[Marxism] Who are the Taliban?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 5 08:17:57 MST 2008

Who Are the Taliban?
The Afghan War Deciphered
By Anand Gopal

[This piece is a joint project of TomDispatch.com and the Nation 
Magazine, where a shorter version appears in print.]

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 20 minutes south of Kabul. The post signals the edge of the 
capital, a city of spectacular tension, 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 further south, sits belly up on the 

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 
curricula 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 have led to a spectacular resurgence of 
the Taliban and other related groups. Today, the Islamic Emirate enjoys 
de facto control in large parts of the country's south and east. 
According to ACBAR, an umbrella organization representing more than 100 
aid agencies, insurgent attacks have increased by 50% over the past 
year. Foreign soldiers are now dying at a higher rate here than in Iraq.

The burgeoning disaster is prompting the Afghan government of President 
Hamid Karzai and international players to speak openly of negotiations 
with sections of the insurgency.

The New Nationalist Taliban

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, poor, illiterate farmers, and veteran 
anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, 
Islamists, and bandits that fall uneasily into three or four main 
factions. The factions themselves are made up of 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 U.S.-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 U.S.-backed forces marched into Kabul, the Afghan 
capital, 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, comprised of the movement's senior leadership, including its 
leader 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 farms and villages to wait and see which 
way the wind blew.

Meanwhile, the country was 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. "[Once], 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 like the former Taliban stronghold of 
Kandahar city. Often, those few who were caught would simply be released 
after the right palms were greased.

Onto this landscape of violence and criminality rode the Taliban again, 
promising law and order. The exiled leadership, based in Quetta, 
Pakistan, began reactivating its networks of fighters who had blended 
into the country's villages. They resurrected relationships with Pashtun 
tribes. (The insurgents, historically a predominantly Pashtun movement, 
still have very little influence among other Afghan minority ethnic 
groups like the Tajiks and Hezaras.) With funds from wealthy Arab donors 
and training from the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence apparatus, they 
were able to bring weapons and expertise into Pashtun villages.

In one village after another, they drove out the remaining minority of 
government sympathizers through intimidation and assassination. Then 
they won over the majority with promises of security and efficiency. The 
guerrillas 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 any more, 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 them $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 them the support of 
poor farmers whose only stable income came from poppy cultivation. 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 undergo a 
transformation. "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 appealed to Pashtun villagers growing 
weary of the American and NATO presence.

The insurgents are also fighting to install a version of Sharia law in 
the country. 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 Taliban commanders have even started accepting the idea of girls' 
education. Certain hard-line leaders like the one-legged Mullah 
Daddullah, a man of legendary brutality (whose beheading binges at times 
reportedly proved too much even for Mullah Omar) were killed by 
international forces.

Meanwhile, a more pragmatic leadership started taking the reins. U.S. 
intelligence officers believe that day-to-day leadership of the movement 
is now actually 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 
greater support.

Even at the local level, some provincial Taliban officials are tempering 
older-style Taliban 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. When 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 injunctions against banning 
music and parties. In many Taliban-controlled districts such amusements 
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 Taliban 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 non-governmental organization (NGO) 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.


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