Anand Gopal, Making Sense of the Taliban

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[Note for Readers: To listen to a TomDispatch audio interview with journalist Anand Gopal about the difficulties involved in reporting from Afghanistan, click here.]

Just when the Obama presidency-to-be was revving up to introduce its new national security “team” and reformulate U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border regions, the Afghan War ratcheted up a notch — and not because there was another missile strike from an American drone aircraft in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, or because yet more civilians died in U.S. military operations, or even because attacks by “the Taliban” rose yet again to new heights.

No, that ratcheting up occurred in Mumbai, India, where the planners of the murderous rampage by a crew of Kashmiri militants decided that stirring up a good old face-off between the two edgy nuclear powers of the subcontinent would be advantageous. A precision operation that managed to slaughter just about anyone in sight (including Indian Muslims) now threatens to change the nature of the Afghan War, heat up the conflict in Kashmir, and embroil the region in an even wider catastrophe, ending a period of easing tensions between India and Pakistan. Already Pakistan is threatening to transfer up to 100,000 troops from the borderlands with Afghanistan to the Indian border.

As Paul Woodward of the War in Context website wrote, “[W]hat we witnessed was a major move on President-elect Obama’s chessboard of foreign policy even before he’d had a chance to lay a finger on any of the pieces.” Tony Karon caught the essence of the larger political moment this way: “Provoking India would not only realign the interests of the Pakistani military and the Islamists, it would threaten U.S. efforts to reorient the Pakistani military towards domestic counterinsurgency, and to broker a deeper rapprochement with India — a development U.S. analysts believe is key to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan.”

In other words, the already expanding war in Afghanistan — American supply routes through the Khyber Pass, for instance, have recently been endangered — just expanded a little (or possibly a lot) more. It’s a sobering reminder of a world that may be beyond the control of any national security team. And even as this occurs, what we here know about “the other side” in Afghanistan, generally known as “the Taliban,” is modest indeed. Fortunately, Anand Gopal, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, offers his second vividly reported post for TomDispatch, an on-the-ground look at who the Taliban — “a slippery movement that morphs from district to district” — really are. This timely piece represents a joint project of and the Nation Magazine, where a shorter version appears in print. Tom

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

[This piece is a joint project of 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 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 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.

The “Other” Talibans

Never short of guns and guerrillas, Afghanistan has proven fertile ground for a whole host of insurgent groups in addition to the Taliban.

Naqibullah, a university student with a sparse beard who spoke in soft, measured tones, was not quite 30 when we met. We were in the backseat of a parked 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 to the Taliban. His circle of friends meet regularly in the university’s dorm rooms, discussing politics and watching DVD videos 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 U.S. base. “The Americans have their B-52s,” Naqibullah explained. “Suicide attacks are our versions of B-52s.” Like his friends, Naqibullah, too, had considered the possibility of 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 of a sort for himself by hurling acid in the faces of unveiled women.

He established Hizb-i-Islami to counter growing Soviet influence in the country and, in the 1980s, his organization became one of the most extreme fundamentalist parties as well as the leading group fighting the Soviet occupation. Ruthless, powerful, and anti-communist, Hekmatyar proved a capable ally for Washington, which funneled millions 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 each other, 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 U.S.-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, where, playing on local frustrations in Pashtun communities just as the Taliban has, he slowly resurrected Hizb-i-Islami.

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 Pashtun pockets in the country’s north and northeast. It assisted in a complex assassination attempt on President Karzai last spring and was behind a high-profile ambush that killed ten NATO soldiers this 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 U.S. 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 future.

The Pakistani Nexus

Blowback abounds in Afghanistan. Erstwhile CIA hand Jalaluddin Haqqani heads yet a third insurgent network, this one based in Afghanistan’s eastern border regions. During the anti-Soviet war, the U.S. gave Haqqani, now considered by many to be Washington’s most redoubtable foe, millions of dollars, anti-aircraft missiles, and even tanks. Officials in Washington were so enamored with 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 Afghan-Arab networks towards the end of the anti-Soviet war. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. tried desperately to bring him over to its side. However, Haqqani claimed that he couldn’t countenance a foreign presence on Afghan soil and once again took up arms, aided by his longtime benefactors in Pakistan’s ISI. He is said to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, a tactic unheard of there 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 work closely with al-Qaeda. The network’s leadership is most likely based in Waziristan, in the Pakistani tribal areas, where it enjoys ISI protection.

