings took place when foreign powers took hold of the government (ibid, p 328).
While the Taliban, through recourse to Sharia law and the establishment of the Islamic Emirate, can convincingly present itself as a government by and for Muslims, it will find it more difficult to convince its people that it is endogenously Afghan and free from foreign influences. Its founding basis did consist mostly of Afghan refugees that had fled the civil war, many of whom, however, had grown up in madrassas in Pakistan and never actually lived in Afghanistan (Riedel 2021). Furthermore, Taliban ascendence, both in 1996 but also in 2021, as well as the maintenance of power would not have been possible without the protection and material support of the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) - a condition that provides Pakistan with leverage over the group and puts it sovereignty to question (ibid). Although the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan has become opaque in the past 20 years as a result of US pressure and the emergence of a Pakistani Taliban movement (TTP) that threatens Pakistan itself, there is little reason to believe that the ISI is ready to turn against its however unreliable ally entirely (Mir 2022). Still, putting aside the question of sovereignty, the fundamentalist Islamic garb likely is more convincing to most Afghans than the human rights-centred legitimation discourses promoted by the West, which have little to do with Afghan realities and may be perceived as paternalistic at best. Besides, many of those who did advocate progressive, Western-style value systems – disproportionately represented in urban centres - have fled, are in hiding, detained or dead.
That said, the appeal of moral legitimation claims has important regional and ethnic nuances. Although it may not fashion itself as such, the Taliban is sometimes described as an essentially Pashtun nationalist or tribal movement given that it originates from Pashtun-dominated areas around the Durand Line and its leadership is overwhelmingly made up of ethnic Pashtuns. While the Taliban’s legal system is formally based on the Sharia and interpreted in line with the Hanafi school of jurisprudence - a traditional Islamic branch of law associated with Sunni legal traditions - many aspects of its legal and cultural practices are in practice derived from Pashtun customary law, the so-called Pasthunwali or ‘way of the Pashtuns’ (Khan, 2015). This code gravitates around concepts such as “honour” and “virtue” that must be “defended” and, among other things, provides for the exclusion of women from the public sphere (ibid). Previous regimes who had made efforts to enhance women’s standing in society – e.g., through decrees allowing for women to appear in public unveiled, to prevent forced marriages or for girls to attend schools – have not been able to implement decrees seamlessly as State law hardly ever penetrate rural Pashtun areas and was rarely applied (Dorrensoro 2005, p 296). The Taliban’s social and cultural program was therefore more easily comprehensible to rural Pashtun populations, and indeed did not constitute a major break with established practices, while alienating the country’s remaining minorities and urban centres in particular, where the separation of men and women was more flexible and where music and dance played a large part of every-day life (Khan 2015). Ethnic fault lines furthermore clearly do have practical relevance as evidenced in the fact that the Taliban had always found it easier to establish themselves in Pashtun areas while alignment with non-Pashtun groups was more difficult: the Tajiks in Afghanistan’s northeast resist Taliban rule especially strongly, and Taliban brutality has always been particularly marked vis-à-vis the Shi’ite Hazara minority (Dorrensoro 2005, p 270). In the cities, where ethnic and tribal affiliation is far less relevant than in the countryside, the Taliban have historically found few advocates since the prohibition on music and the ban on women in the public sphere clashed with the more progressive values generally held by urbanites (ibid).
While policy performance in non-democratic regimes as per definition does not require review by citizens within the framework of electoral cycles as is the case in democratic ones, there is mounting (albeit anecdotal) evidence that governance performance critically factors into the longevity of authoritarian regimes as well (Gerschewski 2013). Although the Taliban can hardly be expected to replicate a development model similar to that of the Communist Party of China or Singapore - both authoritarian regimes who derive much of their contemporary legitimacy from the extraordinary development success they achieved for their countries - it is important to stress that citizens’ views on governance performance are subjective. In the Afghan context, the benefits of good governance had always been inaccessible for most part of the population, and a mere reduction in economic and human insecurity would be likely sufficient to ensure acquiescence by the people.
In fact, the Taliban were in 1996 welcomed by the Afghan population because it was hoped that it would be able to cater to direly needed security prerogatives: its focus on and rigid enforcement of law and order policies appeared the best available option to escape the condition of high insecurity and social disarray that had characterized the preceding decade. In the words of Dorrensoro, "it was the failure of the Kabul government to provide economic benefits, security, and justice that made the Taliban look like an attractive alternative, rather than sympathy for their ideology" (Dorrensoro 2005). Furthermore, already ahead of 2021 when the Taliban controlled areas in Afghanistan’s South, it effectively delivered order and enforced rules, for example by ensuring that teachers showed up to teach and that government employees did not steal supplies from clinics (Felbab-Brown, 2021). Furthermore, the mobile Sharia courts operated by the Taliban in areas under their control were often preferred over the official justice system because, as explained above, the Taliban’s legal tradition combining Sharia with Pashtun customary law was quicker, more effective and better aligned to local traditions than State law.
