By seizing power through a military victory against an incumbent regime, the Taliban joins the ranks of dozens of other regimes over the past 75 years that formed after successful armed rebellion. Our research suggests the Taliban will confront an immediate hurdle: holding its ranks together before it can hope to consolidate control over Afghanistan.
While Afghanistan is a difficult territory to govern, the Taliban faces challenges within its own organization. With a relatively decentralized and autonomous military apparatus and few institutional mechanisms of central control, the formerly exiled Taliban leadership may struggle to maintain the loyalty of its own armed forces.
How do groups transform from guerrilla fighters to government forces?
We’ve analyzed all “rebel regimes” — rebel groups that seized national power after an armed struggle — that emerged since 1945. We collect data on these groups’ political-military relations and organizational structures and study how these factors shape post-conflict politics. How does the Taliban compare to other regimes that emerged after periods of armed rebellion — and where are the likely political fault lines?
Like most rebel regimes, the Taliban is coming into power with several important strengths. Rebel regimes typically replace the existing military with their own armed forces, which gives the new political regime a source of organizational control. The Taliban bring its considerable military forces, now fortified with weapons that coalition forces and Afghan soldiers left behind. The Taliban is also unusual among other rebel regimes — it is getting a second shot at power, so it has some governing experience most other rebel regimes lack.
These strengths will be pitted against the many threats to the emerging Taliban regime. It faces an armed rebellion in the Panjshir Valley as high-ranking officials of the former regime regroup and begin an insurgency of their own — and with some foreign support. And as these acts of defiance show, many Afghans don’t support the return to Taliban rule, while the initial reactions from foreign governments range from cool and cautious to actively hostile.
Internal strife may be the biggest challenge
But as political scientists have shown, the principal threats to emerging regimes often come from within. And the Taliban has an important internal weakness: tenuous political control over its own armed forces. If other rebellions offer any clues, the very army that brought the Taliban to power could prove its primary obstacle to exercising power.
The Taliban military wing that emerged in 2002 operated largely without central oversight. Military commanders operated with high levels of independence from the exiled political leadership largely based in Quetta, Pakistan. While the decentralized nature of Taliban forces may have helped them survive the war, it poses immediate threats to internal unity and political control during the transition from guerrilla movement to government.
How to keep commanders in check
Our research shows that political leaders in rebel groups ensure the loyalty of their armed wings in three main ways: They promote individuals from their prewar organizations to top command positions; embed political commissars in the ranks; and establish new intelligence and security services to rein in disloyal commanders. These measures help ensure that the armed wing remains subordinate to the political wing.
For the Taliban, with armed and political wings operating largely in parallel, all three mechanisms of political control are absent. Small groups associated with the ousted Taliban government in Afghanistan began to reorganize starting in 2002, with little input from the former top leadership. These groups amalgamated into a loosely integrated “polycentric organization,” according to Taliban expert Antonio Giustozzi.
Moreover, the Taliban did not maintain political commissars, political bureaus or clerical authorities embedded in military units to monitor its officers. Unlike other rebel groups, the Taliban had no institutionalized intelligence and security service that reported to central commanders. Instead, the regional commands, at times in open conflict with the Pakistan-based headquarters, maintained their own intelligence departments. This decentralization deprives the leadership of a key mechanism for monitoring its subordinates.
These types of organizational problems are compounded when the political leadership spends the war in exile, away from the group’s field commanders. The research shows that these rebel leaders often struggle to control their commanders when the fighting stops.
In cases like Algeria (1952-1962), Angola (1963-1975), Eritrea (1972-1991), Indonesia (1945-1949), Mozambique (1964-1974), South Yemen (1963-1967) and Zimbabwe (1966-1979), political leaders spent all or part of the war abroad or in prison. The military forces actually fighting in each country gained considerable effective independence from their formal leaders. When the Angolan insurgents came into power, for example, the first conflict they faced was a struggle “between the fighters from the bush and the ideologues who had comfortably sat out the war in their offices.”
Similarly, the Taliban political leadership spent the 2002-2021 war abroad. And the exiled leadership had limited capacity to monitor the day-to-day operations of Taliban military commanders.
Which wing of the Taliban will prove subordinate?
Similar to other rebellions where military wings have gained autonomy from the political arm, the Taliban political leadership is likely to struggle to control the military. In other rebellions, former military commanders came to dominate the postwar regime. They even ousted their civilian overseers in multiple instances — for instance, Algeria in 1965, Bangladesh in 1975 and Indonesia in 1966.
Paradoxically, the speed of the Taliban victory this month may complicate these challenges. In some insurgencies, political leaders are able to gradually centralize rule over military commanders before the war is over. By contrast, the Taliban is bringing its decentralized military forces into the corridors of power.
The Taliban faces the task of transforming its loosely integrated guerrilla forces into a loyal and effective state military. While a counterrevolutionary struggle in the Panjshir Valley could unify the Taliban, internal fissures within the factionalized armed forces seem likely to pose immediate obstacles to regime stability.
Adam E. Casey is a research fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan.
Dan Slater is director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan and a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Jean Lachapelle is an assistant professor at the department of political science at the University of Oslo.
The three authors are writing a book on the sources of military political power in the postcolonial world.