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Metamorphosis of the Afghan Warlordism: from the war on terror to Taliban’s comeback

Warlordism is an essential element to understand securitarian dynamics and dilemmas in Afghanistan. Warlords have always been present in the socio-economic-guerrilla fabric of contemporary Afghan history through a strong survival and entrepreneurial instinct which allowed them to ‘’get recycled’’ in the Afghan society. Indeed, we may recall their role in tackling foreign invasions, through guerrilla techniques, during the ‘Great Game’ era; but also, their tendency towards internal frictions and local conflicts before the  rise of Taliban in 1996.

Afghan warlordism has arisen as an issue in the international arena only after the US and its Allied   Forces projected the war on terror in Afghanistan to splinter the Taliban regime and to eradicate Al-Qaeda’s locus amoenus. Infact, Operation Enduring Freedom has greatly availed itself of Afghan warlords who acted as boots on the ground, vis-à-vis CIA teams, to tackle Taliban forces, structures, and communication assets.  Nevertheless, given the entrepreneurial and political streak of these men, cooperation, and coordination in the field to fight the Taliban was mainly outlined by two main drivers: on the short-term, bags filled of dollars[1] [1] for their counterterrorism services[2] [2]; while on the long-term, the promise of power and control of their areas of influence.

Infact, the power vacuum resulted from the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001 was soon crowded by a list of such warlords/local commanders with legitimacy over the territory and control through means of violence and force and interpersonal networks partially depending on economic benefits, and clan, tribal, ethnic, or religious relationships.[3] [3] Moreover, warlords have been heavily supported by external states such as US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey for financial reasons, and political and religious preferences.

However, after the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and its allies, the strongest ties have been generally held with US (and especially the CIA), NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Those ties has been finalized from warlord’s side for maintaining control and establishing security and prosperity over their areas of influence through all legal and illegal business as drug trade, drug production, arms sales black market and so on.[4] [4]

In the historical phase between the collapse of the regime in 2001 and the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan by Taliban in 2021, the liberal peacebuilding activity to ensure the modern Afghan governance was driven by the only possible trade-off between building representative and democratic institutions. Allowing anarchic tribalism to keep control of the provinces[5] [5] due to the inability of the first institutional variable to control the entire country was the solution that produced a hybrid chaotic model of governance heavily relying on the presence of warlords.

In addition, an important variable which kept warlords alive was the neo patrimonial and clientelist network, traditionally diffused in the Afghan modern history, that allowed citizens embedded in the network to receive services (physical security and a judicial apparatus)[6] [6] creating enough legitimacy and support to certain segments of the population.[7] [7] Such institutionalization transition of warlords may be recalled with Mohammad Fahim as a Minister of Defence and Karim Khalil joining the government; with Atta Mohammad Nur being appointed Governor of Balkh; with Gul Agha Sherzai being appointed Governor of Nangahar and later being a presidential candidate.[8] [8]

For all the reasons of power envisaged above, a time arrived when Ashraf Ghani, the second and last President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, decided to delegitimise and isolate warlords by reducing resources to state-official warlords and dethroning them from power positions and government institutions to reduce their patronage networks opportunities.[9] [9]

Ghani’s strategy, despite not being the only reason, according to many analysts, indirectly supported the Taliban insurgency, which severed territories at the same speed by which Ghani-led government isolated warlords.[10] [10] Despite such delegitimization, warlords have remobilized their militias in northern, western and central regions of Afghanistan before the taking over of the Taliban. Such resistance have been also driven by a steemed demand of protection from several segments of the population[11] [11] afraid from the Taliban insurgency.

The conflictual relation between the Afghan Presidency and walordism was eventually concluded with the failure to protect Kabul and the other Afghan provinces, and with the final Taliban’s establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2021. As it was meant to be, the control of violence dictated by the warlords was only a sufficient condition to stop the advance of the Taliban. The necessary conditions that had to accompany the sufficient one, and that have failed, were to avoid the withdrawal of the international troops and to avoid the international political disengagement. [12] [12]

What will Afghan warlords turn into and what role will they play after the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Taliban executive in 2021? The present and possible future of Afghan warlords will depend primarily on the political, and not military, dynamics that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will pose within Afghanistan and project in its regional and international relations. Based on current information, I see three possible scenarios for warlordism in the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

First and most realistic scenario (at least in the short/medium term) is the forced exile; many of the warlords have requested or will request refuge and protection from those nations that have always supported them to continue from there their “business” in Asia/Middle East.

The second scenario embeds new negotiations to find a political agreement with the Taliban to get back to the political fabric or at least to seek immunity; this seems the case of the high-ranking Taliban negotiation led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Khan Muttaqi with Ismail Khan and Ahmad Massoud in Tehran. [13] [13]

The last scenario, which I see as the least possible, is the international or regional strategy of delegitimizing and knocking down the Taliban’s regime by a militia-based strategy through arming, funding and bringing back warlords into the territory; this last scenario, would bring Afghanistan back to twenty years ago, with the possible outcome of a brand-new civil war.

Francesco Pagano

[1] [14] Azami, A. S. (2021). Warlords, the United States, and the state of anarchy in Afghanistan. Central European Journal of Politics Volume 7, Issue 1, pp. 46–75
[2] [15] Felbab-Brown, V. (2017). Afghanistan Affectations: How to Break Political-Criminal Alliances in Contexts of Transition. United Nations University Centre for Policy Research Crime-Conflict Nexus Series: No 8
[3] [16] Schetter, C. & Glassner, R. & Karokhail, M. (2007). Beyond Warlordism: The Local Security Architecture in Afghanistan. In Warlordism in Afghanistan
[4] [17] Bell, A. (2014). A Network in Transition: Actors, Interests, and Alliances in the Afghanistan Conflict as of Early 2014. Peace Research Institute Frankfurt
[5] [18] Mukhopadhyay, D. (2009). Warlords As Bureaucrats: The Afghan Experience. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie Papers
[6] [19] Ibid
[7] [20] Mehran, W. (2018). Neopatrimonialism in Afghanistan: former warlords, new democratic bureaucrats? Journal of peacebuilding and development
[8] [21] Bell, A. (2014). A Network in Transition: Actors, Interests, and Alliances in the Afghanistan Conflict as of Early 2014. Peace Research Institute Frankfurt
[9] [22] Acheson, B. (2021). Did the deliberate weakening of warlords cause Afghanistan’s collapse?. UK Defence Journal
[10] [23] Ibid.
[11] [24] Malejacq, R. (2019). Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Presa
[12] [25] Bezhan, F.& Sarwar, M. (2021). Afghanistan sees resurgence of warlords, in familiar echo of civil war. Gandhara
[13] [26] Mehdi, S. Z. (2022). Taliban delegation meets Afghan opposition figures in Iran. AANews [27]