In the years leading up to their capture of power in 2021, the Taliban employed a strategy of creeping coercion. By relying on both violence and the provision of some services (particularly justice, through their shariah courts), they gained influence in village after village. They then began imposing more and more rules on the civilian population, and sought to co-opt existing government services and aid projects. Communities responded in different ways, but many sought to subtly push back and renegotiate the terms of Taliban control.
In exploring how Afghans navigated life under the insurgency, this article draws on interviews with Afghans and members of the Taliban carried out by the author in various capacities since 2017. Focused on the pre-August 2021 period, when the Taliban was still an insurgency, the article begins by exploring the dilemmas faced by civilians living in areas under Taliban influence. It then looks at some of their tactics and strategies, highlighting how people sought to maximise their agency. The article concludes by briefly looking at the implications for civilians now under the de facto Taliban government. It attempts to reflect the wide range of circumstances and dynamics at play, but one important caveat is that, in a country as diverse as Afghanistan, some nuance will undoubtedly be sacrificed to the need for concision.
No good choices: options for civilians living in areas under insurgent influence
By 2017, the Taliban controlled large swathes of Afghanistan. They had built a parallel bureaucracy with governors, courts, tax collectors and even school monitors. Official narratives of the conflict, and maps of government and Taliban control, painted a misleading picture. In May 2017, the US government estimated that the government controlled or influenced 59.7% of Afghan districts, while a further 29.2% were classified as contested. Only 11.1% were said to be influenced or controlled by the Taliban.
In reality, the dividing lines were rarely so black and white. Control was fluid and overlapping, even in major cities. Moreover, this method of accounting tended to badly underestimate the Taliban’s power and capacity. A district centre might be ‘controlled’ by the government, even if much of the district was in Taliban hands and government district officials resided elsewhere for security reasons.
Further, the Taliban sought to control people more than territory. They needed to ensure Afghans would not inform on them or stand in their way. As the insurgency evolved, they increasingly sought to control more aspects of people’s lives – how many times a day they attended mosques, what they wore, who they paid their taxes to, what was taught in schools. To be clear, it wasn’t that most Afghans wanted to engage with the Taliban; indeed, many fled to government-controlled areas. But those who stayed behind could rarely avoid dealing with the Taliban directly or indirectly.
Survival between a rock and a hard place
Ordinary Afghans living in areas under Taliban influence might try to negotiate with the insurgency on any number of issues. This included things like the payment of taxes, on reopening schools or even getting family members released from Taliban custody. But they had to do so while avoiding the appearance of ‘supporting the Taliban’, lest they invite suspicion or retaliation from the government or international forces. This was an exceedingly difficult tightrope to walk.
While few openly spoke of doing so, aid agencies, telecommunications companies, trucking firms and anyone else who wanted to do business in, or transit through, vast swathes of the country all engaged with the Taliban. Elders or other customary authorities would often act as go-betweens for aid agencies, negotiating their access with the Taliban. Often referred to as ‘community acceptance’, these arrangements became the backbone of humanitarian and development efforts.
In engaging with the Taliban, civilians were quite literally outgunned. The Taliban relied heavily on violence to get people to go along with their demands. Even so, as the insurgency evolved they became more amenable to meeting (or at least listening to) civilian demands. Afghans in turn sought to find or build whatever leverage they could. The most significant incentive that civilians could provide was compliance, a powerful bargaining chip that they leveraged in different ways:
Collectively engaging with the insurgency. Many communities backed, and even pushed, their elders to negotiate with the Taliban on their behalf. These elders were then able to leverage the collective compliance of the community in their requests to the Taliban. These might include protecting civilians from violence, reopening schools or clinics or reducing the taxes levied on farmers.
Cultivating bilateral relationships. Many civilians and Taliban were enmeshed in the same social fabric. Some might be related to Taliban fighters while others came from the same village, went to school together or attended the same mosques. Civilians used these connections and tried to cultivate new ones (such as ‘giving’ a son to fight with the Taliban), to protect themselves.
Doing ‘favours’ for the Taliban. Some people might provide intelligence or agree to help the Taliban in certain ways, and try to use these favours as leverage. For example, some people used quid pro quos to ask for Taliban help obtaining a job or to advocate for a relative in Taliban custody.
As these examples suggest, social capital – defined as the opportunities created by relationships, shared norms and cultural reference points – was incredibly important. This is certainly not limited to dealings with the Taliban. For examples from other contexts, see E. Baines and E. Paddon, ‘“This is how we survived”: civilian agency and humanitarian protection’, Security Dialogue 43:3, 2012, 231–47; C. Suarez, ‘“Living between two lions”: civilian protection strategies during armed violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo’, Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 12:3, 2017, 54–67; Sanaullah, ‘Effectiveness of civilians’ survival strategies: insights from the Taliban’s insurgency (2007–09) in Swat Valley, Pakistan’, Global Change, Peace & Security 32: 3, 2020, 275–96; O. Kaplan, Resisting war: how communities protect themselves (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). For example, when civilians were dealing with Taliban fighters and commanders from outside their communities, they often had a much harder time than when they were engaging with local Taliban. Connections also kept civilians safe in other respects. For example, divided communities were often much weaker vis-à-vis the Taliban – who used divide and rule tactics – than more coherent, cohesive ones.
It was not only the civilians who relied on a diverse array of connections to survive. As one Taliban commander said, ‘everyone needs two phone numbers, one for the government and one for the Taliban. Even me, I have many friends on the government side, and this is how we manage our lives.’ These kinds of relationships were an essential part of their strategy to win control of the country. In the months leading up to the fall of the Islamic Republic government in August 2021, hundreds of Afghan districts fell to the Taliban in quick succession, like dominos. The vast majority of these changed hands through tacit deals rather than pitched battles. The Taliban’s takeover of Nimruz – the first province to fall – was partly mediated by local powerholders and businessmen who had long been negotiating with the Taliban.
Life under the Islamic Emirate 2.0: implications for understanding civilian survival strategies
Since the Taliban takeover, Afghans have sought to navigate a dramatic shift in circumstances. The economic collapse and ensuing humanitarian crisis have created excruciating levels of hardship, compounded by the uncertainty of dealing with a fragmented and unpredictable government. The conditions aid workers, and Afghans, encounter vary from one province to the next. Women are particularly affected by both the harsher restrictions and the ‘whims of individuals’.
Many civilians, aid workers and others have fallen back on the same tactics they used throughout the war. Social capital is more important than ever, as is consideration of the local dynamics. A recent evaluation of community development projects highlighted the different dynamics non-governmental organisations (NGOs) encountered in trying to deliver aid under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) across the country, particularly regarding women’s participation. One clear finding was that NGOs with longer-term presence and a consistent approach were more likely to be able to stick to their principles and continue to involve women in their work.
Even though the Taliban is now the de facto government, the diversity of local deals, norms and rules remains. For example, as a recent report illustrated, what taxes you are forced to pay, and the degree to which the rates are negotiable, often depend on the individual you’re dealing with. The best chances for survival seem to lie in who one knows and whatever leverage one can muster. Yet with the country showing ‘strong signs of descending into authoritarianism’, according to the United Nations, this seems to be an increasingly precarious survival strategy. The IEA is increasingly cracking down on any perceived dissent, and taking a harder line with aid agencies, detaining and abusing those it suspects of ‘spying’, as well as seeking greater control over programming and budgets. The room for manoeuvre is rapidly shrinking.
Dr Ashley Jackson is a co-director of the Centre on Armed Groups, an NGO focused on supporting engagement with armed actors, and the author of Negotiating survival: insurgent–civilian relations in Afghanistan (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2021).