Review of Ahmad Shuja Jamal and William Maley, The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan (London: Hurst and Co., 2023).
Munich, Germany (Special to Informed Comment) – The Republic of Afghanistan unraveled quickly after May 2021 when US-led foreign troops prepared to abandon the country. This defied the forecasts of most experts on the capacity of the Afghan government to resist the Taliban offensives, which proved over-optimistic. Nevertheless, if past is prologue, the sudden collapse of the Afghan Republic should not have appeared so far-fetched. Ahmad Shuja Jamal and William Maley argue so in their recently published book “The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan”. As the authors explain, both the downfall of the Communist regime in 1992 and the Taliban regime in 2001 proceeded at a remarkable speed. With this historical background in mind, the events of August 2021 in Afghanistan are less surprising.
Ahmad Shuja Jamal was the director-general for international relations on Kabul’s National Security Council from 2019 to 2021 and is now a Special Advisor to the Refugee Council of Australia. William Maley is a scholar on Afghanistan and Emeritus Professor of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. In writing their book, the authors were able to rely on their previous scholarly research, interviews with high-ranking personalities of the former Afghan government, and Jamal’s personal experience on the ground until the final collapse of Republican Afghanistan.
“The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan” has a distinct style. There is something very positive to be said about the authors’ efforts to de-essentialize the analysis of Afghan politics and history by drawing comparisons with other countries and time periods. Jamal and Maley also introduce general political science literature (authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, or Max Weber) to clarify their arguments about Afghanistan. Often enough, however, the digressions from the main topic are long and frequent to the point that the reader might lose track of the main narrative.
The authors discuss some of the key problems that afflicted Afghanistan during the two decades that followed the Taliban overthrow in 2001. The new republic, they remark, suffered from a lack of legitimacy derived from a highly centralized state structure, competition between different government agencies, and the patrimonial dynamics that led ministers to benefit their supporters in exchange for loyalty. The state courts suffered from corruption and long delays. In this sense, Afghanistan scholar Ashley Jackson has aptly remarked that justice provision by the Taliban insurgency in the areas where they gained control allowed them “to capitalise on the government’s weaknesses.”
Jamal and Maley also pay attention to the dependency of the post-2001 governments on foreign aid. This dependent relationship was “a reflection of asymmetries of power” between the international community and Afghanistan. Many of the development projects implemented by foreign donors had a short-term horizon. The results were quick and visible but these projects were hardly the most effective way of deploying economic resources. Foreign donors usually had the upper hand, and the authors note that “only a small proportion of aid contributed to Afghanistan was available to the Afghan government for discretionary spending.”
The Afghan leaders, in turn, were most often not up to the task of rebuilding the country while having to confront a renewed Taliban insurgency. Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan from 2002 to 2014, is described by the authors as someone who excelled “in the realm of politicking” but was highly dependent on others when it came to formulating policy.  Furthermore, he fomented a neopatrimonial system that ultimately weakened the stability of his country. In this respect, Amin Saikal, a Professor at the University of Western Australia, explains that the control of ‘strongmen’ over vast areas of Afghanistan “severely limited Karzai’s writ and made him highly dependent on the goodwill of these figures and on meeting their demands.”
Ashraf Ghani succeeded Karzai and differed from him in the sense that he had a long academic and professional background in public policy. Most of his ideas were never implemented, though. Furthermore, Jamal and Maley contend that Karzai’s confrontational style towards opponents, in addition to his antagonizing personnel management, alienated key actors that could have helped him thwart the Taliban expansion. But perhaps more important than all these particular personal flaws, was the fact that the presidential elections in 2009, 2014, and 2019 were marred by fraud in favor of the winning candidate.
The authors are highly critical of US policy towards Afghanistan, especially during the Trump and Biden administrations. They write that the 2020 Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban “lit the fuse, with President Biden’s 14 April 2021 endorsement of a time-based rather than conditions-based withdrawal adding vast amounts of fuel to the flames.” Some of the criticism leveled in “The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan” is indeed well-deserved. For instance, the US reluctance to confront Pakistan for the support its army – or sections thereof – provided to the Taliban had devastating consequences.
Moreover, the hope entertained by some US officials and Afghanistan experts that the Taliban would show a more human face than in the 1990s if they were to reach power has by now been largely disproved. The Taliban have largely avoided the gruesome public executions from the past and the general level of violence in the country has significantly decreased since the armed group’s takeover. Even so, under the Taliban women and religious minorities like the Shia Hazara have seen evaporate their hard-fought gains during the last two decades.
Other arguments put forward by Jamal and Maley regarding the US role in Afghanistan are far less convincing. The authors acknowledge that around 2019 the prospect of achieving a military victory over the Taliban had faded away but argue that the focus should have been on “not losing” [authors’ own italics]. Why? Because “the possibility of parametric shifts in the operating environment can never be discounted.” Jamal and Maley do not provide any example of a possible “parametric shift” in the Afghanistan context. Consequently, one is left wondering whether avoiding defeat would not have entailed keeping US and other countries’ troops in Afghanistan ad perpetuam.
Many readers are also likely to be left unconvinced when the authors contend that the US decision to leave Afghanistan “dispelled any fear in Moscow that the US would take active steps to protect Washington’s friends in Kyiv.” Op-eds arguing that the US’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan emboldened China, and to a lesser extent, Russia, proliferated after the Taliban takeover in Kabul. But neither these opinion articles nor Jamal and Maley’s book, provide a causal explanation connecting what happened in Afghanistan with the presumed outcome. The same lack of clear causation is to be found in an unfortunate sentence at the end of the book. When criticizing Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, the authors write that Biden “was the oldest president in the history of the United States, potentially bringing with him some of the rigidities in thinking that can accompany old age.”
The borders between analysis and opinion in The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan are not always as clearly drawn as they should have been. This notwithstanding, Jamal and Maley’s work is a well-written publication that will contribute to the ongoing and necessary debate about the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and the current situation in the country.
 Jackson, Ashley. Negotiating Survival: Civilian–Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan (London: Hurst and Co., 2021), p. 128.
 Jamal, Ahmad Shuja, and William Maley. The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan (London: Hurst and Co., 2023), p. 63.
 Ibid., p. 59.
 Ibid., p. 112.
 Saikal, Amin. Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), p. 42.
 Ahmad Shuja Jamal and William Maley, The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan, p. 153.
 International Crisis Group. “Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.” (Kabul/Brussels: International Crisis Group, August 12, 2022), p. 2. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/afghanistans-security-challenges-under-taliban.
 Ahmad Shuja Jamal and William Maley, The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan, p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 198.
 Ibid., p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 199-200.