Even among smart dissident types, the default explanation for the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is basically just “grit” and “sticktuitiveness” and “giving 110%” (plus maybe “asabiyyah”, which is a $10 dissident word for “teamwork”).
But if that was the secret sauce, it doesn’t explain why ISIS collapsed under comparatively light military pressure, never to return; or why Al Qaeda is basically a dead meme.
Out of the Mountains doesn’t set out to answer that question — it was published in 2013, when Afghanistan was nearly pacified, al Qaeda was still a going concern, and ISIS was the new hotness in Sunni extremism.
In fact, Kilcullen’s thesis is that urbanized, internet-savvy, transnational guerrilla movements will be able to access power flows, and it’s a pretty persuasive thesis — but with a decade of hindsight, it turned out to be the comparatively rural, isolated, local movement that defeated the empire. So what happened?
The short answer is that they auditioned to replace the state across the spectrum of control — including punitive violence, but also the pedestrian tasks of recordkeeping and adjudication and governance. They wove their legitimacy into ordinary people’s water rights, their inheritances, their personal disputes — so that even people who were indifferent to the Taliban’s ideological program became invested in the Taliban’s stability and growth.
This is also, by the way, exactly how the American diplomatic corps conquered the world — by becoming the broker and underwriter of international agreements that even unaligned (or even unfriendly) countries come to depend on. That authority requires global force projection to be credible, of course, but force projection alone is not enough.
In this episode, I explore how non-state groups hide within, and eventually capture, the power flows that make a state a state, and what we can learn from it.