Legitimate governance and the Taliban’s takeover

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In late August, Afghans and the world watched in disbelief as the Taliban swept through Afghanistan, taking one city after another until they marched into Kabul in mid-August. The consequences of the Taliban’s ascent to power became painfully clear in the widespread images from Kabul Airport, with thousands of Afghans desperate to leave the country in fear for their lives.

The Taliban’s success has many reasons, some more immediate and others long in the making. The immediate reasons clearly hang together with how the Trump but also the Biden administration handled the final withdrawal of international troops. To begin with, the US-led negotiations with the Taliban were a strategic disaster, not only giving the Taliban a fixed date of withdrawal with which to plan but in fact curtailing US fighting force long before the deadline. With air and logistical support from its international partners gone, the Afghan army lost the advantages it had enjoyed over the enemy. The Taliban had been able to move more or less freely through the country for a year previous to their last offense, effectively giving them the space to strike bargains with local outposts and prepare for the moment of withdrawal. That, along with the Afghan state’s increasing difficulties to provide ammunition, supplies and sustenance to their soldiers, depleted the army’s moral day by day.

Legitimacy in the past…

However, the problems of the internationally backed Afghan state ran deeper; they date to before both the Trump and Biden administrations. The Afghan state faced a problem of legitimacy since its creation after the US invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime in 2001. At the time the US encountered a state historically undermined by its many power pockets, local strongmen and poor cohesion.

The United States’ solution was to create a centralised state with a strong president and formalised legal institutions. While these institutions gave the US clear chains of communication when it came to their goal of counterterrorism, the solution misread Afghan realities. Instead of integrating the periphery, the new constitution treated it as a threat, not only denying local and regional powerholders any say in policy processes but fostering systemic corruption emanating from the political elite in Kabul.

What is more, as time went on the US sought to impose a democratic system on Afghanistan, not least as this provided a way to sell the ongoing intervention at home. The result was a modernising, often intrusive, political agenda directed exclusively from the top down. It sought to supplant long-held customs and traditions in Afghanistan’s countryside with Western rule of law and democratic principles. This policy asked Afghans to throw out their beliefs about proper governance in the form of elder councils and customary religious courts in exchange for a formal justice system and democratic elections – both of which quickly became plagued by corruption.

As I argue elsewhere, the legitimacy of any ruler ultimately depends on whether the norms and rules its governance promotes resonate with those of the people ruled. This search for congruence of norms, however, is one the US and the Afghan leaders failed to undertake seriously in all the years of state building in Afghanistan. Indeed, quite the opposite: the US considered the liberal values it sought to disseminate as universal, rather than acknowledging the social engineering underlying its approach.

…and legitimacy today

If a failure to build legitimate governance was what ultimately doomed the US-backed state building project in Afghanistan, how then will it affect the Taliban’s new government? The Taliban will face a different situation than in the 1990s and, arguably, will have themselves changed since then.

Over the long years of waging an insurgency, the Taliban have gained significant experience in providing governance, which stands in contrast to their rather inept rule of the late 1990s. In many parts of the country, they have managed successfully to cater to local customs and preferences and achieve acquiescence if not support. For example, the harsh but effective judgements of the group’s shadow courts have become popular. As for the oft-cited policy goal of improving women’s education, this continues to be frowned upon in parts of the country and the Taliban’s approach often matches rather than opposes local norms.

But just as their ‘Western’ counterpart, the Taliban’s governance does diverge in many aspects from widely held social norms in Afghanistan. Certainly, their harsh version of Islam contradicts traditional interpretations in the country. What is more, despite its many flaws and problems, the US-supported Afghan state granted its citizens, particularly in the country’s cities, fundamental rights, decent education and a political voice. Given that the median age in Afghanistan is just above 18, many Afghans did not experience Taliban rule or the civil war preceding it, knowing only the post-2001 situation.

As political theorist David Beetham has argued, the genie of popular sovereignty and universal suffrage, once established as norms of governance, is hard to put back into the bottle. In other words, re-building the Taliban regime of the 1990s would just be as inappropriate in the long term for many, particularly urban, Afghans as have been US efforts in the Afghan countryside. The Taliban, if they seek to create a stable government, will need to adapt their approach to these new realities.

Taliban statements and conduct seem to imply the group learned its lesson from the 1990s that violent coercion cannot be the sole base of governance. They are signalling some flexibility in areas like women’s education despite reports indicating otherwise. Possibly, such signals are being amplified by the group’s need for international funding – which will be conditioned to a large extent on the Taliban’s readiness to sustain some of the developments of the last two decades. As of now, the Taliban leadership have yet to prove the willingness or capacity to follow through on their rhetoric. Moreover, as the US experience has shown, finding congruence with local norms to legitimate one’s governance is a difficult task that could require more compromise and adaptation than the Taliban is willing to accept.

Wolfgang Minatti is a PhD researcher in the EUI’s Department of Political and Social Sciences. His research focuses on civil war and armed groups, including rebel governance, processes of legitimacy and military strategy. Read his latest article on Concepts of Legitimacy in the journal Civil Wars.