However, despite of some positive developments in terms of policy performance, for example with regards to corruption reduction and efficiency in tax collection, Afghanistan has overall hardly become a more secure or better place since the Taliban’s rise to power. From an imploding economy and failing electricity and water delivery infrastructure to recurring terrorist attacks and looming natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and drought, the group is unable to manage the complex and severe crises the new Islamic Emirate faces on its own (Felbab-Brown, 2021).
Policy failures were to be expected of a movement that for most of its existence had functioned as a guerrilla insurgency and whose members had an at best rudimentary religious education, and which elects ministers and cabinet members based on loyalty rather than expertise or merit. Moreover, much of Afghanistan’s economic implosion is attributable to the US, World Bank and other donors who stripped the Central Bank of Afghanistan of its foreign assets (Human Rights Watch 2022), providing the Taliban with the opportunity to divert blame for the country’s dismal state. Yet, the government will find it difficult to justify the imposition of policies that actively contribute to the deterioration of the economy and physical security, such as the prohibition of women to work and massive intimidation and collective punishment campaigns that increasingly alienate citizens and that may well drive many into the arms of anti-Taliban militias (Sinha 2022). Similarly, the Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation, while per se not an objectionable policy decision, is likely to aggravate grievances by thousands of farmers and their families whose livelihoods had depended on the highly profitable crop (VOANews 2022).
While the moral justification of Taliban governance may be sound in comparison to that of previous governments, hunger, fear and desperation may ultimately weigh heavier than abstract moral principles. Not only do the Taliban implement a short-sighted, ideology-centred program oblivious to the practical implications of policy decisions, but their internal divisiveness on key issues prevent the formulation of a coherent policy approach and with it their ability to present themselves as security providers; in the words of a cleric from the Hazara community, “Every individual Talib is their own law right now. So, people live in fear of them” (Associated Press 2022). The inevitable deterioration of the economy and society can be expected to sooner or later feed anti-Taliban opposition movements which, although as of now unable to pose a serious threat to the Taliban, seem to be gaining momentum.
At this point in time, there are two notable non-State actors that directly threaten the Emirate: The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Mujahideen fighters in the Panjshir Valley.
The ISKP, an offshoot of the Islamic State, is the most violent and most extreme jihadi group in the region that regularly find itself on top of the list of globally ‘most deadly terror organizations’ (Vision of Humanity 2022); many of its members are former Taliban who have defected in search for a more radical outlet, blaming the Taliban to be ‘filthy nationalists’ who have abandoned Jihad (Kapur, 2022). The ISKP had been active in Afghanistan since 2014, however, it has benefitted from the security vacuum following the withdrawal of the international troops and has since scaled up its operations, including the bloody attack on Kabul airport that saw 180 dead, as well as attacks on government buildings and international aid organizations, but also hospitals and maternity wards (Gardner, 2021).
With a strength of about 1,500 to 2,200 fighters the ISKP currently is numerically no match to the Taliban (Kapur 2022). It furthermore does not control territory and therefore relies on guerrilla tactics such as suicide bombings and surprise attacks. Yet the front on which ISKP might turn out an existential threat to the Taliban is that of informational warfare, or the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people, in which the IS has proven more savvy than the anti-modernist Taliban: ISKP for example publishes its own propaganda magazine translated into English and Pashto, the “Khurasan Ghag” (“Voice of Khurasan”), in which it denounces the Taliban as UN and Chinese clients and “polytheists” besides featuring dozens of pages of all kinds of propagandistic materials (Valle & Firdous 2022). ISKP is expected to intensify its recruitment and incitement campaigns in the near term, and there is a real risk that grievances resulting from gross mismanagement of the State will drive more discontent Taliban and other jihadis, but also disillusioned civilians into the ISKP’s folds (Webber 2022). A possible ascendance of the terror outfit and a civil war between Taliban and ISKP constitute the most catastrophic scenarios for both Afghanistan and the international community: As opposed to the Taliban whose political and ideological goals are confined to Afghanistan, ISKP follows a pan-Islamic ideology that aims at re-establishing the Caliphate the IS had lost in Iraq and Syria, and to gradually expand across the globe.
