It is unnecessary here to labour the main point about the rapid collapse of the American state-building effort in Afghanistan: that the defeat of the global superpower at the hands of a poorly armed militia shows that the governing class of the United States is, on a bipartisan level, incompetent at almost every level, captive to its own ideological delusions and unable to apprehend objective reality, let alone reshape it.
It is more dispiriting, from a British perspective, to realise that our own elites are, if anything, even worse. Observing the efforts of backbench Conservative MPs to summon up interest in a crusade to defend the Kabul government’s writ on a country where its own regional governors and security forces are either surrendering en masse to the Taliban or actively defecting to their side is concerning enough. When we see our defence minister doing the same, we should be worried.
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As I begin writing this article, Kabul’s sphere of influence barely extends to the city limits; whether it will extend that far by the time I’ve finished is doubtful. President Ghani has fled the country; the Taliban are inside the presidential palace. There is no Afghan state left to defend. There is no Afghan army to support. And even if there were, given the British Army’s total inability to pacify one single Afghan province, Helmand, with the constant support of American air power that will no longer exist by the end of this month, it is far beyond our capacity even to dream of doing so. It is no good saying something must be done, after twenty failed years of trying everything. The Afghan war is over, and we lost.
Equally, the meaningless noises being emitted by Labour’s leadership that somehow the UK can gather key stakeholders around a table and hammer out a solution that is distinct from Taliban victory are simply gibberish of the highest order. The Taliban is already doing so, negotiating the surrender of the Kabul government’s military and administrative functionaries through the mediation of tribal elders and religious clerics, and are doing so far more effectively than Lisa Nandy will ever be capable of.
Indeed, the central fact of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan over the past two weeks, under-emphasised though it may be by the solipsistic tone of Western discourse, is precisely how little fighting has been involved. The Taliban has taken over provinces one after the other with barely a shot being fired. When even long-time anti-Taliban leaders like the veteran warlord Ismail Khan, who once ruled the western region of Herat like a medieval king, are meekly submitting to their rule, or even being deployed to Kabul to negotiate the Government’s surrender on the Taliban’s behalf, the ability of even such diplomatic titans as Starmer’s front bench to change the outcome of the war must be firmly ruled out.
If anything, the nature of the Taliban takeover offers glimpses of how they may approach their second period of rule. Their emphasis on seizing power, in these final stages, through negotiation rather than open conflict, accords well with traditional Afghan, particularly Pashtun, systems of dispute settlement.
In fact, the nature of the transfer of power elicits many parallels with the newish social-scientific sub-discipline of rebel governance studies, which aims to unsettle the Hobbesian norms dominant in International Relations theory which hold that only states can provide stable governance, and that non-state actors necessarily leave anarchy and violence in their wake.
This is not so: a burgeoning crop of academic literature focusing on rebel governance in Latin America, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East highlights how, in fact, non-state actors across the world win popular support or at least acquiescence through a variety of methods, including the provision of services such as justice and dispute resolution, medical services, sharing of power through local government and appeals to traditional or other forms of moral authority not open to either the central state or external intervening powers.
As it happens, I’m currently engaged in PhD research looking at rebel governance in Northeast Syria manifest by the Kurdish-led, radical Left-wing Democratic Union Party. The initial Taliban effort, despite their coming from entirely the opposite ideological pole, strongly suggests the utility of this approach in divining what Taliban 2.0 rule may look like for Afghanistan. Firstly, as already noted, the Taliban’s recourse to mediation through pillars of traditional moral and political authority like the clergy and tribal leaders in seizing power supports observations social scientists have derived from fieldwork in Afghanistan.
The counterinsurgency, or COIN doctrine, that so enamoured American generals and their British military hangers-on in the early and mid-2000s, held that external intervening powers could “lend” legitimacy to the embattled central state through infrastructural and other projects, which led, in Afghanistan’s case, to ambitious and ultimately fruitless showpiece schemes like the British Army’s escorting of equipment for a hydroelectric dam across Taliban-held Helmand.
Yet fieldwork in Afghanistan especially shows the precise opposite: the dependency on external powers taints the central government it is intended to support in the eyes of traditional rural populations, who are generally unsupportive of foreign occupations. COIN doctrine is based on a fundamental misapprehension of the nature of political legitimacy: local actors, embedded within and drawn from the ranks of local populations, will almost always be able to outcompete both the central state and even the most well-meaning and idealistic of colonial administrators in the battle for hearts and minds.
Already, the Taliban have issued numerous proclamations assuring the administrative functionaries of what we must now call the former government of amnesty: captured soldiers are being released, surrendered regional governors escorted back to Kabul, and bank workers, street cleaners, school teachers and traffic police told to resume their work — with some exceptions. Female bank tellers have, apparently, been ordered home in Herat, and replaced with their male relatives; female school teachers told they are only allowed to continue working if they don the chador, and their female pupils the hijab. Taliban governance in its second iteration is likely to be as restrictive for women as it was in its first.
This does not necessarily dampen the group’s legitimacy across the country; indeed, in the conservative rural provinces it may well enhance it. Yet in any case, the United States did not enter Afghanistan to advance the rights of women: if that was the West’s overriding concern, it would not have helped topple the previous communist regime, for whom gender equality was a major cause.
