Insurgent bureaucracy: how the Taleban make policy. An interview with Ashley Jackson.

For over a decade now, the Afghan Taleban have steadily expanded their territorial gains. As a consequence, they’ve started experimenting (parallel) governance in new ways. During this time, the movement developed into a more complex, centralised organisation with a media branch and the ability to negotiate and adapt locally, within the bounds of their doctrine. At a critical time when, through so-called peace talks, they are striving to carve a leading role for themselves within the political future of Afghanistan, understanding their policy and decision making processes should be of the utmost importance.     

Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri embarked on an extensive field-research on this issue; they interviewed hundreds of people inside and outside the movement, from local Taleban officials to representatives of the senior leadership, from local mullahs advocating for policy changes to elders negotiating for schools to be re-opened, to the civilian population. They so unearthed the Taleban decision-making mechanisms, returning a coherent picture of the insurgecy’s policy and politics as it takes shape on the ground.

Jackson’s and Amiri’s Report, published by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) can be read in full here.  

On 9th December Insurgent bureaucracy: how the Taleban make policy was discussed at London’s King’s College in an event organised by the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group.

START InSight sat down with Ashley Jackson with a few questions.

Ashley, how eager were people to talk about such a delicate issue as this?

We were especially surprised at how people in the Taleban organisation responded to us trying to look at the way they make decisions, and then found it fascinating when we presented them our theory of how they had developed.

So you reported back to them?

Yes, once we had our initial findings, we went back to some of the individuals we had interviewed to check whether this was something that made sense to them, that they lived through, that was consistent with their own experiences. It’s interesting to see how much they want to be taken seriously and want to understand their own processes, which for a long time have been very clandestine, hidden and fragmented. They were more eager to talk than I thought they would be.

Does it apply to people outside the movement as well?

Yes. We have a section on civilian casualties in our report, where we underline how many people took the Taleban’s efforts at increased accountability at face value, and were punished for complaining about local Taleban. I though these people would be reticent to speak but they were equally eager to say: “look, this group has to be more accountable, if they are going to be in government they can not do these things any more”. So even people who had a lot to lose or could potentially face retaliation, were still eager to talk about this.

The Taleban are mostly perceived as an insurgent group interlocked in a war with the Afghan government. Nevertheless, in large swathes of the country there’s a shadow Taleban government in place where the movement shares control and where the two in fact cooperate. How easy -or uneasy- is this situation for everybody involved, namely the government, the Taleban and the civilian population?

People have struck survival bargains. Local officials within the Ministry of Health want to keep services running for civilians and so do the Taleban. There’s a shared interest in things like central services, healthcare, education, NGO activities. Of course the Taleban are trying to take advantage of the situation but the people who have been through decades of war find ways to survive and strike deals and cooperate and continue with their lives. How long this lasts, is anyones’ guess, but for now both sides are invested in making sure people can go to clinics, children go to schools and so on…

How ready are the Taleban to compromise on what they consider minor and key issues? To what extent can they be influenced and asked to compromise?

Based on my research, they are surely not going to compromise on issues like justice. They have their own justice system based on sharia, which is very different from the State justice system. On some issues like the curricula or the way schools are run they have shown the ability to adapt to what the Afghans want and need.

The big issue here is that they have taken over rural areas which are predominantly conservative; what happens in the city is very different, mores are much more liberal, women participate in public life in many more ways than they would in typical rural villages.

Their ability to compromise will also depend on how much the international community engages and tries to bargain with them on these issues, and the degree to which the Afghan government is able to engage in productive dialogue. Which we have not seen yet.

The Taleban itself do not seem to be wanting to talk to the government…

But the reality on the ground tells us that in fact they talk to the government everyday, they talk to civilian officials, to MPs. We know they do have the capacity to do that.

The country heavily depends on international donors’ support. Are the Taleban interested in developing and encouraging the country to develop its own infrastructure, a sound economic system, which would also require opening up to the outside world?

I think they are interested in opening up and they do want this investment but I don’t think they know how significantly aid-dependent Afghanistan is, which amounts to 75% of the government budget and almost 95% of the Afghan security forces budget. In order to keep going, they will have to find ways to compromise with the international community and secure that aid but they do not speak the language of the international community and viceversa, so that is a problem and a challenge that needs to be overcome with dialogue.

Is the West engaging the Taleban in a meaningful way?

Yes and no. One of the examples in our report, looks at the UN Human Rights’ Unit in Afghanistan and how productive their dialogue has been. They’ve had a couple of successes but it has taken a long time, from more or less 2013. The UN is very strategic in their advocacy priorities and they did recognize positively where the Taleban has made changes, but that is rare. The international community and donors are still afraid and reticent to engage on key issues they claim to care about, like girls’ education. It’s long overdue. I think the international community isn’t ready and no one including the US and the UN is showing sufficient leadership on these issues, which is incredibly confusing as millions of Afghan lives depend on their ability to negotiate with the Taleban.