[Marxism] Who are the Taliban? by Anand Gopal

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Thu Dec 11 10:18:49 MST 2008

Who Are the Taliban? By Anand Gopal
This article appeared in the December 22, 2008 edition of The Nation.

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

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

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

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. 

The 'Other' Talibans 

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

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

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

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

"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. 

About Anand Gopal
Anand Gopal, who writes frequently about Afghanistan, Pakistan and the “war
on terror,” is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor based in

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