Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

War, War, War: A look at which AAN reports you were reading in 2021

Kate Clark 7 min

AAN publications in 2021 were dominated by our efforts to understand the conflict and the failing peace process. More than 40 per cent of our reports last year dealt with war and peace. For our readers, the subject was even more important: among our most-read reports, more than 70 per cent focussed on the conflict. AAN saw a surge in readership over the summer and into early autumn, as the world was gripped by the sudden, total collapse of the Republic and the Taleban’s re-capture of power. Kate Clark has been taking a closer look at what you were reading in 2021, in English and in Dari and Pashto, and also reveals some of our research plans for 2022. As well, the AAN team takes this opportunity to send wishes to all our readers for a more peaceful new year.

Head of the Culture Department in Ghazni, Mullah Habibullah Mujahid stands with toher Taleban next to a section of a wall of a former US military base with the names of US soldiers in Ghazni. Photo Hector Retamal/AFP, 15 November 2021Head of the Culture Department in Ghazni Mullah Habibullah Mujahed stands with other Taleban next to a section of a wall of a former US military base in Ghazni that features the names of American soldiers. Photo Hector Retamal/AFP, 15 November 2021

2021 saw the end of twenty years of foreign military presence in Afghanistan and sudden, dramatic regime change. AAN reporting, and even more so, AAN readers’ interest, was not surprisingly dominated by ‘war and peace’. This is one of eight categories that we aim to report on at AAN. They are:

  • War and Peace
  • Economy, Development and the Environment
  • Culture and Context
  • Political Landscape
  • Rights and Freedoms
  • Regional Relations
  • International Engagement
  • Migration

As the table below shows, analysis of the conflict dominated our publications and our readers’ interest in 2021. Within this category were a number of reports delving into the ‘peace process’ and how the United States-Taleban February 2020 deal played out in the end as little more than a withdrawal agreement. We reported on Taleban advances and the collapse of the republic – vividly mapped by cartographer Roger Helms – and on the harm done to civilians in the conflict.

AAN reports published in 2021 by category

Within this category were also reports on the Taleban’s early days in power and a special report on rural women’s views on peace and war. It revealed how closely their concerns matched women’s rights activists, a desire for education for their children, sons and daughters, greater freedom of movement and active roles within their communities and families. It was an important report to publish on what turned out to be the eve of the Taleban’s takeover, given how controversial their views on women are.

Economy, Development and the Environment was our next most-published category, with three important reports about the damage being wrought by global warming, including how Afghanistan’s glaciers, so critical for supplying people with water for drinking and irrigation, are shrinking, thinning and retreating. Three reports delved into the chaos and corruption at the heart of the Republic and four reports published since August uncovered the economic collapse that fell hard on the heels of the Taleban’s military victory.

Most of the fifteen most-read reports in 2021 concerned current events, but the list also featured three were written in earlier years which have proved to have enduring appeal. They concerned the origins of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, (ISKP), the practice of paying a ‘bride price’ and a cultural history of cannabis production.

Also worth noting is what subjects were squeezed out in 2021 by the urgent need to publish on the war and the economy. We wrote relatively little, compared with earlier years, on Culture and Context, the category which covers Afghan history, its wildlife, culture and pastimes and also how film, literature and academic writing portrays Afghans to the wider world. Few reports fell into the Political Landscape category and none into Migration or International Engagement. This did not mean these topics did not feature, but they often folded into other categories. Several reports, for example, that were partly concerned with donor policies were categorised under Economy, not International Engagement, while out-migration has also featured in much of our recent economic research. Reports looking at the early days of Taleban rule were categorised as War and Peace, but could also have been Political Landscape.

Map by Roger Helms based on research by Roger and the AAN team

A full, PDF version of this map can be viewed here:

Surveys of our most-read reports in earlier years can also be read: 2020, 2019, 2018 and 2017.

Our most-read reports in Dari and Pashto in 2021 were, as in previous years, dominated by publications from previous years. The most-read report was from 2019 and looked at whether Afghan women should be called by their given names outside the family: for many Afghans, women having a public ‘face’ in the world is shameful; for others, it is fundamental to women being able to enjoy their rights. Related to this topic, another of our most-read reports in Dari and Pashto, from the same year, dealt with the demand by Afghan women for ‘meaningfully participation’ in peace talks.

The events of the summer disrupted AAN’s work as they did everyone else’s. However, we managed to keep going. Indeed, we published more reports in August than in any other month. AAN readership soared, with more than 200,000 page views of our website in August alone, and with more readers coming to AAN in 2021 than in any previous year. We hope our evidence-based reporting and analysis contributed to making sense of the dramatic events of 2021. As ever, our aim is to be bi-taraf – impartial – but never bi-tafawut – indifferent – to what is happening in Afghanistan.

As 2022 begins, we already have research plans in place, including two ongoing projects.

