March 2, 2021

The pair of towering Buddha statues in Bamiyan watched over Afghanistan’s Silk Road for fifteen centuries — until the Taliban came along and obliterated them using anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank mines and dynamite. When a video was released showing their destruction exactly 20 years ago, the West responded with unbridled horror. The Taliban Government, however, was resolute: idolatry had no place in their Afghanistan.

The statues’ demolition certainly lived up to the depiction of the Taliban in international media: they were a group of religious fundamentalists who beat women, banned music and measured the lengths of men’s beards to make sure they tallied with the religiously mandated length. This was the government of the day: coherent and imposing its will on the people of Afghanistan, whether they liked it or not.

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But who are the Taliban now? Surely this is an important question, particularly if you are trying to work out what to do about Afghanistan; that country for which there were such high hopes after the supposed defeat of the Taliban in 2001, but which is currently disintegrating before our eyes. Yet those responsible for Afghanistan’s future don’t seem to be asking these questions. Which is, of course, one of the reasons that Afghanistan is collapsing. Nobody bothered to find out what the place was like.

Now, after nearly 20 years of hunting terrorists (Al Qaeda), conducting a counterinsurgency (against the Taliban), fighting a drugs war and developing the country, all foreign troops — including 2,500 Americans — are due to leave Afghanistan by the start of May.

This follows the signing of a peace accord between the US and the Taliban in February 2020. The agreement, which astonishingly was negotiated without the participation of the Afghan government, had few stipulations. The US would reduce its troop numbers and would release several thousand prisoners. The Taliban, meanwhile, would agree to peace talks with the Afghan government, and would prevent anyone using Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies.

In reality, this was not a peace agreement, but a fairly obvious smoke screen for a US withdrawal (much like, it has to be said, the Russian withdrawal 30 years earlier). The US had failed to achieve its goals and was leaving.

Since the signing of the accord, the US has broadly followed its side of the bargain, reducing troop numbers and releasing prisoners. The Taliban, however, have not — instead upping its attacks on the Afghan government, while stonewalling any attempts at negotiation.

And so reports from Afghanistan indicate that several provincial centres, including Kandahar, arguably the most important city in Afghanistan after Kabul, are in danger of falling from Afghan government control. Newly elected President Biden is said to be reconsidering whether it is safe for the US to be leaving Afghanistan at all.

All of which sounds like very sensible analysis, and reflects the sort of article you might read in the New York Times. But it is based on a massive assumption: that the Taliban are a coherent organisation with a defined membership, an organisational structure, a guiding framework of ideas and a leadership able to exert control over its fighters.

In turn, these assumptions support the so-called insurgency narrative: that the Afghan government and its international partners have been fighting an insurgency called the Taliban who grow drugs, throw acid in girls’ faces and are generally evil. In this telling, the Afghan government and its international friends are, by definition, good. It is a binary depiction of the war: good versus evil, black versus white, us versus them.

But what if this dynamic wasn’t actually what was generating most of the violence? For most of the violence in Afghanistan today is driven by hyper-local issues, such as land disputes, access to agricultural water, fights over drugs, generational feuds and abuses of administrative power. Indeed, when the Afghan communist party, heavily supported by the USSR, took power in a coup 43 years ago and precipitated a civil war which has been raging ever since, it unleashed a series of pent-up tensions in the country between conservatives and progressives, the educated and non-educated and, most importantly, between various local interest groups — mostly based on kinship — desperate to control their territories.

This same multifocal civil war continues today, with most of those people fighting the Government doing so for personal or local reasons. Perhaps they have had their land stolen by a warlord. Perhaps they are the victim of predatory behaviour from a local official and need to fight back to maintain their honour. Perhaps they are trying to sell their drugs, or protect their village, or enact a feud. The reasons are endless, but all of them are exacerbated by the fact that Afghanistan has nothing resembling a central government that adjudicates disputes and sets rules that apply to everyone. In fact, the Afghan government is as riven by local factional motivations as the Taliban.

