Misreading the Taliban

The west is losing in Afghanistan in part because it misreads its Taliban opponents. Understanding who they are is the only basis for future negotiations
November 23, 2008

Maidan Shar, the provincial capital of Wardak province, 30 miles south of Kabul, is now on the frontline in Afghanistan. Physically, it has changed little since the Taliban were in power between 1996 and 2001. A frequent visitor to Afghanistan during that time, I only noticed the town because it was where the tarmac ended on the road to Kandahar, which lies a further 250 miles and 16 hours of ferociously uncomfortable driving to the south. Today the road is too risky for travel.

Until two years ago, the Taliban were restricted to the provinces around Kandahar and some isolated central highland districts. Not any longer. On my last visit in August 2008 I was shocked to find how much the situation had deteriorated. Maidan Shar now lies on the watermark left by the wash of the inexorably rising Taliban tide towards Kabul. A well-informed local judge told me not to spend more than 20 minutes in the town and never to stray beyond its limits. The governor of Wardak then spoke to me at length about how the media was exaggerating the problems. But on leaving his well-guarded office I learned that his counterpart from an adjacent province had been ambushed on the main road, only a few miles away, during the course of our interview.

It is true that the Taliban are unlikely to win much more territory, as they are nearing the limits of the land in the south and east of the country where Pashtun tribes, who make up between 40 and 50 per cent of the total population, are concentrated. (The Taliban are an almost exclusively Pashtun movement, although by no means all Pashtun are Taliban.) Militarily, they will find it impossible to capture a major city while foreign troops remain in the country. But as senior British soldiers and diplomats have recently made clear, the Taliban are also unlikely to be significantly "rolled back" in the near future. This marks a strategic change in Afghanistan. "Victory" as previously defined is now impossible.

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Understanding what this means for the future means avoiding two past errors. The first error was thinking that the Taliban are somehow not "Afghan." Speaking to Prospect in October, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, spoke of the west's mission to "help the Afghan people defeat the Taliban." In Berlin in July 2008, Barack Obama said that "the Afghan people need our troops… to defeat the Taliban." This is a dogma that has been entrenched since 2001. It forgets that the Taliban are part of Afghanistan, not an outside scourge.

Despite significant evolution over the last seven years, today's Taliban remain essentially the same movement that once took over two thirds of the country. Their leadership is much the same and their religious ideology remains rooted in the ultraconservative southwest Asian strand of Deobandi Islam, albeit with an added global jihadi element. Their discourse still focuses predominantly on Afghanistan, where their moral ideal remains rooted in a quasi-mystic vision of Pashtun village life. The vast bulk of their footsoldiers, despite the presence of some Pakistanis and a sprinkling of international Arab or central Asian militants, remain Afghan.

In Wardak this summer, my interviews with local politicians, tribal chiefs and officials corroborated reports compiled by the UN and western and local security services on the nature of local Taliban insurgents. They are a dynamic and multi-layered mix of local hoods, "old" Taliban, clerics, commanders of groups such as the Hezb-i-Islami of former anti-Soviet leader, hardline Islamist and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as well as a new generation of young fighters who barely remember the 1990s and whose motivations are religious, mercenary and nationalist. A common response from locals when you ask them, "Who are the Taliban?" is bemused surprise and the answer "men from my village."

Of course, the original Taliban was aided by the security establishment of successive Pakistani governments, who saw them as proxies who would act in Islamabad's interests. Today, most security services believe that Pakistan is still supporting certain Taliban factions to hedge their bets against a possible future regime change. But this just makes the Taliban an Afghan movement receiving external assistance—as so many insurgencies elsewhere have also done.

Equally, links with the international (and largely Arab) al Qaeda are often overplayed. Despite some close personal relationships and a measure of strategic co-ordination, the Afghans and "foreigners" remain organisationally distinct, often separated by lack of a common language. There are no Afghans in al Qaeda's hierarchy and no Arabs in the Taliban command structure. Similarly the "Pakistani Taliban," the coalition of hardline tribal and religious militias on the eastern side of the Afghan-Pakistani frontier who share ideology and Pashtun ethnicity with their Afghan counterparts, remain a separate, if linked, phenomenon.

