The narrow base from which the Taliban draws its leaders, coupled with the tendency toward oligopoly among its opponents, helps explain why Afghanistan’s leaders have hardly changed over the past two decades.
What do 50 years of conflict combined with two foreign occupations mean for a country’s governance? When Afghan prince and former prime minister Daud Khan seized power and abolished the monarchy in 1973, he unwittingly paved the way for a half-century of conflict in his country. Since then the Afghan capital has been forcibly captured on no less than seven occasions. The most recent example was the relatively quiet Taliban takeover of summer 2021.
This period has been marked by stark factionalism and often cynical power games. This context partly explains the closed Taliban aversion to multiparty politics and the relatively narrow sociopolitical base from which they have drawn their leaders.
Both this narrow base in the Taliban’s leadership and the tendency toward oligopoly among their opponents explains why, over a generation of fighting and political upheaval, the names and faces of Afghanistan’s leaders have hardly changed.
When the outgoing Americans suddenly evacuated Bagram at the start of summer 2021, it was a shocking blow to the government they had installed 20 years earlier. Commanding the strategic plain north of Kabul, the Soviet-built airbase had become a charred battlefield frontline through the 1990s. Refurbished after the United States’ invasion, it had served both as headquarters and a symbol of their occupation. It was also a breeding ground for potential Afghan military leaders.
Bismillah Muhammadi, an army officer-turned-guerrilla-commander from the Panjshir valley, knew Bagram well. After his Jamiat party seized Kabul from their mujahideen rivals in 1992, he was given command of the airbase. When his troops advanced under American cover into Kabul nine years later, Bagram was once more a key waystop to the capital. There, a skeleton Taliban garrison led by Sadar Ibrahim, which was battered by land and air, quickly folded.
In the ensuing years, Muhammadi served first as army commander, then interior minister, and finally defence minister. He held those titles when Kabul fell in 2021. Then, cursing the sudden evacuation of Ashraf Ghani, he escaped to mount a putative and short-lived resistance in his native Panjshir.
Ibrahim, who had served as Bagram commandant for the Taliban’s so-called emirate from the late 1990s, would follow a similar trajectory in the Taliban movement. By the 2010s he had been charged with their military command, and he now serves as second-in-command in the interior ministry.
Taliban leaders experienced similar trajectories in 2001. Today close confidants of Taliban founder Omar Mujahid continue to occupy the key roles in the movement that they did when the so-called emirate was first ousted. Among them was Abdul-Jabbar Omari, who was Omar Mujahid’s clan-mate and confidante. A provincial governor in the first “emirate,” Omari drove Mujahid to safety in his home province after Kandahar’s downfall. Ever since, Omari has been one of only a handful of people to interact with the Taliban leader. Today, he governs Ghazni, whose abrupt Taliban takeover this summer played a key role in the government’s collapse.
Taliban deputy prime minister Abdul-Ghani Baradar is a more prominent friend of Mujahid and also played a key role in both 2001 and 2021. In 2001 he served as military second-in-command at two of the major battlefronts.
At the northeast stronghold of Kunduz, a battlefield injury proved a blessing in disguise for Baradar. He was one of the few Taliban commanders fortunate enough to escape the fickle mercy of militia leader Abdul-Rashid Dostum. He then led the garrison in the Taliban-controlled Kandahar. Finally, after overtures to Hamid Karzai were rejected at the orders of Donald Rumsfeld, Baradar slipped back to the maquis.
Baradar subsequently helped rebuild the movement into an effective insurgency, and, after a long stint in Pakistani prison, reemerged as its primary political negotiator in the late 2010s.
Another Taliban-linked officer from Kunduz who was less lucky was Abdul-Qayum Zakir. He was turned over to the United States by Afghan army commander Abdul Rashid Dostum. However, he managed to bluff his way from Guantanamo back into Afghan custody. Then, in 2007, Karzai, released Zakir in a botched attempt to convince his brother, also a Taliban fighter, to switch sides.
Instead, Zakir led the Taliban campaign against the international coalition’s surge of 2010. He did the same a decade later in Kabul, where he now serves as second-in-command to Omar Mujahid’s son, defence minister Yaqub Mujahid.
Other Taliban leaders from 2001 basically play the same roles today. This includes Prime Minister Muhammad Abdul-Kabir and spymaster Tajmir Jawad, both of whom hail from the Afghan east. But if Taliban leaders look familiar, they can at least claim to have paid a price for their political longevity: most have endured personal privation and long stints in prison or the battlefield.
The same can’t be said for opponents like army commander Dostum. A battle-hardened and personally brave commander, he nevertheless profited from the American occupation the same way he once did with the Soviets. The sheer luxury of his palace astounded the Taliban fighters who occupied it after his flight this summer.
Fundamentally, the Afghan order under the US - which was synonymous with inclusivity - depended on maintaining balance between oligarchs. They also had to split the pie among a ruling class constantly rotating in and out of power, often according to regionalism. Beneficiaries included Ata Noor and Muhammad Mohaqiq in the north and Abdurrabb Sayyaf at Kabul. This autumn a number of them announced their latest opposition project as a “resistance front”.
Other powerful rivals of the "emirate" – Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Abdul-Zahir Arsala in the east, Gul-Agha Sherzai in the south, and Ismail Khan at the west – would become disillusioned with the post-2001 order, and eventually cooperate with the emirate’s takeover. One notable opponent of both the Taliban and their successors – Hizb emir Gulbadin Hikmatyar, whose opposition to his Afghan rivals was outmatched by his opposition to the United States – shared the Taliban aversion to power-sharing.
Yet whether it was the exclusivism of Taliban and Hizb or the power-sharing of their rivals, the fact was that decades of war have produced successive cycles of recurrent Afghan leadership that look eerily familiar. The more things change, the more they appear to stay the same.
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