Who Are the Taliban?

Who are the insurgents in Afghanistan?
By Lenin’s Tomb, Jul 15, 2007, 00:56

The one-word answer supplied in most news reports to this question is, of course, “Taliban”. It would be astonishing if this was all there was to it, so occasionally we get the admission that it includes other elements. For example, a UNAMA spokesperson says:

“The Taliban are not the only component of Afghanistan’s insurgency. There is factional fighting in parts of the country, insecurity caused by drug traffickers and those fighting because they have been intimidated or paid to do so … They all form important elements of this insurgency.

There is, of course, a way to put this that saves the basic underlying claim that anyone resisting the occupiers, in military or other ways, must have obscure and disreputable motives. The occupiers are innocent, everyone else is guilty until proven innocent. USA Today put it thus last year: “The insurgency is a loose alliance of Taliban guerrillas, followers of former prime minister and fundamentalist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, al-Qaeda terrorists recruited from across the Islamic world, opium traffickers and local fighters whose murky motives are rooted in tribal politics.” Pro-occupation think-tanks like the Senlis Council and the International Crisis Group advise the occupiers to meet the grievances of the local population, who can thus be won away from supporting the insurgency. The Senlis Council’s report, focusing on Helmand, Kandahar and Nangarhar, describes a number of reasons why local populations are increasingly turning toward support for the insurgency, and thus putting local politicians under pressure to support it as well, and the main one is Dyncorp’s destruction of the opium farms of the poor (those belonging to the wealthy warlords are left well alone). Senlis has advocated legalising opium production for medicinal purposes There is a misperception that opium production is especially controlled by the Taliban. It is true that the biggest increase in product lately has been in Helmand – taking it to almost 70,000 hectares. But across the country, according to the UNODC, total production last year was 165,000 hectares. In those areas controlled by US-allied warlords, and for Afghanistan’s wealthy landlords more generally, opium production is a vital component of their continued control. Various commentators have suggested legalising opium production rather than destroying livelihoods, but this sort of misses the point: keeping it illegal makes it an excellent source of funds for covert action, and right now it is providing America’s allies in Afghanistan with enormous leverage over the country. In other words, the current war to secure a successful client regime relies on extirpating production that could generate revenue for the opposition, while leaving the resources of the ruling elite well alone. Indeed, billions of US dollars have been ploughed through the channels of a patrimonial state into the hands of the pro-American rentier elite. The “war on drugs” is what it has always been: a free-form, wide-ranging counterinsurgency campaign; meanwhile, the insurgency has, as a result of this, an element of class warfare, since what is now fuelling it, in part, is the misery of poor farmers being deprived of their means of livelihood, with massive starvation and misery, while the rich prosper.

So, then, perhaps we should also ask a question about who exactly the Taliban are. For, although we assume we know, Najib Manalai, an Afghan government adviser, insists that the Taliban are a very different kind of movement today: the Taliban are no longer a single group, one single entity. The Taliban, at first, were students — Afghan students who traditionally wanted to study theology. In the beginning, they were a group of Afghans who had very good intentions after five years of anarchy in Afghanistan — they just wanted to bring peace to Afghanistan. They were very popular. Then this movement was somehow hijacked by Pakistani intelligence services and by international terrorist groups. Now when we talk about the Taliban, we are talking about a kind of amalgam of different forces, such as people who are unhappy about government forces because they can’t find their place in the present confederation of Afghan policies; people who are committed to other interests — foreign interests, mainly from the Pakistani circle; and there are people with the fundamentalist ideology of the international Islamic movements. “The Taliban” is a composite of these components.

There is a great deal of euphemism in that. Afghanistan’s current polity is a sectarian one, which largely excludes Pashtuns (Karzai is in this respect a useful token). Recall that the initial success against the Taliban involved the ethnic cleansing of some 50,000 Pashtuns. But this sectarian dynamic is in part a result of the failure of the US to win Pashtun allies prior to the war beginning. They had tried with Abdul Haq, the anti-Taliban ‘moderate’ who had broken with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb e-Islami before fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan under the CIA-funded Yunus Khalis. But he wouldn’t follow orders and publicly criticised the bombing of the country. It was his aim to mobilise a domestic insurgency independently of the CIA and the ISI. One or the other of these two agencies leaked his plans to the Taliban during the bombing and ensured his death. At any rate, the US was only interested in pro-American Pashtun leaders, and could find precious few. As such they had to rely on the Northern Alliance with whom they started making a secret alliance in 1999. So, those who “can’t find their place in the present confederation of Afghan policies” are those who are being specifically excluded. The predominantly Pashtun Taliban regime was in fact more representative of the different ethnic groups than the current one. Aside from the various groups in the south, there is a growing insurgency in the north-west of the country, due to conflict with the warlords in government such as Ismail Khan, and the ridiculously brutal spate of Nato bombardment (apparently these recent massacres are the result of a deliberate policy shift).

