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“Never Say Never:” Learning Lessons from Afghanistan Reviews
with Tina Blohm and Philipp Rotmann; 2024, FES / GPPi / Centre on Armed Groups

This »review of reviews« looks at how and what Western governments and international organizations have tried to learn from the intervention in Afghanistan. The fundamental lesson drawn is a warning: »Never say never.« While the era of massive intervention may be over, many of the same flaws that marred Western policy in Afghanistan remain relevant in Ukraine and elsewhere. The reviews offer a wealth of lessons on setting and adapting realistic goals and strategies, using and producing knowledge, dealing with (il)legitimate government, and coordinating domestic and international actors.


“Gescheitert – aber womit? Legitimität und Wissen in Afghanistan” (German)
2023, Zur Intervention: Afghanistan und die Folgen, eds. Teresa Koloma Beck & Florian P. Kühn


How the Taliban are losing the peace in Afghanistan
with Ashley Jackson; 2023, Current History


Book – Waiting for Dignity: Legitimacy and Authority in Afghanistan
2022, Columbia University Press


Why Did the Taliban Win (Again) in Afghanistan? 
2022, LSE Public Policy Review

The paper explores the long-term developments and dynamics in Afghanistan, which enabled the Taliban to capture the state in August 2021. It suggests that the Taliban’s success was enabled by the failure of the international intervention to build legitimate authority in Afghanistan. Three factors contributed to this failure: First, different actors that were part of the intervention in the country pursued competing agendas, especially with the ‘War on Terror’ undermining human rights and state-building. Second, a gap between the Afghan internationally supported state and its citizens evolved and grew larger over time, especially due to the risk mitigation measures applied. Third, day-to-day interactions that ordinary people in Afghanistan had with the state were often perceived as corrupt and extractive, making it difficult for the state to convey that it was working in the interest of its citizens.


Richter in eigener Sache: So regieren die Taliban (German)
2021, Zenith Magazin


Warlord survival: the delusion of state building in Afghanistan
2021, Book Review, Civil Wars

In July 2020, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former militia leader known for frequently switching sides, was promoted to Marshal – the highest rank in the Afghan security forces and a rank that had not been used since 2002. How did Abdul Rashid Dostum manage to not only maintain his influence, but to even expand it? How did he survive for decades despite changing political systems? Answering such intriguing questions is what Romain Malejacq sets out to do in his book Warlord Survival (Cornell University Press, 2019). His book takes us on a journey through the lives and careers of four Afghan warlords: Ismail Khan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Mohammad Qasim Fahim, developing a convincing new theory of how these warlords endure. 


Rebel rule of law: Taliban courts in the west and north-west of Afghanistan
with Ashley Jackson; 2020, ODI Briefing note

Afghanistan’s Taliban have gradually uprooted and replaced customary and state systems of conflict resolution and justice with their own courts in the areas they influence and control. Taliban justice is the only justice system millions of Afghans are now able to access. This briefing note, based on more than 200 interviews with claimants and defendants in civil cases in Taliban courts, traces the evolution of the post-2001 Taliban justice system and explores civilian experiences in the courts. 


Kabul: Bridging the Gap between the State and the People; in: Kaldor, Mary and Sassen, Saskia (eds): Cities at War Global Insecurity and Urban Resistance
2020, Columbia University Press


The Taliban’s War for Legitimacy in Afghanistan
with Ashley Jackson; 2019, Current History (April)


Institutionalized Intervention: The ‘Bunker Politics’ of International Aid in Afghanistan
with Ruben Andersson; 2019, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 13(4), pp.503-523

Afghanistan has come to be seen as emblematic of the security threats besetting peace and security operations, and in this article we consider the response to such threats via the ‘bunkering’ of international staff. Drawing on an in-depth qualitative survey with aid and peacebuilding officials in Kabul, we illustrate how seemingly mundane risk management procedures have negative consequences for intervening institutions; for the relation between interveners and national actors; and for the purpose of intervention itself. Bunkering, we argue, is deeply political – ‘imprisoning’ staff behind ramparts while generating an illusion of presence and control for ill-conceived modes of international intervention.


Afghanistan’s Taliban – Legitimate Jihadists or Coercive Extremists?
2017, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 11(3), pp.359-381

The military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was portrayed as a fight to oust the extremist Taliban. But the Taliban have long been regaining influence, with the military victory of the Afghan government and its foreign allies now seeming less likely than ever. In light of these developments, this article investigates what the affected people – rather than the foreign interveners – think about the Taliban, and whether they perceive them as coercive or legitimate. Building on a conceptual understanding of legitimacy that has been adjusted to the dynamics of conflict-torn spaces, the article suggests that people judge the Taliban on the basis of how their day-to-day behaviour is perceived. While the Taliban are a coercive threat in urban centres and other areas where they launch attacks, they nonetheless manage to construct legitimacy in some of the places which they control or can access easily. A major source of their legitimacy in these areas is the way in which they provide services – such as conflict resolution – which some people consider to be faster and fairer than the state’s practices.


The Afghan Local Police – Closing the Security Gap?
with Sam Vincent and Hameed Hakimi; 2015; Stability: International Journal of Security & Development, 4(1): 45, pp. 1–26

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) was designed as an international counterinsurgency programme that works by raising small, village-level defence forces from within rural Afghan communities. Despite being driven by counterinsurgency objectives – that is, seeking to defeat insurgents – its emphasis upon harnessing local populations reflects broader fashions in development and security policy circles. Such policies, in turn, are commonly seen as emerging from a body of theoretical literature that is rethinking the nature of political order in conflict-torn spaces. At face value the range of well-documented controversies surrounding the ALP suggests, however, that the practice is much more ‘messy’. Using the case study of the ALP in the district of Andar, we make two main arguments. First, the mess and ambiguity surrounding the ALP reveal a gap between objectives and practices, suggesting that interventions that work by seeking to harness the ‘local’ introduce problems that have yet to be fully recognised. Second, however, in explaining the ‘mess’ of the ALP we argue that the theoretically-driven work that is commonly taken to justify ‘bottom-up’ interventions, if taken seriously, is well-suited to understanding and even anticipating the supposedly unexpected consequences of intervenors seeking to tap local dynamics.


Intervention at Risk: The Vicious Cycle of Distance and Danger in Mali and Afghanistan
with Ruben Andersson; 2015, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 9(4), pp.519–541

In crisis-hit countries, intensive risk management increasingly characterizes the presence of international interveners, with measures ranging from fortified compounds to ‘remote programming’. This article investigates the global drive for ‘security’ from an ethnographic perspective, focusing on Afghanistan and Mali. By deploying the concepts of distance and proximity, the article shows how frontline ‘outsourcing’ and bunkering have generated an unequal ‘risk economy’ while distancing interveners from local society in a trend that itself generates novel risks. To conclude, the article asks whether alternative forms of proximity may help to break the vicious cycle of danger and distance at work in today’s crisis zones.


Human vs. state security: how can security sector reforms contribute to state-building? The case of the Afghan police reform
2015; Working paper series, 13-135. Department of International Development, LSE, London, UK

The paper analyses how security sector reforms (SSRs) can contribute to statebuilding. It is argued that successful state-building requires an endogenous political process which aims at creating political legitimacy instead of certain ideal type Western state structures. In a conflict-torn society this demands security for citizens – an environment in which they feel safe and protected – allowing them to express their opinion freely and participate in a state-building process. The example of the Afghan police reform illustrates that a state-centric SSR is in danger of delegitimising and destabilising the state. In contrast, a human-centric security approach is more likely to support an endogenous process of building legitimate institutions.