An underlying cause of the repeated tragedies that have unfolded in Afghanistan is a deep crisis of legitimacy. To avoid another cycle of destruction, ensuring broad-based legitimacy for the emerging political system in Afghanistan is critical. But it’s important to ask why the last 20 years of state-building in Afghanistan failed to produce lasting institutions and whether history will repeat itself once more.
The Rise of the Warlords, and Then the Taliban
The communist coup of 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion in support of the communist government in Afghanistan led to the gradual collapse of central rule in Afghanistan. A growing popular resistance emerged and a cast of local commanders, at various times allied and opposed to the government and each other, came to take the place of central power in the country. That was the beginning of the warlords, as we know them now, in Afghanistan.
When the central communist government completely collapsed after the Soviet Union stopped supporting it (as it was itself collapsing), the victorious mujahedeen political parties failed to agree on the form of a new central government. Warlords came to completely dominate the country to disastrous ends. The group that later came to be known as the Taliban emerged in that context, with its original stated purpose putting an end to the warlordism and infighting that were devastating the country.
The Taliban managed to dislodge warlords from most of Afghanistan. However, they did not build state institutions to replace the structure of warlord rule. The Taliban devised a new form of political organization to maintain cohesion within their movement and put it apart from the warlordism of the mujahedeen era. To hold the movement together, the Taliban fashioned a de jure super commander to whom obedience was owed as a religious duty, i.e., the Emirate. This controlled the group’s various military commanders, who wielded unconstrained de facto power.
The Emirate was a brilliant solution to the problem of maintaining military cohesion and prevented, in general, the fragmentation of the Taliban movement. The core political value of the Emirate has been obedience: The obedience of the fighters to their commanders, and the obedience of the commanders to the “Commander of the Faithful.” The Taliban’s Emirate, however, did not do much other than maintain cohesion and two other functions that a cohesive military force could do well: maintain order and dispense a rough brand of justice. This was to the exclusion of any other usual government function and at the cost of all forms of individual liberty.
Warlords vs. the Pashtun Technocrats
Following 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime, and in practice sided with the warlords who by then had formed a coalition, the Northern Alliance. The United States and the United Nations hosted a conference in Bonn, Germany, to form a government that would replace the Taliban regime, and what resulted was headed by a relatively weak figure, Hamid Karzai.
The Bonn Conference was dominated by the Northern Alliance. But there was another notable group present: the allies of Afghanistan’s last king, Zahir Shah, the so-called Rome Group. This group was mainly comprised of Pashtun elites, many highly educated, who had lived in exile for a long time. This group ostensibly was supposed to represent the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, who are the largest ethnic group in the country, since the Northern Alliance were mostly non-Pashtuns. This was made necessary by the fact that Pashtuns and their local leaders in Afghanistan were mostly coopted by the Taliban. The tension between these two group in Bonn and later in Kabul foreshadowed the political power struggle that would come to disrupt all efforts to build a functioning state in Afghanistan. The political fight (which at times would turn violent) between warlords, mostly non-Pashtuns, and technocrats, mostly Pashtuns, unfolded along with the government fight with the persisting Taliban insurgency.
Karzai, a key figure in the post-2001 political order until the end of his second presidential term in 2014, was originally seen as a middle figure able to be close to both the mujahedeen and the Rome Group. But over time he shifted more toward the technocrats, Pashtun exiled elites such as Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul. However, Karzai avoided alienating most of the warlords because he believed (rightly or wrongly) that the survival of his government depended on their support, especially toward the end of his presidency as his relationship with the U.S. government deteriorated.
The U.S. government was divided on how to deal with the warlords. The U.S. military relied on them for hunting down al-Qaida members and later fighting the Taliban insurgency. Dealing with the warlords was unavoidable in the post-9/11 invasion given the U.S. light military presence in Afghanistan. The importance of the warlords and their forces persisted as the U.S. military turned its attention to Iraq in 2003. The civilian side of the U.S. government, charged with building state institutions in Afghanistan, on the other hand, saw the warlords as impediments. The U.S. arguably never truly resolved this internal contradiction, with U.S. military work alongside Afghanistan’s strongmen warlords frustrating civilian efforts to build a functioning modern state.
In 2014, with the rise of Ashraf Ghani to the presidency, the central government became increasingly hostile toward the warlords. Ghani dedicated his nearly two terms in office to undermining the warlords’ grasp on power — even at times prioritizing that objective over the Taliban threat and good governance. If judged by the measure of centralizing power, his efforts were a success up until the moment they failed. What changed the apparent victory of Ghani’s anti-warlordism crusade was the fast-growing Taliban insurgency. History was repeating itself.
The U.S. decision to negotiate for a withdrawal of its troops with the Taliban and then the decision to unconditionally withdraw precipitated the Taliban’s continued territorial gains. Within a short period of time following the February 2020 deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, the Taliban expanded their control over most of Afghanistan’s territory and were poised to take provincial centers as well. Faced with an increasingly dire situation, Ghani hoped to rally the warlords against the Taliban. It did not work. Ghani escaped, but Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, 2021.
