The Roots of the Taliban

In a recent article for The Bridge, it was proposed that negotiating with the Taliban is not only morally reprehensible but also a fool’s errand as the movement is a proxy force of Pakistan. So long as Pakistan supports the Taliban, it was argued, a conclusion to the War in Afghanistan will remain elusive; the Taliban will be militarily neutralized only when Pakistan removes its support.

It’s hard to deny that Pakistan plays a substantial role in aiding the Taliban. Through its porous border with Afghanistan, Taliban fighters find sanctuary in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, while accusations that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) aids the Taliban are hardly new. This being said, the article places too strong an emphasis on how forcing Pakistan to end its support for the Taliban will resolve the conflict.

The general impression the article gives of the Taliban is that they are an artificial entity created and controlled by Pakistan, just as the rebels in Eastern Ukraine were created and are controlled by Russia. Such a position ignores the support the Taliban enjoys across various areas of Afghan society through tapping into Afghan culture, as well as the desire of Afghanistan’s population to achieve some degree of security and normality.

Religion and Pashtunwali

Like most of the Pashtuns who make up the bulk of the Taliban, Talibs are followers of Deobandi Islam. This reactionary branch of Sunni Islam was founded in India during the Raj out of fear that British rule was corrupting Islam.[1] With their religious schools (madrassas) being funded in-part by Saudi backers, the attending Talibs of mid- to late-twentieth century Afghanistan and Pakistan were taught an already conservative religion infused with ultra-conservative Wahhabism.[2]

To assume, however, that the Taliban are simply dogmatic fundamentalists is naïve. One revealing Pashtun proverb which must be kept in mind is that “Pashtuns accept half of the Koran.”[3] Where the Koran leaves off is where Pashtunwali — a set of unwritten pre-Islamic guiding principles which Pashtuns follow — picks up. The Taliban’s adherence to these principles is evident in the makeup of their leadership councils,[4] while Pashtunwali has been known to override Sharia law in certain legal areas, especially where honor is concerned.[5]

For the traditional, conservative and predominantly rural Pashtun people of Afghanistan, these two dominant aspects of their culture are largely shared with the Taliban. For rural Afghanistan, the movement were not so stringent during their rule because they didn’t have to be. In contrast, the Taliban’s rule was especially firm in cities, which were perceived by Talibs as hives of immorality[6] (especially as the more cosmopolitan non-Pashtun ethnicities of Afghanistan are in the majority in all Afghan cities apart from Kandahar).[7] Across Afghanistan, the Taliban have simply wanted to create a perfect Pashtun village on a national scale.[8]

The Fear of Modernity

One further area which brings the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan (especially Pashtuns) together is the various attempts to thrust modernity on Afghanistan. This began in the mid-twentieth century with King Zahir Shah and his Prime Minister (later President) Mohammed Daoud Khan moving Afghanistan towards a Western-style nation state. Through this rigorous modernisation process, traditional authorities were challenged repeatedly through power being taken away from tribal elites and attempts to remove Sharia from Afghanistan’s legal system.[9] This constant fight with traditional Afghanistan’s representatives left modernisers isolated and open to the army-backed communist coup in 1978 and the ensuing anarchy.[10]

The modernising ideas of the new communist dictatorship also failed to relate to most Afghans, especially Pashtuns. Based largely off the Soviet model, the PDPA issued sweeping reforms, including land decrees which also took power away from traditional elites and concentrated power with Afghanistan’s one party communist state.[11] Islamists (predominantly non-Pashtun), another modernising group vying for power at the time, immediately took up arms, with Pashtuns joining them when collectivist land reforms were implemented.[12] What followed was the well-known story of the Soviet military coming to the aid of their communist brothers, escalating a bloody war which has never truly ended.

When the Soviets did pull out of Afghanistan in 1989, the Islamist mujahideen gained ground against the PDPA quickly and eventually took Kabul in 1992. In addition to the mujahideen leadership being university-educated and cosmopolitan non-Pashtuns who could not relate to the majority of the Afghan people, they were also bitterly divided.[13] Different mujahideen warlords controlled various districts and vicious warfare and anarchy ensued in many regions — especially in the Pashtun heartland.[14] For many of the religious students in rural Pashtun Afghanistan, this was too much and they took up arms and swiftly overcame most of Afghanistan’s Islamist warlords.

The Taliban came to be seen as saviours of Pashtun Afghanistan — they were symbols of traditionalism in an era when competing visions of modernity had only brought them disillusionment and suffering. As was written on the walls of the Kabul headquarters of the Taliban’s religious police, “Throw reason to the dogs. It stinks of corruption.”[15] While their adherence to the traditional blend of Deobandi Islam and Pashtunwali was rigorous, it was largely only unwelcome in non-Pashtun cities which had not suffered from the violence of mujahideen infighting.[16] For many Afghans, the purity of the Taliban was akin to security.