‘Living with the Taleban’ was launched before the fall of Kabul and was an extension of earlier research which sought to understand what life is like for people living in areas under Taleban control (read the earlier research from December 2018 to January 2021 brought together in this dossier). This project has so far produced one published report, eye-witness accounts of how district centres and then provincial capitals fell to the Taleban. More is to come.

A second research project, ‘Living in a Collapsed Economy’, again based on interviews with Afghans across the country, maps how people are coping – or failing to cope – with the economic catastrophe that has befallen the country so terrifyingly since August. This research has generated two reports so far, Living in a Collapsed Economy (1): A cook, a labourer, a migrant worker, a small trader and a factory owner tell us what their lives look like now and Living in a Collapsed Economy (2): Even the people who still have money are struggling. Again, there is more to come.

It seems inevitable that the economy will loom large in our publications in 2022, given how dire the situation is. We will be trying to understand the interplay of government revenues, state spending, aid, the effect of sanctions and of Taleban and donor policies. Research will continue to be two-pronged, looking at the national, macro-level, and at the level of the household or local community. Out-migration seems likely to feature in our reporting, either as a stand-alone topic or as part of the wider analysis.

We will also be mapping the trends and developments within the Taleban administration, including their developing policies towards women and girls, the media and freedom of expression, the economy, and the outside world. Compared to previous years, we expect – and hope – that war and peace will feature less as a dominating theme in our publications, while we will continue to report on the unfolding security situation and on human rights.

None of the regimes of the last forty years have been able to achieve long-lasting stability, peace, and independence from external actors. Our last report of 2021 looked at the prospects for the new Taleban administration in the light of this history: What do earlier regime changes have to say about its comparative advantages and the risks it faces to surviving and prospering? AAN hopes to bring a steady eye to reporting on events and dynamics within the Taleban’s second Emirate, as the new year unfolds.

AAN’s 15 most-read reports in English in 2021

1 Is This How It Ends? With the Taleban closing in on Kabul, President Ghani faces tough decisions

Martine van Bijlert, 15 August 2021

2 The Khalid Payenda Interview (1): An insider’s view of politicking, graft and the fall of the Republic

Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour, 27 September 2021

3 The Taleban’s rise to power: As the US prepared for peace, the Taleban prepared for war

Kate Clark, 21 August 2021

4 The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How it began and where it stands now in Nangarhar

Borhan Osman, 27 July 2016

5 A Quarter of Afghanistan’s Districts Fall to the Taleban amid Calls for a ‘Second Resistance’

Kate Clark and Obaid Ali, 2 July 2021

6 The Bride Price: The Afghan tradition of paying for wives

Fazl Rahman Muzhary, 25 October 2016

7 The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (1): A cultural history of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Afghanistan

Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica, 7 January 2019

8 Afghanistan Has a New Government: The country wonders what the new normal will look like

Martine van Bijlert, 17 August 2021

9 Afghanistan’s looming economic catastrophe: What next for the Taleban and the donors?

6 September 2021, Hannah Duncan and Kate Clark

10 New special report: ‘Between Hope and Fear. Rural Afghan women talk about peace and war’

Martine van Bijlert and the AAN Team, 6 July 2021

11 The Domino Effect in Paktia and the Fall of Zurmat: A case study of the Taleban surrounding Afghan cities

Thomas Ruttig and Sayed Asadullah Sadat, 14 August 2021

12 The Moment in Between: After the Americans, before the new regime

Martine van Bijlert, 1 September 2021

13 The Focus of the Taleban’s New Government: Internal cohesion, external dominance

Martine van Bijlert, 12 September 2021

14 Menace, Negotiation, Attack: The Taleban take more District Centres across Afghanistan

Kate Clark and the AAN Team, 16 July 2021

15 The Taleban leadership converges on Kabul as remnants of the republic reposition themselves

Martine van Bijlert, 19 August 2021

AAN’s 5 most-read reports in Dari and Pashto in 2021

(URLs given also for the English version of each report)

1 What’s in a Woman’s Name? No name, no public persona

Ruhollah Soroush, 10 April 2019

What’s in a Woman’s Name? No name, no public persona
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2 Afghan Exodus: The re-emergence of smugglers along the Balkan route

Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica, 2 December 2016

Afghan Exodus: The re-emergence of smugglers along the Balkan route
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3 A new Afghan Shia Leader: Return to quietism versus political Islam?

Qayyum Soroush, 11 May 2014

A new Afghan Shia Leader: Return to quietism versus political Islam?
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4 Women and Afghan Peace Talks: ‘Peace consensus’ gathering left Afghan women without reassurance

Thomas Ruttig, 28 April 2019

Women and Afghan Peace Talks: ‘Peace consensus’ gathering left Afghan women without reassurance
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5 What Other Peace Processes Can Teach Afghanistan (1): Colombia’s agreement with FARC

Martine van Bijlert, 23 January 2019

What Other Peace Processes Can Teach Afghanistan (1): Colombia’s agreement with FARC
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