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One year ago, the democratic government of Afghanistan collapsed. The humiliating evacuation of U.S. military forces and civilians as well as roughly 100,000 Afghans remains a sore spot for Washington and its allies. The Taliban regime has ruled the country ever since. Levels of violence throughout the country have been dramatically reduced—but so, too, have the rights of women, the freedom of the media, and the safety of those who supported the overthrown democratic government. Questions about the new state of affairs abound. Should the international community recognize the Taliban? Will the Taliban moderate themselves? Can diplomacy or sanctions compel them to do so? Is a new international terrorist threat forming under the Taliban’s watch?
And an even more pressing question looms over the country: Is the Afghan civil war that started in 1978 finally over? For four decades, Afghanistan tore itself apart. Mujahideen fought communists. Warlords fought warlords. The Taliban fought the Northern Alliance. The democratic republic’s army fought the Taliban. In the process, more than two million Afghans were killed or wounded and more than five million became refugees. Last year’s withdrawal of foreign forces from the country put an end to that cycle and allowed the Taliban to consolidate its control—at least for the time being. Pockets of resistance to Taliban rule, the Taliban’s continued embrace of the tactics of terrorism, and foreign intervention could all potentially rekindle the civil war in ways that are not apparent right now. What today appears to be a new period of peace may turn out to be just a pause in Afghanistan’s long trauma. Washington’s ability to do much about this is limited. The most important thing is to be cognizant of how previous interventions prevented the civil war from ending. Getting involved in Afghanistan again in order to mitigate risks to U.S. national security would pose an even greater risk: worsening the tragedy for the Afghan people.
Afghanistan has never been entirely peaceful. Tribal feuds, government repression, border skirmishes, and dynastic plots have been part of Afghan life for centuries. It is a hard place to govern. Tribal norms place a high value on the individuality of every member of a tribe, and no government—including the monarchy that ruled the country from 1747 to 1973—has ever been able to control the country’s hundreds of tribes, subtribes, and clans. Religious leaders—village mullahs and Islamic scholars and judges—also play an important role in society. They, too, have posed checks on the power of state authorities, and have sometimes called for jihad against not just foreign invaders but Afghan rulers, as well.
But there was a kind of stability to the instability. Tribes were too divided to pose an existential threat to the country or society. The monarchy’s own plotting and short bursts of violence were too brief to prevent leadership transitions. Attempts by the monarchy to oppress Afghans were largely deterred by the tribes and religious leaders. And for nearly a century after the British invasion and occupation of 1878–81, no major foreign invasions upset the equilibrium.
Forces of modernization began to tip that balance in the late twentieth century. But the event that sparked 40 years of civil war was the Saur Revolution, in 1978. Communists overthrew the regime of Daoud Khan, the cousin and successor of the former king. Yet the communists enjoyed only a small base of popular support, and their education, land, and marriage reforms prompted a backlash among tribes, religious leaders, and the rural population. In 1979, an insurgency formed and advanced rapidly. In December of that year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prevent the defeat of the incipient communist regime.
Religious leaders historically posed checks on the power of state authorities.
The Soviet invasion brought modern industrial war to Afghanistan and led to a decade of bloodshed. The majority of Afghan casualties and refugees from the past 40 years took place during this period. Soviet tanks, aircraft, and artillery smashed into villages, which militarized in response. Resistance to the occupation united once disparate tribes, ethnic communities, and religious leaders. Declaring themselves holy warriors, the people rose up, armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and sophisticated communications gear supplied by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.
The Soviet defeat and departure in 1989 left the mujahideen without a common enemy, especially after the communist regime finally fell in 1992. They turned to fighting each other. War entered Kabul itself. Many Afghans remember this as the worst part of the past 40 years. The different sides razed neighborhoods and victimized communities. The tribal and ethnic community leaders that had been mujahideen became warlords.
