[Note for Readers: To listen to a TomDispatch audio interview with
journalist Anand Gopal about the difficulties involved in reporting from Afghanistan,
Just when the Obama presidency-to-be was revving
up to introduce its new national security "team" and reformulate US policy
in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border regions, the Afghan War ratcheted up
a notch – and not because there was another
missile strike from an American drone aircraft in the Pakistani tribal borderlands,
or because yet more civilians
died in US military operations, or even because attacks by "the Taliban" rose
yet again to new heights.
No, that ratcheting up occurred in Mumbai, India, where the planners of the
murderous rampage by a crew of Kashmiri
militants decided that stirring up a good
old face-off between the two edgy nuclear powers of the subcontinent would
be advantageous. A precision operation that managed to slaughter just about
anyone in sight (including Indian Muslims) now threatens to change the nature
of the Afghan War, heat up the conflict in
Kashmir, and embroil the region in an even wider catastrophe, ending
a period of easing tensions between India and Pakistan. Already Pakistan
to transfer up to 100,000 troops from the borderlands with Afghanistan to the
As Paul Woodward of the War in Context website wrote,
"[W]hat we witnessed was a major move on President-elect Obama's chessboard
of foreign policy even before he'd had a chance to lay a finger on any of the
pieces." Tony Karon caught
the essence of the larger political moment this way: "Provoking India would
not only realign the interests of the Pakistani military and the Islamists,
it would threaten US efforts to reorient the Pakistani military towards domestic
counterinsurgency, and to broker a deeper rapprochement with India – a
development US analysts believe is key to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan."
In other words, the already
expanding war in Afghanistan – American supply
routes through the Khyber Pass, for instance, have recently been endangered
– just expanded a little (or possibly a lot) more. It's a sobering reminder
of a world that may be beyond the control of any national security team. And
even as this occurs, what we here know about "the other side" in Afghanistan,
generally known as "the Taliban," is modest indeed. Fortunately, Anand Gopal,
a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, offers his second
vividly reported post for TomDispatch, an on-the-ground look at who the
Taliban – "a slippery movement that morphs from district to district" –
really are. This timely piece represents a joint project of TomDispatch.com
and the Nation Magazine, where a shorter version appears in print. Tom
Who Are the Taliban?
The Afghan War Deciphered
By Anand Gopal
[This piece is a joint project of TomDispatch.com
and the Nation Magazine, where
a shorter version appears in print.]
If there is an exact location marking the West's
failures in Afghanistan, it is the modest police checkpoint that sits on the
main highway 20 minutes south of Kabul. The post signals the edge of the capital,
a city of spectacular tension, blast walls, and standstill traffic. Beyond this
point, Kabul's gritty, low-slung buildings and narrow streets give way to a
vast plain of serene farmland hemmed in by sandy mountains. In this valley in
Logar province, the American-backed government of Afghanistan no longer exists.
Instead of government officials, men in muddied black turbans with assault
rifles slung over their shoulders patrol the highway, checking for thieves and
"spies." The charred carcass of a tanker, meant to deliver fuel to international
forces further south, sits belly up on the roadside.
The police say they don't dare enter these districts, especially at night
when the guerrillas rule the roads. In some parts of the country's south and
east, these insurgents have even set up their own government, which they call
the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the name of the former Taliban government).
They mete out justice in makeshift Sharia courts. They settle land disputes
between villagers. They dictate the curricula in schools.
Just three years ago, the central government still controlled the provinces
near Kabul. But years of mismanagement, rampant criminality, and mounting civilian
casualties have led to a spectacular resurgence of the Taliban and other related
groups. Today, the Islamic Emirate enjoys de facto control in large parts
of the country's south and east. According to ACBAR, an umbrella organization
representing more than 100 aid agencies, insurgent attacks have increased by
50% over the past year. Foreign soldiers are now dying at a higher rate here
than in Iraq.
