Who are the Taliban? – Thomas Ruttig

The Taliban (meaning ‘students’ in Pashtun) is a jihadi movement based in Afghanistan, which ruled the country as ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ between 1996 and 2001. The movement mainly emanated from Deobandi Islamist madrassas in Pakistan and received significant financial support from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar.

Localised “Taliban fronts” emerged within different mujahedin tanzim from the early 1980s onwards, particularly in Afghanistan’s south. They were organised by ulema or mullahs who mobilised their students into mujahedin fronts, and mainly fought autonomously. One of those petty commanders was Mullah Muhammad Omar who ran a sharia court and a small front just outside Kandahar city in the mid-1980s. In 1996 he was appointed as amir-ul-mo’menin, a title giving him religious credentials beyond Afghanistan and making his leadership almost impossible to challenge from inside the movement.

Many Taliban fronts ceased fighting in 1989, after the Soviet troop withdrawal, to re-focus on teaching. It was only in 1994 that some of these groups remobilised, appalled by the chaos created by the tanzim, particularly by atrocities committed against children in the Kandahar region. They coalesced into what called itself the Islamic Movement of the Taliban (De Talibano Islami Ghurdzang, in Pashto). The Taliban were thus a younger, more ideologically radical generation of former mujahedin, though their enmity with the mujahedin tanzim is not primarily understood in religious terms but was and is caused by different political approaches.

The Taliban were a younger, more ideologically radical generation of former mujahedin.

Although an indigenous movement that had started in Afghanistan, the Taliban soon attracted interest and support from the Pakistani government. Elements in Pakistan’s military establishment, apparently with tacit approval in the leadership, continue to support the Taliban to this day, logistically, politically and possibly with intelligence and advice. This is consistently denied in public. The Taliban recruited heavily among the socially deprived Afghan refugee population in Pakistan, particularly among those without experience of Afghanistan, and madrassa students and orphans who were easy to indoctrinate but, over the last years, increasingly inside Afghanistan and beyond the Pashtun population.

The Taliban movement’s emergence also reflected intra-Pashtun social conflicts. These include tensions between the Pashtun tribal aristocracy that had dominated the monarchy and some of the tanzim, and more marginalised, often nomadic tribes as well as within certain tribes. In the Taliban’s organisation, religious, tribal and regional components overlap, even though as an Islamist movement it does not recognise tribal, ethnic or linguistic boundaries.

Today’s Taliban movement is dualistic in nature, both structurally and ideologically. These aspects are interdependent: a vertical organisational structure, in the form of a centralised ‘shadow state’, reflects its supra-tribal and supra-ethnic Islamist ideology, which at times appears ‘nationalistic’ by referring to Afghanistan as a nation. At the same time, the movement is characterised by horizontal, network-like structures that reflect its strong roots in segmented Pashtun tribal society. The movement is thus a ‘network of networks’.

Power is exercised through the mullahs, present in all Afghan communities.

The combination of vertical (religious and ideological) and horizontal (tribal) structures gives the Taliban movement a high degree of cohesion while maintaining organisational elasticity, which is consistent with a culture of Pashtun individualism. It allows discussion and even dissent, and a sufficient degree of autonomy to prevent local commanders feeling over-controlled. The movement has therefore experienced no serious splits. At the same time, its supra-tribal ideology opens the door to non-Pashtun participants. This has allowed it to systematically expand into non-Pashtun areas in the North and West. Islam as an ideology creates cohesion in an otherwise ethnically and politically heterogeneous movement. The Taliban exercise their power through the ubiquitous but previously politically insignificant mullahs, who are present in all Afghan communities, numbering a few hundred thousand. This has also given the mullahs hitherto unknown influence.

The Taliban’s ideology is said to be a ‘crude homemade Islam’, and an ‘eclectic ad hoc’ mixture full of ‘contradictions, breakouts, gaps, alterations and highly idiosyncratic interpretations’. It combines elements of the conservative Sunni Hanafi Islam predominant in rural Afghanistan, with fundamentalist readings of Arabian and Indian schools (Wahhabi, Deobandi). It stresses the importance of ritual and modes of behaviour, including external appearances, as epitomised by its notorious ‘religious police’, the Amr Bil Ma’ruf, during the 1996-2001 period. In the post-2001 period these aspects have been toned down, although there are still cases of bans on music during weddings, imposition of dress codes or attacks against shops selling cassettes and CDs.

The Taliban continue to rally against what they call an occupation of Muslim lands by unbelievers and the ‘corruption’ of their Afghan puppets, and question the government’s credentials as ‘good Muslims’. The term ‘Islamic’ in the movement’s name emphasises its supra-ethnic, nation-wide intentions, in contrast to the ‘Pashtun movement’ or ‘movement of the Pashtuns’ labels often ascribed to them in the West and in Pakistan.

Since 2001, the Afghan Taliban leadership has gone to extraordinary lengths to communicate with governments in neighbouring countries that it harbours no aggressive plans toward them. Despite the largely overblown threat scenarios articulated by Central Asian regimes, mainly to divert attention from internal suppression and to attract Western support, there have been few independently confirmed incidents of cross-border violence originating in Afghanistan. The relationship between Iran and the Taliban, which was extremely strained after the 1998 killing of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif, has seen a period of détente. This is mainly due to the enduring period of US-Iranian tension and the threat of a military strike on Iranian nuclear installations that, in Tehran’s view, could involve operations from Afghan territory. Tehran has established contact with Taliban groups and reportedly provided support, with the aim of mobilising spoilers in the case of US strikes. Mainly for domestic reasons, the Taliban also toned down their anti-Shia activity. China has maintained contact with the Taliban leadership since the early 2000s in order to ensure the Taliban did not train or support Uighur separatists.

The Afghan Taliban’s evolution since 2001 has led to differentiation with the Pakistani Taliban. The latter emerged as a support structure for their Afghan counterparts after 2001 but after trying to emulate the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime in Pakistan, came in to conflict with Islamabad, upon whose support the Afghan Taliban rely. Afghan Taliban leaders have often been mobilised by the Pakistani government to mediate with their Pakistani brethren, and the Afghan Taliban have worked hard to maintain this vital support. Today, it is mainly the Pakistani Taliban who host foreign jihadists, often from Uzbekistan and (Chinese) East Turkestan. Nevertheless, there remain operational links between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.