The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Spirits Unleashed

How did the Taliban manage to transform itself from a local militia to a cross-regional power, bringing large expanses of Afghanistan under its control virtually overnight? By Joseph Croitoru

Captured Taliban fighters at the Afghan-Pakistani border (photo: AP)
Rebellious 'pupils': originally, the Taliban wanted to put an end to the banditry of certain local chieftains within the mujahideen groups that had originally fought against the Soviet invaders

​​Even today, one-and-a-half decades after they appeared on the political stage in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban are still a bewildering phenomenon. The standard studies on the subject, written back in the 1990s by Ahmed Rashid and Neamatollah Nojumi, already reached very different conclusions on how this movement came about.

According to Rashid, the Taliban were born in Afghanistan's Kandahar region from a local initiative launched by veterans of the defensive war against the Red Army. Apart from their Pashtun identity, they also usually shared a madrassa background – calling themselves Taliban (pupils) in memory of their training at these Koran schools.

They wanted to put an end to the banditry of certain local chieftains within the mujahideen groups that had originally fought against the Soviet invaders but which by the early 1990s had become enmeshed in a bloody civil war against each other.

After the core of the Taliban had been formed and had made a name for itself through local "purges", Pakistan, which had up to then backed the mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, pledged its support to the new players on the scene.

In Nojumi's study, by contrast, Pakistani intervention policy is seen as having played a major role in instigating the rise of the Taliban. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Pakistani influence

Both Rashid and Nojumi see the Taliban's effectiveness as guardians of the roads as one reason for their ascendancy. At the top of the Pakistan regime's list of priorities at the time was securing the transport routes through Afghanistan to Central Asia.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (photo: AP)
Phase-out model: after the core of the Taliban had been formed, Pakistan, which had formerly backed the mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now supported the new players on the scene

​​As a way of eliminating the many roadblocks, manned by guards who hindered the flow of Pakistani transports by demanding exorbitant tolls, the Pakistanis decided to join forces with the Taliban. The Taliban began to drive the gangs off the streets and received increasing support from Pakistan for their efforts.

Transports coming from Pakistan were conducted by the Pakistani "Transport Mafia", which now shared a portion of its proceeds – stemming in part from the drug trade – with the Taliban in exchange for their protection.

It was a question of much more than money, however, says Nojumi. In a new anthology of texts on the Taliban and the Afghanistan crisis, he highlights even more emphatically than in his 1992 study that this lucrative transport business was largely in the hands of the Pakistani military, which had originally supplied Afghan's mujahideen with Pakistani weapons. The goal at the time was not only to fight the Soviet invaders, but also to install a Pakistan-friendly regime in Kabul.

This would create for Islamabad an additional bastion against possible aggression from archenemy India while securing the loyalty of the Afghan exile community in Pakistan.

Transformation into a mass movement

In 1995 a whole fleet of Toyota pick-ups, financed with American help, was added to the vehicle pool of the Pakistani "Transport Mafia". Nojumi attributes this move to pressure from the oil lobby – the American company Unocal and the Saudi Delta Oil were planning to build two pipelines and hoped that this intervention would help stabilize the political situation.

As it turned out, these Toyotas not only transported large numbers of weapons, but also thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fighters from the Pashtun regions to the borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Miniature map of Afghanistan and Pakistan (image: DW)
An Afghan-Pakistani phenomenon from the start: Taliban fighters were recruited in Koran schools and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan

​​As a mass movement, the Taliban were thus from the start an Afghan-Pakistani phenomenon with a largely shared tribal background. Fighters were recruited in Koran schools and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, and received their military training from the Pakistanis – likewise with financial assistance from the Americans, as Bhutto admitted.

Their growing strength spelled a turning point for the Taliban, who succeeded in September 1995 in capturing the province of Herat, formerly considered invincible. They thus advanced from a being a local power to exerting cross-regional control in Afghanistan.

The Taliban leaders were not prepared for this changeover from militia to revolutionary mass movement. According to Nojumi, they lacked the expertise required to build a functional administrative apparatus.

They paid no heed to the everyday needs of the Afghan population, and their draconian punishments for allegedly un-Islamic behaviour quickly caused people's initial enthusiasm for the new order to wane.

The path to power

But how did the Taliban nonetheless manage to rapidly bring large stretches of the country under their control? We may assume that they did not necessarily have to resort to violence; through bribery or skilled negotiations they would certainly have been able to prompt many a warlord to capitulate, or some of his followers to switch sides.

The American political scientist Abdulkader Sinno is trying to develop this line of thought further to explain the Taliban's rise. He largely limits his observations to the Taliban's triumph in the Pashtun regions, which was abetted by their shared tribal culture as well as the Pashtuns' hope to once again become the dominant force in Afghanistan.

However, the Taliban were confronted with a wide variety of hostile organisations in the Pashtun Belt: from gangs that controlled a particular road and had a limited stake in the opium business, to militiamen who exercised power over several towns and were active on a much larger scale.

The local rulers secured their control not only through arms but also through feudalistic relationship networks. Kinship played a role here, and many a local chieftain owed his status to his religious authority or his service in the anti-Soviet jihad.

Limits of the movement

Not all local rulers were equally popular with their subjects. This probably helped the Taliban succeed again and again in using financial incentives to encourage the retinues of local patrons to change camps.

​​Even high-ranking commanders in the militias of regional warlords were apparently lured astray with money or the promise of a high post, with the Taliban sometimes taking strategic advantage of tensions between them and their superiors. This is how Abdul Malik, one of the commanders working for the feared Usbek fighter Rashid Dostum, was persuaded to join the Taliban – his decision helped along by the fact that Malik suspected Dostum of killing his brother.

For Sinno, the case of Malik is both a perfect example of the Taliban's recruitment strategy and a demonstration of why their success outside the Pashtun area was short-lived. When some of his units were to be placed under Taliban command for the joint seizure of Mazar-e-Scharif in early summer 1997, Malik turned against his new allies.

Where persuasion failed or was doomed from the start, the Taliban resorted to political assassinations. This is why Ahad Khan Karzai, father of the reigning president of Afghanistan, was shot to death when he emerged from a mosque in July 1999.

Old Taliban and "Neo-Taliban"

What role the old relationship networks play in the recent resurgence of the Taliban is still an open question. But the reconciliation strategy that Karzai espoused after the dissolution of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001, a tactic that provoked much controversy in Afghanistan, likely has something to do with the emergence of a "Neo-Taliban".

Amin Tarzi doubts that the old guard of the Taliban, who apparently took advantage of Karzai's offer of amnesty to go underground in the remote Pashtun regions, are leading the burgeoning military resistance against the newly installed democratic regime.

He thinks that the insurgents are recruiting followers instead from those Pashtun tribes that once sympathised with the Taliban and haven't given up hope of regaining their standing as the leading force in Afghanistan. Now, however, they find themselves pushed to the fringes of the new government and national armed forces. What's more, they are the main target in the so-called War on Terror.

The main objectives of these insurgents, who are joined by Al Qaeda elements, are to drive the foreign troops out of their country and to re-establish an Islamic state under Sharia law.

Afghanistan expert Amin Tarzi believes that those leading the uprising are organised in small groups that are all jockeying for power. Not everyone who calls himself a Taliban really represents the old guard, let alone its erstwhile political programme. Accordingly, there are a variety of standpoints on the ideological level, exhibiting varying degrees of pan-Islamic fervour.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2009

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

"The Rise and Fall of the Taliban", in: "The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan", edited by Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2008.

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