The burgeoning disaster is prompting the Afghan government of President Hamid
Karzai and international players to speak openly of negotiations with sections
of the insurgency.
The New Nationalist Taliban
Who exactly are the Afghan insurgents? Every suicide attack and kidnapping
is usually attributed to "the Taliban." In reality, however, the insurgency
is far from monolithic. There are the shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing
religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students,
poor, illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is
a mélange of nationalists, Islamists, and bandits that fall uneasily
into three or four main factions. The factions themselves are made up of competing
commanders with differing ideologies and strategies, who nonetheless agree on
one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners.
It wasn't always this way. When US-led forces toppled the Taliban government
in November 2001, Afghans celebrated the downfall of a reviled and discredited
regime. "We felt like dancing in the streets," one Kabuli told me. As US-backed
forces marched into Kabul, the Afghan capital, remnants of the old Taliban regime
split into three groups. The first, including many Kabul-based bureaucrats and
functionaries, simply surrendered to the Americans; some even joined the Karzai
government. The second, comprised of the movement's senior leadership, including
its leader Mullah Omar, fled across the border into Pakistan, where they remain
to this day. The third and largest group – foot soldiers, local commanders,
and provincial officials – quietly melted into the landscape, returning
to their farms and villages to wait and see which way the wind blew.
Meanwhile, the country was being carved up by warlords and criminals. On the
brand-new highway connecting Kabul to Kandahar and Herat, built with millions
of Washington's dollars, well-organized groups of bandits would regularly terrorize
travelers. "[Once], thirty, maybe fifty criminals, some in police uniforms,
stopped our bus and shot [out] our windows," Muhammadullah, the owner of a bus
company that regularly uses the route, told me. "They searched our vehicle and
stole everything from everyone." Criminal syndicates, often with government
connections, organized kidnapping sprees in urban centers like the former Taliban
stronghold of Kandahar city. Often, those few who were caught would simply be
released after the right palms were greased.
Onto this landscape of violence and criminality rode the Taliban again, promising
law and order. The exiled leadership, based in Quetta, Pakistan, began reactivating
its networks of fighters who had blended into the country's villages. They resurrected
relationships with Pashtun tribes. (The insurgents, historically a predominantly
Pashtun movement, still have very little influence among other Afghan minority
ethnic groups like the Tajiks and Hezaras.) With funds from wealthy Arab donors
and training from the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence apparatus, they were able
to bring weapons and expertise into Pashtun villages.
In one village after another, they drove out the remaining minority of government
sympathizers through intimidation and assassination. Then they won over the
majority with promises of security and efficiency. The guerrillas implemented
a harsh version of Sharia law, cutting off the hands of thieves and shooting
adulterers. They were brutal, but they were also incorruptible. Justice no longer
went to the highest bidder. "There's no crime any more, unlike before," said
Abdul Halim, who lives in a district under Taliban control.
The insurgents conscripted fighters from the villages they operated in, often
paying them $200 a month – more than double the typical police salary.
They adjudicated disputes between tribes and between landowners. They protected
poppy fields from the eradication attempts of the central government and foreign
armies – a move that won them the support of poor farmers whose only stable
income came from poppy cultivation. Areas under insurgent control were consigned
to having neither reconstruction nor social services, but for rural villagers
who had seen much foreign intervention and little economic progress under the
Karzai government, this was hardly new.
At the same time, the Taliban's ideology began to undergo a transformation.
"We are fighting to free our country from foreign domination," Taliban spokesman
Qari Yousef Ahmadi told me over the phone. "The Indians fought for their independence
against the British. Even the Americans once waged an insurgency to free their
own country." This emerging nationalistic streak appealed to Pashtun villagers
growing weary of the American and NATO presence.