Aside from the growing armed insurgency, there is of course an unarmed political opposition developing. The Taliban era was a desperate one, but this regime is hardly more progressive. Aside from the fairly serious matter of occupying troops rampaging through cities, airplanes lobbing bombs at villages, secret prisons, torture cells, kidnappings and so on, there is the small problem that the state built and the groups empowered by the occupiers are client despots. They murder and torture their enemies with impunity, and their police chiefs rape and extort. They steal taxes, bulldoze houses, steal land. Northern Alliance rulers kidnap people and ransom them back to their families with the pretense that they were Taliban arrestees. There is nothing the attorney general likes more than to lock up media workers who displease him. Critics like Malalai Joya are unwelcome (she has recently been suspended for the remainder of her term). The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice continues to operate. Reports last year that it would ‘return’ after a resolution passed by Karzai’s cabinet last year were misleading: the department, although now synonymous with Taliban terror, had actually originated under the US-recognised Rabbani regime, and continued under Karzai’s regime in various forms. The Vice and Virtue squads continued to operate in Kabul, warlords like Ismail Khan imposed the old regime, and Karzai’s ‘Accountability Department’ took over many of the roles of the department. In this respect, it is worth noting that, as NGO workers Chris Johnson & Jolyon Leslie point out in their widely praised Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace, that the Taliban have been demonised out of all proportion. This isn’t simply an artefact of war propaganda, but in part a result of NGO misconceptions. Their repression, as brutal as it was, should not have been understood as simply an emanation of their own peculiar, reactionary ideology. It was rooted in the common social practises of the most conservative elements of society in Afghanistan, which fused with the conditions of war, and then civil war, to produce a militant war on ‘sin’ and ‘vice’ (with well-known, and savage punishments such as stonings and amputations). If you go back and have a look at the scholarly studies of Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban, this is a frequent theme raised by the regime in justification for some of its worst policies (excluding girls from education for example). Nasreen Ghufran noted in Asian Survey in May 2001 that the regime’s claim was that it needed time to develop the correct environment for girls and women to be educated and work: it saw its model, ironically, as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nevertheless, women’s struggles were able to exert some effects. As Jeanette O’Malley wrote in 2000: “In early June, supreme leader Mullah Omar issued an edict allowing for the expansion of mosque schools for young boys and girls. The mosque schools are apparently little more than a substitute acceptable to clerics and hard-line officials for state-run schools, as they offer the same curriculum.” NGO groups who worked in Afghanistan were able to set up schooling for girls by simply telling local Taliban officials that it was a mosque. The point is that the assumption that hardline religious and social conservatism was something that could be pinned exclusively on the Taliban has been at best a misguided one. Today, of course, the imposition of the burqa is still enforced even if not by edict. Women must now struggle against empowered warlords, who are given to raping women (and children) they like the look of. A recent study found that most women in Afghanistan suffer mental and physical abuse. So-called ‘honour killings’ continue, as do slavery and stonings.

Now, whatever the prevailing barbarism in Afghanistan, the insurgency doesn’t command significant support anywhere beyond the southern provinces at the moment. If the only dynamic involved here were the insurgency, which is widely understood as a Taliban affair and whose tactics are becoming increasingly brutal, then this state of affairs would remain permanent. However, it is not. The attempt by the United States to impose and maintain a pro-US regime is developing several oppositional currents. Its barbaric air campaign is galvanising communities of resistance in surprising places, while also driving people into the arms of the Talibs and their allies. This is why British military leaders are worried that they may lose Afghanistan. They couldn’t possibly lose militarily to a rag-tag collection of militants: it is the political nature of the war they are fighting, the fact that is for US domination, that is producing this resistance, and that will ensure – if we don’t force our governments to end the occupation – that a prolonged and vicious war is afoot. This may also take the form of a civil war at some point. Unfortunately, the resources for a left or even secular nationalist movement in Afghanistan are extremely limited. Military resistance to the this brutal occupation is obviously legitimate, and no occupation force has a right to complain if it is tormented by its enemies (“awe, shucks, the insurgents are holding up all our good work”). However, if there is hope for Afghanistan it lies in a broader, more grassroots and less fissiparous movement than the austere and brutal Talibs or Hekmatyarists could ever deliver. How much chance is there of that happening? After almost thirty years of devastating war in which the most reactionary elements have been promoted and defended by imperial interlopers, in which rival imperial powers have tortured the people of Afghanistan for decades, it is easy to be pessimistic. After all, neither the CIA or the ISI will ever leave Afghanistan alone, and even if they did it would be a long struggle to unite a sufficient coalition of women and the poor to displace the conservative elites. A great deal depends on external factors such as what happens to the US in Iraq, whether we can force our states to withdraw their troops, whether Musharraf survives in Pakistan and who replaces him, etc. But, the more the insurgency becomes an armed movement of the poor, the more political independence they will have to develop, and the greater chance they will have to confront the landlord class. And groups like RAWA and fiercely independent figures like Malalai Joya are still fighting.


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