Why did anti-warlord policies fail in Afghanistan? Is there a relation between the anti-warlord policies of Ghani’s government and the Taliban’s victory? Could the warlords have resisted the Taliban’s advance?
The Afghan central government, under both Karzai and more aggressively under Ghani, redirected government patronage to competing actors to weaken the warlords’ power base in their areas of influence. In the absence of political parties, and in a formally centralized political system, warlords often represented local autonomy and acted as conduit for their respective ethnic groups to participate in national-level politics. As a result, local population often interpreted government actions to undermine their power, redirecting government patronage to competitors, as attempts to disenfranchise them. People would connect anti-warlordism to disenfranchisement and ethnic politics because the government would often redirect patronage toward some warlord wannabe, unfamiliar, untrusted and equally unpopular and corrupt. The government’s efforts to undermine specific warlords and the local reaction to those efforts would often create as many new warlords, albeit weaker ones, as it sidelined.
The government (rightly) linked anti-warlordism with the fight against corruption and for good governance, but it failed to deliver on its promises regarding both. In many cases, when warlords were removed, the security and public services suffered, and the corruption everyday Afghans encountered rose. In Herat, for example, the removal of Ismail Khan led to a decline in the security environment, deteriorating government services and the spread of petty corruption.
Many technocrats which the government replaced the warlords with were equally corrupt but lacked popular support. In the highly centralized political system, most Afghans had virtually no means to make their voices heard by the government. The technocrats, who toward the end made up most of the cabinet, had no incentive to or could not connect with the local population. They spent most of their time in their offices in Kabul (a minister traveling to a province was considered a big event). In short, while they did not earn the government performance legitimacy, they costed the government popular legitimacy.
The alienated warlords, in some cases, actively used their local networks, patronage from corruption, and at times foreign support, to turn the population against the national and local government.
Afghanistan has never experienced sustained, successful, direct rule from the center. The central government struggled to “see” what was happening in the country writ large, running blind most of the time. Non-local district and provincial governors, appointed by Kabul for their loyalty to the center, often failed to understand the areas and people they were given to govern. At times, people would resist the appointment of outside governors or campaign for one of their own to be appointed governor. The central government, however, would perceive these movements as a warlord’s gambit to regain power and weaken the central government. The government would choose to introduce provincial governors in a military garrison or in Kabul rather than give in to people’s demands for a local figure.
The Taliban exploited this tension. They did not have a difficult task in turning people away from the central government because many had come to perceive the government as not only corrupt, but also actively working to disfranchise them and their communities. This certainly contributed to the rapid fall of Northern and Western Afghanistan which had been the traditional bases of mujahedeen power, and as such areas where the warlords were strongest.
The warlords were certainly the last hope for Ghani’s government, but could a last-ditch alliance between the government and warlords have pushed back against Taliban? It is important to note that warlords, beyond the pressures of the central government, lost their legitimacy with the communities they claimed to represent due to years of abuse and corruption, too. While they may have enjoyed more popularity than most technocrats, they were not as popular as they used to be. Sustained government efforts to purge warlord loyalists from government, especially in the security sector, also served to diminish the warlord’s available power and resources. Lacking the infrastructure and local support they once wielded, many warlords had been reduced to self-interested one-man (or one-family) shows; they, too, had become disconnected from Afghan communities. This may explain why the admittedly late and poorly coordinated government-warlord alliance in most parts of the country turned out not to be as decisive as many had hoped.
Were Anti-warlord Policies Misguided?
Were the government’s anti-warlord policies misguided? I argue, no. The problem was not that the government sought to displace warlords, who often were corrupt and predatory toward the population. The problem was that the government could not replace the warlords with anything better.
The central government dismantled important local infrastructures of power which had kept the Taliban insurgency in check and, in the absence of political parties or a decentralized political system, hoped to enable people to self-organize and participate in national politics.
However, Kabul did not establish institutions, in place of the warlords, that could effectively control Taliban advances or allow Afghans to actually meaningfully participate in local or national governance.
The first failure can be attributed to rampant corruption which was never curbed (anti-warlordism policies only shifted corruption, but did not curtail it) and the second failure can be attributed to the ethnic division between those who controlled the central government and most warlords, as well as the authoritarian tendencies of Ghani and his close circle of advisors.
The lesson moving forward is that only a government that has legitimacy in the eyes of most Afghans will be able to govern a unified and peaceful Afghanistan. The Taliban in its first stint in power ignored this lesson and that is why they could not build a functioning state. Worryingly, the Taliban are on the same path again. So far, they have resurrected the Emirate. Like other victors of Afghanistan’s long-running series of civil conflicts, the Taliban seem to interpret their military victory as validation of how they have operated so far and evidence of their supposed popularity. History teaches us that they are wrong. As Winston Churchill said, “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” If the Taliban do not wake up to the need to build legitimacy for their rule by prioritizing inclusion and good governance, the cycle of destruction will rage on in Afghanistan.