The insurgents are also fighting to install a version of Sharia law in the
country. Nonetheless, the famously puritanical guerrillas have moderated some
of their most extreme doctrines, at least in principle. Last year, for instance,
Mullah Omar issued an edict declaring music and parties – banned in the
Taliban's previous incarnation – permissible. Some Taliban commanders have
even started accepting the idea of girls' education. Certain hard-line leaders
like the one-legged Mullah Daddullah, a man of legendary brutality (whose beheading
binges at times reportedly proved too much even for Mullah Omar) were killed
by international forces.
Meanwhile, a more pragmatic leadership started taking the reins. US intelligence
officers believe that day-to-day leadership of the movement is now actually
in the hands of the politically savvy Mullah Brehadar, while Mullah Omar retains
a largely figurehead position. Brehadar may be behind the push to moderate the
movement's message in order to win greater support.
Even at the local level, some provincial Taliban officials are tempering older-style
Taliban policies in order to win local hearts and minds. Three months ago in
a district in Ghazni province, for instance, the insurgents ordered all schools
closed. When tribal elders appealed to the Taliban's ruling religious council
in the area, the religious judges reversed the decision and reopened the schools.
However, not all field commanders follow the injunctions against banning music
and parties. In many Taliban-controlled districts such amusements are still
outlawed, which points to the movement's decentralized nature. Local commanders
often set their own policies and initiate attacks without direct orders from
the Taliban leadership.
The result is a slippery movement that morphs from district to district. In
some Taliban-controlled districts of Ghazni province, an Afghan caught working
for a non-governmental organization (NGO) would meet certain death. In parts
of neighboring Wardak province, however, where the insurgents are said to be
more educated and understand the need for development, local NGOs can function
with the guerrillas' permission.
The "Other" Talibans
Never short of guns and guerrillas, Afghanistan has proven fertile ground
for a whole host of insurgent groups in addition to the Taliban.
Naqibullah, a university student with a sparse beard who spoke in soft, measured
tones, was not quite 30 when we met. We were in the backseat of a parked dusty
Corolla on a pockmarked road near Kabul University, where he studied medicine.
Naqibullah (his nom de guerre) and his friends at the university are
members of Hizb-i-Islami, an insurgent group led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
and allied to the Taliban. His circle of friends meet regularly in the university's
dorm rooms, discussing politics and watching DVD videos of recent attacks.
Over the past year, his circle has shrunk: Sadiq was arrested while attempting
a suicide bombing. Wasim was killed when he tried to assemble a bomb at home.
Fouad killed himself in a successful suicide attack on a US base. "The Americans
have their B-52s," Naqibullah explained. "Suicide attacks are our versions of
B-52s." Like his friends, Naqibullah, too, had considered the possibility of
becoming a "B-52." "But it would kill too many civilians," he told me. Besides,
he had plans to use his education. He said, "I want to teach the uneducated
For years Hizb-i-Islami fighters have had a reputation for being more educated
and worldly than their Taliban counterparts, who are often illiterate farmers.
Their leader, Hekmatyar, studied engineering at Kabul University in the 1970s,
where he made a name of a sort for himself by hurling acid in the faces of unveiled
He established Hizb-i-Islami to counter growing Soviet influence in the country
and, in the 1980s, his organization became one of the most extreme fundamentalist
parties as well as the leading group fighting the Soviet occupation. Ruthless,
powerful, and anti-communist, Hekmatyar proved a capable ally for Washington,
which funneled millions of dollars and tons of weapons through the Pakistani
ISI to his forces.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Hekmatyar and the other mujahedeen commanders
turned their guns on each other, unleashing a devastating civil war from which
Kabul, in particular, has yet to recover. One-legged Afghans, crippled by Hekmatyar's
rockets, still roam the city's streets. However, he was unable to capture the
capital and his Pakistani backers eventually abandoned him for a new, even more
extreme Islamist force rising in the south: the Taliban.
Most Hizb-i-Islami commanders defected to the Taliban and Hekmatyar fled in
disgrace to Iran, losing much of his support in the process. He remained in
such low standing that he was among the few warlords not offered a place in
the US-backed government that formed after 2001.