The cause of advancing gender equality in Kabul or Herat or Mazar-i-Sharif is a noble one, yet if the downstream consequence of enabling women’s rights in the cities is CIA-backed death squads murdering teenage boys in their village homes at night, the moral calculus is less clear. Biden, like Trump before him, has made the conclusion that the costs are not worth the benefits. Whether, once Taliban rule is secured, both international and local pressure can salvage some of the gains made for Afghan women is an open question There is, at this point, no other alternative policy in any case. We shall see.
This is not to underplay the brutality the Taliban are capable of. Working in Herat in 2014, I met and interviewed harmless Afghan peasants who had their fingers amputated for the crime of voting in the country’s democratic elections, part of the Taliban campaign to dissuade ordinary Afghans, through fear, of engaging with the rival central government. Already we have seen Taliban fighters summarily execute members of government-backed militias they accuse of atrocities against captured Taliban, and they have announced that there will be no mercy for either the country’s erstwhile president Ghani or the Uzbek warlord Marshal Dostum, both of whom, in any case, seem to have already fled the country.
Yet as the rebel governance literature shows, most violence occurs when control of a country is contested between two forces of more or less equal reach: once firm dominance is established by either party, local legitimacy tends to be achieved by amnesties in exchange for submitting to the victor’s authority, a process which we see occur in civil war after civil war. In any case, it must be noted that the measured application of brutality as often affords local legitimacy as it erodes it. The Taliban began, after all, as a local protest movement against the sexual abuse of young boys by warlord militia commanders, who they then hanged from tank barrels to local acclaim.
But the Taliban doesn’t just seek local legitimacy: for their rule to thrive they also need international legitimacy, and though it is very early days, much of their recent output seems designed to secure it. They have already reassured both China and Russia that they have no desire to export disorder beyond their borders, and are likely to be rewarded with recognition, and even investment, once they take Kabul.
For the Taliban to secure recognition from the European Union, which is keen to either continue or resume the deportation of Afghan asylum seekers from within its borders, it will be necessary to avoid the ethnic and sectarian persecutions that marred their previous term of rule. Already, we have seen the Taliban assure Shia worshippers that they will be allowed to worship openly under Taliban protection, and have appointed an ethnic Hazara governor for the Shia ethnic Hazara Bamiyan region, where they have taken control, so far, without firing a shot.
Their seizure of power first focussed on the the Dari and Uzbek-speaking strongholds of the Northern Alliance that had long resisted their rule, with the result that they now control more of the country than they did on 9/11. Minorities with long histories of resistance against and persecution by the Taliban will naturally fear what will come next: yet if the price of international recognition from external powers is delegation of local governance to ethnic minority leaders — as we are already seeing — and the avoidance of senseless killing for the sake of it, then there is every chance that this is what will result.
The present-day Taliban has already shown itself as a sophisticated and competent diplomatic actor on both the world and local stage: it is far from certain that they are so wedded to killing that they will forego the lavish reconstruction money certain to head their way if they can avoid it.
As for recognition by the United States, it will surely come in time: the Taliban were welcome diplomatic interlocutors before 9/11, and their campaign against their mutual enemy the Islamic State, which will now be pursued with all the American weaponry they have captured from the collapsing Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, will eventually make them a useful, if distant de facto partner.
It is strange to see an American foreign policy establishment which urges American engagement or even support for Syrian jihadist factions ideologically indistinct from the Taliban so distraught at the outcome in Afghanistan. If a qualified outreach can be made to even former al-Qaeda factions in Syria, including ones led by veterans of the Afghan jihad deployed by the al-Qaeda leader himself, on the basis that they promise not to attack the West, then it is difficult to see why the same logic cannot be applied further from the West’s shores.
Whether or not the Taliban will continue to provide a haven for the al-Qaeda leadership is another question: but America’s notional ally Pakistan already does, with little censure. In any case, as in northwestern Syria, the United States retains the capability to assassinate senior al-Qaeda figures through carefully targeted drone strikes with minimal collateral damage, and with far less costs involved than in the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan.
So, at this stage, it looks like we are observing the dying days, even hours, of the American phase of the Afghan War. We must hope that the end of Afghanistan’s more than forty years of civil conflict are also drawing to a close. Afghanistan will still need Western support for reconstruction, the financial lures of which ought to be used to salvage what can be salvaged of the genuine advances for human rights made over the past two decades across the government-controlled portions of the country.
Whether the Taliban leadership, in Doha or in Pakistan, can maintain effective enough control of their fighters on the ground, buoyed by victory, to prevent a repeat of the urban fighting that destroyed Kabul in the 1990s is now the most pressing question; whether the assurances of amnesty and cooperation the Taliban leadership are giving its defeated opponents can be trusted, or whether they will revert to totalitarian excess, is the next.
Yet if the initial signs of Taliban political outreach to its conquered enemy are sustained over time, then the results might be similar to the 2001 offer they made to hand over Bin Laden for trial and engage in power-sharing negotiations, which the Americans rebuffed. Perhaps some Western leader, somewhere, will learn something from all this: from the evidence so far, that remains doubtful. But either way, whatever happens in Afghanistan now is up to Afghans to decide.