Pakistan extends support to the Haqqanis on the understanding that the network will keep its holy war within Afghanistan’s borders. Such agreements are necessary because, in recent years, Pakistan’s longstanding policy of aiding Islamic militant groups has plunged the country into a devastating war within its own borders.

As Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants trickled into Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, Islamabad signed on to the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror. It was a profitable venture: Washington delivered billions of dollars in aid and advanced weaponry to Pakistan’s military government, all the while looking the other way as dictator Pervez Musharraf increased his vise-like grip on the country. In return, Islamabad targeted al-Qaeda militants, every few months parading a captured “high-ranking” leader before the news cameras, while leaving the Taliban leadership on its territory untouched.

While the Pakistani military establishment never completely eradicated al-Qaeda — doing so might have stanched the flow of aid — it kept up just enough pressure so that the Arab militants declared war on the government. By 2004, the Pakistani army had entered the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a semi-autonomous region populated by Pashtun tribes (where al-Qaeda fighters had taken refuge), in force for the first time in an attempt to root out the foreign militants.

Over the next few years, repeated Pakistani army incursions, along with a growing number of U.S. missile strikes (which sometimes killed civilians), enraged the local tribal populations. Small, tribal-based groups calling themselves “the Taliban” began to emerge; by 2007, there were at least 27 such groups active in the Pakistani borderlands. The guerrillas soon won control of areas in such tribal districts as North and South Waziristan, and began to act like a version of the 1990s Taliban redux: they banned music, beat liquor store owners, and prevented girls from attending school. While remaining independent of the Afghan Taliban, they also wholeheartedly supported them.

By the end of 2007, the various Pakistani Taliban groups had merged into a single outfit, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, under the command of an enigmatic 30-something guerrilla — Baitullah Mehsud. Pakistani authorities blame Mehsud’s group, usually referred to simply as the “Pakistani Taliban,” for a string of major attacks, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud and his allies have strong links to al-Qaeda and continue to wage an on-again, off-again war against the Pakistani military. At the same time, some members of the Pakistani Taliban have filtered across the border to join their Afghan counterparts in the fight against the Americans.

Tehrik-i-Taliban proved surprisingly powerful, regularly routing Pakistani army units whose foot soldiers were loathe to fight their fellow countrymen. But almost as soon as Tehrik had emerged, fissures appeared. Not all Pakistani Taliban commanders were convinced of the efficacy of fighting a two-front war. Part of the movement, calling itself the “Local Taliban,” adopted a different strategy, avoiding battles with the Pakistani military. In addition, a significant number of other Pakistani militant groups — including many trained by the ISI to fight in Indian Kashmir — now operate in the Pakistani borderlands, where they abstain from fighting the Pakistani government and focus their fire on the Americans in, or American supply lines into, Afghanistan.

The result of all this is a twisted skein of alliances and ceasefires in which Pakistan is fighting a war against al-Qaeda and one section of the Pakistani Taliban, while leaving another section, as well as other independent militant groups, free to go about their business. That business includes crossing the border into Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and independent fighters from the tribal regions and elsewhere add to the mix that has produced what one Western intelligence official terms a “rainbow coalition” arrayed against U.S. troops.

Living in a World of War

Despite such foreign connections, the Afghan rebellion remains mostly a homegrown affair. Foreign fighters — especially al-Qaeda — have little ideological influence on most of the insurgency, and most Afghans keep their distance from such outsiders. “Sometimes groups of foreigners speaking different languages walk past,” Ghazni resident Fazel Wali recalls. “We never talk to them and they don’t talk to us.”

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. U.S. forces bombed such a party in July, killing 47. Then, in November, warplanes hit another wedding party, killing around 40. A couple of weeks later they hit an engagement party, killing three.

“We are starting to think that we shouldn’t go out in large numbers or have public weddings,” Abdullah Wali told me. Wali lives in a district of Ghazni Province 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 them back in power. Bland weddings, it seems, are better than no weddings at all.

Anand Gopal writes frequently about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the “War on Terror.” He is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor based in Afghanistan. For more of his information and dispatches from the region, visit his website. This piece appears in print in the latest issue of the Nation Magazine. To listen to a TomDispatch audio interview with Gopal about the difficulties involved in reporting from Afghanistan, click here.

Copyright 2008 Anand Gopal

Anand Gopal has reported in Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.  His dispatches can be read at He is currently working on a book about the Afghan war.