This, after a fashion, was his good luck. When that government faltered, he
found himself thrust back into the role of insurgent leader, where, playing
on local frustrations in Pashtun communities just as the Taliban has, he slowly
Today, the group is one of the fastest growing insurgent outfits in the country,
according to Antonio Giustozzi, Afghan insurgency expert at the London School
of Economics. Hizb-i-Islami maintains a strong presence in the provinces near
Kabul and Pashtun pockets in the country's north and northeast. It assisted
in a complex assassination attempt on President Karzai last spring and was behind
a high-profile ambush that killed ten NATO soldiers this summer. Its guerrillas
fight under the Taliban banner, although independently and with a separate command
structure. Like the Taliban, its leaders see their task as restoring Afghan
sovereignty as well as establishing an Islamic state in Afghanistan. Naqibullah
explained, "The US installed a puppet regime here. It was an affront to Islam,
an injustice that all Afghans should rise up against."
The independent Islamic state that Hizb-i-Islami is fighting for would undoubtedly
have Hekmatyar, not Mullah Omar, in command. But as during the anti-Soviet jihad,
the settling of scores is largely being left to the future.
The Pakistani Nexus
Blowback abounds in Afghanistan. Erstwhile CIA hand Jalaluddin Haqqani heads
yet a third insurgent network, this one based in Afghanistan's eastern border
regions. During the anti-Soviet war, the US gave Haqqani, now considered by
many to be Washington's most redoubtable foe, millions of dollars, anti-aircraft
missiles, and even tanks. Officials in Washington were so enamored with him
that former congressman Charlie Wilson once called him "goodness personified."
Haqqani was an early advocate of the "Afghan Arabs," who, in the 1980s, flocked
to Pakistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union. He ran training
camps for them and later developed close ties to al-Qaeda, which developed out
of Afghan-Arab networks towards the end of the anti-Soviet war. After the attacks
of September 11, 2001, the US tried desperately to bring him over to its side.
However, Haqqani claimed that he couldn't countenance a foreign presence on
Afghan soil and once again took up arms, aided by his longtime benefactors in
Pakistan's ISI. He is said to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan,
a tactic unheard of there before 2001. Western intelligence officials pin the
blame for most of the spectacular attacks in recent memory – a massive
car bomb that ripped apart the Indian embassy in July, for example – on
the Haqqani network, not the Taliban.
The Haqqanis command the lion's share of foreign fighters operating in the
country and tend to be even more extreme than their Taliban counterparts. Unlike
most of the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, elements of the Haqqani network work
closely with al-Qaeda. The network's leadership is most likely based in Waziristan,
in the Pakistani tribal areas, where it enjoys ISI protection.
Pakistan extends support to the Haqqanis on the understanding that the network
will keep its holy war within Afghanistan's borders. Such agreements are necessary
because, in recent years, Pakistan's longstanding policy of aiding Islamic militant
groups has plunged the country into a devastating war within its own borders.
As Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants trickled into Pakistan after the fall of
the Taliban government in 2001, Islamabad signed on to the Bush administration's
Global War on Terror. It was a profitable venture: Washington delivered billions
of dollars in aid and advanced weaponry to Pakistan's military government, all
the while looking the other way as dictator Pervez Musharraf increased his vise-like
grip on the country. In return, Islamabad targeted al-Qaeda militants, every
few months parading a captured "high-ranking" leader before the news cameras,
while leaving the Taliban leadership on its territory untouched.
While the Pakistani military establishment never completely eradicated al-Qaeda
– doing so might have stanched the flow of aid – it kept up just enough
pressure so that the Arab militants declared war on the government. By 2004,
the Pakistani army had entered the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a semi-autonomous
region populated by Pashtun tribes (where al-Qaeda fighters had taken refuge),
in force for the first time in an attempt to root out the foreign militants.
