No single Islamic movement has generated as much controversy in the times we live in than the Taliban in Afghanistan. From their rise to power in 1996 through their toppling in 2001 and to their recent re-emergence and increasing authority, voices within the Muslim world have differed as to their importance and the level of support which should be afforded to them.
A large part of this confusion is due to the near total ignorance that many have as to who the Taliban are and what they actually stand for. The stereotypical narrative of the movement as propagated by the US government and its allies is that the movement consists of a group of uneducated backward war-mongering mullahs who wish to gain power to impose oppressive rule on the Afghan people.
With the war in Afghanistan having no end in sight and the number of body-bags returning to Washington and London increasing daily, policy makers and political analysts have recently had to revisit such superficial prejudiced views and instead try and understand the true nature and aims of the Taliban.
One of the common misconceptions about the Taliban is that they were only formed as a movement in 1994. In reality, the Taliban were a distinct group who fought alongside other mujahideen groups in the jihad against the Soviet Union. What distinguished them from the other factions was their focus on learning and teaching alongside actual fighting. For them jihad was not just about fighting but also required a strong educational perspective as well as a provision for justice.
Anyone who wished to fight on the Taliban front would have to comply with their strict routine of prayer and study which filled their lives when they were not fighting. Even in the course of the war, the Taliban had set up their own judicial system and settled disputes among ordinary people as well as the other mujahideen.
Moreover, unlike the other mujahideen fronts which were very homogenous with most people coming from the same background, tribe or family, and being motivated partly by money and land, the Taliban came from different backgrounds united by their sole motivation to fight for the sake of Allah.
This is evidenced by the fact that following the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the power struggle that followed among the various factions, the Taliban withdrew from the fighting and returned to their studies, turning their bases into madrasahs.
The Taliban rose to power among a wave of popular support between 1994 and 1996 at a time when Afghanistan had been plunged into one of the darkest chapters in its bloody history. Although the Soviets and their puppet regime had been driven out, the country was immersed in a brutal civil war between the very mujahideen factions that had defeated the common enemy. Afghanistan was taken to the brink of virtual disintegration. The country was divided into fiefdoms ruled by warlords; there was rampant corruption and oppression with not even a semblance of security anywhere. Highway robbery, plunder, rape, kidnapping, paedophilia and murder were rampant at a time that Afghans sadly remember as topakiyaan, the time of the men with guns.
Following a series of meetings to discuss the desperate need to restore security and stability in their local districts, the founding meeting of what the world today knows to be “the Taliban” was held in the late autumn of 1994 in Sangisar, Qandahar. It was here that Maulvi Abdul Samad was designated the Amir of the movement with Mullah Mohammad Omar appointed as its commander. Unlike other official movements, there were no written articles of association, no logo and no name for the movement agreed on or established during the meeting.
The BBC reported the birth of a new movement in Afghanistan and coined the name, the Taliban, stating its aim as being to cleanse the region of the illegal armed groups that were robbing the people. In essence, this was what they were doing, resorting to both negotiations and force to rid the areas of these commanders.
Nevertheless, the Taliban originally had no plans to extend their activities beyond their two districts of Maiwand and Panjwayi. However, with their success and reputation growing rapidly, soon they began to receive appeals from locals in neighbouring areas to rescue them from the oppressive warlords. Hundreds began to offer their money and services as volunteers.
As they took over localities, the Taliban established courts to settle disputes. City after city fell to the Taliban and by September 1996, they were the de facto government of Afghanistan.
The Taliban immediately began implementing Shari‘ah in the country issuing decrees banning alcohol, music, kite-flying, drug production, interest-bearing transactions, shaving the beard, and began enforcing the burqa and congregational salat, with the imposition of the death penalty and hudud punishments for violators. The government also commenced work on eliminating corruption in the ministries and concentrating on developing the country. It was an uphill struggle as they were hit with economic sanctions and lacked recognition by any countries except Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
For many in Afghanistan, having suffered decades of war, instability and anarchy, the Taliban were warmly welcomed. Despite their flaws, they were the best thing that Afghanistan had experienced in decades. It was for this reason that thousands of Muslims from all over the world also migrated to Afghanistan over the next few years.
Even Muslims born, raised and educated in countries like the US and Britain abandoned their careers and livelihoods to move with their families and settle down in the new Islamic Emirate. While many did comment on the Taliban excesses in their imposition of Shari‘ah, the general overall sentiment in Afghanistan was that they were living in the closest semblance of an Islamic state that existed in the Sunni world.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the US government increased its pressure on the Taliban to surrender Osama bin Laden to them. The Taliban refused to do so without seeing evidence of his involvement in the attacks but offered a number of other reasonable alternatives.
Their refusal further incensed the US and its allies who bombarded the world with negative propaganda about the Taliban and Shari‘ah. Weak Muslim governments, terrified by the prospect of offending US President George W. Bush began condemning the implementation of Shari‘ah and hudood ordinances and later joined the shooting war against the Taliban. The Taliban were overthrown and many of their leaders and high-ranking officials were either killed or captured and imprisoned in Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. Some continue to be held there without charge until this day.
However, the true resilience of the movement can be seen in the fact that despite these initial setbacks, the Taliban have since 2005 successfully managed to regroup, retake and consolidate control over large parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, again with the support of many locals. They have opened up new fronts in the North. This has been possible largely due to an almost nonexistent local government, endemic corruption, lawlessness and insecurity, and the population’s distrust of the international coalition.
