Back from the Abyss: How the Taliban Resurged After Major Loss

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Haverford College. Department of Political Science
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In 2003, the Taliban in Afghanistan were largely crushed; their attacks were down severely, they lost more than 90% of the land that they held in the 1990s, including all major towns and cities. It appeared the Taliban had become a spent force, but the Taliban recovered; as of 2019, it regrew its manpower, launches attacks frequently, controls 14.5% of the country while contesting another 29.2%. Moreover, in 2020 it secured the United States commitment to withdraw the American forces from Afghanistan without making any significant concession beyond declaring that the country would not be used as a base to launch attacks against America. The case of the Taliban is not unique. Over the years, many armed non-state actors (ANSA) have faced severe decline and catastrophic losses that threatened their survival. Despite this, not every group has folded, and some have even managed to rebound and rebuild, be that in terms of their ground forces, land held, or influence. Why is it then that some armed non-state actors canrecover after major loss while others do not? What explains the resilience of some groups? To explain this variation, I surveyed existing literature to find five hypotheses explaining an ANSAs resurgence. The first is that an ANSA can recover because of a let-up in pressure against them. If the suppressor pulls back, intentionally, or otherwise, then the ANSA will be able to rebuild. Secondly, an ANSA is better able to recover from major loss if it has a safe haven from persecution. If the ANSA can escape to an area beyond the reach of the pursuing force, a resurgence is likely. Third, a decentralized ANSA will be able to recover better than one where power or authority rests in the hands of an individual or a small group of individuals. My fourth hypothesis was that a group could recover if it has popular support: ideational legitimacy, the support of people it claims to represent, etc. Lastly fifth, an ANSA's ability to recover is dependent on its ability to accumulate financial resources. Whether these be by engaging in the "legitimate" economy, illicit activities, or by soliciting donations, groups with financial backing will better be able to resurge. I tested these explanations by doing a case study of the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan. The group's recovery since it was thrown from power in 2001 is evidence ofgreat resilience and resurgence. Indeed, in 2006 the Taliban carried out double as many attacks as in the year before. Similarly, the number of suicide attacks jumped from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2007. Furthermore, the Taliban holds a significant chunk of territory in Afghanistan and competes with the government over far more. Today the group controls about 19% of Afghan districts and contests another 49% of them. Population-wise, 43% of the Afghan population lives in outright central government-controlled areas, 14% lives in outright Taliban-controlled areas, and the remaining 43% lives in the contested districts. As recent negotiations between Taliban leaders and American officials show, after 20 years, they have not been defeated after all. In all, the Taliban provide a fascinating instance of resurgence. I found that the Taliban were able to recover due to a myriad of factors, with the chief being that the United States and the Afghan government completely failed to stop them and that safe haven in Pakistan allowed the group torecover and relaunch. In 2001, the Taliban were absolutely defeated, but not to the point of no return. Instead of complicating any sort of comeback by undermining the group or creating a strong Afghan state, the U.S. became disinterested and failed to centralized power. Given the American role in ejecting the Taliban from power in the first place and destabilizing the Afghan state, this was a major misstep that later impacted other reasons for the group's resurgence. As to Pakistan, the Taliban were able to immediately re-assemble their leadership group in safety across the Afghan border only months after their ejection from the government. From this safe haven, leadership was able to recruit new members, gather resources, and plan offensive in relative peace. These two explanations, ineffective countermeasures and safe haven were paramount to resurgence. However, the group also benefited from strong popular support in the Pashtun community and funding generated largely from the opium trade. This being stated, these two factors were exacerbated by safe haven and the actions taken by the invading forces and the installed Afghan government. The hypothesis that a decentralized actor would be more adept at a resurgence was not supported by this case, as the Taliban were ledby a top-down order composed of members of the old guard during the timeline of their resurgence.