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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.

Climate Adaptation in No-Man’s Land: Bridging the Conflict-Climate Gap
with Ashley Jackson, Leigh Mayhew and Pascal Bongard; 2023, Centre on Armed Groups / ODI / CCDP

The current climate adaptation paradigm focuses overwhelmingly on states, neglecting conflict areas, which are among the worst impacted by climate change and the least prepared to adapt. This paper examines the failure the address climate adaptation in conflict areas and areas beyond state control. While there is increasingly rhetorical and policy attention to the need for climate adaptation work in conflict areas, this has not (yet) been matched by meaningful change. In the meanwhile, armed groups are taking advantage of this neglect, and stepping in to address (and exploit) climate impacts. This paper explores what is driving the conflict-climate gap, and what we know about armed group behaviour and potential forms of engagement. It examines the opportunities and challenges for climate adaptation in conflict-affected and non-state controlled-areas. It concludes by outlining a multi-pronged approach to developing ways of working on climate adaptation in these settings.

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

Taliban Arms Management Practices
with Ashley Jackson and Maiwand; 2023, Small Arms Survey / Centre on Armed Groups

Since taking control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have attempted to monitor and control small arms at the national level. They have not, however, developed any major new policies on these areas. Instead, the Taliban have continued to use the existing policies and procedures implemented under the previous Government of the Republic of Afghanistan, making modifications as needed. The Taliban’s capacity to control and manage stockpiles has increased over time, with weapons in the major bases largely kept secure. Personal connections, however, trump rules and procedures: influential commanders can often obtain weapons without following formal approval procedures. An additional challenge for the Taliban is that many commanders refuse to register weapons they possessed before August 2021. Commanders and fighters generally view such weapons as personal property, rather than that of the Taliban or the state. Power dynamics within the Taliban at the subnational level shape the management of weapons, which varies considerably from province to province. While the Taliban can act in a unified manner in certain circumstances, its central authorities tend to leave much of the day-to-day running of affairs to the local officials— both for political reasons and due to capacity issues.

Book Review: Practicing Peace: Conflict Management in Southeast Asia and South America, by Aarie Glase
2023, Pacific Affairs

Crime and communities: Life under criminal group control
with Ashley Jackson and Theo Tindall; 2023, ODI / Centre on Armed Groups

Academics and policy-makers tend to categorise and analyse so-called ‘criminal’ groups, which are primarily motivated by profit, separately from ‘political’ groups – ignoring critical commonalities between the two. This paper argues that we should not see them as separate categories. Instead, we should envision a spectrum of motives and practices across all armed groups, regardless of how they are labelled. This paper specifically examines practices that armed groups use to influence civilian behaviour. Even beyond direct violence, we find that criminal and political groups use similar techniques to control communities. Understanding these tactics is essential to helping people affected by violence. With growing recognition of the blurred lines between conflict and crime, more integrated and comparative study is required to improve our understanding of and engagement with armed groups.

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

Understanding agency in civilian-armed group interactions
with Ashley Jackson and Theo Tindall; 2022, ODI / Centre on Armed Groups

Within both the academic and policy literature, civilians are rarely seen as having significant influence over armed actors, or over conflict dynamics more broadly – but that is starting to change. This paper explores what we know about civilian–armed group relations, and raises new questions for investigation. It urges us to think of ‘civilians’ and ‘armed groups’ as diverse, fluid and overlapping categories, and refocus our attention on how civilians exercise agency.

Rethinking armed group control: Towards a new conceptual framework
with Ibraheem Bahiss, Ashley Jackson and Leigh Mayhew; 2022, Centre for the Study of Armed Groups

Prevailing understandings of control – which focus on territorial dividing lines and violent incident monitoring – miss important indicators of armed group control. We argue that armed group control should instead be broken down according to the ways in which armed groups seek to influence populations. To exercise influence and control, armed groups apply a variety of practices, including different types of violence, dispute resolution, taxation, regulation of movement, access to aid and services, and social strictures. Territorial markers of control tend to be misleading, as many armed groups exercise control over populations beyond areas where they are physically present, shaping and influencing civilian life in the economic, social and political spheres deep into areas thought of as ‘government controlled’. This paper proposes several alternate ways of monitoring shifts in armed group control, by focusing on practices and the development of underlying capacities required to influence civilian behaviour. The hope is that more contextualised and specific indicators can improve conflict early warning.

Anpassung erforderlich: Wie geht es weiter in Afghanistan? (German)
with Mark Bowden; 2022, Vereinte Nationen

Die Eroberung des afghanischen Staates durch die Taliban im Jahr 2021 zwingt die internationale Staatengemeinschaft, über die dortige Rolle der Vereinten Nationen in den letzten Jahrzehnten nachzudenken. Wie können sie in Zukunft zur Verbesserung der Lebensbedingungen der Menschen in Afghanistan beitragen?

