Let’s Not Kid Ourselves: Afghanistan’s Taliban Regime Will Not Become More Inclusive

By William Byrd

Lawfare Blog

Monday, October 24, 2022, 8:31 AM

Ever since the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, there has been widespread, almost universal, rhetoric in international diplomatic circles—ranging from the United Nations to the European Union and the United States to Russia—that the Taliban need to form a more inclusive government, with varying definitions and views on what that means in concrete terms.

The U.S. had negotiated the Doha Agreement with the Taliban in 2020 and tried unsuccessfully to get the Taliban and the previous Islamic Republic government led by former President Ashraf Ghani to reach a negotiated end to the conflict and to embark on a peace process. When this completely failed with the final withdrawal of U.S. and other international troops followed by the unexpectedly quick Taliban victory last year, it was only natural to reach for inclusivity arguments; with peace negotiations no longer possible, the Taliban nevertheless should broaden the political base of their new regime by bringing in non-Taliban elements and influences. Unfortunately, the inclusivity argument is flawed and is undermined by patterns of historical experience.

What Is Wrong With the Conventional Wisdom

A retrospective perspective is important for absorbing lessons from the failure to negotiate a peace settlement in Afghanistan, but the salient question for Afghanistan in the immediate future is: Are there realistic prospects for the new regime to become more inclusive in response to international pressure and rhetoric? And would this be in the Taliban’s own self-interest?

Authoritarian regimes have their own dynamics and incentives, and efforts to influence them from outside must be informed by what makes sense in terms of their own overriding priority of regime as well as individual leadership survival and longevity. Asking an authoritarian regime to take actions that risk undermining—let alone toppling—it is, beyond a certain point, a fool’s errand.

Contrary to how democracies work, authoritarian regimes and their leaders are subject to different success factors. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith explore this issue in their book, “The Dictator’s Handbook,” building on associated research. Whether authoritarian leaders and regimes can stay in power, the authors assert, depends on:

  • Keeping the ruling coalition small and manageable; not expanding the circle of power much beyond the minimum necessary to maintain control over the country.
  • For the authoritarian ruler (or ruling junta), reshuffling the coalition, especially in the immediate aftermath of coming into power, to keep potential rivals in check.
  • Controlling the country’s revenues, and deploying them to reward key supporters and constituencies, pay security forces, and more generally strengthen the regime.
  • In aid-dependent countries, this includes skewing aid in favor of the regime in various ways ranging from outright corruption to “taxing” aid in different ways and directing it to favored beneficiaries.
  • Cracking down on any opposition and preventing it from organizing, sometimes through extreme measures such as executions, massacres, starvation, forced relocations, and the like.

Beyond these general principles, what does historical experience tell us about how victorious insurgencies govern after they come into power? This has been an under-researched area, partly because there have been relatively few insurgent victories compared to other outcomes of civil wars, but several recent papers shed some light on this question.

Terrence Lyons argues that victorious insurgencies naturally gravitate toward becoming authoritarian regimes, reflecting their military background and leadership built up during their successful campaign as well as their wartime governance of the territory they took control over during the fighting. Moreover, Lyons argues, victory itself provides the insurgent group with some degree of legitimacy for their authoritarian tilt, and transitional processes postconflict can be used as instruments for consolidating power. This is, however, a debated area, with Monica Toft asserting that victorious insurgencies have an opening to become more democratic, whereas when governments win, they tend to become more authoritarian. Among non-elite populations, a study of the Balkans suggests that people exposed to war-related violence tend to embrace more authoritarian values.

Kai Thaler divides victorious insurgent groups into two broad categories: (a) programmatic, aiming to achieve long-term goals including transforming socioeconomic and political relations and providing public goods and services, and (b) opportunistic, viewing the state as a prize to win and motivated purely by power and material gain. Thaler argues that victorious programmatic insurgencies will focus on expanding the footprint of the state and its influence over social and economic issues, providing more public goods and services. Opportunistic victors, by contrast, will engage in minimal state building, retain or ignore existing state institutions, provide limited public goods and services, and focus instead on security forces and economic rent extraction, allocating resources for individual and group benefit. The stronger states that some victorious insurgencies build often become more repressive and authoritarian. Thaler notes that “[r]ebel victory can potentially provide peace and public benefits in the short term, but it may come at the cost of longer-term authoritarianism and repression.”

The Taliban, a religious ideology-driven anti-foreign movement, does not fit squarely into either of these two categories. Observed Taliban behavior demonstrates significant elements of opportunism: for example, taking over existing state structures rather than building new ones, not prioritizing provision of public goods and services, focusing on security and rent extraction, using government appointments to balance and reward important members of the group, and the like. But they do have a general program—albeit vague—of ridding the society of what they perceive to be un- and less-Islamic features and foreign influences. And personal greed appears to be less of a motivating factor among the Taliban than has been the case in purely opportunistic power grabs by other insurgents and rebels.

