For years, the U.S. military pursued a "divide and defeat" strategy against the Afghan Taliban, attempting to exploit the supposedly fragmented nature of the group. Drawing on the academic literature on insurgency, civil war, and negotiated peace, this report finds that the Taliban is a far more cohesive organization than a fragmented one. Moreover, Taliban cohesion may bode well for enforcing the terms of its February 29 agreement with the United States, and any eventual settlement arising from intra-Afghan negotiations.

A soldier walks among a group of alleged Taliban fighters at a National Directorate of Security facility in Faizabad in September 2019. The status of prisoners will be a critical issue in future negotiations with the Taliban. (Jim Huylebroek/New York Times)
A soldier walks among a group of alleged Taliban fighters at a National Directorate of Security facility in Faizabad, September 2019. The status of prisoners will be a critical issue in future negotiations with the Taliban. (Jim Huylebroek/New York Times)

Summary

The U.S. and Afghan governments have, at various times, intentionally pursued strategies of “divide and defeat” in an attempt to fragment and weaken the Taliban. These approaches have proved ineffective and, as long as peace efforts are being pursued, should be discontinued. Contrary to lingering narratives from earlier eras of the Afghan conflict, the Taliban today are a relatively cohesive insurgent group and are unlikely to fragment in the near term. This has not happened by accident: the Taliban’s leadership has consistently, at times ruthlessly, worked to retain and strengthen its organizational cohesion. To this day, the group is unwilling to cross internal “red lines” that might threaten that cohesion.

The literature on insurgency and negotiated peace suggests that only cohesive movements are capable of following through and enforcing peace agreements. Many of the feared scenarios of Taliban fragmentation, including the defection of “hard-liners” or mass recruitment by the Islamic State, do not correspond to current realities on the ground. Fragmentation of the Taliban is not impossible, and the group is certainly far from monolithic, but ideological rifts are not a sufficient explanation of why this has taken place in the past—or might again.

By studying what makes the Taliban cohesive and what has caused instances of its fragmentation, all parties invested in an Afghan peace process might be better equipped to negotiate with the Taliban under terms the movement would be willing to accept, even if it has not defined those terms publicly.

About the Report

This report examines the phenomenon of insurgent fragmentation within Afghanistan’s Taliban and implications for the Afghan peace process. This study, which the author undertook as an independent researcher supported by the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace, is based on a survey of the academic literature on insurgency, civil war, and negotiated peace, as well as on interviews the author conducted in Afghanistan in 2019 and 2020.

About the Author

Andrew Watkins has worked in more than ten provinces of Afghanistan, most recently as a political affairs officer with the United Nations. He has also worked as an independent researcher, a conflict analyst and adviser to the humanitarian community, and a liaison based with Afghan security forces.

Related Publications

Even After Withdrawal, U.S. Retains Leverage Over Taliban

Even After Withdrawal, U.S. Retains Leverage Over Taliban

Thursday, April 29, 2021

By: Karen Decker

President Biden’s announcement that U.S. troops would withdraw by September 11 has many Afghans and observers warning of a quick collapse of the Afghan state and a new phase in the country’s civil war. Without minimizing the challenges ahead, the United States should avoid any self-fulfilling prophecy of imminent collapse by insisting that the only future for Afghanistan is one that advances the gains of the past 20 years. As troops begin to depart, it is an opportune time to examine three forms of leverage the United States has to promote a political settlement.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Democracy Is the Afghan Government’s Best Defense Against the Taliban

Democracy Is the Afghan Government’s Best Defense Against the Taliban

Thursday, April 22, 2021

By: Scott Worden; Belquis Ahmadi

The Biden administration’s announcement last week that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by September 11 came as a blow to the current peace talks and many Afghan citizens who appreciate the rights and freedoms that international forces have helped to defend against the Taliban. Still, President Biden made clear that the United States continues to support the Afghan government and democratic system, and, to that end, the administration has indicated it would request $300 million from Congress in additional civilian aid. But Biden explicitly de-linked U.S. troops from that equation — stating that they would not be “a bargaining chip between warring parties.”

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes; Gender; Democracy & Governance

U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan: End to an Endless War?

U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan: End to an Endless War?

Thursday, April 15, 2021

By: Scott Worden; Johnny Walsh; Belquis Ahmadi; Ambassador Richard Olson

President Joe Biden formally announced on Wednesday that the United States will withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks that led to the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban. The decision comes a month after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looked to jump-start the moribund intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar with a sweeping set of proposals. Although the withdrawal would mean an end to America’s longest war, the implications for Afghanistan’s hard-won progress are immense and many fear the possibility of a rejuvenated civil war after U.S. troops leave.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

The Current Situation in Afghanistan

The Current Situation in Afghanistan

Thursday, March 25, 2021

In February 2020 the U.S. and the Taliban signed an agreement that paved the way for the first direct talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan republic since 2001. This nascent peace process has sparked hope for a political settlement to the four-decade-long conflict, although slow progress and increasing levels of violence threaten to derail the process before it gains momentum.

Type: Fact Sheet

View All Publications