Washington’s foreign policy establishment is usually teeming with analyses of new world leaders. But reports on the Taliban are scarce. Observers are still trying to guess if the group that has now taken over Afghanistan is “worldly and tolerant” or not -- and whether the West can now do anything to influence its behaviour. Eventually the Taliban’s actions will definitively answer that question. But until then, insights from political science can help make predictions.
In 2015, I published a book on why some leaders bring about successful economic reconstruction of their countries and others do not. That research highlights three empirical questions that can clarify how the Taliban are likely to behave and whether the West will have any leverage over the group. Together the answers suggest the United States and its allies have the upper hand -- and that they’re starting to realise how to use it.
Leaders tend to prize political survival over everything else, especially in countries under political and economic stress where the threat of a coup is acute. To consolidate power, leaders need money, and they need it fast. They need to finance patronage networks and military capacity to deter and, if necessary, defeat challengers. They also need to equip their personal security detail lest their military turns against them. Their easiest source of income is revenue from natural resources that are highly profitable and entail minimal labour (oil) or capital (cobalt) to mine.