Taliban takeover

Political scientist Nicholas Sambanis, an expert on conflict processes with a focus on civil wars, shares his thoughts on the challenges of nation building and what’s next for Afghanistan.

A city in the desert is seen from above, with brown structures dotting the valley and mountain ranges in the distance, some covered in haze.
A view of Kabul, Afghanistan from May, 2012. (Image: Courtesy of Lucas Augustin)

Just two weeks before the United States was set to complete its troop withdrawal in Afghanistan after a costly 20-year war, the Taliban has swept through the nation and seized power.

How did this happen?

Nicholas Sambanis is a Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of the Identity & Conflict Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes on conflict processes with a focus on civil wars and other forms of inter-group conflict. His most recent paper on the topic, “Stopping the Violence, Blocking the Peace: Dilemmas of Foreign-Imposed Nation-Building after Ethnic War,” co-authored by Kevin Russell of McKinsey, was published in the journal International Organization in May. 

Penn Today spoke to Sambanis about the Taliban’s takeover, the challenges of nation building, and what’s next for Afghanistan.

What led us to this point? Why did the U.S. leadership believe that they could create a democracy in Afghanistan?

The American reaction to 9/11 led to this point, combined with a muddled ideological commitment to export democracy to the Middle East while also securing America’s interests in the region. Afghanistan has been in a series of civil wars since 1978; the Taliban won the war in 1996 and was in charge in 2001, refusing American demands to hand over al-Qaeda operatives and close down their training facilities in Afghanistan after 9/11. The decision to invade Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 was a predictable and understandable response to the terrorist attacks. What wasn’t inevitable was the type of intervention that followed during the last 20 years, which has cost too much—too many lives lost and too many resources spent—given that the likelihood of success was always miniscule. 

The paper that Kevin and I wrote explains why it is extremely difficult for a third party to create a democracy when there is no unifying national identity that can shore up a state-building project and when the country has no prior experience with norms of democratic governance, which was the case in Afghanistan. It’s a country with a lot of tribal divisions, local affiliations, and identities that take precedence over the national identity, limited bureaucratic capacity, and generations of people socialized in an environment of intermittent warfare.

The U.S. tried to create a centralized democratic regime that was inclusive and offered opportunities to previously marginalized groups, fostering civil rights and women’s rights and pushing changes that the population was not entirely committed to and could not easily support given the fragmented political landscape. The only way to build a democracy in Afghanistan or anywhere else is to work with local elites and support bottom-up initiatives since ultimately the intervener will want to go home and will leave a local government in place. The key difficulty in any post-civil war state is to convince local elites whose followers are defined by ethnic or sectarian identities to start providing public goods for the entire nation, as opposed to just catering to their own ethnic base. Why would they do that? And why would civilians believe the leaders who say they will do that? 

While nation-building interventions are always challenging, in Afghanistan the problem was worse because national identity was weak and could not unify the groups that opposed the Taliban. The Taliban embodied a more unified identity that enabled Afghans to be an effective fighting force. That identity was at least partly defined in opposition to the American intervention/occupation and gave Taliban more local legitimacy than many of the leaders whom the U.S. supported.  

In such an environment, a nation-building intervention along the lines of what the U.S. hoped to achieve in Afghanistan is bound to fail. It might have been better to strike a power-sharing bargain earlier on, back when the Taliban had been weakened, before 2005 or 2006. The U.S. was reluctant to do so then, but they ended up doing this now, and they struck a much worse bargain with a resurgent Taliban.

What are the political ramifications for President Biden?

To a large extent the ramifications will depend on what happens in Afghanistan in the next several years. Right now the Taliban is saying a lot of the right things. They’re saying that they will create an inclusive state, they’ll respect women’s rights, that they might support the constitution from the 1960s and so on. It’s hard to know whether to believe them, but it is possible that the Taliban has learned some lessons in the 20 years that this war has lasted. If they do what they say, then ramifications for Biden will be small, even though the administration did not handle well the evacuation of Afghan personnel allied with the U.S. If the Taliban ends up supporting terrorism against the United States and allows terrorist groups to set up shop again on Afghan territory, then the ramifications will be significant. That said, the current situation was a dead-end and the Taliban would have likely won even if Biden stayed another one, two, three years.

