“Negotiating Survival” Book Symposium – Author Response to Contributors

About the author(s):

Dr Ashley Jackson is Co-director of the Centre on 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 am incredibly grateful for all of the thoughtful contributions to this symposium, and read them with genuine excitement. The research for the Negotiating Survival and the writing process took many twists and turns. Initially, the focus wasn’t even civilian life under the Taliban. I intended to investigate the Taliban itself, and specifically how ideology shaped its strategy and objectives. But once fieldwork was underway, I questioned that decision. 

I had sought out civilians to get their perspectives on the Taliban, but interviews with them were far more interesting, frustrating, and improbable than I had anticipated. It was these encounters that had me scribbling away in my notebooks on the taxi ride back home, and turning over what people said again and again in my head. Even in conversations with insurgents, the most interesting moments were when they talked about their lives, feelings and personal experiences – particularly how they related to their communities, and why they started fighting in the first place.  

The Taliban per se suddenly didn’t feel like the most interesting thing to investigate. But it also became increasingly difficult to separate my personal feelings about the insurgency, particularly its ideology and its actions, from my research choices. There was an undeniable moral weight attached to making the Taliban the centre of my inquiry. I still feel now (as I know many others who have worked or spent time in Afghanistan do, after the Taliban takeover) deeply conflicted about what I might have done differently, and left with a sense of utterly irrational guilt. But more than ever, understanding how civilians have navigated, and are continuing to navigate, Taliban rule is essential. 

In short, this shifting focus led me into unchartered territory. To make things manageable, I narrowed my focus to exclude a great many aspects and angles to an incredibly complex situation. I’m especially grateful that the contributors to the symposium have picked up several threads that I either dropped along the way or didn’t have the expertise to properly engage with.  This response is my effort to keep the conversation going. I only hope I can reciprocate the level of insight and intellectual generosity the symposium’s contributors have extended to me. 

Caught between the Taliban and the pro-government side 

Carla Suarez’s thoughtful piece (very rightly) points out that I don’t talk much about pro-government forces, specifically Afghan government forces. The “other side” was omnipresent in civilian calculations (and, necessarily, at least in the margins of the book). How civilians navigated pressures from the government side, particularly in the closing years of the war, deserves its own investigation. I say this in part because the ground has been so polluted by false narratives, biased research, and slanted opinion polls, all designed to support narratives of a responsive government, ‘progress’ and state legitimacy. But what did legitimacy actually look like to Afghan civilians, and did it even matter? How did Afghans – particularly in insecure areas where their presence was typically deeply constrained or limited – see the government and pro-government forces?

A starting point might be to recognize that the dividing lines were profoundly complicated, marked by both instances of collaboration (particularly with regard to social service delivery) and violent competition. Some elders were able to cut deals with the government and the Taliban to, for example, re-open schools. The Taliban pledged not to attack them and the government administered and resourced them. Civilians’ ability to balance perceptions of both sides, careful not to be siding with one against the other, was essential to securing these kinds of agreements.  

But there were certainly instances, as Jori Breslawski points out, where civilians found it simply impossible to navigate between the two sides or find a workable way forward with the pro-government side. It seemed as though some areas were simply by Afghan security forces as Taliban villages, and this distinction helped them to enact and justify alleged war crimes. In the closing months of the conflict, this played in horrific ways, with the Afghan air force carrying out repeated strikes on civilian objects including schools and health clinics. (To be clear, the Taliban also engaged in dehumanization and in war crimes.) 

As a corollary, the pro-government side’s behaviour and strategy profoundly shaped the Taliban’s behaviour toward civilians throughout the conflict. I allude to it in the brief overview of the conflict, and the chapter on the Taliban (most evident during the ‘surge’ era). But how the Taliban interpreted and responded to their adversaries’ strategy, and the consequences for civilians would be fertile ground for further research.

 Humanitarian access and actors 

I was eager to read Jori Breslawski’s piece in part because I hoped she would pick up on customary authorities and aid negotiations, particularly given her own insightful work on similar terrain. I agree wholeheartedly that there is an unhelpful gap between academic work on armed groups and ground realities. Neither armed groups nor aid groups are homogenous.  Group level characteristics matter, but so too do individual and hyper-local factors, particularly given that access is usually secured through interpersonal negotiations.  

I also agree that the focus on violence against aid workers tends to obscure the other forms of interference aid workers face. As someone who has researched aid access, and advised numerous UN agencies and NGOs on engaging with armed groups, the lack of transparency here is deeply frustrating. Aid actors fear the costs of being honest about what it takes to deliver aid in areas where insurgent groups operate. As a rule, armed actors will attempt to extract financial contributions and they will try to influence aid activity to their benefit. Aid agencies will be able to negotiate around some or most of these restrictions at least some of the time – but they will almost always have to make some concessions. 

