“Negotiating Survival” Book Symposium –Glancing at the Taliban Organisation

About the author(s):

Romain Malejacq is an Assistant Professor at Radboud University Nijmegen’s Department of Political Science and Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM), in the Netherlands, and holds a PhD in political science from Northwestern University and Sciences Po Paris. His first book, Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan, came out with Cornell University Press in December 2019 and his new research project, “Commander Politics: Cooperation and Competition in Civil War” was recently awarded a VIDI grant as part of the Dutch Research Council (NWO)’s Talent Programme.

Negotiating Survival is an outstanding piece of scholarship. The book is the latest addition to a (relatively) recent, fieldwork-intensive, wave of civil war research that is interested in how rebels rule areas under their control (see, for instance, Mampilly 2011, Arjona et al. 2015, Stuart 2021). More specifically, the work fits within a particular strand of this rebel governance literature that aims to explain how ordinary people react to rebel rule as well as how rebels adapt to civilian demands. Collectively, this is a very important body of work because it uncovers complex sets of interactions between rebels and the people they attempt to govern and debunks the idea of civilians as devoid of agency when facing non-state armed actors. Indeed, as Oliver Kaplan put it: “civilians are not necessarily passive or powerless” in the midst of civil war (2017, p.3).

Much like these scholars, Ashley Jackson aims to understand how civilians affect civil war dynamics. Where others draw mostly on the civil war literature, she explicitely calls upon negotiation theory to develop a dynamic model of civilian-insurgent interactions as constant bargaining—wherein rebels and civilians are “locked in an interdependent relationship” (p.212). In doing so, she takes us one step further in understanding how civilian agency affects rebel behavior and political order, but also in comprehending the bases and expressions of this civilian agency—in terms of interests, leverage, tactics, and strategies. At its core, Negotiating Survival is about how ordinary people navigate violent political environments and, as such, will naturally find its place on the bookshelves of conflict scholars next to Arjona (2016), Huang (2016), Kaplan (2017), and others. Because the book fits so well with this literature, political scientists might at times find themselves wishing its author had engaged a bit more explicitely with these scholars. For instance, the fact that the Taliban “often initiated the provision of incentives long before they could be said to control territory” (p.190) seem to contradict the dominant view of territorial control as a precondition for governance provision, and would deserve to be explored further. 

Yet, Negotiating Survival is not strictly a rebel governance book. Jackson is actually very clear about this: she did not find the answers to her puzzle in the civil war literature and had to look elsewhere to try to make sense of Taliban behavior towards civilians. She is also very transparent when it comes to the scope and focus of the book. There might be some implications of her work to the study of other civil wars, but the book remains first and foremost a book about the Taliban. And it is in fact a must-read for anyone interested in Afghanistan and willing to make sense of the Taliban’s swift return to power. Ashley Jackson clearly shows that the Taliban revival had been in the making long before the Summer of 2021. Her extraordinary fieldwork allows her to go beyond widely-held, preconceived ideas about the Taliban and to uncover the kind of insight that is only available to the sharpest, most attentive, and most engaged student of politics. It only takes the reader a few pages to realize how deeply she cares about Afghanistan and its people, but also how genuine, careful, and patient she is in her attempt to understand why members of the Taliban behave the way they do. 

The ruins of Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, February 2009.

The result is a fine-grained, dynamic, understanding of their governance practices, across time and space. Jackson starts by explaining how rebel rule has changed over time, and more specifically how and why the Taliban have expanded their governance efforts after the 2014 military drawdown—as they started “planning for life after war” (p.104). But explaining variation in governance practices (and insurgent-civilian relations) across space, she admits, is much more complicated. In fact, she writes that “[e]ach new place was, in some ways, its own puzzle” (p.185). And yet, this might also be where Negotiating Survival makes the greatest empirical contribution to the study of Afghanistan. By uncovering a patchwork of governance practices across Taliban-held territory, Jackson provides us with a window through which to peek at the Taliban organization as a whole. Negotiating Survival might well a stepping stone in the study of the Taliban as a ‘network organization’—though Jackson does not make that claim and often refers to the Taliban as a ‘movement’ or as a ‘group’. 

