America’s New Realism in the Middle East
Biden’s Saudi Trip Reflects an Acceptance of the Region as It Is
The Taliban’s advance into Kabul and the collapse of the democratic government of Afghanistan unfolded with stunning speed over the course of a few weeks. The dizzying turn of events and the scenes of chaos and desperation that followed have understandably led to a torrent of questions about how things went so wrong so quickly. But the Taliban’s rapid success also has much to tell us about the prospects of their rule—both the considerable freedom the Taliban will likely have to enact their vision over the next few years and the steep challenges that will emerge as time goes on.
The Taliban have shown themselves to be the most effective political organization in Afghanistan. For two decades, while Afghan politicians have bickered and democracy has faltered, the Taliban’s values, organization, and cohesion have proved enduring. Girded by their notions of unity and Afghan identity, the Taliban surmounted two leadership transitions, the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and a 20-year U.S. military presence. They are now in charge and likely to stay in charge for some time.
But that doesn’t mean their victory represents an end to Afghanistan’s 40 years of war, uncertainty, and trauma. The Taliban face the poverty, internal strife, illicit crops, meddlesome neighbors, and threat of insurrections that are endemic to their country—and have proved the bane of all its rulers.
Although the takeover seemed to come unimaginably quickly, the Taliban had in fact been laying the groundwork for their final offensive for years. Since 2014, they had been pressing government forces out of the countryside and surrounding district centers and provincial capitals. By the end of 2020, almost every provincial capital in Afghanistan was vulnerable to Taliban assault.
The offensive that ended with the fall of Kabul started in May. The Taliban swept up as many as 50 beleaguered district centers. Sometimes the army and police ran, leaving arms and vehicles behind. Sometimes they agreed to hand the district over to the Taliban, to avoid bloodshed and in return for safe passage. Sometimes, in more cases than may be remembered, they resisted—recall reports published by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations of high levels of violence during the late spring and early summer. A key Taliban strategic move was cutting off the roads or border crossings into major cities: nearly all were effectively surrounded by the time the offensive began.
In the last week of July, the Taliban commenced major assaults on Herat, Kandahar, and the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. One Afghan officer on the ground in Lashkar Gah—a veteran of 20 years of combat—described the fighting in early August as the most intense he had ever seen. As those battles raged, the Taliban opened up new assaults on other provincial capitals. Zaranj, on the Iranian border, fell first, without a fight; then Sheberghan, in the north; next Kunduz, also in the north, where government forces had been fighting for six years. Soon provincial capitals across the north were falling into Taliban hands.
From there, events moved at lightning speed. With provincial capitals succumbing left and right, soldiers and commanders decided to run, surrender, or hide rather than fight to the death. They could see which way the wind was blowing. On August 12, the Taliban broke through government lines in Herat and Kandahar and captured the city centers. Mazar-e Sharif, the crown jewel of the north, surrendered on August 14. The next day the government forces, including its vaunted commandos, seemed to stand down around Kabul and let the Taliban in. President Ashraf Ghani vanished into exile.
Seemingly spontaneous collapse is by no means unprecedented in Afghan history. As the anthropologist Thomas Barfield has explained, defeats in the provinces have often caused Afghan regimes to unravel quickly, as supporters switch sides or lay down their arms rather than fight to the death. Both the Taliban’s initial rise to power, in the 1990s, and the Taliban’s fall in 2001 are examples of this phenomenon.
The speed and extent of the Taliban’s victory mean that the Taliban now have far less reason to share power than publicly announce the restoration of the Islamic emirate. Their victory has put them in the position to disarm the vast majority of opponents, as they are doing now; any political actors currently negotiating with the Taliban over the makeup of a new government, such as former President Hamid Karzai and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, are completely vulnerable to Taliban coercion at the barrel of a gun. One Afghan leader explained why northern power brokers accepted the new regime by tersely replying, “They had little choice.”
With such commanding Taliban control, the outlines of the new Taliban state are coming into view. The Taliban say they are drafting a new constitution and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is in Kabul discussing the future government with Karzai, Abdullah, and others. Whatever those discussions entail, the new government will likely enshrine Islamic law as the sole basis of the legal system, centralize power under a single Taliban leader, and share a token amount of power with other Afghan leaders (perhaps Karzai or Abdullah, but far more likely lesser-known religious and tribal leaders who have sympathized toward the Taliban cause). The new constitution may allow for elections, but they will be designed in a way that will preserve Taliban control over key functions of the state.
For now, the Taliban are having their “mission accomplished” moment.
In the course of their victory, the Taliban promised adversaries that they would be unharmed if they laid down their arms. They are sure to continue to make such promises in order to build acceptance of the new regime and may even offer a few concessions to buy off old adversaries. The extent of Taliban military control, however, makes commitments along these lines far from credible. Over time, Taliban leaders will have little reason not to use their military power to consolidate and monopolize control.
The Taliban victory has also demonstrated a degree of cohesion that is likely to persist. It has always been difficult to know for certain how unified the Taliban have been: they are composed of the main Taliban movement from southern Afghanistan, the Haqqani network from eastern Afghanistan, and a variety of associated tribal groups and smaller militant cadres. The coordinated offensive across Afghanistan reflects cooperation and cohesion among these different groups. Unlike the mujahideen in 1989, the Taliban did not break into quarreling factions as the foreign occupier withdrew. In fact, it was the previous government that was plagued by division (particularly between Ghani, backed by eastern Pashtuns, and Abdullah and other northern leaders). In the week before the government’s collapse, northern leaders were telling U.S. officials that “no one wants to die for Ashraf Ghani.” The Taliban appear much less vulnerable to factionalism than democracy was.
