“Negotiating Survival” Book Symposium – From Insurgency to Government in Waiting: Taliban Tactics and Strategy

About the author(s):

Niels Terpstra

Dr. Niels Terpstra is Assistant Professor at the Utrecht School of Governance (USG) and Advisor at USG Consultancy, Utrecht University. Starting 1 March 2022, he is appointed Assistant Professor in Conflict Studies at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM), Radboud University. His research focuses on civil wars, political violence, insurgency, terrorism, state- and peacebuilding. More specifically, he has published on rebel governance, rebel legitimacy, and third-party interventions in the journals Civil Wars, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Modern Asian Studies, Peacebuilding, and Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. He has fieldwork experience in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Colombia.

Introduction

With ‘Negotiating Survival’ Ashley Jackson has written an extraordinary account of insurgent-civilian relations in Afghanistan. Amongst others, it traces the evolution of the Taliban insurgency after the Taliban regime was ousted from power in 2001. The book builds on a unique and rich set of empirical data collected during Jackson’s fieldwork. With the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, Jackson’s account has become even more timely. Both in academia and policy circles plenty attention had been paid to the processes of statebuilding in Afghanistan. However, the ways in which the Taliban governed as insurgency in the post-2001 timeframe had remained – except for a few studies – relatively understudied. The capture of Kabul in 2021 cannot be understood without a consideration of how the Taliban engaged with segments of the civilian population over the past decades. 

Insurgent-civilian relations 

While reading the book, my attention was particularly drawn to chapter three on the Taliban’s strategy and tactics, with a focus on coercion, co-option, and co-operation. In this chapter Jackson traces the Taliban’s evolution from a “disparate insurgency to a government in waiting” (p. 85). Jackson convincingly shows how the Taliban have used coercive measures and persuasion to induce civilian compliance with their rule. She argues that particularly where persuasion alone failed, the Taliban employed coercive methods. The objective of coercion was not only to eliminate any opposition to the insurgency, but also to send a message to dissuade others from opposing or obstructing the Taliban. A strategy that we see continuing now that the Taliban are in power. 

As Jackson notes, one of the ways in which the Taliban insurgency attempted to elicit civilian compliance was by convincing civilians of the incumbent government’s illegitimacy. Her analysis is largely congruent with other more elaborate assessments of Taliban narratives in the post-2001 era. According to Jackson, the Taliban’s narrative on the post-2001 international intervention was a “foreign occupation in disguise, and the occupiers sought to destroy Islam and Afghan culture” (p. 105). The Taliban emphasised the civilian casualties and abuses caused by the government and international forces. The Taliban framed the government as a puppet state propped up by the West. They played on both Afghan anger at government ineffectiveness as well as pride and nationalism. Other authors have shown that elements of this narrative can be further historicised by the existence of earlier ‘Taliban fronts’ that were part of the mujahideenfactions in the Afghan-Soviet war. Like other studies, Jackson shows how the presence of foreign enemy forces can be an important source of empirical legitimacy for insurgencies like the Taliban. 

Taliban governance

According to Jackson the Taliban insurgency increasingly aimed to “compete with the Afghan government in areas they contested, and to replace it in areas they controlled” (p. 80), amongst others by setting up their own governance systems or co-opting the existing governance systems. Her observations are congruent with Kalyvas’ understanding of insurgency as a form of ‘competitive statebuilding’ and the larger emerging literature on rebel governance. The Taliban insurgency not only competed with the Afghan government in military terms, but also by providing forms of rebel governance to the population. 

The will of the Taliban to become further involved in governance was driven both by ideology and strategy. Furthermore, Jackson shows the insurgent strategies shifted at the face of increased and exclusive territorial control. As Nelson Kasfirindeed noted, “the best example of the opportunity to elicit popular support on a patterned basis is the establishment of a zone safe from enemy attack in which civilians are not caught between two competing authorities”. This also held true in some insurgent-controlled territories of Afghanistan if we read Jackson’s account, though it varied substantially across regions and localities. Particularly in the post 2014 timeframe the Taliban increased their implementation of a system of civilian governance, covering everything from regulating schools to levying taxes and adjudicating disputes. The Taliban sought to act like a state, and its relations with civilians reflected this in the areas they controlled. 

