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The Theory of the Partisan catches up with the Taliban

Foto: John Smith 2021, Shutterstock

(iz). The writings of the constitutional jurist Carl Schmitt, who was ostracised because of his proximity to National Socialism, examine modern models of social and political order. Works like Nomos of the Earth, The Concept of the Political and Theory of the Partisan are still cited in elucidation of geopolitical events. In the last of these three books, published in 1962, he examines the global political significance of the partisan.

In his treatise, Schmitt describes the old paradox that relatively small partisan groups can tie up large numbers of regular troops by exploiting conditions on the ground. Afghanistan and the victory of the Taliban demonstrate the continued relevance of Schmitt’s theory. In it, four criteria reveal the characteristics particular to such fighters: irregularity, increased mobility, intensity of political engagement and a telluric orientation.

The Taliban’s partisan tactics explain their startling success. Their religious (=“medieval”) convictions, while they do not fully explain the intensity of their struggle, certainly colour it. Their latest generation materiel, they capacity for total warfare and their will-to-power regardless of losses mark them out as the offspring of modernity. It remains to be seen whether they will find a formal language that enables some kind of realpolitik.

After decades of grinding conflict, peace has to be everyone’s primary goal. And the West might find a way to resolve some of its own contradictions in the process. The irregularity of fighting the Taliban has seduced America into a strategy of air strikes and drones whose defensibility is rightly debated: think only of the civilian casualties. On the ground, the Western coalition was never able to bring lasting peace to the country.

Now we will see whether the Taliban can transcend their status as fighting criminals and become a force for law and order. Up to now, the Western value system has refused to bestow any value on them whatsoever. China and Russia seem prepared to make concessions. In actual fact, so too are the Americans, by effectively legitimising them through secret negotiations.

There is a passage in The Theory of the Partisan that offers some hope for a good outcome in the region, at least from a global political perspective. According to Schmitt, the partisan has a real enemy, but not an absolute one. He claims that the telluric character of the irregular fighter, who defends the piece of land from which he stems, induces him to delimit his enemy in relative terms. And if a peace agreement can be reached at all, it is, he says, only because former combatants do not make their hostility absolute.

In contrast to the pragmatism of the Taliban, the nature of the IS terrorists is clear. They are groups who fight just as irregularly, but do not have similar political motives. They merely spread their religiously transfigured nihilism globally. These criminals’ will to destroy is by its nature absolute; their goal is chaos; while the Taliban – rhetorically at least – are establishing some semblance of order in Kabul within the framework of a local legal system. In Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt defines the real essence of nihilism as the separation of order and location, a definition which the Americans themselves are unable to escape: think secret camps and law-free zones in and near Afghanistan and at Guantanamo.

Even the most cautious appraisal of the Taliban’s actual ambitions will admit that they are not, for the moment at least, striving to spawn some kind of global power system. Ironically, it may even be that the new Kabul regime, of all people, end up participating in the international war against terrorism, if only to shore up their local power. In this respect at least, and from the point of view of Europe’s security interests, this would be a step forward and a curb on the production of new terrorists.

Their proclamation of an “emirate” based on a sovereign nation reflects their hope of leaving behind their own irregularity. They would not be the first fighters in history to successfully become politicians. But they will not easily shake off the ghosts they have created. New groups of partisans opposed to them are already forming in the Hindu Kush. Partisans are usually helped by outside forces, so we will have to look closely to see which forces are supporting these particular groups. 

Taliban troops will soon have to don official uniforms to distinguish themselves from other partisans. And they will no longer be able to operate from the shelter of the mountains and darkness. Their governmental actions will be loudly amplified and widely broadcast – and perhaps distorted – by social media. Their sovereignty will be limited. They do not control their own airspace and they will presumably remain dependent on access to international financial systems, without which no state is able to rule today. As it stands, the Afghans do not even have access to the resources of their own national bank, whose money is stored in the United States.

America’s withdrawal from the region, and the Taliban’s stated intention to live in peace with the world, are likely to create a vacuum, into which will swiftly rush the intense friend-foe definitions of domestic Afghan politics. Political dynamics have so far been shaped only by the definition of enemies. If that remains the case, civil war will come as no surprise. How the Taliban deals with minorities, women and ethnic groups will be a measure of their capacity for peace. 

Tuisa Hilft - Kurban

Their own claim to bringing an “Islamic” order will also be put to the test. To date, no religious state in the modern era has achieved that in the field of economics and business law. It is very possible that the Taliban, like others before them, will merely add the adjective “Islamic” to the main economic and social institutions of the Western state, then manifest their religious aspirations exclusively through the imposition of a rigid system of control and morality upon their own impoverished populace. One thing is for sure though: peace will not come without real justice.