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

On 15 August 2021, Taliban fighters entered the presidential palace in Kabul, following 20 years of internationally supported efforts to build a democratic state in Afghanistan. Did this state lose the battle for public support to the Taliban? Did the Taliban’s success rest on coercion and violence or did they provide better services? Or did most people ultimately not believe in the idea of the state at all, only trusting local elders and councils?

Waiting for Dignity addresses such questions by engaging with the perspective of those who provide legitimacy: the ordinary people in Afghanistan. In addition, it considers the view of those who claim to have legitimacy: insurgents, warlords, members of parliament, security forces, and community authorities. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, the book explores how such different types of authority constructed, or failed to construct, legitimacy.

Revising the static understanding of legitimacy that evolved in the context of western nation states in the early 20th century and confronting common assumptions of how to build legitimacy – by delivering services, holding elections, or adopting traditional institutions – the book shows that what matters in conflict zones is interactive dignity. People judge authorities on the basis of their day-to-day interactions with them. The extent to which people perceive interactions to be fair, inclusive, and respectful is vital for the construction of lasting legitimacy and matters more than how an authority gained power, the ideology it advocates, or even the scale of service delivery.