There's only one way for the Taliban to hold power

Successive governments in Kabul, including the one led by the group in the 1990s, have failed to share power

Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul last week. AP Photo
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Much of the Afghan public are horrified to see the Taliban back in control of the country. But the manner in which they have regained power and, conversely, the US-backed government evaporated in a few days, demonstrates a well-established pattern of how power changed hands on previous occasions in the country's history.

Afghanistan is a complex patchwork of numerous identity groups, cultures, ethnicities, tribes, regions and traditions. It has almost always resisted top-down rule by a strong, centralised and homogenised far-off national government. Power-sharing and a due deference to local mores and interests, and the dignity of local leaders, has, by contrast, produced long periods of tranquility.

Whenever a heavy-handed force, whether Afghan or foreign, tries to set up a centralised national government in Kabul to rule the country – especially when local sensitivities and leaders are not treated with sufficient respect – uprisings are virtually inevitable and often successful.

Viewed from this perspective, more than the familiar anti-colonial narrative, the American project in Afghanistan was doomed to failure because it was attempting to create a virtual impossibility. The US even decided to try to create a miniaturised version of the US military, as well as a familiar, western-style government. The past two weeks have demonstrated the overwhelming failure.

Yet this is an equal opportunity problem. The Taliban themselves fell into the same trap when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, in a harsh manner, which prompted a potent armed opposition.

When US special forces and intelligence services joined the Northern Alliance (officially called the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan) after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Taliban rule collapsed remarkably quickly as well. The campaign began on October 7, 2001. On November 13, the Taliban fled Kabul. By the end of that month, virtually the whole country was in the hands of their enemies and most of the Taliban had fled to Pakistan, although remnants held out in Kandahar.

In short, in 2001 the shoe was on the other foot. It was the Taliban whose forces evaporated and fled. And it was the Northern Alliance that were suddenly in control of all the key cities.

And yet, by 2003 a new Taliban insurgency had coalesced, and by 2006 it became a significant threat.

This seems to be a consistent pattern in Afghan history. A dominant power can control the cities, but if it does not share power and accommodate the diversity and complexity of Afghan society, an armed insurgency will almost certainly develop. Events can, as they just have, lead to the conquest of the cities by what had been a largely rural guerrilla force. This is exactly what has happened as the Taliban and the US-backed government have, with great rapidity, simply changed places.

In Afghanistan, the historical approach to war, generally, does not resemble the western idea of a zero-sum, binary, fixed and straightforward affair. Changing sides is common, and very frequently the side with the momentum will use negotiations, bribery and amnesties to ensure that the formerly empowered losers simply dissipate, handing over areas, and even the main urban centres, without many pitched battles.

And now, from its traditional redoubt in the Panjshir Valley, the old forces of the Northern Alliance have announced the formation of a new insurgency. If the Taliban try again to rule without accommodating diversity, over time they will surely face growing armed opposition. If, on the other hand, they engage in power-sharing negotiations, and govern with a lighter touch, they might be able to sustain power in relative calm. It's up to them.

A key factor in their recent victory was an effective outreach campaign to tribal and village elders, many of whom had reportedly been alienated by the previous administration. Now that they have won, this apparent openness to other perspectives will be seriously and quickly tested.

And this time they will try to rule a population that, especially in the cities, has become used to a remarkable degree of freedom and western influence. These populations and the Taliban will meet for the first time in coming weeks and it is unlikely to be pleasant.

This whole experience has come as a terrible shock to the US, but there is really no excuse for that. The West, and especially the English-speaking world, has had ample opportunity to learn this lesson. After the first British fiasco in Afghanistan ended in total annihilation during the retreat from Kabul in 1842, the army chaplain in Jalalabad, Rev G R Gleig, summed up the experience.

If the Taliban try again to rule without accommodating diversity, over time they will face growing armed opposition

It was, he wrote, "a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated".

The same could have been said about the Soviet Union's occupation there in the 1980s and the American fiasco today.

The second Anglo-Afghan war in 1878-1880 was more successful, because the British ended up simply supporting a new ruler, Abdur Rahman Khan. In exchange for political support and money, Britain directed his foreign policy and blocked the expansion of Russian influence, which was the primary purpose of the campaign. But both Britain and the ruler allowed local Afghan tribes to continue governing themselves relatively independently.

When Britain was eventually driven out of Afghanistan entirely in 1919, the country still served as a buffer against Russian ambitions. So, not all political projects in Afghanistan, even by outsiders, are doomed to failure. There is a lesson here, repeated time and again in Afghan history. It's too late for the Americans, at least for now.

Yet, will the Taliban understand this better than they did in the 1990s? And will they avoid once again allowing the country to serve as a base for Al Qaeda terrorism? Early signs are not all promising, which suggests that the war in Afghanistan has taken a dramatic turn but will continue, with or without the Americans.

Published: August 22, 2021, 2:00 PM