November 15, 2021
Former U.S. diplomat Carter Malkasian in his recent book on the war in Afghanistan says Ashraf Ghani as president had felt “centralized reform” was the strategy to defeat the Taliban and raise the country into modernity. Malkasian also points out what turns out to be quite a prescient passage in Ghani’s own book, Fixing Failed States (2009).
“In the twentieth century, illegitimate networks will not be conquered except through hierarchical organizations that have legitimacy. Solutions to our current problems of insecurity, poverty, and lack of growth all converge on the need for a state-building project,” Ghani’s book states as quoted by Malkasian in The American War in Afghanistan: A History (2021).
Of course, Ghani’s state-building vision was never realized – in fact hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted on failed reconstruction projects under – and as a result of – his corruption-plagued regime. In addition, Ghani, despite his deep concern with the poverty-stricken conditions of his country, decided to flee and may have stolen millions on his way out right before the Taliban captured Kabul.
Any thoughts of long-term planning might seem out of the question in this urgent moment when Afghanistan is struggling to keep the lights on (literally) amid an economic collapse and in the face of famine the World Health Organization said could kill 1 million children by the end of the year. On the other hand, failure to do such planning also means a vicious cycle wherein emergency assistance serves as a temporary band-aid while the root causes persist.
Hence, a key question worth raising is whether or not the Taliban will repeat not only Ghani’s mistakes but the ones the Taliban themselves made before being ousted in 2001. Tops amongst those sins has been weakening local governance along with mismanaging foreign aid (funds which Afghanistan has counted on for most of the last century or more).
Ironically, the Taliban during their resurgence partly fed on the corrupt Karzai and Ghani regimes’ poor performance in the countryside. Hence, they are aware of the perils inherent in failing to govern effectively in the periphery – which requires a combination of rendering services while at the same time not overtly meddling – a feat no regime in Kabul has been able to pull off since the 1970s.
The consolidation of power into the hands of a few is not the problem per se except when it comes to trying to reign with an iron fist from Kabul. The Afghan central state has never been effective in administering local governance. Attempts to impose programs from the top-down met with miserable results under the communists, Taliban I, and both U.S.-backed post-9/11 administrations.
Afghans accepted the Taliban when they first came to power in 1996 because they restored a relative sense of order after years of civil war. However, the mullahs lost this goodwill after years of misrule, poor management of the economy, and the imposition of draconian laws.
Now the Taliban are back but it is difficult to judge performance when donors cut aid that until the fall of Kabul funded 75% of public expenditures. In addition, foreign governments have cut off access to international funding and froze some $10 billion in assets the Afghan central bank held abroad.
Even if the Taliban wanted to simply reinstall Mullah Omar’s government they face an uphill climb, as Kate Clark from the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) explained in a report last week.
“There is talk about Afghanistan ‘going back’ to the 1990s, but the situation is actually much grimmer,” Clark wrote on November 11. “The population is larger, with far less agricultural land per head of population and both neighboring and European countries are far less keen on migrants/refugees.”
The Taliban’s alleged resistance to compromise when dealing with the international community on turning the spigot back on and inability to effectively secure customs revenue has squandered any early term “peace dividend.”
“The economic benefits flowing from the peace will still only be marginal nationally compared to the harm done by the absolute loss in foreign income and the isolation Afghanistan now faces,” Clark said.
The Taliban decision to elect an all-male, all-Pashtun ruling body as well as reports of banning female education in some parts and imposing harsh so-called sharia-related laws are also not good omens.
Will the Taliban wake up and learn from past mistakes on how to govern a multi-ethnosectarian country? A divided country made up of ethnic groups that want no talk of federalism – they all want one Afghanistan. Albeit, the primary ethnic groups, at the same time, want to rule this one Afghanistan.
In a piece earlier this month for War on the Rocks, scholar Barnett Rubin, who served as a U.S. and UN adviser on Afghanistan, recently warned the Taliban movement, amid the current “superficial calm reminiscent of 2002,” about attempting to erect an authoritarian-style state.
“If the Taliban persist in doing something that they themselves, in their more lucid moments, have said is impossible – imposing the rule of one group over Afghanistan – their ‘Islamic Emirate’ will meet the same fate as its predecessors.”