Are the Taliban Performing Like a Typical Authoritarian Regime?

How should the Taliban be assessed in light of these patterns of international experience? Overall, much of what the Taliban have done over the past year (typically the first six months to one year is the most dangerous period for the survival of a new authoritarian regime or leader) is not only understandable but largely sensible from the perspective of their own success factors and their leadership’s self-interest.

First, while taking over the formal state levers of power and existing government institutions from the fallen Ghani administration, the Taliban have not strayed from their authoritarian roots. The Taliban movement was formed in the authoritarian mold and developed as such during a quarter-century of civil war and insurgency. The movement is headed by a top religious figure (the Amir), with high-level decision-making by a sizable, but far from open, group of religious, military, and political leaders; there is no pretense of democracy.

Second, the Taliban have prioritized maintaining the broad outward unity of their movement despite emerging tensions between the Amir and his associates in Kandahar and formal government leaders in Kabul.

Third, the Taliban have brutally and effectively cracked down on opposition, especially any signs of armed resistance. International experience suggests that, however tragic for the country, this is an authoritarian regime’s typical response to dissent and leads to a higher probability of regime survival—at least for a while—compared to backing down or trying to accommodate opposition.

Fourth, the Taliban have resisted international and domestic pressures to broaden their government even symbolically, let alone become more inclusive in any meaningful sense. They face challenges in managing their own factions, which would be aggravated by broadening their governing coalition.

Fifth, the Taliban have been remarkably successful in collecting, consolidating, and centralizing customs revenue, while sharply curbing corruption in customs and getting rid of the bulk of the numerous road checkpoints that had generated hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes under the previous government. Total revenue collected this year is likely to reach $1.5 billion, and possibly more; this is less than the peak collection under the previous government but impressive given the collapse of the Afghan economy, which has not led to a commensurate decline in revenue.

Sixth, the Taliban have stopped publishing any data on actual budget expenditures, nor have they published a full budget for the current fiscal year (March 2022-March 2023), just some headline numbers. Though sufficient data on revenues has been made available to assess performance, broadly confirmed by field research, no information is available on actual budget expenditure, which apparently is being treated as a “state secret” by the Taliban administration. While this is bad public finance practice and is harmful to good governance and accountability to the citizenry, budget secrecy allows the Taliban to deploy the resources they are mobilizing to benefit the regime with no external scrutiny.

Seventh, where they perceive it to be in their own interest, the Taliban strive to maintain capacity in several key government agencies, including the customs administration. (The automated customs software was quickly revived and is now employed more effectively than it was under the previous Afghan government.) It also appears that they have tried to maintain existing capacity in the intelligence agency, for obvious reasons.

Apparent Taliban Mistakes

Where do the Taliban seem to have gone wrong? Any conclusions must be tentative, since we don’t know much about the inner workings of Taliban decision-making and managing tensions within the movement behind the scenes. Nevertheless, certain actions seem at least superficially puzzling and contrary to their movement’s self-interest, such as:

  • The comprehensive opium ban announced by Amir Haibatullah, which, if implemented, will not only harm Afghanistan economically but also alienate some individuals and groups within and around the Taliban, particularly in the south and southwest of the country, who have been beneficiaries of the drug industry and could cause problems for the regime.
  • Beyond trade, transport, and taxation—where the Taliban have demonstrated competence and effectiveness—some of their actions suggest a lack of understanding of economic issues.
  • The back-and-forth over the closure of girls’ secondary schools in much of the country, even though women are allowed to apply to and attend university and private girls’ schools remain open, which undermines the public picture of Taliban unity and has damaged their international relations.
  • The blatant harboring of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul and the subsequent U.S. drone strike killing him, which embarrassed the Taliban domestically and internationally, undermining their claim that they are implementing counterterrorism commitments.
  • The inability to prevent domestic terrorist attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan and occasional attacks from Afghan soil on neighboring countries, which undermines their narrative and selling point vis-a-vis the Afghan population and regionally that they are bringing security and stability to the country.

What explains these apparent departures from authoritarian good practice? There are several, not mutually exclusive, possibilities here: The Taliban are learning the ropes of running an authoritarian state, and perhaps they understandably are making some miscalculations; behind-the-scenes political economy dynamics, not fully apparent from the outside, may be influencing some of their actions; they may not focus on or care about certain issues; or the Taliban may be prisoners of their own ideology and rhetoric, which could outweigh considerations of narrower self-interest for the authoritarian regime and its leadership. (The opium ban, for example, went out of its way to be comprehensive and strongly stated, probably unnecessarily so.)