Although the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan was inevitable, this ‘failure’ is not Biden’s failure. There is no evidence that you can create a functional liberal democracy in such a short time period in a country like Afghanistan: so fragmented, so poor, with such strong parochial attachments, deep corruption, a legacy of decades of war, and no prior experience with democratic accountability and inclusion. Looking at cross-country data on post-civil war transitions since 1945, there is no support for the idea that successful democratic transitions are due in significant part to an external intervener. So, to the extent that there is failure here, it predates Biden’s administration, though he could have handled the withdrawal much better so as to help the people who helped the U.S.

Did the U.S. misread the situation?

Biden did not misread the situation in 2021. Afghanistan was a dead end and the U.S. should have changed course long ago. Previous administrations misread the situation back in 2001, and missed opportunities to strike better deals when the Taliban was weakened. The ‘misreading’ concerns the belief that it is possible to export the American model of democracy to every part of the world in just a few years while always looking to make a quick exit. If you want to be a colonizer, a democracy-promoter, and a social engineer, you need to adopt a different timeframe and be able to absorb heavier costs than what American society is willing to support. However, as our model of nation-building interventions shows, a longer time horizon is not always sufficient and might even be counter-productive in some cases: If the intervention is successful in shifting the population from ethnic to national identification, then the longer an occupier stays, the more a nationalist public will resist occupation. In Afghanistan’s case we never got to this stage as neither the local leaders nor the American interveners were successful in inducing the population to identify nationally.

Another important misreading of the situation was that the Americans thought they could build a peace without the Taliban. Unfortunately, people who control a lot of guns have to be part of the conversation in post-civil war settings. There are historical examples here. For instance in Cambodia in 1991, to end the war that led to the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, the United Nations included the Khmer in the negotiations. They ended up trying to boycott the elections, but the democratic process started only because they were included, and this pacified their sponsors and allowed many of their soldiers to disband.  

A key lesson in studies of war-to-peace transitions is that you have to include all the major combatants in negotiations, regardless of how unacceptable you might find them on normative grounds. Perhaps if the Taliban had been included way back, this could have splintered the group and helped elements in the Taliban who could ‘see’ a bleak future with intermittent wars against the U.S. if they stuck to a hardline position. Ultimately the U.S. learned this lesson as they did in Iraq in 2006-2007 when they were able to win the war only by forging alliances with groups that they had previously designated as terrorists and enemies.

Does this call for the U.S. to reevaluate its role as a geopolitical entity?

What the U.S. should reevaluate is this idea that we can export democracy to every part of the world; and that the outcome of that democratic process will always be consistent with American interests and preferences. The key lesson from Afghanistan, and the lessons from our analysis in our recent paper, is that regardless of how many resources you invest, the scope for success in nation-building interventions is small because of the difficulty in switching from ethno-sectarian to national identities and because when national identities become salient, opposition to foreign intervention naturally increases and local leaders push to expel the occupier. This is a lesson that we learned in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan; and in Libya we saw what happens when you intervene to unseat a regime without even trying to put another in its place.

What many people in this country will have a hard time accepting is that American efforts to promote democracy overseas are sometimes causing more harm than good. If you look at data on the occurrence of civil wars since 1945, you’ll see a big dip in new civil wars following the end of the Cold War. This is partly because the collapse of the U.S.S.R. meant there was no motive for proxy wars by the superpowers. Fewer civil wars means fewer people killed or displaced around the world. Since 2001, however, there has been a surge of new civil wars, most of which are in many ways tied to American efforts to promote democracy in places where democracy is hard to grow organically. These wars are often longer and more intense due to American interventionism when democracy-promotion efforts are met with local resistance or with resistance from neighboring countries or countries competing with the U.S. for local hegemony. This calls for a reassessment of American foreign policy; that reassessment could start by learning the right lessons from Afghanistan.  

Many observers will now say that the U.S. should favor retrenchment, but that is too simplistic and there are situations in which it is important to have a global superpower that can help achieve positive outcomes when these are needed. There are many countries that are caught in a conflict trap and will not be able to transition from war to peace without external assistance. The U.S. can work with international organizations to provide such assistance in a manner that is sensitive to the inherent challenges of nation-building interventions.