From PRISM 3, No. 2: Hearts, Minds, and the Barrel of a Gun - The Taliban's Shadow Government
PRISM 3, No. 2
"Hearts, Minds, and the Barrel of a Gun:
The Taliban's Shadow Government"
By Antonio Giustozzi
The Taliban are in a sense trying to out-govern Kabul rather than outfight it. But what does this mean in practice? The Taliban invest in governors, judges, education, and NGO management, in some cases even with considerable resources. The impact varies, sometimes being very positive (judges), sometimes much less. But in terms of augmenting the popularity of the Taliban, the dividends of this effort have been modest. The real strength of the Taliban is perhaps their ability to effectively mix coercion and co-optation at the village level.
The predominant image of the Taliban is a military organization bent almost exclusively on wreaking havoc on the Afghan state and whoever sides with it. However, for all their reputation of "warrior mullahs," the Taliban have not altogether neglected the civilian dimensions of power. In the early post-9/11 period, as an insurgent organization, they were indeed little more than roving bands of warrior mullahs who were trying to regroup and relaunch an insurgency. They did not have the resources or capacity to develop a shadow government structure. After 2003, however, the situation gradually changed and the Taliban started investing greater resources in their shadow government. Apart from the increased availability of financial resources, what might have driven the Taliban’s desire for building their own shadow government was their thirst for legitimacy. They wanted to show that they were the authentic government of Afghanistan and not merely an opposition military force. Another reason appears to have been that the Taliban actually realized that a shadow governance structure brought them some practical benefits, such as a greater ability to interact with the population. Particularly since the Taliban started entering relatively heavily populated areas in 2006, their commanders were no longer skilled enough to deal with the villagers. In a sense, the Taliban realized that they could not outfight the forces arrayed against them, which included the strongest military on the planet and a series of allies, also of respectable military capability. They tried, therefore, to outgovern their rivals, identifying the ineffectiveness of Kabul’s government as their greatest opportunity.
"Outgoverning" a competitor should not be misunderstood as an alternative rendering of "winning hearts and minds." As we shall see in greater detail, governing is not just about offering better services to the public; it is also about the efficient and effective utilization of coercion, a basic ingredient of the art of government. One example might help clarify this point. A basic but key component of government is the ability to administer justice. However, no government can administer justice without first imposing its own monopoly over it. This is because the administration of justice is inherently divisive: for every individual or community satisfied with a verdict, there might be as many who are unhappy with it.
If the emergence of the Taliban’s shadow governance structure can be explained, what has always been difficult to assess is its actual impact on the economy of the conflict. Observers, mostly from the media, were either wholly dismissive of anything the Taliban seemed able to achieve on this front, or uncritically supportive of Taliban success. Thanks to interviews carried out with commanders, judges, and other cadres of the Taliban, as well as with local elders, we can attempt in this article to throw some light on the issue.
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