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Afghanistan - Politics

The Taliban is not a single disciplined party, but rather a heterogeneous collection of actors on the various fronts in Afghanistan. The Taliban are comprised of several factions, each with their own leadership, structure, and control of Afghan territory. They shared a common enemy: the former Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani and the West.

The Taliban are the most unified organization in Afghanistan. There has never been a significant split in the organization. There are many differences and rivalries that are seized on by their opponents as evidence that the Taliban are divided, but they have never been divided in practice. Like many other political organisations, there will be multiple power bases within the Taliban movement, which would compete for positions and privileges, but that has rarely ever translated to the emergence of fissures within the movement.

Taliban leaders prepared to form a new government following the end of the 20-year US operation in Afghanistan. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the group's leaders held a three-day conference through 31 August 2021 in the southern city of Kandahar. He said the agenda included security improvement and basic policies for governing the country. Tension was high by the end of August 2021, as the proposed cabinet list, completely dominated by southerners, enraged the easterners and northerners.

Andrew Watkins noted "Even as the US military and its NATO partners were struggling to contain an increasingly resurgent Taliban a decade ago, a narrative had already firmly taken root within the international community that it might be possible to exploit the supposedly fragmented nature of the Taliban ... Afghans themselves have long drawn a distinction between the movement’s ideological, fighting core and its “part-time,” inactive, and other more pragmatically motivated members. Those earliest efforts to encourage Taliban reconciliation were ineffective... A growing consensus that the Taliban as a burgeoning group had begun to split into factions emerged among international observers and policymakers.... the 2019 appointment of movement heavyweight Mullah Baradar to head the political office ensured continued cohesion...

"Contrary to assumptions about ideological differences, fighters’ habituation to violence, or greed stemming from the wartime economy, the Taliban are likely to fragment only if leadership loses the capacity and credibility to provide for the survival and further the interests of the movement’s members... "

Vanda Felbab-Brown noted that "In its shadow governance, the Taliban effectively delivered order and enforcing rules, such as ensuring that teachers showed up to teach when it allowed schools to operate and that government employees did not steal supplies from clinics. The Taliban also got much political capital from delivering swift, not corrupt, and enforced dispute resolution (and from protecting the poppy economy.) And it has excelled in taxing economic activity in Afghanistan, legal and illegal — from NATO supply trucks to government aid programs, drugs, and logging. But it has no experience with or technocratic capacity for delivering or even just maintaining other existing services such as electricity or water delivery... "

In the 1990s, discontent with the Taliban's strictures and rural village values was strong in large, non-Pashtun cities such as Herat, Kabul, and other northern cities. The Taliban's military successes did not encourage the group's leaders to engage meaningfully in political dialog with opponents. There was no functioning central government in the country. The continuing struggle for political power among the major armed groups prevented citizens from changing their government or choosing their leaders peacefully and democratically. Most political changes came about through shifting military fortunes.

There was a hard core of committed Islamist ideologues, centered on Mullah Omar and based in Quetta. But by all accounts much of the Taliban's actual combat strength was provided by an array of warlords and other factions with often much more secular motivations, who sided with the Taliban for reasons of profit, prestige, or convenience, and who may or may not follow orders from the Quetta Shura leadership. It was long clear that if the Americans could settle with factions other than the Quetta Shura Taliban and Mullah Omar, this might very well enable the US to disengage from the conflict, but would not end violence in Afghanistan.

By 2001, The Pashtun-dominated ultra-conservative Islamic movement known as the Taliban controlled about 90 percent of the country, including the capital of Kabul, and all of the largest urban areas. A Taliban edict in 1997 renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with Taliban leader Mullah Omar as Head of State and Commander of the Faithful. There is a six-member ruling council in Kabul, but ultimate authority for Taliban rule rested in Mullah Omar, head of the inner Shura (Council), located in the southern city of Kandahar.

The Taliban imposed strict and oppressive order by means of stiff punishments for crimes in the areas that they controlled. The Taliban's Islamic courts and religious police, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice (PVSV), enforced their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law. They set punishments such as public executions for adultery or murder, and amputations of one hand and one foot for theft. For lesser infractions, Taliban militiamen often judged accused offenders and meted out punishments, such as beatings, on the spot. The Taliban arbitrarily arrested and detained persons and infringed on citizens' privacy rights.

The Taliban prohibited music, movies, and television on religious grounds. In August 1998 television sets, videocassette recorders, videocassettes, audiocassettes, and satellite dishes were outlawed in order to enforce the prohibition. However, televisions reportedly were widely sold, and their use generally was ignored unless reported by a neighbor.

