“T” Stands for Taliban

Nikita MENDKOVICH (Russia)

This year’s political events have shown that most of Afghanistan’s problems are caused by the armed opposition, particularly the Taliban movement. A wide variety of plans for solving the “Taliban problem” are being floated in the expert and political communities: negotiations and compromise, military defeat, wearing them down. Some foreign authors have even suggested resigning ourselves to possible victory by the Taliban and leaving the current Afghan government to its fate by dropping support for it. In order to understand how to solve the Taliban problem, we need to understand what the movement is all about and dig into its history.

It would be a mistake to think that the movement grew out of the activities of the provincial Afghan warlord Mullah Mohammed Omar, who led a popular movement against local militants in 1994 and took control of his district, then much of Afghanistan. It would be more accurate to say that Mullah Omar came on the scene at a propitious moment in history and was welcomed by Afghan society, which allowed his small band to become a nationwide organization.

The movement’s earliest goals were determined by the conditions that shaped the Taliban as a Pashtun nationalist movement. Two factors made its emergence logical and possible: the populace was tired of the abuse of power by groups of mujahedeen, and people were afraid that the country would disintegrate into its provinces. That classic description of the Taliban explains little without an understanding of its socio-economic content. At that point in history, the Taliban represented two social groups within Afghan society: Afghan and some foreign businessmen for whom the division of the country and highway banditry sharply limited business opportunities, and skilled personnel who would staff the government if Afghanistan were developing normally.

This author is firmly convinced that the latter group formed the basis of many nationalist movements in the late 20th century under the banners of “great power” or “imperial” ideologies. The skilled personnel pool—lawyers, teachers, scientists, managers and, to some extent, professional soldiers—are primarily sought after by a strong state in possession of significant resources. The loss of territory, disintegration of a country and instability of regimes reduces demand for that personnel pool within a country and leaves it on the social sidelines during crises. For many specialists under those conditions, the only way out is immigration or involvement in politics to re-unify the country and restore order, which frequently coincides with the interests of the general population.

Under the conditions prevailing in Afghanistan and the role played by Sharia law in its legal system, Talibs, students and graduates of religious schools were automatically members of this social stratum. However, it is important not to forget about the role that the older generation of skilled specialists, former members of the Communist regime mainly from the Khalq faction, played in the Taliban. One example is ex-Defense Minister Najibullah Shahnawaz Tanai’s cooperation with the Taliban and the work he did in the organization. No less important is the fact that one of the founders of the Taliban—who went by the pseudonym Mullah Borjan, took part in a coup led by Hafizullah Amin and emigrated after it failed—was army officer Turan Abdul Rahman, as was learned after his death. Representation by Afghan businessmen in the Taliban was somewhat more restricted and often limited to financial support for the movement in its initial stage of development. One such person was future President Hamid Karzai, who placed some hope on the early Taliban.

Often overlooked is the fact that Burhanaddun Rabbani was an early ally before the Taliban openly claimed supreme power. He hoped that a coalition with the Pashtun nationalists would help to unite the country. Actually, many foreign sponsors of the movement were counting on a Taliban-Rabbani alliance. They included Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; and if he had remained with the movement until the end of the Civil War, Afghanistan’s history might have taken a different course. However, the future was not obvious to most observers in 1994 at the dawn of the Taliban, which initially was the product of a nationwide protest against the negative phenomena of those years.

With time, however, the nationalist focus of the movement was replaced by the worst forms of clericalism and religious radicalism. It was also affected by the displacement of the movement’s rank-and-file and middle management by poorly educated people coming from rural regions, the wartime conditions, and the influence of Wahhabi propaganda on Mullah Omar and his inner circle, to which they were exposed while studying in Pakistani madrassas that focused on training young Afghan immigrants to participate in the war against the Soviet Union and the PDPA regime.

That ideological bias soon led many in the Taliban leadership to view the Civil War as the initial stage in the expansion of radical Islam to Central Asia and to plan for its eventual movement to other countries. The influence of foreign extremist groups significantly increased during the last years of Taliban rule over the areas they controlled—especially Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, which opened terrorist training camps; centers for developing various types of weapons, including biological weapons; and its own headquarters in Afghanistan.

It was al-Qaeda’s activities that led eventually to the downfall of the Taliban when they prompted the United States to intervene directly in the Afghan conflict. In September 2001, the Taliban had the strategic initiative and every reason to expect that they would decisively defeat the Northern Alliance in 2001-2002. The appearance of foreign forces in the country changed the balance of power to favor the Taliban’s opponents.