Recent Developments

Not much has changed in the post-2001 order in that this idea of safety in the purity of the Taliban still resonates for many. Western countries have tried to instill good governance and stability on Afghanistan, but the country is largely controlled by the same warring mujahideen warlords of the anarchic 1990s (or their friends and family). Despite this flux, the Taliban have remained a constant entity. Yes, fear, intimidation, brutality and various forms of aid from Pakistan certainly play a role in this longevity, but domestic support has played a more substantial role through the genuine belief that the Taliban offer safety and security by returning Afghanistan to the past’s values.

If anything, this view is more widespread today than it has been for years. Through neglect and corruption from an increasingly internationally isolated government in Kabul, as well as a more moderate and inclusive message from the Taliban, the movement enjoys broad appeal. No longer is the Taliban simply for disillusioned Pashtuns. Afghans of all ethnicities — even Shia Hazaras — have been recorded as being within the Taliban’s ranks of late. In this year’s offensive, the Taliban have not concentrated on the Pashtun heartland of the south and east of the country (which shares a Pakistani border); they have attacked the north of the country where they have never traditionally enjoyed substantial support and remarkably managing to (briefly) take control of the city of Kunduz a few weeks ago.

In addition, the Taliban proves time and again that they are not a puppet of Pakistan and they are now receiving substantially less support. Pakistan may remain ambiguous over how much sway it commands over the Taliban for political leverage on the international stage, but as a recent BBC article noted, “the Afghan Taliban, while happy to accept Pakistani support, are quite capable of ignoring Islamabad’s instructions.” Through the Pakistani Army’s long-awaited North Waziristan offensive last year, the Taliban and other international militants have also been pushed into Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban’s killing of 141 students at a Peshawar school last December has only strengthened Pakistan’s resolve to remove militants from its borders. Despite this lack of Pakistani support, the Taliban are arguably more powerful now than at any point since they were ousted in 2001. Pakistan’s diminishing support is but one arrow in the Taliban’s quiver.

COIN’s Overriding Cliché

The purpose of this article has not been to say that negotiations should take place with the Taliban. It has sought to highlight how the Taliban are not a mindless proxy of Pakistan and that they have deep roots in Afghan society which are heavily relied upon for their survival. While this doesn’t mean that negotiations with the Taliban are a necessary evil, it does mean that they cannot be as easily dislodged as some would have you believe.

As with any insurgency — especially one where the insurgent is deeply embedded — the hearts and minds of the people must be won. The article which was referred to at the beginning of this piece crucially does look at how the Afghan Government must stamp out corruption, albeit in one section at the very end. This, however, as well as developing a coherent military strategy, should be the focus of any approach to countering the Taliban.

Without a doubt, completely turning off the tap of Pakistani support would hurt the Taliban, but the movement operates in a country awash with guns, drugs, porous borders (to the north especially); it has a corrupt and inept government while the Taliban offer an increasingly resurgent narrative of stability through reverting to Afghanistan’s past. To end the War, hearts and minds must ultimately be won so that not only are Taliban’s military defeated, but also their narrative.

Peter Storey is a graduate of Sheffield University and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. He is currently working as an international market reporter in London while desiring to pursue a PhD — on how the U.S. military has dealt with the challenges of urban warfare since the end of the Cold War — at some point in the not-too-distant future. His interests include issues surrounding urban warfare and asymmetric warfare more broadly, the War on Terror, and British foreign and defense policy.

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[1] Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created: The myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 19–21.

[2] Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror (New York: Random House, 2002), 136.

[3] Peter Tomsen, The Wars of Afghanistan (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007), 46.

[4] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 95.

[5] Peter Marsden, The Taliban: War and Religion in Afghanistan (London: Zed Books Ltd, 2002), 85.

[6] Strick Van Linschoten and Kuehn, An Enemy We Created, 145.

[7] Marsden, The Taliban, 9–10.

[8] Jason Burke, The 9/11 Wars (London: Penguin, 2012), 5.

[9] Ralph Magnus, ‘The Constitution of 1964: A Decade of Political Experimentation’, in Afghanistan in the 1970s, ed. Louis Dupree and Linette Albert (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), 56–58.

[10] Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 74–75.

[11] Ibid, 116–118.

[12] Marsden, The Taliban, 24.

[13] Strick Van Linschoten and Kuehn, An Enemy We Created, 30.

[14] Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2003), 228.

[15] Jason Burke, On the Road to Kandahar (London: Penguin, 2007), 56.

[16] Rashid, Taliban, 112–113.