As Jackson notes, the “first collective benefit the Taliban offered” was the provision of justice. The sharia courts have been central to the Taliban’s rule. Through justice provision the Taliban were able to capitalise on the incumbent government’s weaknesses and sway parts of the population in the insurgent’s direction. Unlike the government, the Taliban’s coercive power meant that it could enforce judgements. As Giustozzi has noted elsewhere, the Taliban ‘outgoverned’ the Afghan state at specific localities and moments in time. The Taliban essentially attempted to fill a vacuum of authority through its quick dispensation of justice, and it provided local communities some level of protection, e.g. from other abusive militias.

Kabul, February 2019.

An interesting observation in the same chapter is how the Taliban moved from a focus on attacking ‘symbols of the occupation’ towards ‘co-opting aid and state-building efforts’. A shift that Jackson locates around the year 2014. While the international community viewed aid as means to resolve the conflict and rebuild the society, the Taliban viewed it as a symbol of occupation. In the earlier years of the post-2001 insurgency aid workers were targeted and often accused of working for the international forces. However, as the Taliban continued to increase their territorial control and the drawdown of the high numbers of international forces was completed in 2014, Jackson noticed that the Taliban sought to co-opt aid and services rather than target it. 

Reflections

Though she does not explicitly analyse this evolution as such, the Taliban seem to have generally followed a protracted-popular-war strategy in the post-2001 timeframe. The Taliban have gone from (1) strategic defence to (2) strategic stalemate, to (3) the strategic offense. An important element of the protracted-popular-war strategy is the ‘parallel hierarchies’ in phase two of the strategic stalemate. An essential ingredient of these parallel hierarchies was the Taliban’s judiciary. Similar to other insurgencies that became increasingly involved in governance, Jackson is, however, careful not to treat this as a linear process. Moreover, Jackson highlights the regional and local differences and complexities.

Nevertheless, what I would have been interested to learn more from the book but remains relatively underexplored is how earlier forms of Taliban governance in the 1990s have shaped the Taliban’s rebel governance in the post-2001 timeframe. The Taliban drew on earlier networks but to what extend did they also build on earlier experiences with governing the country? Jackson makes some reference to how the Taliban in the post-2001 attempted to be more prepared to govern during and after the war than they were in the 1990s, but it is not clear how exactly they built upon their prior experiences. Since the evolution from insurgency to government happened for the second time in history, a more longitudinal perspective would have been interesting here. 

What lies ahead: the future of the Afghan state

Now that the Taliban have captured the Afghan state for the second time in history, several questions arise about their ways of governing in the years to come. This goes for the state-society relations but also for the Taliban regime vs. the international community. In some respects, we observe history repeating itself, but important changes should be noted too. The Taliban’s 1990s Emirate remained a pariah state: it was only recognised by three countries in the world. Following the Taliban’s first take over of Kabul in 1996, the state infrastructure was largely destroyed, its wealth looted, and public service professionals fled the country.  Running the state apparatus was new to the 1990s Taliban: it was a daunting task for the religiously schooled fighters from the countryside. Similar to the current situation, the deplorable economic state was intensified by international sanctions. At the present we see a somewhat stronger state apparatus but comparable financial problems and limited technocratic capabilities. The Taliban’s priority appears to have been to maintain internal cohesion. They have been relatively irresponsive to severity of the country’s economic and horrific humanitarian crisis. 

Finally, like the 1990s, the Taliban are now governing a population that extends far beyond their initial constituency. Particularly in larger urban areas such as Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, the Taliban face a population with norms and values that contrast starkly with the current regime. The urban-rural divide is something that Jackson touches upon and remains highly significant for our understanding of insurgent-civilian relations. The current regime puts the Taliban-civilian relations that Jackson elucidates into a new perspective and provides – along with others – important directions for future research.

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