Such cohesion should help the Taliban impose a degree of order in their territory, especially the southern and eastern provinces where their roots lie. Brutality alone does not explain the Taliban’s ability to instill order. Other Afghan warlords are brutal, too. The difference is that the Taliban can inflict brutality without also fighting among themselves. “The Taliban follow an emir,” a member of the Taliban’s leadership body, the Quetta Shura, lectured me in 2019. “Our system is of obedience. … We are not like other Afghans.”
Perhaps more disturbing, the Taliban’s victory indicates that their new government could enjoy wider popular support than it did when they were in power from 1996 to 2001. Years of fighting in the north means that they have some degree of support from Tajiks and Uzbeks, who opposed them in the past. In the cities, young, clean-shaven men are eagerly taking pictures with the Taliban, and at least some educated urban Afghans now appear to be working with them.
Yet for all the strengths demonstrated by the military victory, there are other challenges and vulnerabilities that will persist—and likely grow over time.
For one, tribal politics and feuds are the curse of all Afghan governments. The Taliban, too, will struggle to manage them. Tribes have long-standing rivalries and often prioritize acts of individual honor over acceptance of mediation. When it comes to land and water issues, the Taliban will try to please the landless farmers who have been a key source of support, but the very same decisions will upset tribal leaders who lose out. Even under Islamic law, tribal leaders will want to defend their land, which is the source of livelihood for their families. Tribal clashes and calls for vengeance are inevitable and will be a headache for the Taliban, as was the case in the 1990s.
The Taliban will also struggle to balance competing imperatives when it comes to poppy cultivation. Taxation of the illicit sector has constituted a major source of Taliban revenue, and permitting its cultivation has generated support among poor farmers—a key factor in their military success, since the refuge offered them by these farmers helped the Taliban close in on district centers over the past six years. In power, the Taliban will face considerable external pressure— possibly including from powerful neighbors such as China and Iran—to crack down (as they briefly did under international pressure in 2000). Given the poppy’s political and economic importance, such international criticism is likely to have marginal impact.
Rapid military success also means that the Taliban will lose out on the international funding that likely would have continued to flow to at least some extent had they come into power through a compromise political settlement. The continuation of such funding does not seem politically feasible for most donors now. That leaves the Taliban all the more dependent on poppy cultivation and funding from China.
The Taliban face the same challenges to stable rule that have proved the bane of all Afghan governments.
Before and during their offensive, the Taliban political leadership worked to strengthen their relations with the outside world. They visited Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China, none of which offered serious opposition to the Taliban takeover. The desire for regional acceptance is one reason the Taliban are taking great pains to portray themselves as professional, moderate, and neutral. But it is unlikely that the Taliban will continue to receive consistent support from all four regional powers, given the dynamics of regional competition. If history is any guide, at some point one or more of Afghanistan’s neighbors will see reason to oppose the Taliban regime and even to support opposition forces fighting to undermine it.
Such opposition may eventually turn into challenge, however long their odds may look at the moment. Taliban control of Afghanistan is not likely to go uncontested. Already, Ahmad Massoud (son of the famous resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud) and Amrullah Saleh (Ghani’s vice president) claim to be rekindling a resistance movement in the Panjshir Valley. Given the events of the past three months, there’s reason to be pessimistic about their prospects. Such forces were in a much better position to fight a few months ago. At that time, many observers (myself included) wondered if leaders in the north would mobilize their forces and defend their provinces. These leaders had often assured U.S. officials that they were stockpiling weapons and ready to “go to the mountains” to fight another guerrilla war if necessary. But with a few exceptions (Mohammed Atta, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan), the response of these leaders and their forces was weak. Northern militia leaders were at odds with Ghani and thus hesitated when it came to defending him. Equally important, many now have comfortable homes outside the country and supporters who learned to enjoy urban life—they had, in the characterization of one Kabul journalist, become “bourgeois.” (As I write this, Ahmad Massoud is reportedly in talks with the Taliban.)
In Afghanistan, the traditional way of war often involves not confronting an enemy head-on but going to ground to fight a guerrilla war. The British, Soviets, and Americans—as well as the Taliban during their last stint in power—all found themselves on the receiving end of such guerrilla action.
For the past 40 years, no ruler has managed to bring stability to Afghanistan. There have been other moments when the Afghan people seemed exhausted by war and violence seemed to have come to an end: the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the Taliban’s first takeover in 1996, the U.S. intervention in 2001. Each time, violence returned before long, helped by Afghanistan’s internal fissures, rugged terrain, scarce resources, and troublesome neighbors. The same obstacles to stable rule persist today. Even if they seem well positioned to enforce order, the Taliban still face real structural challenges.
For now, the Taliban are, understandably, having their own “mission accomplished” moment. But there is good reason to think that Afghanistan’s 40 years of civil war and trauma may not be over. One way or another, the Taliban are likely to find governing Afghanistan to be far more difficult than conquering it.
Two Decades of Mistakes, Misjudgments, and Collective Failure