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Who Are the Taliban? | The Nation

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Who Are the Taliban?

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The 'Other' Talibans

About the Author

Anand Gopal
Anand Gopal is the author of the just-published No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the...

Also by the Author

How an American fantasy conflict created disaster in Afghanistan.

Driven by the idée fixe that the world was rigidly divided into terrorist and non-terrorist camps, Washington allied with Afghan warlords and strongmen.

Never short of guns and guerrillas, Afghanistan has proven fertile ground for a host of insurgent groups in addition to the Taliban.

Naqibullah, a student with a sparse beard who spoke in soft, measured tones, was not quite 30 when we met. We were parked in the back seat of a dusty Corolla on a pockmarked road near Kabul University, where he studied medicine. Naqibullah (his nom de guerre) and his friends at the university are members of Hizb-i-Islami, an insurgent group led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and allied with the Taliban. Naqibullah's circle of friends meet regularly in the university's dorms, discussing politics and watching DVDs of recent attacks. Over the past year his circle has shrunk: Sadiq was arrested while attempting a suicide bombing. Wasim was killed when he tried to assemble a bomb at home. Fouad killed himself in a successful suicide attack on a US base. "The Americans have their B-52s," Naqibullah explained. "Suicide attacks are our versions of B-52s." Like his friends, Naqibullah had considered becoming a B-52. "But it would kill too many civilians," he told me. Besides, he had plans to use his education. He said, "I want to teach the uneducated Taliban."

For years Hizb-i-Islami fighters have had a reputation for being more educated and worldly than their Taliban counterparts, who are often illiterate farmers. Their leader, Hekmatyar, studied engineering at Kabul University in the 1970s, where he made a name for himself by hurling acid in the faces of unveiled women. Hekmatyar established Hizb-i-Islami to counter growing Soviet influence, and in the 1980s his organization became one of the most extreme fundamentalist parties as well as the leading mujahedeen group fighting the Soviet occupation. Ruthless, powerful and anti-Communist, Hekmatyar proved a capable ally for Washington, which, along with the Saudis, funneled billions of dollars and tons of weapons through the Pakistani ISI to his forces.

After the Soviet withdrawal, Hekmatyar and the other mujahedeen commanders turned their guns on one another, unleashing a devastating civil war from which Kabul, in particular, has yet to recover. One-legged Afghans, crippled by Hekmatyar's rockets, still roam the city's streets. However, he was unable to capture the capital, and his Pakistani backers eventually abandoned him for a new, even more extreme Islamist force rising in the south: the Taliban.

Most Hizb-i-Islami commanders defected to the Taliban, and Hekmatyar fled in disgrace to Iran, losing much of his support in the process. He remained in such low standing that he was among the few warlords not offered a place in the US-backed government that formed after 2001. This, after a fashion, was his good luck. When that government faltered, he found himself thrust back into the role of insurgent leader, and, playing on local frustrations in Pashtun communities just as the Taliban have done, he slowly resurrected Hizb-i-Islami.

Today the group is one of the fastest-growing insurgent outfits in the country, according to Antonio Giustozzi, Afghan insurgency expert at the London School of Economics. Hizb-i-Islami maintains a strong presence in the provinces near Kabul and in Pashtun pockets in the country's north and northeast. It assisted in a complex assassination attempt on President Karzai this past spring and was behind a high-profile ambush that killed ten NATO soldiers last summer. Its guerrillas fight under the Taliban banner, although independently and with a separate command structure. Like the Taliban, its leaders see their task as restoring Afghan sovereignty as well as establishing an Islamic state in Afghanistan. Naqibullah explained, "The US installed a puppet regime here. It was an affront to Islam, an injustice that all Afghans should rise up against."

The independent Islamic state that Hizb-i-Islami is fighting for would undoubtedly have Hekmatyar, not Mullah Omar, in command. But as during the anti-Soviet jihad, the settling of scores is largely being left to the future.

Living in a World of War

Blowback abounds in Afghanistan. Erstwhile CIA hand Jalaluddin Haqqani heads yet a third insurgent network, this one based in the eastern border regions. During the anti-Soviet war, the United States gave Haqqani, now considered by many to be Washington's most redoubtable foe, millions of dollars, antiaircraft missiles and even tanks. Washington was so enamored of him that former Congressman Charlie Wilson once called him "goodness personified."

Haqqani was an early advocate of the "Afghan Arabs," who in the 1980s flocked to Pakistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union. He ran training camps for them and later developed close ties to Al Qaeda, which developed out of the Afghan Arab networks toward the end of the anti-Soviet war. After 9/11 the United States tried desperately to bring him over to its side, but Haqqani said he couldn't countenance a foreign presence on Afghan soil and once again took up arms, aided by his longtime benefactors in ISI. He is said to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, a tactic unheard of here before 2001. Western intelligence officials pin the blame for most of the spectacular attacks in recent memory--a massive car bomb that ripped apart the Indian embassy in July, for example--on the Haqqani network, not the Taliban.

The Haqqanis command the lion's share of foreign fighters operating in the country and tend to be even more extreme than their Taliban counterparts. Unlike most of the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, elements of the Haqqani network cooperate closely with Al Qaeda. Moreover, foreigners associated with the "Pakistani Taliban"--a completely separate organization that is at war with the Pakistani government--and various Pakistani guerrilla groups that were once active in Kashmir also filter across the border into Afghanistan, adding to a mix that has produced what one Western intelligence official calls a "rainbow coalition" that fights US troops. The foreign connection comes naturally, as the leadership of the three main wings of the insurgency is believed to be based across the border in Pakistan, and all insurgent groups are flush with funds from wealthy Arab donors and benefit from ISI training.

But the Afghan rebellion is mostly a homegrown affair. Foreign fighters, especially Al Qaeda, have little ideological influence on most of the insurgency, and Afghans keep their distance from such outsiders. "Sometimes groups of foreigners speaking different languages walk past," Ghazni resident Fazel Wali recalled. "We never talk to them, and they don't talk to us."

Al Qaeda's vision of global jihad doesn't resonate in the rugged highlands and windswept deserts of southern Afghanistan. Instead, the major concern throughout much of the country is intensely local: personal safety. In a world of endless war, with a predatory government, roving bandits and Hellfire missiles, support goes to those who can bring security. In recent months, one of the most dangerous activities in Afghanistan has also been one of its most celebratory: the large, festive wedding parties that Afghans love so much. American forces bombed such a party in July, killing forty-seven. Then, in November, warplanes hit another wedding party, killing around forty. A couple of weeks later they hit an engagement party, killing three.

"We are starting to think that we shouldn't go out in large numbers or have public weddings," Ghazni resident Abdullah Wali told me. Wali lives in a district of Ghazni where the insurgents have outlawed music and dance at such wedding parties. It's an austere life, but that doesn't stop Wali from wanting the Taliban back in power. Bland weddings, it seems, are better than no weddings at all.

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