The Taliban emerged out of the chaos of the early 1990s. In his 2010 book, My Life with the Taliban, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who served as Taliban ambassador to Pakistan at the time of 2001 U.S. invasion, argued that “the Taliban were different” than what had come before. “A group of religious scholars and students with different backgrounds, they transcended the normal coalitions and factions,” Zaeef wrote. “They were fighting out of their deep religious belief in jihad and their faith in God. Allah was their only reason for being there, unlike many other mujahedeen who fought for money or land.” Although combat persisted in the north, the Taliban were able to reduce violence in much of the country, slowly gaining ground such that by 2001 their rivals were fairly contained. Their rule appeared stable, if harsh.
The U.S.-led intervention in 2001 toppled the Taliban regime and briefly created greater peace and freedom than Afghans had experienced since at least 1978. In the years that followed, however, it became clear that the more consequential effect of the invasion was the rekindling of Afghanistan’s civil war. The challenges of governing were not going away easily. Nor were the Taliban. Taking advantage of mistakes in U.S. policy, misrule by the government in Kabul, and support from Pakistan, the Taliban movement turned into a capable insurgency. Violence and instability persisted to August 2021.
The war between Western forces and the Taliban changed Afghan society dramatically. That can most easily be seen in the casualties from bombs, mines, night raids, and drones. War also disrupted the economy; many Afghans became dependent on poppy cultivation for income. Afghans experienced their first legitimate elections. Parliament had real power for the first time. Yet in the end, democracy lost out.
The source of Afghan political power that has proved most enduring is religion. In the anarchy following the Soviet withdrawal, it was the traditional Islam of the villages that retained credibility among the people. As the anthropologist David Edwards has written, “Islam migrates better than honor or nationality. As a transportable system of belief and practice whose locus is personal faith and worship, it can be adapted to a variety of contexts and situations, but estranged from the familiar settings in which it arose, is it not also more resistant to the mundane negotiations and compromises that everyday life requires?” Through the Taliban, a religious movement ruled Afghanistan for the first time in the modern era. That was no flash in the pan. The movement survived 20 years of war and rules once again, making the Taliban the most significant religious force in Afghanistan’s modern history.
The civil war and its foreign interventions have a yet darker side. They bred extremism. As Edwards charts in his 2017 book, Caravan of Martyrs, the Soviet invasion and U.S. and Pakistani support for the mujahideen pushed martyrdom to the forefront. Foreigners—the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam and the Saudi Osama bin Laden foremost—brought with them ideas of terrorism and suicide bombing. Throughout the U.S. intervention, the Taliban were unable to divorce themselves from either. Siding against foreign terrorism risked criticism from internal supporters, and suicide bombing was an invaluable weapon against U.S. and government forces. In 2019, Amir Khan Muttaqi, a chief assistant to the Taliban emir Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada and now the Taliban government’s foreign minister, told me: “Suicide bombers are very cheap for us. Just a few suicide bombers thwart all the forces, expenses, and technology of the United States.”
As leader of the Taliban from 2016 onward, Mawlawi Haibatullah has endorsed the use of terrorism. In 2008, Haibatullah advised the Taliban founder and leader Mullah Omar that Islam justified a wider use of suicide bombings. Haibatullah’s own 23-year-old adopted son blew himself up in a car bomb during an attack in Helmand in 2017, recording a video before setting off on the mission. Until that point, no other Afghan leader had ever martyred a son, adopted or otherwise, signifying how values were changing. Traditionally, sons were to be cherished, not cast aside needlessly. An embrace of martyrdom and an indifference to the lives of civilians had become part of what it meant to belong to the Taliban. One can only hope that the trend fades with the departure of foreign powers and becomes an aberration in Afghan history.
