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What two decades of ODI research can tell us about what happens next in Afghanistan

Hero image description: Marines complete operations in Afghanistan, depart Helmand province Image credit:DVIDSHUB Image license:CC BY 2.0

Nearly two decades on from 9/11, the Taliban have regained control of Kabul and the majority of the country. This is despite billions in military and civilian aid, numerous military surges, relentless airstrikes, and thousands killed on all sides. The Taliban exploited anger at the abuses of foreign forces and Afghan government corruption to gain a foothold in village after village. As the group methodically gained ground in recent years, they coerced and co-opted large swathes of the population now living under their rule and set up a shadow state.

The question now is what kind of government the Taliban will impose and what that will mean for Afghan citizens.

To some extent, we already know the answer because ODI has documented how the Taliban have been ‘semi-governing’ parts of Afghanistan for years. They monitor schools, regulate NGO-run clinics and even collect on state electricity bills.Taliban courts enforce their version of Islamic law and settle disputes. Depending on how well the local population has bargained and how much pressure they have mustered, Taliban policies — for example, on whether girls may attend primary school — have differed from place to place. ODI’s research also highlighted how the Taliban insurgency established dominance over border crossings, illicit economies and smuggling routes, capturing rents and distributing them to local powerholders to gain their support.

The Taliban’s governance challenge

The trouble for the Taliban today is that it is far easier to capture territory as an insurgency and police government by others than it is to govern per se. This was one of the more painful lessons for the Taliban in the 1990s, when they swept to power but were a disaster when it came to governing in terms of exercising public authority.

Their shadow administration has been rudimentary, stretched thin, and largely parasitic, essentially taking credit for what others provide. Public services, including health and education, are heavily dependent on aid programs and foreign assistance; grants account for 80 percent of the national budget. Both are almost certain to rapidly decrease under any Taliban-led government.

There are stark differences between the deeply conservative areas that have long been under Taliban influence and the mainly urban, generally more progressive areas they have recently seized. Whilst Afghanistan’s social complexity is more nuanced than a simple urban-rural divide, since 2001, city dwellers have clearly benefited more in terms of aid and security provided by the international intervention.

There are also important subnational dimensions to consider. Afghanistan is incredibly socially and culturally diverse. This diversity, as well as Afghanistan’s recent and earlier histories of war and foreign occupation, shape contemporary conflict fault lines and the Afghan political economy. Sub-national political settlements, local variations in public authority, and rentier economic competition also inform the macro and micro dynamics of today’s conflict. Understanding them will be essential for anyone trying to make sense of the challenges the Taliban are likely to face as they seek to consolidate power (or as others seek to contest it).

Women and girls have been the focus of sustained international attention. Concerns for their particular vulnerability stem largely from the Taliban’s record in government in the 1990s and from the fact that, from 2001, women and girls received far more protection and access to services than was the case previously. Whilst Afghan women have fought an uphill battle for their basic human rights, gender norms still vary significantly across the country. In the cities, where social norms diverge from more conservative areas and the Taliban’s own brand of religious conservatism, women have moved relatively freely, worked and attended school. For those wanting to support Afghan women, drawing on ODI’s research on how different women resist, subvert and challenge social and political constraints could be useful.

What happens next

Many Afghans fear the worst, and are seeking to flee the country. Early findings from ODI’s MIGNEX project show that areas that have previously benefitted from remittances and returnee migrants are now seeing their economies collapse and people leave. The Taliban’s sudden capture of the major cities and Kabul has spurred panic anddeepened the humanitarian crisis. Nearly half a million Afghans have been displaced since the start of 2021, anddealing with the growing refugee crisis will be an international humanitarian priority for years to come.

Security is another complicating factor. The Taliban appear to have maintained their links to Islamist organisations like Al Qaeda. Although these connections have evolved over time, the security vacuum vacated by Western military force, is likely to make the country a magnet for the build-up of global security threats.

Today, counterterror restrictions and sanctions which would have disastrous humanitarian consequences for Afghans, are being threatened. Nearly half the population relies on international aid. Humanitarian organisations working in Afghanistan have been underfunded for years, with current requirements only 37% funded. And for all of the progress that was genuinely made after 2001, in areas including health and education, nearly half of all Afghans still live in poverty – something rural development programmes and economic policiesdid little to effectively address. While the circumstances have radically changed with US withdrawal and the Taliban’s rapid advance, there is much to be learned about what can be done better to help Afghans.

The Taliban broadly face a choice: destroy the vestiges of the post-2001 intervention or absorb what they can and strike deals with those people and factions that can be persuaded to cooperate. Aware that the world is watching, their political leadership appears mindful of the challenges they face. Some local Taliban have even sought to reassure the population and assume control of government institutions so they kept running. Elsewhere, however, there are reports of Taliban retaliating against anyone associated with the government or security forces and destroying property.

The new Taliban government will need to be more pragmatic than the last, cognisant of the fact that international aid and recognition are important to their survival. But no matter how the Taliban decide to govern, Western countries will have to find a way to engage with them to deal with global security threats and – most importantly – help Afghans.

While many humanitarian and development actors have been engaging with the Taliban for the past decade, there will be new pressures and constraints. There arecritical lessons for both operational actors and donors regarding the delivery of principled assistance. Our research suggests that doing things better means adopting a different approach that is informed, realistic and coherent. This may mean de-emphasising the strict conditionality that donors championed in the latter years of working with the former Afghan government, that was in any case, ineffective in shaping Afghan government policies.

Up to now, donors have believed the Taliban understand the importance of aid and that they could use aid as leverage to potentially moderate Taliban policies. But ODI’s latest research indicates that threatening aid cuts is unlikely to give donors greater bargaining power with the group. This is because the Taliban regime is likely to be cushioned by the revenues they gain from controlling trade routes and border crossings. Given the economic importance of these routes and crossings, to the Taliban, it is the response of regional neighbours that will most exert the greatest leverage.

Donors may be wary of appearing to empower the Taliban. But some of their concerns could be mitigated through clearer distinctions being drawn between the Afghan people (who are the ultimate targets of international assistance), the institutions and apparatus of the Afghan state, and the (as yet to emerge) Afghan government.

Without engaging the Taliban, the international community will be unable, most importantly, to provide the urgent assistance Afghans need in the midst of what promises to be a protracted crisis.

ODI’s research on the political economy of conflict suggests that lasting and durable peace in Afghanistan will require an inclusive political settlement that takes full account of the legacies of war and its diverse sub-national, social, economic and political causes and consequences, all of which have been shaped by successive foreign interventions. Such an endeavour will require immediate and sustained investment in the material and psycho-social wellbeing of all Afghans.

At a time when ‘the world is watching’ and there is much ‘talking about Afghanistan’, investment in the production of knowledge by Afghans themselves in safe spaces that reinforce and amplify Afghan voices, and support their capacity to analyse, understand, generate and share their own stories, will be critical. This could serve as a foundation for crafting the kind of alternative narratives needed for fostering dialogue around a new political settlement in Afghanistan. ODI will continue to support that process, through its dedicated Centre for the Study of Armed Groups.

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