Beyond Greed: Why Armed Groups Tax 
with Tanya Bandula-Irwin, Max Gallien, Ashley Jackson and Vanessa van den Boogaard; 2022, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism

Based on a review of the diverse practices of how armed groups tax, we highlight that a full account of why armed groups tax needs to go beyond revenue motivations, to also engage with explanations related to ideology, legitimacy, institution building, legibility and control of populations, and the performance of public authority. This article builds on two distinct literatures, on armed groups and on taxation, to provide the first systematic exploration of the motivations of armed group taxation. We problematize common approaches toward armed group taxation and state-building, and outline key questions of a new research agenda.

Beyond Greed: Why Armed Groups Tax 
with Tanya Bandula-Irwin, Max Gallien, Ashley Jackson and Vanessa van den Boogaard; 2021, ICTD Working Paper 131

Armed groups tax. Journalistic accounts often include a tone of surprise about this fact, while policy reports tend to strike a tone of alarm, highlighting the link between armed group taxation and ongoing conflict. Policymakers often focus on targeting the mechanisms of armed group taxation as part of their conflict strategy, often described as ‘following the money’. We argue that what is instead needed is a deeper understanding of the nuanced realities of armed group taxation, the motivations behind it, and the implications it has for an armed group’s relationship with civilian and diaspora populations, as well as the broader international community. This paper builds on two distinct literatures, on armed groups and on taxation, to provide the first systematic exploration into the motivation of armed group taxation. Based on a review of the diverse practices of how armed groups tax, we highlight that a full account of their motivation needs to go beyond revenue collection, and engage with key themes around legitimacy, population control, institution building, and the performance of public authority. We problematise common approaches towards armed group taxation and state-building, and outline key questions of a new research agenda.

Schmuggel im 21. Jahrhundert (German)
2021, Internationale Politik, Special 05/2021

Bis heute gelten Schmuggel und Schattenhandel als ­etwas, das im Verborgenen vor sich geht und sich in ­unzugänglichen Grenzgebieten abspielt. Doch solche Sichtweisen blenden vor allem die enge Verzahnung mit legalen Wirtschafts- und Finanzstrukturen aus.

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. 

Channeling contraband – how states shape international smuggling routes
with Max Gallien; 2021, Security Studies, 30(1), pp.79-106

While smuggling is commonly assumed to happen in remote and difficult to access borderlands, in reality, smuggling is most prevalent in areas that are tightly controlled by the state, including at formal border crossings. To understand this puzzle, the article explores the relationship between states and smugglers at international borders. Based on extensive empirical research in various borderlands in North Africa and Southeast Asia, it argues that different types of relationships with the state are preferred by different kinds of smugglers. The article outlines six ideal types of such relationships. It argues that these types of relationships are the dominant factor in how different smuggling networks choose routes along a border. The findings have implications for our understanding of smuggling and policies that aim at addressing smuggling, especially with regard to the effects of border fortifications and corruption prevention.

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 Aid Bunker: Security Risk Management in Conflict Zones; in: Lemay-Hébert, Nicolas (ed): Handbook on Intervention and Statebuilding
2019, Edward Elgar Publishing

This book chapter engages with the trend of bunkerized international aid interventions in conflict-torn spaces. In response to insecurity, aid agencies and other organizations that operate in conflict-torn spaces increasingly attempt to protect their staff though ‘hard’ security measures. However, this trend of bunkerization and fortification is at odds with basic values and goals of statebuilding, peacebuilding and the delivery of humanitarian aid. In particular, the trend draws new ‘hard’ borders between ‘locals’ and ‘expatriate’ staff, isolates foreign staff and creates new security risks, particularly for local staff. In order to illustrate these dynamics, the chapter draws on interviews conducted with people in Afghanistan and on a survey conducted with aid workers in various conflict zones around the world.

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.

Investigating the role of legitimacy in the political order of conflict-torn spaces
2015; Working papers, SiT/WP/04/15. Security in Transition, LSE, London, UK

Conflict-affected spaces that are far from exhibiting a Weberian monopoly of the legitimate use of force have been categorised as ‘fragile’ and ‘failed’ states for years. However, there is a growing tendency to understand conflicts as a form of order and to adapt the definition of statehood accordingly. But while the post-Weberian approaches indeed help to overcome some of the flaws of the dominant understanding of statehood, they do not substantively consider the role of legitimacy. The statebuilding discourse illustrates the problematic implications of the limited understanding of legitimacy on the policy level. In response, this paper suggests in line with post-Weberian scholars to understand political order as a field with multiple authorities but to consider both force and legitimacy as sources underpinning obedience to social control. An analytical framework is developed that acknowledges multiple dimensions of legitimacy as well as its dynamics. This framework may help to analyse legitimacy in empirical cases to inductively advance the theoretical understanding of legitimacy and to enable statebuilding which strengthens those authorities and institutions that are actually considered to be legitimate.

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.