And the Taliban seem almost congenitally unable to make even minor gestures to the international community that would not compromise the regime’s power, authority, or core ideological principles, and would not make their regime more inclusive in any meaningful sense. An example is reaffirming the nominal autonomy of Afghanistan’s central bank (which is enshrined in current Afghan law), appointing non-Taliban technocrats to leadership positions there, and bringing in technical assistance where needed.

More generally, many authoritarian regimes that brutally repress their people maintain decent diplomatic and economic relations with the outside world—not least by putting forward distorted narratives and making announcements and commitments they don’t plan to adhere to but that superficially assuage international concerns. The Taliban have not succeeded in doing so.

What Can Foreigners Do—If Anything?

Informed by historical experience with other victorious insurgencies and authoritarian regimes, how should the U.S. and other countries approach and try to influence the Taliban? This is a major challenge, as little that has been tried over the past 14 months has worked in meaningfully influencing Taliban behavior and actions.

Unfortunately, what has not worked and will not work in the future is clearer than what might work. In particular, preaching international laws and norms, the need to form an inclusive government, and the like—even when incentivized by the possibility of recognition and implicit or explicit offers of aid—has not made much of a difference and is unlikely to change the Taliban in the future.

One set of actions that effectively influenced and changed regimes in Afghanistan’s own historical experience as well as in other countries—external support to armed groups—appears to be ruled out in the near-term future. Foreign powers—some of whom supported such groups in the past—are refraining from doing so now. They may be considering the likelihood that the resulting conflicts and, at the extreme, “proxy wars” risking a breakdown into general civil war would be more damaging to Afghanistan and to their interests than the present situation with the Taliban in power.

Leadership succession (through natural causes or otherwise) is the Achilles’ heel of many authoritarian regimes. Though it may sometimes present opportunities for change, it may also give rise to major risks such as widespread conflict during a succession crisis. External involvement in leadership changes and succession easily could prove short-lived, ineffective, or even counterproductive, as happened with U.S. and international interventions in several presidential election crises during the Islamic Republic regime. And—an example of direct, kinetic action to change leadership—the U.S. drone strike in 2016 that killed the preceding Taliban leader, Akhtar Mansoor, did not succeed militarily or politically and delayed incipient negotiations with the Taliban until a few years later when the military equation was even more favorable to them. Foreign governments, however, would do well to maintain sound knowledge, engagement, and flexibility with respect to the Taliban regime so as to be in a good position to respond to any succession developments and associated opportunities that may arise as well as to mitigate risks.

So, what might work in the short run to influence the Taliban? Given the experience over the past year, as well as in earlier peace negotiations and other interactions with the Taliban, expectations need to be modest.

A recent report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network admits that the Taliban’s collection of large amounts of revenue is unlikely to translate into some kind of “social contract” whereby much of the money is returned in the form of public services to the population, nor is it likely to give rise to some kind of tax revolt. The traders, transporters, and businessmen, however, who pay the bulk of taxes under Afghanistan’s narrowly based tax system (heavily reliant on customs duties and taxes paid at border crossings) have demonstrated the ability to exert some degree of influence over tax rates and other business issues that directly affect their profits, and thereby how much tax they can afford to pay. According to recent research, the Taliban seem aware of profitability considerations and have proved willing to renegotiate when, for example, private businesses argue strongly that high tax levies render their activities financially unviable.

Another segment of Afghan society that appears to be able to exert a degree of influence over the Taliban at the local level is traditional rural stakeholders, including tribal leaders, village elders, and the like. The strength of this channel of influence varies across different parts of the country and, perhaps, also the idiosyncrasies of local Taliban leaders and their relationships to the central regime.

Neither of these potential sources of influence should be overstated, and their impacts would tend to be around specific issues that are important to the stakeholders concerned and local problems. Moreover, foreigners attempting to exert leverage through these channels, however well intentioned, is especially risky since that could discredit the Afghan stakeholders and trigger a Taliban backlash—making the situation even worse.

The question remains whether intermediaries at least somewhat trusted by the Taliban could argue cogently in favor of actions in the Taliban’s own self-interest as an authoritarian regime and leadership. Again, such interventions cannot be seen to be orchestrated by international actors, as it would discredit the intermediaries. Nevertheless, there may be scope for some indirect advice to the Taliban, oriented toward the regime’s own self-interest.

One example might be to put forward technical arguments for the de-politicization of certain government functions that are not sensitive to the Taliban ideologically and would not threaten their power. The central bank may be a good example, and improvements there would be beneficial in helping to stabilize the economy.

Overall, the U.S. and other international partners are left with very limited levers to influence and change Taliban behavior—let alone to push them to become meaningfully more inclusive, which is not in their own self-interest. Recognizing this is the first step toward a more practical approach.

William Byrd is a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he focuses on Afghanistan; the views expressed are his own. A development economist by background, he was previously with the World Bank and has worked on and lived in China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Let’s Not Kid Ourselves: Afghanistan’s Taliban Regime Will Not Become More Inclusive