Interview with Tariq Basir

 

Tariq Basir is a political economist and former assistant professor at Kabul University who has joined the Afghanistan Project as a research scholar. The Afghanistan Project is an effort by the Center for Governance and Markets at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh to preserve intellectual communities of Afghanistan. This project resettles scholars of Afghanistan to Pittsburgh.  

His work uses tools of economics and game theory, which “incorporates mathematics and formal modeling to explain political processes like democratization and change in regimes.” In addition to his work on the Middle East, he has used these tools to make sense of recent events in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 2021.   

The driving factor behind his research is “to understand political processes in un-democratic regimes [and] what conditions are needed for them to transition into a democracy.”  

Formal models of politics can be used to study any society, he says. Basir uses these tools to study transitions to democracy. Economic theory and formal models explain past outcomes by shedding light into the strategic interactions among important actors.  

“In economic modeling and game theory,” he says, “we have a set of players. The government can be a player, opposition can be another, the public, the citizens - In the context of a game, we can study how the Taliban took over.” In his work, Basir seeks to understand the incentives of these actors.  

For most observers of Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover of the country in August 2021 came as a shock. But for Basir, the takeover was not a surprise.  “Not 100 percent, but predictable,” he says.  

“In 2021, the economic situation [in Afghanistan] was poor - there was a drought, poverty was very high…. And the US had already declared the date that they would withdraw from the country, which created the opportunity for the Taliban to prolong the peace talks and wait for the withdrawal to take over militarily.” 

According to Basir, had the U.S. waited for the peace talks to conclude before withdrawing, the Taliban takeover may not have happened so quickly. From a domestic perspective, the issue of ethnicity became increasingly salient in Afghanistan as the conflict wore on. “Ethnic conflict [was exacerbated by] how the West had affected the political process,” he says. “This can be used to explain the history of Afghanistan and the future as well.” 

The past fifty years have generated enormous instability in Afghanistan. Such frequent change of regimes has had an enormous impact on the lives and livelihoods of the people. This is part of what inspired Basir to pursue his research. 

“I have an interest in politics because in Afghanistan… everyone in some way is affected by politics and tries to have their own explanation of what’s going on. The motivation was in me early to understand the political history of Afghanistan and how it has been shaped. And also to do something about the future…. Unlike other places where everyone is limited to their own specialization, in any meeting [in Afghanistan], there will always be a political discussion – regardless of background – whether it is between an engineer, a doctor, a farmer - the social discourse is real of who will be in power, and who should be in power.”  

Since seizing power, the Taliban has arrested and detained many scholars, making it dangerous for him and other scholars to remain in the country. Basir is certain that it would have been impossible for him to do his research in Afghanistan. “For [academics], to continue our research in Afghanistan was impossible,” Basir says. “It doesn’t matter what your methodology is—whether you are right or wrong-- [knowledge] it is always a threat. Teaching at Kabul University, I couldn’t say what I wanted to say in class.”  

The Taliban have removed, arrested, and even imprisoned any university faculty who criticize the regime. They replaced critical professors with their own adherents, some of whom have little formal education. Basir describes this as an insult to the Afghan academic community: “It was not the type of environment where independent researchers could ever work.”  

Other possible threats restricting the classroom environment are student and teacher informants, monitoring, and reporting whatever is said in a classroom or meeting. “The research itself is not a threat,” says Basir. “But the problem is that we do not have freedom of speech in the country.”  

In most of Afghanistan—particularly in cities—most people see the Taliban as what he calls “outsiders and invader forces.” “Inside Afghanistan, we have resistance forces who are fighting the Taliban, so it shows that the Taliban haven’t [completely] taken over the country,” he says. “They have not won the hearts of the people.” 

Despite hardships, Basir describes how many Afghan scholars are now reconnecting with each other since the collapse of the country. “There are many great [Afghan] scholars in exile,” he says, who are “collaborating on projects to promote civic culture and democratic thinking in a free society. I am very hopeful that some very good scholars--some of whom are also friends here in the Center--can work together to contribute to this common good. And to keep the culture alive. If we can’t go back to the [previous] era, we can keep it alive by working and creating our narratives.”  

“We are hopeful that Afghanistan will see a positive change. The current situation is temporary,” says Basir. “There will be a much brighter future for Afghanistan.”