Over the next few years, repeated Pakistani army incursions, along with a
growing number of US missile strikes (which sometimes killed civilians), enraged
the local tribal populations. Small, tribal-based groups calling themselves
"the Taliban" began to emerge; by 2007, there were at least 27 such groups active
in the Pakistani borderlands. The guerrillas soon won control of areas in such
tribal districts as North and South Waziristan, and began to act like a version
of the 1990s Taliban redux: they banned music, beat liquor store owners,
and prevented girls from attending school. While remaining independent of the
Afghan Taliban, they also wholeheartedly supported them.
By the end of 2007, the various Pakistani Taliban groups had merged into a
single outfit, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, under the command of an enigmatic 30-something
guerrilla – Baitullah Mehsud. Pakistani authorities blame Mehsud's group,
usually referred to simply as the "Pakistani Taliban," for a string of major
attacks, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud and his allies
have strong links to al-Qaeda and continue to wage an on-again, off-again war
against the Pakistani military. At the same time, some members of the Pakistani
Taliban have filtered across the border to join their Afghan counterparts in
the fight against the Americans.
Tehrik-i-Taliban proved surprisingly powerful, regularly routing Pakistani
army units whose foot soldiers were loathe to fight their fellow countrymen.
But almost as soon as Tehrik had emerged, fissures appeared. Not all Pakistani
Taliban commanders were convinced of the efficacy of fighting a two-front war.
Part of the movement, calling itself the "Local Taliban," adopted a different
strategy, avoiding battles with the Pakistani military. In addition, a significant
number of other Pakistani militant groups – including many trained by the
ISI to fight in Indian Kashmir – now operate in the Pakistani borderlands,
where they abstain from fighting the Pakistani government and focus their fire
on the Americans in, or American supply lines into, Afghanistan.
The result of all this is a twisted skein of alliances and ceasefires in which
Pakistan is fighting a war against al-Qaeda and one section of the Pakistani
Taliban, while leaving another section, as well as other independent militant
groups, free to go about their business. That business includes crossing the
border into Afghanistan, where the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, and independent
fighters from the tribal regions and elsewhere add to the mix that has produced
what one Western intelligence official terms a "rainbow coalition" arrayed against
Living in a World of War
Despite such foreign connections, the Afghan rebellion remains mostly a homegrown
affair. Foreign fighters – especially al-Qaeda – have little ideological
influence on most of the insurgency, and most Afghans keep their distance from
such outsiders. "Sometimes groups of foreigners speaking different languages
walk past," Ghazni resident Fazel Wali recalls. "We never talk to them and they
don't talk to us."
Al-Qaeda's vision of global jihad doesn't resonate in the rugged highlands
and windswept deserts of southern Afghanistan. Instead, the major concern throughout
much of the country is intensely local: personal safety.
In a world of endless war, with a predatory government, roving bandits, and
Hellfire missiles, support goes to those who can bring security. In recent months,
one of the most dangerous activities in Afghanistan has also been one of its
most celebratory: the large, festive wedding parties that Afghans love so much.
US forces bombed such a party in July, killing 47. Then, in November, warplanes
hit another wedding party, killing around 40. A couple of weeks later they hit
an engagement party, killing three.
"We are starting to think that we shouldn't go out in large numbers or have
public weddings," Abdullah Wali told me. Wali lives in a district of Ghazni
Province where the insurgents have outlawed music and dance at such wedding
parties. It's an austere life, but that doesn't stop Wali from wanting them
back in power. Bland weddings, it seems, are better than no weddings at all.
Anand Gopal writes frequently about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the "War
on Terror." He is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor based in
Afghanistan. For more of his information and dispatches from the region, visit
his website. This piece appears in print
in the latest issue of the Nation Magazine. To listen to a TomDispatch audio
interview with Gopal about the difficulties involved in reporting from Afghanistan,
Copyright 2008 Anand Gopal