The transition from a position of power to an underground resistance movement caused a change in the Taliban’s leadership personnel. A significant part of the moderate wing and secular experts who had joined the Taliban in its early years left the movement for reasons of age, lack of training in guerrilla warfare or ideological differences; and their leadership positions were taken by representatives of the more reactionary wing and the “Kandahar party” of Mullah Omar.

They currently form the senior and most conservative generation of the movement’s warlords, and their informal head is Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was Minister of Civil Aviation in the Taliban government. Analysis of the recollections of former Taliban officials and study of contemporary interviews with this generation of the Taliban in the press of Islamic states reveals a less than positive picture of him.

The older Taliban are highly dogmatic, disinclined to critically rethink their experience and intellectually inflexible. As a result, they often poorly understand views that differ from their own. They look upon the war as an armed conflict between Christianity and Islam that cannot end in peace until a vast Islamic emirate emerges in countries of the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The shortcomings in their worldview are not due to a lack of culture or low intelligence. Almost all of the old leaders have a decent knowledge of the Koran and Hanafi theology. They can speak eloquently and grammatically, including in Arabic; and they are able to learn a new language. Their simplistic worldview is largely a product of their military experience, which has lasted most of their lives; their narrow range of interests; inevitable psychological trauma; and a kind of “profession-related deformation of personality.” For most of the older Taliban, life outside of the war against infidels with its goals and forms is simply incomprehensible and impossible.

The role played by Mullah Omar in the lives of the current faction of old Taliban is unclear. Despite his dogmatic radicalism, he differs from his peers in that he has a good imagination, is more broad-minded and is able to think outside the box. However, in recent years there has been very little evidence that he is actively involved in the movement’s leadership. Even addresses released in his name differ greatly from earlier texts in terms of style and language. He is assumed to be either dead or seriously ill. The Taliban warlords flatly deny it, but that seems to be the most likely explanation for his long period of inactivity.

The younger generation of Taliban leaders formed in 1990-2000 from amongst the activists who came out of the war. Mullah Abdul Kayum Zakir is their informal leader. He is considered one of Mullah Omar’s formal deputies, along with Mullah Mansour. This generation is less in the public eye due to the circumstances in which it began, but we can attempt to determine its general features analytically. The “young bloods” are apparently less well educated on average but more flexible and able to change their behavior in emergencies. In contrast to the old Taliban, they do not think in terms of the 1980s war and are more realistic. However, we should remember that they also are very strongly influenced by the ideology of the foreign al-Qaeda radicals, whose role in the movement grew in 2000.

In essence, the foreign al-Qaeda activists who are fighting alongside the Taliban should be considered a separate group, but their diverse composition makes it difficult to identify shared features. They include a fairly large number of ethnic Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens, and there are also activists from Western countries, including ethnic Europeans. But they might be a subject for another article.

In conclusion, we should mention the so-called “moderate Taliban” or “party of peace,” that many experts assume exist. Indications of their existence come from instances of surrender by Taliban groups and bands and the reports of attempts to negotiate involving Mullah Baradar and other warlords that concluded with his arrest by Pakistani intelligence. We can assume that the “party of peace” must include movement members with strong tribal ties and, possibly, experience living and working in countries more developed than Afghanistan. However, the evidence does not support a strong argument that the “party of peace” represents a separate political direction within the Taliban. At the moment, especially after the arrest of Baradar and Pakistan’s refusal to extradite him to Kabul, the moderate wing may exist in the state of mind of a few warlords, and not as a unified social network.

Moreover, it is difficult to say anything about the possible political demands of the “moderates.” They almost certainly include an increased role for Sharia law in public life, the expulsion of the “foreign factor” from national political life, and a retreat from freedom of speech, women’s rights, etc. to the situation prevailing in the last decade. It is obvious that even a partial satisfaction of those requirements would lead to a fundamental transformation of Afghanistan, a partial replacement of the ruling elite and unpredictable consequences for the region. Moreover, the hopes of some naive commentators that a return to power by the Taliban could quickly restore order as it was in 1990 are unfounded because the situation in the country has changed too much to expect an easy solution to its complex problems.

The negotiations in the Maldives demonstrated that it is very difficult to soften the opposition’s position. Therefore, the prospect of a compromise with the armed opposition or a part of it can satisfy neither Afghan politicians nor the international community. We should expect that the “dialogue” amongst the government, coalition forces and the opposition in Afghanistan will continue for the most part to take the form of armed combat.

Nikita Mendkovich is a historian, economist and expert at the Center for Modern Afghanistan Studies, Moscow.

Source: New Eastern Outlook

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