Once again, as the Taliban conquer areas, courts are immediately established to rule according to Shari‘ah. In so doing, they have completely bypassed the “government” in Kabul and built a parallel government in areas they control to fulfil two basic needs: justice and security. Locals perceived the Taliban courts as more effective and fairer than the corrupt official system. Many areas now controlled by the Taliban have seen a decrease in crime where villagers are content to pay the Taliban taxes in exchange for security.
What many in the international coalition and the Muslim world are slowly realising is that the Taliban must not be underestimated or written off as just another rag tag army. Far from a loose assortment of local groups, the Taliban are nationally organized, with coherent leadership and a sophisticated propaganda operation.
In a report in June 2009, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded:
The Taliban are a revolutionary movement deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system and focused on rebuilding the Islamic Emirate. Their propaganda and intelligence are efficient, and the local autonomy of their commanders in the field allows them both flexibility and cohesion. They have made clever use of ethnic tensions, the rejection of foreign forces by the Afghan people, and the lack of local administration to gain support in the population. In so doing the Taliban have achieved their objectives in the South and East of the country, isolating the Coalition, marginalizing the local Afghan administration, and establishing a parallel administration (mainly to dispense Sharia (sic) justice and collect taxes). In recent months, a more professional Taliban have succeeded in making significant inroads by recruiting from non-Pashtun communities.
The sheer number of Muslims who continue to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban from around the world, and in particular from Pakistan, indicates the growing level of support they enjoy. When this is added to the thousands of fighters the Taliban can mobilize nationwide, it becomes clear that the international coalition is fighting an unwinnable war. Even after suffering battlefield defeats and losing key commanders such as Mullah Barader and Mullad Dadullah, the Taliban have always been able to regroup due to the resilience of their political structure.
The Taliban have also addressed the perception that they are solely a Pashtun movement by using their members drawn from non-Pashtun communities to mobilize support among the wider Afghan Muslim population. It is true that many are now switching, not out of any specific love for the Taliban, but out of a sense that it is safer to ally with them as signs are now pointing to a Taliban victory.
Furthermore, the Taliban have learned from their earlier mistakes in dealing with the media and public opinion. When they first came to power and especially in the post-9/11 environment, the Taliban cared little for international public opinion and kept a distant relationship from the media, creating an air of mysteriousness and suspicion about them.
Today, many in the international coalition accept that the Taliban have created a sophisticated communications apparatus that routinely outperforms the coalition in the contest to dominate public perceptions of the war. The conventional wisdom that the Taliban, being fundamentalists, are not open to new technologies has also been discredited by the fact that they regularly employ usage of mobile phones, DVDs, and the internet to propagate their beliefs and gather further support.
A clear example of this was their providing Al Jazeera in July 2009 with a copy of The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen, a 60-page Code of Conduct written by Mullah Omar that talks about limiting suicide attacks, avoiding civilian casualties, prohibiting the harassment of civilians, and winning the battle for hearts and minds of the local civilian population.
A similar code prohibiting attacks on civilian mutilations, and looting, was issued by Mullah Omar in 2006 but not given to the media. This not only reflects a new professional public relations strategy but also a growing political maturity and concern for civilian life by the Taliban leadership.
A UN report from 2009 stated that Taliban fighters were responsible for 595 civilian deaths in the first half of 2009. Mujahideen are also ordered not to harm prisoners and forbidden from releasing them for money, a clear attempt to prevent criminal gangs, who portray themselves as Taliban, from the practice of kidnapping for ransom.
Seven years after their ouster, the Taliban are probably a much stronger outfit, than ever before. They continue to provide a semblance of stability in regions where coalition and government officials have been unable to restore order and provide basic services.
According to research undertaken by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), by December 2008 the Taliban had permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan, up from 54% in November 2007. “Confident in their expansion beyond the rural south,” ICOS reported, “the Taliban is at the gates of the capital and infiltrating the city at will.” With a military solution to the conflict appearing less likely than ever before, greater calls are being made to come to a negotiated settlement.
Numerous attempts continue to be made by the international coalition to divide the Taliban into “moderates” who they can work with it and “fundamentalists” who must be marginalized. Such tactics have been used throughout the last nine years and were first attempted in the early days of the war in 2001 by the Pakistani ISI.
As leading Taliban member Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef explains in his autobiography, as the Taliban do not exist for the sake of money and power, they cannot be destroyed by money and power. According to Zaeef, the Taliban movement is one based on Islamic ideology, struggling for holy jihad under the principles of obedience and listening, as well as dialogue. There is no difference today with local Taliban commanders recognising and respecting the chain of hierarchy, motivated by the united vision of re-establishing the Islamic Emirate.
It is this recognition by a growing number of Muslims both in Afghanistan and elsewhere that their popularity is on the rise. Nevertheless, the Taliban will continue to face an uphill struggle to persuade the majority of those in the Muslim and non-Muslim world of their credentials.
Despite their opposition to and public condemnation of the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban will forever be associated with them. To publicly express support for the movement is to be labelled a “terrorist” in the eyes of the non-Muslims and “extremist” in the eyes of many Muslims.
The most significant test however will again be how the Taliban will cope as a government should they emerge victorious in this war. They are likely to face economic sanctions and international isolation. It is only if the Muslim world offers them some support and recognition that they will have a fair chance to govern and be judged accordingly.