What those on both sides do share, though, is a willingness to accept weapons from anyone — including, but not limited to, the Americans, the Russians, Pakistan and the Taliban — in order to pursue their own personal aims. Importantly, because of the strength of local issues in driving the conflict, the degree to which all these sponsors are able to control the on-the-ground actors is highly questionable.

So, what does this look like in a district in, for example, Kandahar Province? Imagine two villages, A and B. Running between these villages is a water course that both need for their agriculture. Because there hasn’t been a functioning government in Afghanistan for two-thirds of a lifetime — life expectancy is 65 — there is no functioning water management, and these villages are locked in a zero-sum battle over access to water (layered, no doubt, with multiple personal feuds).

Luckily, someone in village A has a relative in the provincial police and manages to have the village militia enrolled in it; they now have access to weapons and the confidence to label village B as “Taliban sympathisers” or some such slur. Village B, in response, decides to send an elder who fought in the mujahideen to the Taliban leadership in Quetta. When the elder says that village A are “westerners”, he is given enough weapons for village B to create their own militia.

Of course, whether village B accepts weapons from the Taliban before or after they are labelled “Taliban sympathisers” is a moot point — the key thing is that everyone is manipulating everyone else in order to access resources that will bolster their cause. That partly explains why commanders and militias change sides all the time, and most actors very sensibly maintain feet in both the government and Taliban camps.

In 2011, I remember meeting a local Taliban commander who had been welcomed into the Afghan government and supplied with motorbikes and weapons to form his own (government-aligned) village defence militia. He had switched back less than a month later: in Afghanistan, survival always trumps ideology. Even the Afghan government sometimes deploys the Taliban and ISIS as spectres to ensure funds and commitments from international partners, such as the US.

Yet this mythologised Taliban died in 2001, when Pakistani funding all but dried up. So to describe the country’s civil war without reference to its vast array of tribal alliances, as a recent New York Times article does, is to miss the fundamental point. Likewise, while it may be hard to describe exactly what the Taliban are, it is not difficult to describe what they are not; they are not, as this BBC article helpfully describes, a coherent organisation. But it is upon this assumption of Taliban coherence that the plans of the Afghan government, the US and all the other involved countries rest.

And that could have serious repercussions. For assuming that the US continues on their withdrawal (and other countries follow them, because they can’t exist without the massive US logistical footprint in the country), the country is going to fragment, much like it did in the 1990s when the Russians withdrew.

In a mirror of today, it was assumed then that the mujahideen, who fought the Russians throughout the 1980s, would take over the government. But they were utterly divided, more interested in pursuing personal interests, so they ended up fighting each other. History is meant to rhyme, and not repeat, but in Afghanistan, the latter seems highly plausible.

When I speak to friends in Kabul, they are terrified, and trying to get themselves and as many relatives as possible out of the country. Afghanistan, they say, is about to collapse into tens or hundreds of fiefdoms. Those over 35 or so have memories of the different factions fighting over Kabul in the early nineties — the rocket attacks, the rapes and the brutal pogroms inflicted on the neighbourhoods of opposing ethnicities. Afghanistan’s current leadership, whether government or Taliban, won’t be able to be control it any more than anyone else.

And so we come to the recurring question of the last 20 years: what should the US President do about Afghanistan? Well, President Biden, there are a number of practical decisions to take. If you want to stop Afghanistan splintering into random fiefdoms, you should keep a minimal number of troops in the country and spend enough money necessary to keep the national ring road open (there is only one main road in Afghanistan), and the provincial centres in government hands. Accept that you are there for the long haul, like in Germany or South Korea, and see it as part of your policy towards China, a neighbour with acute interests in Afghanistan and the surrounding countries.

But as you reconsider America’s policy towards Afghanistan, you would do well to remember that, above all else, you will not be able to beat the Taliban, because what you understand as the Taliban simply do not exist.