Book Symposium “Negotiating Survival: Civilian–Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan”: Introduction

About the author(s):

Ashley Jackson

Dr. Ashley Jackson is the author of “Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan” (Hurst & Co./OUP, 2021),  co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups and an Associate Researcher with the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group at King's College London. Her research focuses on engagement with armed groups, and she has written on these and related issues for Foreign Policy, NY Times, Washington Post, and others. She holds a PhD from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

 

I finished the proofs for Negotiating Survival in the late spring of 2021, just as the Taliban mounted a sweeping offensive across the north of the country. I had spent years researching the insurgency, documenting all of the ways in which it was laying the ground work for this moment. It was disorienting to see the Taliban’s last push unfold in real time, but not surprising. Negotiating Survival charts the Taliban’s resurrection, and the many ways in which the international community misunderstood and underestimated the insurgency. The most consequential failure, the book argues, was the failure to understand the perspectives and experiences of civilians on the ground. 

Man walks across a field in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, October 2010

By the time I began field research for the book in 2017, negotiating with the Taliban was a fact of life. The Taliban controlled or influenced large swathes of the countryside. Aid agencies, telecommunications companies, trucking firms and anyone else who wanted to do business in, or transit through, much of the country had to deal with the Taliban. I met hundreds of Afghans, and each had some link to the Taliban or encounter to tell me about. They might have had a brother or cousin who was a Taliban fighter. Some had been detained or punished by Taliban fighters. Others described paying Taliban taxes, or taking disputes to Taliban courts because they felt that state courts would invariably fail them. One Taliban fighter talked about having the telephone number of the local police chief, matter of factly explaining that having “friends” on all sides was how you survived. 

What was perhaps more surprising, particularly in my conversations with Taliban fighters, was that civilians played a critical role in influencing the Taliban’s tactical calculus and overarching strategy. This was at times hard to reconcile with the Taliban’s brutality. The insurgency is responsible for tens of thousands of civilian dead, and the book details their flagrant disregard for people’s lives and property. In one instance, they poisoned a village water source even after the community begged them not to. In another, they refused to remove a mine planted at the steps of a school, instead advising students to be careful where they walked. 

Yet it is nevertheless true that what civilians demanded and fought for mattered. People could convince the Taliban to release certain prisoners, or reopen schools – under the right circumstances. And the Taliban’s overarching strategy was crafted with the specific aim of using violence and an array of other tactics to elicit civilian compliance in exchange for such “compromises.” 

I struggled to explain this complexity. I found common ground with a handful of other researchers working with similar dynamics elsewhere (Carla Suarez among them, who I’m very grateful has agreed to contribute to this symposium). But the mainstream study of civil wars failed to provide many answers. I borrowed heavily (and admittedly very selectively) from negotiation theory and behavioural psychology instead, which were far more useful in describing the dynamics I observed on the ground. 

Negotiating Survival puts forth a theory of civilian-insurgent bargaining, wherein civilians and the Taliban are locked in an interdependent relationship. Both sides used whatever leverage they had to secure the best deal possible under the circumstances, and the nature of this gave-and-take shaped the conflict. This places Taliban violence and civilian responses in a slightly different light, and allows us to see how, even amid widespread terror and intimidation, civilians exerted agency and influence.

By way of introducing the thoughtful contributions to this symposium, I’d like to highlight a few key themes the book engages with. 

Civilians matter 

We cannot meaningfully understand insurgencies or civil wars without understanding civilian perspectives and experiences. The experiences and strategies of those living among, married to, related to, resisting, repressed by, or otherwise finding ways to co-exist with an insurgency are a vital, if poorly understood, part of the story. The neglect of civilian agency and behaviour has fundamentally impaired our understanding of how wars are fought and won or lost.

