One would think that a poor, mountainous, and landlocked country like Afghanistan would be isolated from the rest of the world. Afghanistan seems to be almost always part of a bigger story. In the past 200 years or so, it’s been caught up in the middle of a number of major geopolitical events: the Great Game, the Cold War, the War on Terror… It’s never ending for Afghanistan. Not only do Afghans have their own problems and difficulties, but it looks like the great powers of this world are not making it easy on them. The 1990s was probably the one period of time when the rest of the world didn’t care that much. The Soviet Union left Afghanistan and collapsed shortly thereafter, de facto stopping its support to Najibullah’s puppet regime. Once the USSR out of the picture, the U.S. had no more interest in channelling weapons and money to the mujahideen.
The civil war that followed the collapse of Kabul’s pro-communist regime was to be described as typical of the post-cold war era: a new ideology-free kind of war where barbaric, irrational armed factions and greedy “warlords” fought each other for power. The reality of it was of course more complicated than that. What took place in most of Afghanistan in the 1990s was more of a concentration of power than a “coming anarchy.” Armed factions may have been fighting for power in Kabul, but in most of the provinces they were able to provide some sort of goods and services. There is no denying that the so-called “warlords” were violent actors who committed numerous exactions, and that these exactions must be strongly condemned. Yet, they played critical roles in people’s access to the political arena and economic opportunities, and sometimes even acted as the principal suppliers of governance to people in the areas they controlled. They can therefore be conceived of as proto state-builders using violence to establish their unquestioned authority in a given territory. In that sense, they resemble Europeans state-builders.
What was going on in Kabul, on the other hand, hardly qualifies as state-building. The mujahideen government—maybe more accurately described as a Jamiat-e Islami government—never managed to establish its monopoly of the legitimate use of force. The different factions kept fighting and never agreed on the “idea of the state.” Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, then Prime Minister of Afghanistan, even fought the government from “within” the state. Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud may have been nominally in charge, but they never exercised the slightest empirical sovereignty. It seems paradoxical that proto state-building was taking place in the provinces at the same time factions were fighting to control the capital, supposedly the heart of state power. The provinces became stronger and more autonomous whereas the center became weaker and weaker. What took place in Afghanistan in the 1990s was maybe more a process of “mini empire-building” than state-building. At least until the Taliban took over.
What’s especially interesting with the Taliban (besides the regime’s oddity), is the fact that they may actually have been the most successful state-builders in a while in Afghanistan. Not so much in terms of institution-building, but at least in monopolizing the means of coercion. In that sense, they exercised much more empirical sovereignty than the mujahideen government did. Yet, their regime gained diplomatic recognition (external sovereignty) from only three countries (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). If international recognition is not about who is exercising de facto sovereignty, one can only wonder what it’s all about. It is sometimes denied to elites who grab power using illegitimate means. But the means used by the Taliban were no different from the ones used by the mujahideen. International recognition might also be denied to elites whose values are not in line with the ones the international community considers “universal.” It seems to be the main reason the Taliban were never recognised as the official representatives of the Afghan state. Yet, their values didn’t seem to bother the international community that much until 09/11. Just enough to deny a UN seat, but not enough for regime change.
Standing by UBL after the attacks on NYC and Washington DC was one step too far. The Taliban broke the rules one too many times. In the end, becoming (and being) a legitimate member of the international system might just be about playing by the rules of that so-called system. It really depends on what the interests of the main international powers are at a given time. This is pretty much what we see in the news today, between the “good” Egyptian military coup and the support to Syrian armed factions. Overall, Krasner is probably right: sovereignty might just be “organized hypocrisy.”