Reports of the Taliban’s coming demise are greatly exaggerated
What does Afghanistan’s future look like? That depends on whom you ask. If you ask women and children fleeing the country right now, it doesn’t look very good. If you ask the British or American governments, they will tend to look the other way in embarrassment. If you ask the Taliban, its response will be much more positive, even triumphant. And if you ask Andrew Latham, it is a future without the Taliban.
Once the initial glow of victory has worn off, Latham wrote in an op-ed in The Hill earlier this week, the Taliban will splinter and Afghanistan will descend once more into chaos. “Those who are currently celebrating the fall of Afghanistan may soon come to wish for the good old days when the Americans kept at least a partial lid on things,” he writes.
Two factors unify the Taliban, according to Latham: the first is religion and the clerical order; the second is resistance to foreign occupiers. With the second gone, he argues, the first will be overcome by the inevitable onslaught of tribal factionalism, fed by ethnic and linguistic difference. The Taliban should not be seen as “the unitary rational actor it is often portrayed to be.”
Professor Latham may be right. Unity, coalition-building and governance in Afghanistan have never been easy, as history confirms. And the contribution of U.S. and allied occupation over the last two decades suggests that $1 trillion has been wasted.
But he may also be wrong. Rational actors don’t always follow the same form of reason as that dictated or preferred by western actors or theorists. Rational actor theory, at least in its simple version, is less popular or persuasive an explanatory mode than it used to be, and for good reason. What is rational for us in the west may look very different to the Taliban.
Resistance to foreign occupiers offers a mighty cement to unity, but it is neither necessary nor unique in that role. A remarkable number of states in the world today stay united without the pressure of foreign occupation. It is far from clear that a non-western country needs hostility to western interference in order to survive.
To take just one example, for nearly the last half century, a country in Asia has succeeded in surviving with its regime intact. It is true that it began by defeating the United States in war. But since 1975 Vietnam has managed pretty well without active, overt hostility to the U.S. and maintained itself and its regime without major problems of unity. It has internal divisions, but these are normal features of virtually any state. Like Vietnam, Afghanistan is beginning by defeating the U.S. in war.
Religion and clerical control, for their part, are not without their own success stories. In neighboring Iran, a religious-clerical hierarchy (though with a different version of Islam) has succeeded for almost as long as Vietnam in maintaining a regime and a political system. Hostility to (and from) the U.S. has helped. But without that it is conceivable that the regime in Iran might have survived more successfully than hitherto, not less.
Religion allied to clerical power works pretty successfully elsewhere too. Take Saudi Arabia, no resister of foreign occupiers; it does not need to be, with the U.S. as its friend.
Pakistan is another country with varying degrees of religious dominance and little hostility to western influence that is of major political significance. Pakistani society is fractured along ethnic, communal and linguistic lines. But those fractures do not bring the state down or threaten the regime.
In Afghanistan, it remains entirely up the Taliban whether and for how long U.S. and other foreign powers may help their citizens and supporters to flee. The western powers have been humiliated and are going to be humiliated further on Aug. 31 as they find themselves up against a clock that keeps on ticking towards midnight.
Speeches by French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Biden are not going to have a major impact on the Taliban. Warnings about U.S. control of $10 billion worth of Afghan assets in western banks are not going to change the Taliban’s attitudes. Nor will complaining about women’s rights or predictions of famine if they don’t let aid in make a difference to the direction or the significance of Taliban policy..
Rational actors in the West surely understand that. When U.S. officials suggest otherwise, they are talking more to their TV audiences at home than to the Taliban. To the Taliban they are talking – a rational act – about getting a few more days to get their people out. That is why CIA Director William Burns went to Kabul last weekend.
While it is comforting for the defeated to think that the victors will somehow disappear very quickly, the Taliban is here to stay.
David J. Wasserstein is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is “Black Banners of ISIS: The Roots of the New Caliphate” (Yale, 2017).