However, ironically the ISKP might ultimately advance the consolidation of the Taliban’s political power. Firstly, Afghan minority groups such as the Hazara who, due to their affiliation with Shia Islam find themselves in a particularly precarious situation, might be compelled to accept Taliban rule as a result of the presence of the relatively larger threat: While the Taliban have a long history of marginalizing and brutalizing religious minorities, at least they do not, as opposed to ISKP, want to extinguish them (Dorrensoro 2005). Recent reports, for example, document protection of Shi’ite worshippers by Taliban fighters (Associated Press 2021), and although the formation of real trust bonds between Taliban and religious minorities certainly is a far cry, the presence of a relatively larger threat may elicit some support for the Taliban by the logic of being the ‘lesser evil’. Secondly, the fear by the international community and especially regional powers of an IS Caliphate at their doorstep may constitute a strong incentive to negotiate and possibly collaborate with the Taliban in order to stabilize the new Islamic Emirate. India, without formally recognizing the Emirate, has committed to the continuation of humanitarian and infrastructure projects in exchange for promises by the Taliban to act against terrorism directed against India (Gupta 2022), and similarly China, which besides its fear of the spill-over effects of terrorism also sees its infrastructure investments in Afghanistan threatened by ISKP, too extends its material and diplomatic support to the Taliban (Murtazashvili 2022). The Islamic Emirate’s economic and political isolation, therefore, is unlikely to be upheld seamlessly on the long run as an increasing number of States may eventually prioritize a pragmatic foreign policy approach over a principled one.
The second non-State actor that might pose a challenge to the Taliban are local militia groups, and especially the Mujahideen of the National Resistance Front (NRF) in the Panjshir Valley to Kabul’s northeast. The Panjshir Valley, a region dominated by ethnic Tajiks, has historically been a stronghold of resistance that had held out the longest against Taliban domination and had also played a key role in repelling the Soviets, with their leader, the charismatic Ahmed Shah Masoud, having become somewhat of a local legend. Masoud was killed by the Taliban in 2001, but his son Ahmad Masoud, from his exile in Tajikistan, has taken charge of coordinating the rekindling of the NRF whose fighters are currently holed up in the unwelcoming mountains above the Valley to train and gather strength (Cozzolino 2022). Besides the NRF, rumours about the emergence of a novel group, the Afghanistan Freedom Front (AFF) supposedly made up of former members of Afghanistan’s armed forces, have made rounds, although little is known about their capacities and whereabouts (Kapur 2022).
Reliable data regarding the military and political clout of resistance militias such as the NRF and AFF is extremely difficult to come by. While the Taliban continue denying the presence of rebels insisting that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is now at peace, various news outlets report of a mounting of attacks on Taliban convoys (Nigam 2022) and “intense fighting” (Jha 2022) in the Panjshir Valley in particular. Be that as it may, it is unlikely that such insurgent movements will in the short term be able to consolidate and coordinate a nation-wide insurrection that can seriously threaten the Taliban: being cut off from supply chains, they lack the hardware necessary to inflict much damage on the government. The presence of local resistance militias, however, and their likely proliferation, may well pose a threat to the Taliban on the long run.
Afghanistan’s history is one of grand visions followed by equally grand disillusion, earning the country the nickname of ‘Graveyard of Empires’. The British, but also the Soviets and the Americans all fell into the same pitfall, believing that an ‘uncivilized’ and ‘backward’ society could be fitted within some political framework to serve foreign interests but eventually surrendering when faced with a population refusing to be subordinated. Yet, the legacy of imperialism lingers: By creating political structures that facilitated rather than restrained unchecked power accumulation and that instituted a systematic unresponsiveness to popular interests, a capacity for violence was created that to this day haunts Afghanistan. The Taliban, while framing their social engineering project in terms that might be more acceptable to Afghans, nonetheless use similar coercive methods for the top-down enforcement of an agenda in which ideology comes at a detriment of even the most basic of human needs, thereby thrusting the State into a humanitarian crisis unseen before.
Predicting Afghanistan’s future, in light of societal and political volatility and in absence of reliable opinion polls, can never amount to anything more than an educated guess. The establishment of an Afghan State whose institutions can cater to the interests of its citizens has receded into a distant future. Given the Taliban’s organizational and political weakness, a gradual decentralization and the progressive loss of territories under their effective control, going hand in hand with the proliferation of resistance and terror movements creating local power pockets, appears likely. The pace of decentralization and the effects thereof will depend on numerous variables including the Taliban’s ability to overcome internal factionalism, legitimize their rule and make strategic alliances with external and internal actors including for the purpose of resource mobilization. The capacity of resistance movements to mobilize popular support and coordinate among each other, as well as possible decisions by foreign governments to support resistance movement too will play a role; Iran, for example, may activate its Fatimiyoun units – Afghan Shia fighters trained in Iran – in order to protect Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara (Felbab-Brown 2021), and Tajikistan already “strongly” supports the NRF which is made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks (Arora 2022).
In the best case, a social contract similar to that of pre-colonial times may be re-established, with Kabul providing the power centre on paper but regions being effectively autonomous. In a less optimistic scenario, local power holders may eventually challenge the Taliban’s grip on the central government, with the outcome possibly being civil war and, if worse comes to worst, the re-birth of an IS Caliphate from chaos and disarray.