The Taliban sought to impose their extreme interpretation of Islamic observance in areas that they control. Prayer is mandatory for all, and those who are observed not praying at appointed times or who are late attending prayer are subject to beatings. Members of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice, which was raised to the status of a ministry in May 1998, regularly check passersby to see that men's beards and apparel meet Taliban requirements, to ensure that women are dressed in strict traditional Taliban-approved garb, and to ascertain that women are not in the company of men who are unrelated to them.

There were reports that PVSV members in Kabul stopped persons on the street and quizzed them to determine if they knew how to recite various Koranic prayers. According to regulations, a man who has shaved or cut his beard may be imprisoned. Beards must protrude farther than would a fist clamped at the base of the chin.

As lawlessness and interfactional fighting continued in some areas, violence against women occurred frequently, including beatings, rapes, forced marriages, disappearances, kidnapings, and killings. Such incidents generally went unreported and most information was anecdotal. It was difficult to document rapes, in particular, in view of the social stigma that surrounds the problem. Although the stability brought by the Taliban to most of the country acted in general to reduce violence against women, particularly rapes and kidnapings, Taliban members continued to threaten or beat women to enforce the Taliban's dress code for women.

The Taliban were removed from power in Afghanistan by US-led forces in 2001. Dr. Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, noted in Congressional testimony in 2009, the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) faction, based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, is motivated chiefly by ideology. They wished to return Afghan governance to the system they imposed in their previous rule (the QST leadership are the survivors of the pre-existing regime the U.S. toppled in 2001). This system is based on a harsh theocracy with strict Islamist Sharia law, an intrusive state apparatus designed to enforce a conservative interpretation of virtue among the population, and a thoroughgoing exclusion of Western ideas, practices, and mores.

Taliban ideology is thus a call for government to mandate a particular form of religious practice, but it should be emphasized that this is not mainstream Islamic doctrine, and there is no inherent connection between Taliban Islamist theocracy and Islam as a religion: the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide, and in Afghanistan, reject the Taliban's interpretation of the faith.

Secondary motivations for individual members of the QST surely include hopes for personal power and authority in a restored Taliban government, tribal and ethnic rivalries, hatred of Americans and other foreigners, and fear of retribution at the hands of erstwhile colleagues were they to defect, among other contributing factors. But for the QST, ideology is especially important.

For other Taliban factions, ideology is much less central. The Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG), for example, centered on the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was motivated chiefly by the prospect of money, power, and influence. The HiG were willing to accept Taliban ideology as a price of alliance with a force they find tactically useful in establishing power and authority in as much of Afghanistan as possible (and especially their traditional strongholds in the Afghan northeast), but for them ideology was closer to a means than an end.

The Haqqani network (HQN), centered on the warlords Sirajuddin and Jalaluddin Haqqani, was probably somewhere between the QST and the HiG ideologically. The Haqqanis had traditionally sought personal power and influence (especially in their traditional homelands in east-central Afghanistan), but had grown more radical in recent years through some combination of deal-making with the QST, ideological positioning to attract radicalized graduates of Pakistani Madrassahs (religious schools) as foot soldiers, and possible religious or intellectual evolution on the part of the HQN leadership.

So the importance of ideology as motivation for the Taliban varies, and was central only for a few factions (and especially the QST). Second, and perhaps most important, the primary ideology among those factions who are ideologically motivated is one that most Afghans decisively reject. The QST's ideas are extremely unpopular with the Afghan population at large, who already understand them and overwhelmingly reject them. Afghans know what the QST is offering ideologically--they lived with it every day during the Taliban's previous rule. And repeated surveys have shown no significant sympathy for a return to Taliban rule among Afghans.

In early 2021 there were at least 40 incidents in which one or more prominent Afghan civilians were targeted and, in most cases, killed. The victims included civilian government officials, educators, religious scholars, tribal leaders, medical workers, journalists, and activists. Most of these killings were hit-and-run shooting incidents. Others employed explosive devices, especially so-called “sticky bombs,” magnetic explosives that are attached to the target’s vehicle by a passing pedestrian or cyclist, often while the vehicle is sitting in traffic. The targeted killings of civil servants, members of the media, and human rights workers this quarter follows a trend that began in October and November 2020.

According to media sources, the timing of the wave of violence against civil society leaders led many government officials to surmise that the Taliban is employing this tactic as a complement to its coordinated assaults on security checkpoints and government-controlled territory to incite fear among the general public and to weaken the Afghan government’s position in the Doha peace talks. However, media sources also noted that certain Taliban factions may be taking advantage of the country’s current insecurity as a cover to settle political scores. A third theory, posited by a former Afghan general and military analyst, is that some of the targeted killings were carried out by drug smugglers, land grabbers, corrupt officials, and those against government reform plans who benefit financially from chaos and conflict.



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Page last modified: 03-10-2021 15:39:39 ZULU