While much has been written about the Taliban in recent years and recent months, information on the Taliban remains scarce. And very little of what has been published is based on actual, first-hand, empirical data. Negotiating Survival is one of the few exceptions. Jackson leverages her incredible fieldwork to shed light on the inner workings of the Taliban organization. She brings much needed nuance to the Taliban coherence vs. Taliban fragmentation debate that has animated policymakers for the past 10 to 20 years—and even more so in the recent months. She very convincingly demonstrates that, despite being what Antonio Giustozzi calls a ‘network of networks’ (2012, p.20), the Taliban has managed to (surprisingly maybe) develop “a remarkable level of operational coherence” (p.196). What is more, she provides ample empirical evidence of the complex relationships between field commanders—who typically rule over dependable followings of a few dozen men at most (Giustozzi 2019, p.11)—and the Taliban leadership. She explains: 

“If the Taliban leadership allowed commanders too much leeway, they risked undermining the Taliban’s central authority and the ability of the movement to unite against their adversaries. However, if the leadership tightened the reins too much, local factions might rebel and the movement could fracture” (p.144).

Hence the importance, for the Taliban leadership, of “decentralised decision-making” and “the broad scope for negotiation and local adaptation” within the organisation (p.144). Here Jackson’s nuanced take on ideology is particularly enlightening. Ideology is “the cohesive glue” (p.214) that keeps the organisation together. Taliban ideology, she explains, is not fully instrumental, but it is functional: “it sets the parameters for action and provides a rationale” (p.214) but “[w]hen Taliban ideology conflicts with the group’s ability to achieve their objectives, it is ideology—not the objectives—that end up shifting” (p.214). As I develop below, how much leeway this gives to one given commander, and how it affects his fighters’ relationship with civilians, remains a point of contention. 

“The heart of this book,” writes Ashley Jackson, “is empirical evidence drawn from Afghanistan, and there is no one-size-fits-all theory of civilian survival” (p.215). She is entirely right and the lack of generalizability, beyond Afghanistan, is (in my opinion at least), of little relevance. The general approach of civilian-insurgent interactions as bargaining might in fact travel very well across cases and provides a very useful way to frame these interactions to better understand on-the-ground dynamics in a given setting. The author also gives convincing anecdotal evidence of that (p.216). Yet, there is an underlying tension, in the book, between making space for the local, social, and cultural idiosyncrasies identified in the rich empirical data and drawing more general lessons and theoretical conclusions. Jackson seems acutely aware of this tension and that is one she navigates very well, seemingly abiding by Zartman and Berman’s famous axiom that “negotiation is a universal process, utilizing a finite number of behavioral patterns, and that cultural differences are simply differences in style and language” (1982, p.226). Whether that is true or not, the tension remains, not only beyond Afghanistan, but within Afghanistan, at the micro level. If insurgent-civilian relations depend, for the most part, on the individual idiosyncratic characteristics of the field and his civilian interlocutors (in terms of social capital, etc.), then identifying patterns of behavior might become very challenging. 

For Jackson, what is critical in explaining “seemingly similar bargaining processes [that] had radically different and, at times, counterintuitive outcomes” (p.175) is social capital. I could not agree more but I would have loved to hear more as well. She does a great job of explaining that civilian agency does not equate with freedom of choice when it comes to ‘supporting’ armed actors and, in this regard, clearly identifies the fallacies of the counterinsurgency doctrine. Yet, despite putting a great emphasis on social capital and highlighting the complexity and interdependence of relationships between civilians and insurgents, Jackson does not actually question the civilian-insurgent dichotomy itself. When speaking of social capital, where do “friends of friends” stop and where do insurgents begin (Boissevain 1974)? What does the analyst make of the Taliban’s brother, wife, and enabler? What leverage do they have? Where do they sit in that ‘field’? Are they civilians? Are they ‘insurgent light’? Are they social capital? I believe Jackson’s deep understanding of the Afghanistan case could truly advance our conceptual understanding of civilians and insurgents and sincerely hope she will continue exploring these questions in future work. For now, she has produced a remarkable piece of work. Anyone who is even remotely interested in Afghanistan and civil wars should read it. 

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