This shouldn’t be news to anyone who has done aid work in a war zone. But aid agencies typically publicly insist otherwise: that humanitarian principles somehow mean they will never have to pay taxes, that they have earned the Taliban’s cooperation to run vaccination campaigns through goodwill alone (when in reality they were required to hire Taliban, buy them motorbikes or make other concessions). By holding up false narratives, aid agencies become complicit in insurgent strategies. Worse yet, they prevent the kind of learning, cooperation and joint strategizing that might give them greater leverage to push back on more harmful armed group demands. 

Afghan army outpost, Bost in the southern province of Helmand, May 2018.

As Jori points out, armed groups typically become more interested in complying with international norms and humanitarian actors when they become more interested in gaining international recognition. But there’s a catch, at least in the Taliban’s case. As the Taliban became more accepting of aid agencies, they also became more adept at extracting concessions from them. And that part of the story demands far more attention. 

Civilians in international law 

I read Katharine Fortin and René Provost’s pieces with an avid interest in part because I had – as Katharine rightly points out – sidestepped the legal implications to some of the book’s core arguments about civilian neutrality. As a former humanitarian worker, these legal frameworks and discourses are always in the back of my mind. But, at the same time, I’m conscious that I lack the legal depth of expertise to fully engage with them. 

I really enjoyed reading Katharine’s nuanced exploration of the tensions between the law and ground. There is, of course, a general acknowledgement within the normative evolution of IHL that the dividing line between civilian and combatant is messy and blurred. And Katharine points out that it does not make sense, as Hugo Slim argues, to ‘insist that clarity exists.’ But I also wonder if this insistence on clarity which does not exist is often a response to combatants violation of the ‘rules’ and broader questions about the relevance of these frameworks to today’s violent conflicts. Acknowledgement of this real life complexity must at times feel like a further threat to protections that are already under attack.  

Engaging with this complexity is, however, essential to retaining the relevance of these norms. Katharine’s reference to Sutton is helpful, in that situating Taliban practice within a sort of ‘distinction vernacular’ helps us better understand their attitude toward IHL and human rights norms. I’m currently examining the Taliban’s positions on IHL and human rights norms, together with Rahmatullah Amiri, and as part of a broader project on armed groups and the law, and I have been struck by the Taliban’s awareness of these international normative frameworks. Even early on, they constructed their arguments and policies in relation to certain internationally accepted norms. This was true even where they violated them or held a policy that contravened these norms. At other times, they discursively navigated around adherence to other norms, all the while aware of the gap between their frameworks and those they were internationally bound by. Understanding what drove their normative evolution is essential. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most successful advocacy around the protection of civilians with the Taliban kept a firm grasp on IHL, while at the same time fully engaging with the Taliban’s normative tensions and military realities. 

 Insurgent courts 

René’s post picks up on an aspect of this work that I’ve found myself thinking a lot about lately: the nature of insurgent justice mechanisms – specifically, what they tell us about social relations and power dynamics during wartime. As René’s work on the subject explores, parallel justice structures like the Taliban courts can be seen as a social good.  It is also a way in which they perform public authority, and extend or consolidate their coercive power. This is arguably why we also see insurgent courts appearing well beyond where these groups can be said to firmly control territory. They present a ‘softer’ side to the insurgency (balancing brutality with a social good), but they also allow armed groups to practice eliciting obedience from civilians in different ways. 

Courts can also provide a mechanism with which civilians can negotiate with an abusive power or exert agency in other ways. Taliban courts were a relatively formalised mechanism through which people could bring land grabbers or inheritance-stealing relatives to account. They could, at least in theory, also bring appeals (inherently challenging the Taliban’s authority) or complaints against the Taliban themselves. Few I encountered did this, but a few tried and some even succeeded. And this has a subversive quality – using the rules against the rulers (as René alludes to with colonial courts) – that would be interesting to explore further.  

Context and the wider contribution 

Romain Malejacq touches on how the book relates to the wider debates and positions in the study of civil wars and rebel governance. I was reluctant to weigh in on many of these in writing the book, in part because it is very much a book about Afghanistan. The process of researching and writing the book also deepened my scepticism about generalizable theories on civil war. I tend to find the most useful insights in works that prioritize deep engagement, original empirics and interdisciplinary methods. There is certainly a place for large datasets and comparative work. But, typically, I find more utility in drawing parallels between cases than I do from more formal cross case comparison or broad-based theories. 

I was glad that Niels Terpstra’s post picks up where the book leaves off, exploring what it might tell us now that the Taliban is in power. Governing as an insurgency is a very different endeavour than governing as the incumbent state, and the Taliban is facing a multitude of challenges. It is unclear, at least to me, how the Taliban government will manage to survive the multi-layered crises engulfing the country and the widespread international opposition to its rule. The absence of any serious political or military rivals suggests their tenure is secure for now, but their exclusionary policies and brutality suggest that won’t be the case for long. But I long ago learned to resist making predictions where the Taliban are concerned; they are nothing if not resilient and confounding. 

If there is any contribution that I hope the books makes moving forward, it is in understanding how civilians manage to survive the worst. Research into various dimensions of how civilians are navigating life under the Taliban today is urgently needed, and I hope that Negotiating Survival can made a contribution to the foundations of that work.

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