Notes From Afghanistan Part V: Understanding the Taliban. Are Our Assumptions Wrong?

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

If there is one thing this month in Afghanistan has taught me, it is that our common assumptions about the Afghan conflict are likely to be fundamentally wrong.  One assumption that is frequently made is that the war is basically political.  Empirical support for this argument comes mainly from work done examining the roots of the uprising.  For instance Anand Gopal’s excellent report examining Kandahar in the early 2000s suggested that the Taliban were willing to recognize the Afghan government at that time, and only resumed hostilities after being harshly repressed by the local government.

Viewing the conflict as political has immense policy implications because it implies that a political process based on power sharing could potentially succeed.  Or to paraphrase that old Prussian Clausewitz: If conflict is an extension of politics, then politics can potentially resolve conflict.

Viewing the war as political also implies that the insurgency has clear political objectives.  What are the objectives of the Taliban?  First and foremost, they demand that the U.S. removes the troops based in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately this seems less like a “political” objective and more a short-term aim to strengthen their military and strategic position.  I specifically asked a reporter contact from Wardak, whether the Taliban’s core demands would be met once the U.S. withdraws.  He was highly skeptical.

The Taliban’s broader goal of re-establishing an Islamic Emirate is incompatible with the Afghan state.  A return to Taliban governance is understood by many Afghans to mean the destruction of the state. The government has justifiably shown little appetite for deal-making, a point highlighted by the recent revelations in AP detailing how the Afghan government scuttled the U.S.-Talib Berlin negotiations.

Unfortunately, the forces driving this conflict run deeper than politics.  If there is one startlingly obvious feature of Taliban tactics, it is that their missions are increasingly suicidal.  The attacks on the British council and inter-continental in Kabul show a trend of increasing suicide attacks.  These do not suggest a movement that has any intention of compromise.  An individual doesn’t agree to blow himself up over a dispute that can be resolved by “talking about it”.

The Taliban have a triple strategy to achieve their objective.

1.      Intimidation through night letters, assassination attacks, and bombings.  Increasingly this intimidation includes allies of Karzai (see the Charikar attacks) as well as foreign aid workers whose projects are tied to the government.

2.   Outreach through culturally conservative vision of Islam that appeals to young socially constrained Afghans across diverse sectors of society.

3.  Exploitation of tribal rivalries.


Propaganda is a fascinating, and I believe under-researched topic in Afghanistan.  Local Afghans point out, correctly I think, that in terms of actual numbers, the Taliban remain a relatively small force.  True, I argue, but the most salient feature of the Taliban’s strength is not there total numbers of support, but their seemingly infinite ability to recruit.  Understanding this phenomenon is of paramount importance to defeating the insurgency.

Even in Kabul, propaganda and messaging seems to play an important role in shaping beliefs.  Two features you often hear are that the government is somehow un-Islamic (this sounds to me like Talib propaganda), and that the Taliban are a bunch of Pakistanis (government propaganda maybe?)  At the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the an editor felt so strongly about this Pakistani connection that he interrupted my interview.  An Afghan aid worker was equally emphatic on this point; as evidence, she pointed to the captured “foreign Talibs” paraded on state television news channels.  If that doesn’t convince you that this is government propaganda, I don’t know what will.

To be fair, elements within Pakistan have played (and continue to play) a role in supporting the insurgency and they heavily influence the insurgency—particularly the Haqqanis.  For instance, much of the radicalization of Afghans reportedly occurs in Pakistani madrasahs.  It should be re-emphasized, however, that the insurgency remains overwhelmingly local.

My engineer host (mentioned last post) put it most accurately when he said, emotion in his voice: “I know my people have a lot to do with what happened, but the Pakistanis played a role too.”

Tribal Exploitation:

The relationship between the tribes and the insurgents also remains ambiguous.  On the one hand, the insurgent movement is seen correctly as an attempt to usurp power from tribal structures.  On the other hand Afghan tribes have been an insurgent’s best friends: Since the movement’s inception, the Taliban have continually exploited tribal rivalries.

It should be noted that the tribal governance as a root cause of the insurgency contradicts the common explanation that state or warlord abuses are the main drivers of the conflict.  For instance, in Uruzgan longstanding blood feuds between the Popolzai (Karzai’s tribe) and Nurzai as well as inter-tribal rivalries seem to have played a larger role in the Taliban’s resurgence than the admittedly heavy-handed policies of former governor and warlord Jan Muhammad.  Even Jan Mohammad’s replacement with a more conciliatory governor, the security situation has continued to deteriorate (see The Liaison Office Report on Uruzgan).

As for the central government, they continue to have a very limited presence in rural districts.  For instance 80 to 90% of disputes in non-Talib areas are settled in the tribal judicial system; to the extent that Talib resurgence represents a rejection of predatory governance, its predatory governance at the tribal level.

That’s all for now. Next post I will conclude with the pros and cons of various policy options.

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