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Warlords, Religious Leaders, Insurgents: Three external publications

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

Read an overview about three recent external publications of AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig, in the German magazines Orient and INAMO and for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London.

In an article for the quarterly INAMO, a journal run by the Berlin-based Information Project Near and Middle East, Thomas Ruttig has looked at the phenomenon of “warlords” and their historical context and evolution in Afghanistan. He puts the term in quotation marks as – according to his analysis – the number of warlords was very low and their rule limited to a few years. Afghan warlords were a result of armed conflict that broke out in the 1970s. After the ten years of Soviet occupation and the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin stopping support for the regime of President Najibullah (1986-92), a coalition of mujahedin parties took over power in 1992 but their internal quarreling led to a round of inter-factional wars. The country split into fiefdoms controlled by armed factions who formed quickly changing alliances. Warlord rule was ended in 1996 by the victory of the Taleban movement. Most of the former warlords fled the country and only returned as allies of the Western forces who ended the Taleban regime. Today, these former warlords are deeply anchored in Afghanistan’s political, economic and security architecture.

The article is in German. Full text here.

Thomas Ruttig: „Die an den Hebeln sitzen. Genese und Zukunft der ‚Warlords’ in Afghanistans neuer Oligarchie“. In: INAMO, Heft Nr. 78, Jahrgang 20, Sommer 2014 (print only; order a copy here:


For the London-based Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Thomas Ruttig analysed the relationship between Islamic religion and politics in Afghanistan through the phases of internal conflict over modernisation and armed conflict, starting with the 1970s. He starts with the analysis that Afghan society, before the Soviet occupation, was religiously conservative, with liberal urban enclaves and few Islamist influences. Throughout the 20th century, however, repeated top-down and violently enforced modernisation by various Afghan governments provoked armed resistance from conservative tribal actors and the Islamic clergy strengthened the Afghan Islamists and made them a key political factor. They took over the leadership of the anti-Soviet resistance, supported by the West, Arab regimes and foreign extremists.

The armed struggle changed the make-up of national elites; simultaneously, the wars resulted in a conservative religious and social backlash. The role of religion became more prominent, as a tool of self-identification against foreign occupiers, and the religious clergy increasingly took up political and ideological leadership roles. Later, under the Taliban, the mullahs became the ‘transmission belts’ of government rule, being the eyes and the ears of the regime. Today, Afghanistan’s political sphere is dominated by a group of surviving mujahedin leaders – now calling themselves ‘jihadi leaders’ whose role, also based on increasing economic power, comes close to a monopoly of power.

Thomas Ruttig, Situation Report: Religion in Afghanistan. Tony Blair Faith Foundation, London 2014.

Go to the full text here.


For the academic magazine Orient, Thomas Ruttig, in co-authorship with AAN author Philip Münch, now at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin, looked at recent developments in the two main groups of the Afghan insurgent movement – the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami’s armed wing –, its internal organisation, modus operandi and position towards a political solution. The authors conclude that, given the assurances of continued international support and ANSF progress, the short-term chance for an all-out military victory of the Taleban is comparatively small. With this prospect, they might still be persuaded to talk – although Taleban hawks will use any post-2014 foreign military presence as an argument to continue the insurgency. It needs to be considered that, against claims to the opposite, the movement is more than just an externally manipulated terrorist outlet. Its local networks are not interested in a further destruction of the country, but they will also not accept any solution that does not consider their interests, and honour, and continues to treat them as a minor conflict party that has either the choice to lay down arms and join the legitimate government or be defeated.

The calculation so far in international diplomatic circles to create a pro-talks dynamic within the Taleban movement by starting negotiations has failed so far, as there are no negotiations. First, it was driven by the US interest to withdraw its troops and create a conducive environment for talks, without sufficiently taking conditions on the ground into consideration. Secondly, it excluded the Kabul government, making it hostile to initiatives it did not lead. Thirdly, both the US and Kabul’s approach was not inclusive enough, as they reduced “reconciliation” to talk with the Taleban without grounding it on a genuine Afghan societal consensus. Although the timeframe for ending the insurgency by peaceful means has shrunken further – with 30 more months of a US troop presence (and political attention guaranteed by that) – the door to negotiations can still be opened within this window.

The international community needs to understand that such a process – with its multi- faceted internal and regional dimensions – will be so multi-layered that it probably needs much more time than just three years. The ground work to prepare for such a long process, which will have no guarantee of success, needs to be done now, starting with efforts to end the war and relieve the burden of bloodshed and destruction from the Afghan population and, simultaneously, prepare mechanisms and the agenda for a broader Afghan societal debate about how Afghanistan’s political system should look like in the mid-term. A simple power-sharing deal with the Taleban – without keeping up the so far embryonic, unsustainable and instable social systems and political institutions that emerged after 2001 and deep-reaching reforms of the partially dysfunctional current system – would leave Afghanistan in the same environment that created each of the armed conflicts since 1975, only with a different set of actors in power. (The article is in English.)

Philipp Münch and Thomas Ruttig, “Between Negotiations and Ongoing Resistance: The Situation of the Afghan Insurgency”, in: OrientIII/2014, pp 25-41 (print only).

The full text of the article is available in Philipp Münch’s profile on the SWP website, here.


Insurgency conflict reconciliation Islam jihadi leaders Warlords