Civilian agency, and the way it shapes violent conflict, is relatively underexplored territory. In much of the foundational literature on civil wars, combatants have agency and civilians are largely inert. Civilian loyalty is ‘secured’ by combatants, their ‘hearts and minds’ won by one side or the other. Civilians never tip the balance of the contest. Where they are given agency, its fairly one-dimensional, driven by either survival concerns or naked self-interest. 

In international law, civilians are given a negative definition, distinguished by the fact that they are not combatants. But even this construction often reinforces the idea of civilians an undifferentiated mass, and tends to obscure the idea that they might have influence the conflict. 

The neglect of civilian influence is particularly perplexing in the context of post-2001 Afghanistan, where counterinsurgency and stabilisation approaches sought to win over civilians as a means of undermining the Taliban. Well beyond Afghanistan, attention to civilian perspectives can help us better understand how and why wars are fought, and how to better engage with and assist civilians in conflict.  

Whither support? 

Few civilians interviewed would say they ‘supported’ (or even liked) the Taliban. Support implies some affinity, with or without proactive behaviour to back it up. Moreover, it implies a freedom of choice that most people I met felt was simply not available. Neutrality was an illusory concept. When, for example, Taliban fighters demanded shelter at night, civilians faced an impossible choice. They could not resist and would have to take them in. But in so doing, put themselves at risk for pro-government airstrikes or night raids. When international forces initiated reconstruction project meant to win their loyalty to the state, they worried about being targeted by the Taliban in retaliation for their “collaboration.” Teachers had to balance their interactions with the government, who technically ran their schools, with demands from the Taliban, who could close those schools at will. For many Afghans, there was no safe middle ground.

In the Afghan war, phrases like ‘winning hearts and minds’ and ‘securing the population’ drifted in and out of the lexicon. But the idea of civilian ‘support’ or ‘resistance,’ or ideas that imply a degree of taking sides are common well beyond Afghanistan. Ana Arjona, amongst others, has roundly challenged this construction. It is nevertheless pervasive in the policy and security studies world. The problem is that it leads to policies and frameworks that profoundly misrepresent civilian calculations and perspectives. 

Rethinking agency 

Instead of support or similar terms, Negotiating Survival talks about compliance, bargaining and deal making instead. Compliance requires agency, but it also suggests an informed pragmatism. Further, compliance is not ‘won’ in a decisive victory. Rather, it is cultivated, mediated, and maintained through continual negotiation. Civilians wanted things (even if only protection from the violence the Taliban would otherwise inflict), and they used whatever leverage they had to get it. They strategized, collected information, compared tactics, and measured risk against reward. 

Their motives were complex, at times inscrutable and contradictory, and I do my best to present them in neutral terms.  I found little use for rational actor-based assumptions or theories. To expect people living under the Taliban in a brutal civil war to behave in straightforward ways would have been to disregard their reality. Fear, anger, pride, sadness, disgust, and the instinct for survival influenced people’s behaviour in unpredictable ways. 

What I quickly came to understood is that the preservation of one’s dignity can sometimes outweigh survival concerns, and can take curious forms: playing jazz music at full volume despite repeated Taliban house calls, or running a girls’ school in defiance of Taliban threats and violence. I met a midwife who – after the Taliban used her clinic as a firing position – gathered up the shell casings they left behind and angrily deposited them with the wife of a Taliban commander. The wider study of civil wars should, and must, do a better job of navigating and acknowledging this complexity, and its cumulative effects. 

These are themes that I still think about deeply, questions I wrestle with, second guessing my own assumptions and finding new angles to explore. As anyone who has written a book will tell you, it is at times a very intellectually lonely experience and putting it out into the world is both exciting and nerve wracking. I am incredibly honored that such distinguished scholars and thinkers, all of whom have influenced my own thinking on Afghanistan and beyond, have taken the time to engage with my ideas. Above all, I’m eager to read their thoughts and engage with their reactions. And I am deeply grateful to Katharine Fortin, Ezequiel Heffes and Andrea Farrés Jiménez for organizing and providing this forum. 

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