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The Afghan pygmy who turned into a giant

The crisis in Afghanistan is neither simple nor new, shows work by a regular visitor to the troubled country

What do the Taliban want? Can they be defeated? How can peace be brought to Afghanistan?

Trying to answer these questions, and dozens more like them, is the daily work of Antonio Giustozzi, an academic who specialises in the complex power struggles and social networks of a nation which has been at war for the past 30 years.

image of Afghan villageAs Afghanistan becomes the focus of increased military operations for the USA and its allies, the questions of who exactly who they are fighting - and with what chances of success - are shown to be more complex than many people appreciate.

Dr Giustozzi, of LSE's Crisis States Research Centre, explains how new Taliban insurgents went from being seen as a 'minor irritant' in 2006 to almost invincible today: 'A tendency to view the progression of the Neo-Taliban as irresistible has replaced the previous complacency, not only in the international press but even in diplomatic and military circles.'

His analysis of the insurgents finds that they are not especially disciplined, well-trained or capable – with a primitive command structure and patchy support from the local population. As Dr Giustozzi puts it: 'The main strength of the Taliban is the weakness of the opposite side.'

On the other hand, he estimates that the number of active insurgents in the country may be as high as 40,000 - with the Taliban maintaining at least some military presence in all but two or three of Afghanistan's provinces. However, they are not, Dr Giustozzi points out, the unified group that some people assume. While most commanders are loyal to Mullah Omar, the Haqqani faction in the south-east of the country and the Dadullah network in the south are Taliban fighters with a more autonomous outlook and ties to international jihadist groups.

Nor are the Taliban the only insurgents in Afghanistan – the group Hizb-i Islami is a separate faction which has grown stronger and more influential in recent years.

This complex network of alliances and loyalties brings extra difficulty to the business of trying to predict what their aims and strategies might be. Might it be possible for foreign powers and the Kabul government to negotiate with the Taliban?

Dr Giustozzi's analysis is that talks with Mullah Omar and the mainstream Taliban could take place. 'They seem to be thinking in terms of an Afghan settlement, of which the withdrawal of foreign troops would be part', he says. 'Mullah Omar and his followers have maintained an ambiguous position concerning the possibility of negotiations, rejecting them in public, but sending signals of availability in private.'

However he does not rule out the possibility that all this is a ploy and that the Taliban's strategy would be to hold out the prospect of a negotiated deal while planning to manipulate talks with a view to splintering the fragile coalition governing from Kabul.

Dr Giustozzi visits Afghanistan regularly to try and monitor its constantly-shifting contemporary political landscape. However his research also involves analysis of its history – including the formation of the Afghan state in the 19th century. One of his conclusions is that even in Afghanistan's so-called golden era of the 1960s and early 1970s, it was too reliant on external aid and support to create long-term stability. What was hailed then as a modern, bureaucratic state was in fact a façade with little or no substance behind it.

But the true definition of a state, Dr Giustozzi argues, lies not just in its forms of government, economy and bureaucracy but in its set of social relations. Therefore the task of studying a state's power blocs, alliances and coalitions – even those as complex as Afghanistan's – is the only real way to try and understand its past and its future.


Useful links

Antonio Giustozzi's article appears in the special Afghanistan edition of Strategic Update, produced by LSE IDEAS, see The Pygmy who turned into a Giant: The Afghan Taliban in 2009

See the full text of his working paper, Afghanistan: transition without end [PDF]

For full details of Dr Antonio Giustozzi's research and publications see his profile in the LSE Experts Directory: Dr Antonio Giustozzi   

See also Crisis States Research Centre and LSE IDEAS