This "Afghan-ness" gives the Taliban an obvious advantage in the "battle for hearts and minds." Their vision of a future Afghanistan, informed by a mythologised view of a rural antebellum idyll as well as a literal reading of Koranic texts, is closer to the culture and worldview of the rural, Pashtun, conservative populations than the west's human rights discourse and, sadly, the views of the English-speaking members of the internationalised elite who have long been our favoured interlocutors.

The second mistake made by western politicians is to describe the Taliban as "medieval." Their strict and illiberal rules when in power were in part the result of a geographical and cultural clash caused by the rapid transfer of rural customs to relatively modernised towns like Kabul. But, as others have noted, the Taliban's use of mass spectacle and even their strict regulation of gender roles is consistent with other modern totalitarian movements.

The "medieval" tag also implies that they are militarily unsophisticated. Yet all the soldiers I have interviewed on the frontline in recent years spoke of their respect for their enemy's fighting capabilities. The attack on the French soldiers in August was a classically executed ambush, and that on Kandahar prison in June revealed an ability to organise complex operations. Currently 73,000 well-armed, well-trained and well-funded international troops—nearly three times the maximum strength the Taliban are estimated to have ever deployed at one time—are making at best slow progress.

At a strategic level, too, the Taliban show sophistication. Targeting France, the most significant coalition partner with wobbly domestic support, was shrewd. Focusing scant resources attacking roads south and east of Kabul caused maximum psychological effect at little cost. They also have a distinctly non-medieval propaganda capability, and cleverly exploit civilian casualties caused by coalition troops.

Western reporting on the Taliban is heavily skewed to their military side. But the movement's strength arguably lies in its civilian capacity. Any military advance —into Wardak, for example—is scrupulously prepared. The terrain is scouted out, old networks reactivated, and new personnel sent in. Initial efforts are carefully focused on usurping the civil functions that the Kabul government is unable to fulfil, particularly security and the administration of justice. Judges in Wardak told me that few people now use slow, corrupt government courts to settle disputes, preferring Taliban clerics. The police, without motivation, scruples or weapons, stay in their bases and do deals with local militants. A military campaign can then be launched. And in this phase of the conflict at least, it seems, the Taliban have eased their puritanical edicts: music, kite-flying, and shorter beards are all tolerated. We are often told that the Taliban's advantage is that they know the terrain. Equally, they know the local society.

The situation on the ground is complex. Few locals are enthusiastic about the Taliban. For many people—tribal leaders or simple peasants alike—they are the least worst option. The choice is between no development and some security, or no security and the dim hope of development at an unspecified later date. Given it is the Taliban who they know, and who are in their villages with the guns, the average tribal elders' choice is usually obvious. Once they have invested in a location, the Taliban are difficult to expel.

The Taliban's increasing hold on these rural Pashtun populations is a very significant problem. The Pashtuns have historically been kingmakers in Afghanistan. For several centuries power has been shared between competing Pashtun factions. Equally, the history of revolts in Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries—against the British, various Afghan kings and more recently governments heavily influenced by foreign ideologies—underlines the continuing power of the conservative Pashtun base. And Pashtun support is essential for any national authority.

The coalition thus finds itself defending a government which, despite being led by the Pashtun Hamid Karzai, is increasingly seen locally as both ineffective and a western stooge. One or other would not necessarily be a problem, but both means a major legitimacy issue. The west no longer sees Karzai as a useful actor against an insurgency that now has resources, momentum and, it seems, a genuine popular base. This is exactly the situation the coalition hoped to avoid.

The history of insurgencies tells us a process of compromise by the central government and its backers will likely now begin, leading to a gradual weakening of the insurgents as they tire (or get killed) and their supporters recognise other means of achieving their aims. This process is about to start in Afghanistan. Talks with the Taliban involving the Afghan government, Saudi Arabia and other actors are already underway. The outcome is unclear. One might involve allowing the Taliban a degree of self-government in their strongholds. Another might be the embrace of moderate "dictatorship," as the British ambassador has mooted in a leaked memo. Few options are very savoury. And even if we do succeed in building a stable Afghanistan, it will not be the kind of country we envisaged at the start of the campaign. Think Saudi Arabia crossed with Somalia, not Sweden.