A year after the U.S. withdrawal, it remains uncertain whether a new form of stability has taken hold in Afghanistan. The war may have truly been a transformational process for Afghan society. It is possible that the Taliban’s Islamic government may be able to keep violence at bay, enjoy a base level of legitimacy among the people, and deter foreign intervention. It is also possible, however, that the civil war is not yet over. It previously paused at times—for parts of the country during Taliban rule in the 1990s and during the first years of the U.S. intervention from 2001 to 2005. With that historical precedent in mind, a new unstable balance may not be apparent for another five years or so.
Peering ahead, a renewed civil war could take many forms. One is the resumption of decades-long fighting between the Taliban, which is composed primarily of Pashtuns, and resistance groups based in the country’s north that tend to draw from Afghanistan’s Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek minorities. So far, the Taliban has faced little more than sporadic attacks from these groups and fiery statements from their exiled leaders—a far cry from an effective insurgency. But that could change with time if the groups can build up their cohesion and resilience and win over popular support. Resistance groups could also wind up receiving support from Iran or Russia, which might decide to aid them because of historical relationships, cultural ties, opposition to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and competition with Pakistan.
In a different scenario, a conglomeration of Afghans in cities around the country could rise up. With sufficiently poor governance, even certain Pashtun tribes could revolt. The Taliban could also be challenged by land disputes. Tribal and villager dissatisfaction with access to land and water have traditionally caused strife. The Taliban received support for 25 years from poor farmers to whom they gave or promised land. For the Taliban to make good on those promises, other Afghans, including landed tribes with title, must lose land, and they may resist. How well the Taliban can balance these competing demands matters. So far, the regime has not been too oppressive, taking a little from the landed without taking it all. Yet land issues can fester and are notoriously difficult for any government to manage.
A new unstable balance may not be apparent for another five years.
The Taliban could also fuel their own undoing. The tactics of terrorism feed violence, and the Taliban may be unable to control extremist trends. Young men could continue to look to martyrdom for meaning, grow restive, and look for new targets. Those targets are as likely to be within Afghanistan as abroad. In late 2021, there were rumors that Mawlawi Haibatullah and Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban government, had declared an end to suicide bombings. But the presence of the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, where he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in July, bodes poorly. A wider acceptance of extremism could create more recruits for the Islamic State, which maintains a faction in the country and could adapt its terrorist campaign into an anti-Taliban insurgency.
Perhaps nothing is more likely to revive the civil war than foreign interventions. Russian and Iranian efforts to support ethnic and sectarian proxies in Afghanistan and ill-judged Pakistani moves to tame the Taliban, protect Islamabad’s perceived interests, or more clearly define an Afghan-Pakistani border could stoke new violence. U.S. military actions to counter terrorism could also do the same. Precision strikes on Afghan soil could trigger a backlash among Afghans and increase support for terrorist groups. Over-the-horizon strikes may be essential to U.S. national security, but they are also likely to encourage radicalization in Afghanistan. Worst of all, in today’s environment of great-power competition, intervention or influence by one great power could compel others to intervene, backing their own proxies or the Taliban government and producing an escalatory spiral of violence. That would be a recipe for renewed civil war and a tragedy for the Afghan people.
The United States and its allies may want to be more than passive observers and try to do something to stabilize the country. There is little harm in providing humanitarian assistance or even stepping aside if other countries want to assist the Taliban regime. Such activities—in contrast to supporting the anti-Taliban resistance and conducting counterterrorism activities inside Afghanistan—would not raise the risk of restarting the Afghan civil war. But the amount the United States and its allies can do is limited. The Taliban regime is unlikely to heed incentives or sanctions to modify their behavior. Moreover, substantial U.S. financial assistance to the Taliban regime would likely draw reactions from China, Iran, and Russia, which would back Afghans to oppose any U.S. influence. The same is even more true if the United States attempts to back proxies to supplant the Taliban regime. The best policy for Washington may be to monitor the situation closely rather than to inadvertently cause harm by trying to help one side or another.
The United States and other powerful outsiders should not forget the roles they played in prolonging Afghanistan’s suffering during the past four decades. If they do, they may very well repeat the mistakes of the past.
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