The war in Afghanistan just got to its tragic conclusion. Looking at “what is next,” one of the questions repeatedly raised by news anchors, pundits, and commentators has been “did the Taliban change?” This conversation was fueled by the Taliban spokesmen's remarks and statements offering amnesty and promising women’s rights and media freedom, leaving audiences perplexed. While some of the responses seem to capture collective helplessness and the hope that things will be different, I would like to locate this discussion in pragmatic calculations by the Taliban, conversing with scholarship of violent nonstate actors' pursuit of legitimacy.
Violent nonstate actors, whether they are terrorists, rebels, insurgents or others, value legitimacy. It is a tool and a goal. It is a term that is associated with the state, not with rogue outfits operating in the outskirts of society. Legitimacy is what allows those actors to get access to resources and influence that are otherwise denied to them. Through legitimacy, rebels can get access to the banking system, trade routes, external funding, popular support, and international organizations and forums, among other things. For actors that are revolutionary, legitimacy is the ultimate goal-- one that cements their victory. Given its importance, actors struggle to gain legitimacy on the international level, the national level, or the community level. At the same time, states that combat violent nonstate actors are reluctant to offer this legitimacy and recognition, branding groups as terrorists and refusing to “negotiate with terrorists.”
In 1996, the Taliban, a religious-political movement and military organization, took over Afghanistan and enacted a radical interpretation of Islam, expelling women from public spaces and censoring their rights, introducing medieval punishments, and banishing and destroying arts and music. The Taliban held the state, yet they did not enjoy legitimacy, which prevented them from effectively ruling the country. During the Taliban short rule, Afghanistan suffered from chronic shortages in basic needs like food and water. Infrastructure was almost nonexistent with shortages in housing, minimal electricity, a few telephones, and a broken road system.
During the 20-years war the Taliban did change. It figured out the importance of legitimacy, learning that this one thing cannot be gained with arms and military victories. While in opposition, the Taliban erected a network of influence and parallel government across districts in Afghanistan. During the COVID-19 outbreak, the Taliban utilized this network and proved to be a partner of the international community in leading the effort to educate the rural population on the virus and how to protect against it. The Taliban launched a public-health awareness campaign, distributed masks, increased cooperation with international nongovernment organizations, and encouraged vaccination. As a xenophobic and paranoid organization, this approach surprised many observers. The specific actions that the Taliban took contradicted the organization’s traditional approach, which viewed viruses as conspiracies or punishment from God and held that vaccinations are part of a conspiracy to harm the Afghan people and the Taliban in particular, and that aid workers are CIA agents.
Returning us to the present, it is unclear what the trend is and what the outcome will be, despite the Taliban pushing a charm offensive. As of now, there are reports of armed Taliban shooting protestors, banning COVID-19 vaccination, conducting armed door-to-door search for government workers, hunt down U.S. allied Afghans, and creating lists of women to be married to fighters. It could be that those incidents are outliers, given the confusing picture we are getting from Afghanistan at this point, yet it could be that they are a representation of what to expect next.
The Taliban has changed, yet not to the degree we wish it will. It is still a fundamentalist and violent organization. From what we have seen in the last 20 years, the Taliban looks to be a pragmatic organization that learned from its errors and understands that the pathway for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as a functioning state goes through legitimacy-- both domestic and international. The organization’s access to the state’s funds is at the moment blocked, used as leverage against the Taliban’s actions. States already price their support and recognition in different ways, delivering to the Taliban a crash course in international relations. Under those pressures and the watchful eye of the world, the Taliban is changing again. However, it is highly unlikely that the Taliban is going to become an egalitarian organization that promotes tolerance and gender equality. It will adjust but still maintain its core radical values and ideologies. At best, it would offer a model with some resemblance to its neighbor from the West, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the only theocracy that gained legitimacy in the international system.
Ori Swed is an Assistant Professor at the Sociology Department at Texas Tech University. He is also the director of the Peace, War, & Social Conflict Laboratory. Dr. Swed research explores the organizational aspects of violent non-state actors and state actors in the context of peace, war, and security.