Like Tadjbakhsh (2008) clearly states, Afghanistan has become this experiment for the international community to try to implement and shape the country according to foreign standards. In this article I argue that the international community has underestimated the complexity of the nation, which for decades can hardly be characterized as one nation anymore. When the initial plan of defeating an opponent turned into a state-building effort, the diverged Afghan community already lacked the will to drive for a democratic regime.
The Bonn Agreement initially seemed to be very promising, but there were many problems with this imposed plan. It was a top-down policy approach led by nations that focused on the process and not on the fundamental basis of the Afghan nation. Already since the British invasion in the 19th century, that stumbled across resistance from different tribal leaders at every mile, the informal ethnic and religious contringency in communities have made it difficult to implement new horizontal (political) structures. The low turnout at the presidential elections was a symptom of a growing force against the liberal individualism, which was hard to reconcile with the traditional religious values (Tadjbakhsh, 2008). The failure to prevent bad strongmen to integrate in the parliamentary process has resulted in the abuse of the first Afghan democratic structures, which eventually led to a growing mistrust in the democratic process. As the Taliban was specifically held out of the Bonn Agreement it could reconcile against the imposed policies. This opposition towards the corrupt government proved to be very successful together with their Islamic ideas that Afghan people were more familiar with.
However, this was just one of the reasons for the successful resurgence of the Taliban. The low governing power, cultural climate and poverty make the Afghan land a fruitful farmland for the poppy and opium industry. After the strong regime of the Taliban was bombed away, poppy cultivation surged in the power vacuum created by the sweep. Where initially the Taliban was very adept at controlling and taxing the poppy industry, in a sort of policy of tolerance. The Bonn Agreement tried to set-up a policy to dismantle the illegal poppy industry, even though the opium industry was deeply entangled with the governmental and local officials (Suhrke, 2007). Taking on the opium industry would have serious economic consequences for an economy that was increasingly dependent on the income of cultivation. The counterinsurgency strategy mentioned the poppy harvest as source of funding for the Taliban and thus a target for the counter-insurgents (US Army, 2006). However, the replacement sources of funding offered failed to offset the economic damage made after eradication, as the different economic branches are often obscure, which makes it hard to sustain all the individuals hit by the eradication (Farrell, 2018). This aggressive anti-cultivation approach without the offering of functioning alternative sources of income led to a growing anger of which the Taliban profited.
The most important feature that gives the Taliban the legitimacy it enjoys now is their ability to settle disputes. As previously stated, Afghanistan knows many local communities which are led by different tribal leaders, which is a hotbed for conflicts. The fast and cheap justice system that the Taliban offered was a better alternative to the corrupt governmental judicial system, which is a driver of toleration for the strict Taliban regime (Weigand, 2017). While the Taliban is successful at undermining the feeling of security in government controlled regions, in their own regions the control by force is enough to create stability (Jackson & Weigand, 2020). The fact that it is able to settle cases outside their “judicial area” means that they are able to offer better public services than the government.
The international community underestimates the importance to understand the patterns of thought of the Afghans, in a country which has been divided for decades a good comprehension of the cultural dynamics is very important. Foreign influencers failed to understand the necessity to study the actual reality rather than the modeled reality. Just like it is almost impossible to model the human mind, it is practically impossible to model a new political structure and state into Afghanistan. Cultural, religious and local interests make it virtually impossible to impose a top-down structured state. The international community can be held accountable for this lack of understanding. However, I do think that the continuing complexity of the Afghan community should not be a reason to accept the radical Taliban regime, just because mistakes were made in the past. In a new effort lessons should be learned from the past.
For the first time since their existence, this year the Taliban was allowed to an international convention led by the United States to reduce the violence in the region. However, reports suggest that the overall violence has not decreased at all and the fights between the government and the Taliban have not faded despite the Doha Agreement. It is starting to look like the agreement was a formal way out of Afghanistan for the foreign troops rather than a resolution for the state of Afghanistan (Quilty, 2020). The Taliban, however, with the decreased suppression by the United States feels like victory is coming closer. Therefore, after years of fighting the Taliban seems to have a free road to claim victory. Their ability to destabilize existing authorities and at the same time provide alternative public services makes the Taliban the best alternative overall. The success of the Taliban seems like textbook insurgency.
Farrell, T. (2018). Unbeatable: Social Resources, Military Adaptation, and the Afghan Taliban. Texas National Security Review, 1(3), 58–75.
Jackson, A., & Weigand, F. (2020). Rebel Rule of Law: Taliban Courts in the West and North-West of Afghanistan. ODI Briefing Note, May.
Quilty, A. (2020) Taleban Opportunism and ANSF Frustration: How the Afghan conflict has changed since the Doha agreement. Afghan Analysts Network.
Suhrke, A. (2007). Reconstruction as Modernisation: The “post-conflict” project in Afghanistan. Third World Quarterly, 28(7), 1291–1308.
Tadjbakhsh, S., Schoiswohl, M. (2008). Playing with Fire? The International Community’s Democratization Experiment in Afghanistan. International Peacekeeping, 15(2), 252–267.
US Army. (2006). FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5 Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: US Army, 2006), May, 1–202.
Weigand, F. (2017). Afghanistan’s Taliban–Legitimate Jihadists or Coercive Extremists? Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 11(3), 359–381.