It is not difficult to see why Afghanistan remains a “failed state”. After nearly 16 years since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Kabul government still controls less than 70% of Afghan territory. What’s more, there is a clear consensus in international circles that no military solution can bring peace to the Afghan people. Even Obama admitted that “we’re no longer in nation-building mode” and shifted his policy toward mere suppression of the Taliban’s terrorist attacks and expansion. Since 2001, the United States has spent more than 700bn in Afghanistan, yet the country remains the 9th most fragile in the world. Why is it that after more than 16 years of nation-building by the Americans and NATO, Afghanistan remains as unstable as a decade ago, with more than two thirds of its population living in constant fear for their safety? The problem is an unlucky combination of the Taliban’s resilience and of an impasse in international negotiations.
Scholars describe the key source of Taliban’s strength to lie in its mostly voluntary recruitment pattern and its increasingly local membership profile. The two qualities together underlie the most important aspect of the insurgency – its strong social base.
The voluntary recruitment is exemplified by what we may call “pals platoons” – formations of 10-15 men that voluntarily join the insurgency, receive weapons and supplies and fight as a single field unit.
The membership structure has changed and become more complex over time, demonstrating the Taliban’s adaptability to different conditions. Still, the structure’s most important facets persist: the smallest pseudo-political unit of the movement is a provincial and district-level military commission with power in the hands of a commander. This commander rules a small group of fighters – his personal followers (andiwal). Fighters are often sent to the Taliban by their own parents, who believe that it is their “Islamic duty” to support the jihad.
An analysis of a series of 53 interviews with the Taliban fighters shows that the most prominent motives for joining the insurgency are “an Islamic duty to fight against the kafirs [infidels]” and “the cruelty of the Americans and the British.”
The aspect that most strongly connects the insurgency to the public, however, is the Taliban’s system of justice. In a region full of disputes over land and water, a Taliban “mediator figure” is often the only way to resolve conflicts.
British and American nation-building
It is the social aspect of the Taliban, its close ties to local communities and its high influence in provincial-level politics that have often been neglected by foreign actors. This is also why, overall, it is hugely complicated to assess the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan by the means of military intervention. Undoubtedly the most impactful nation-building attempt was that of the United States. In 2010 the number of American troops in Afghanistan reached a record high of 140,000, though these numbers fluctuate and are now as low as 9,800. American military support of the Kabul government has helped foster Afghanistan’s young democracy. Doubtless, the military and financial aid of countries such as the U.S. created the prerequisites for Afghanistan’s governmental institutions to develop. The other side of the coin, academics say, is that foreign forces in Afghanistan have in certain regions “alienated the population, mobilized local armed resistance and drawn in foreign fighters seeking jihad.” The feeling of resentment, however, is much stronger toward a military presence that is as prominent and long-established as that of America.
The United States is not in the position to arbitrate
The U.S. has through the long-lasting conflict become one of the conflict’s actors; it can therefore not be the arbitrator between the Taliban and the Kabul government. By trying to play both of the conflicting roles, American interests “have been in constant tension and lead to suspicion among all the factions, not least on the part of the Afghan government that constantly fears abandonment.” The same unfortunately applies to the UN on one side, and Pakistan on the other.
The case of Pakistan is exceptionally peculiar and further complicates the matter. There are reasons to believe that the Pakistani military exercises the most influence over the Taliban – more than any state group in the region. The problem is that although Pakistan purports to try to solve the Taliban problem, it is widely known that the attempts are just nominal. Pakistan’s participation in the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (a coalition comprising China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States) has so far been largely ineffectual. Some even believe that Pakistan dissuades the Taliban from negotiating.
Bringing Taliban to the negotiating table
Pakistan has multiple reasons to support the Taliban. During the rule of the Taliban in 1996- 2001, the Afghan government cooperated with Pakistan and furthered its interests. Pakistan now uses the Taliban fighters as proxies with the aim of curtailing India’s influence in the region. But Pakistan’s motivation for protecting the terrorists is not unlimited. Indeed, if given the right combination of stick and carrot, Pakistan could be urged to abandon the Taliban. The country with the greatest potential to do so is China.
China plans to invest heavily in South and Central Asia, so it is in its interest to stabilize the region. Afghanistan lies in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which plans to connect the energy-rich South and Central Asia region with energy-keen China. These projects would benefit Pakistan too – and not just economically. China’s increasing influence in the region would decrease the influence of its regional rival, India, and flatter the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The Taliban have long been been a conundrum for their opposition. Even now, the prospects of peace in Afghanistan remain a long way off. It will depend on the continuation of American financial support, on Chinese initiative to bring peace to the region and on Pakistan’s decision that a stable and non-hostile Afghanistan is sufficiently in its interest to invest in a real peace process.