Who Are the Taliban?
HASAN SARBAKHSHIAN/AP (LEFT); MOHAMMED RIAZ/AP
A longer version of this article is available at Tomdispatch.com.
If there is an exact location marking the West's failures in Afghanistan, it is the modest police checkpoint that sits on the main highway twenty minutes south of Kabul. The post signals the edge of the capital, a city of spectacular tension, of blast walls and standstill traffic. Beyond this point, Kabul's gritty, low-slung buildings and narrow streets give way to a vast plain of serene farmland, hemmed in by sandy mountains. In this valley in Logar province, the American-backed government of Afghanistan no longer exists.
Instead of government officials, men in muddied black turbans with assault rifles slung over their shoulders patrol the highway, checking for thieves and "spies." The charred carcass of a tanker, meant to deliver fuel to international forces farther south, sits belly-up on the roadside. The police say they don't dare enter these districts, especially at night, when the guerrillas rule the roads. In some parts of the country's south and east, these insurgents have even set up their own government, which they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name of the former Taliban government. They mete out justice in makeshift Sharia courts. They settle land disputes between villagers. They dictate the curriculum in schools.
Just three years ago, the central government still controlled the provinces near Kabul. But years of mismanagement, rampant criminality and mounting civilian casualties inflicted by Western forces have led to a spectacular resurgence of the Taliban and related groups. According to Acbar, an umbrella organization representing more than 100 aid agencies, insurgent attacks have increased by 50 percent over the past year. Foreign soldiers are now dying at a higher rate here than in Iraq.
The worsening disaster is prompting the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and international players to speak openly of negotiations with sections of the insurgency. But who exactly are the Afghan insurgents? Every suicide attack and kidnapping is usually attributed to "the Taliban." In reality, however, the insurgency is far from monolithic. There are the shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, veteran anti-Soviet commanders and poor, illiterate farmers. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists and bandits that fall uneasily into three or four main factions and many subfactions. The factions have competing commanders with differing ideologies and strategies, who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners.
It wasn't always this way. When US-led forces toppled the Taliban government in November 2001, Afghans celebrated the downfall of a reviled and discredited regime. "We felt like dancing in the streets," one Kabuli told me. As US-backed forces marched into Kabul, remnants of the old Taliban regime split into three groups. The first, including many Kabul-based bureaucrats and functionaries, simply surrendered to the Americans; some even joined the Karzai government. The second, comprising the movement's senior leadership, including "Commander of the Faithful" Mullah Omar, fled across the border into Pakistan, where they remain to this day. The third and largest group--foot soldiers, local commanders and provincial officials--quietly melted into the landscape, returning to their villages to wait and see which way the wind would blow.
Meanwhile, the country was quickly being carved up by warlords and criminals. On the brand-new highway connecting Kabul to Kandahar and Herat, built with millions of Washington's dollars, well-organized groups of bandits would regularly terrorize travelers. Last year "thirty, maybe fifty criminals, some in police uniforms, stopped our bus and shot [out] our windows," Muhammadullah, the owner of a bus company that regularly uses the route, told me. "They searched our vehicle and stole everything from everyone." Criminal syndicates, often with government connections, organized kidnapping sprees in urban centers. Often, those few who were caught would simply be released after the right palms were greased.
Into this landscape of violence and criminality rode the Taliban, promising law and order--just as they did when they first formed in the mid-1990s, when they were welcomed by many Afghans as relief from the rapacious post-Soviet warlords. Within two years after the 2001 invasion, the exiled leadership, based in Quetta, Pakistan, began reactivating networks of fighters who had blended into Afghan villages. They resurrected relationships with Pashtun tribes. (The insurgents, historically a predominantly Pashtun movement and mostly concentrated in the country's south and east, still have very little influence among other minority ethnic groups like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hezaras.) With funds from wealthy Arab donors and training from ISI, the Pakistani intelligence apparatus, they were able to bring weapons and expertise into Pashtun villages.
In one village after another, the Taliban drove out the remaining minority of government sympathizers through intimidation and assassination. Then they won over the majority with promises of security and efficiency. They implemented a harsh version of Sharia law, cutting off the hands of thieves and shooting adulterers. They were brutal, but they were also incorruptible. Justice no longer went to the highest bidder. "There's no crime anymore, unlike before," said Abdul Halim, who lives in a district under Taliban control.
The insurgents conscripted fighters from the villages they operated in, often paying $200 a month--more than double the typical police salary. They adjudicated disputes between tribes and between landowners. They protected poppy fields from the eradication attempts of the central government and foreign armies--a move that won the support of poor farmers whose only stable income came from poppy cultivation. The areas under insurgent control were consigned to having neither reconstruction nor social services, but for rural villagers who had seen much foreign intervention and little economic progress under the Karzai government, this was hardly new.
At the same time, the Taliban's ideology began to transform. "We are fighting to free our country from foreign domination," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told me over the phone. "The Indians fought for their independence against the British. Even the Americans once waged an insurgency to free their own country." This emerging nationalistic streak appeals to Pashtun villagers, who have grown weary of the American and NATO presence.
The insurgents are also fighting to install a version of Sharia law. Nonetheless, the famously puritanical guerrillas have moderated some of their most extreme doctrines, at least in principle. Last year, for instance, Mullah Omar issued an edict declaring music and parties--banned in the Taliban's previous incarnation--permissible. Some commanders have even started accepting the idea of girls' education. Certain hardline leaders such as the one-legged Mullah Dadullah, a man of legendary brutality whose beheading binges reportedly proved too much even for Mullah Omar, were killed by international forces.
At the same time, a more pragmatic leadership started taking the reins. American intelligence officials believe day-to-day leadership of the movement is now in the hands of the politically savvy Mullah Brehadar, while Mullah Omar retains a largely figurehead position. Brehadar may be behind the push to moderate the movement's message in order to win support. Even at the local level, some Taliban officials are tempering their older policies in order to win local hearts and minds. Three months ago in a district in Ghazni province, for instance, the insurgents ordered all schools closed. Tribal elders appealed to the Taliban's ruling religious council in the area; the religious judges reversed the decision and reopened the schools.
However, not all field commanders follow the central injunctions. In many Taliban-controlled districts such amusements as music and parties are still outlawed, which points to the movement's decentralized nature. Local commanders often set their own policies and initiate attacks without direct orders from the leadership. The result is a slippery movement that morphs from district to district. In some Taliban-controlled districts of Ghazni province, an Afghan caught working for a nongovernmental organization would meet certain death. In parts of neighboring Wardak province, however, where the insurgents are said to be more educated and understand the need for development, local NGOs can function with the guerrillas' permission.