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    South Asia
     Jun 5, '14

Taliban change tack on many fronts
By Tafhim Kiani

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Outside Afghanistan, most publicity for the Taliban comes from their campaign of terror within the war-torn country. To casual observers it may appear as if the sole aim of seemingly mindless destruction is to expel foreign troops. While the Taliban do have that aim - and have to date refused to have any official negotiations until it has been achieved - their objective is to bring about an Islamic government in Afghanistan. [1] The Taliban have increasingly tried to portray themselves as legitimate stakeholders in Afghan affairs by putting a shadow government in place and dispensing justice in the areas they control.

The Taliban are estimated to have a total of 60,000-70,000 active members, of which only a small portion are mobilized for fighting. Many act as informants and providers of food, supplies and

accommodation for those who carry arms. As early as 2003, the Taliban started to fortify its structure through the appointment of its own provincial governors. [2]

Over the past 10 years, many Taliban leaders have been captured or killed, but the group's organizational bodies are able to quickly replace them with senior figures whose experience dates back to the rise of the Taliban in the early 1990s. Younger and less experienced figures also have been able to quickly rise up the chain of command by proving themselves on the battlefield.

Challenges of command and control
The Taliban have a sophisticated network of command and control which includes the Quetta Shura, also known as the Rahbari Shura and the Supreme council, four regional (military) shuras, 10 committees, local commands and village cells. While that structure has been demonstrably effective and adaptable, it can also at times be confusing and chaotic. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly, high-ranking Taliban officials have very different opinions. This can lead to conflicting messages, but at the same time can also be seen as a strength, as the diversity accommodates and attracts a larger group of potential sympathizers.

Secondly, due to expediency and the difficulty in implementing their writ, much autonomy has been given to local commanders and cells. In addition, Taliban leader Mullah Omar has long used the policy of constantly rotating and moving commanders between posts and areas in order that they do not have the opportunity to establish independent power bases. This policy can lead to confusion as to who the responsible authority is on a given issue and time. Also, in various locations the Taliban can be associated to a number of other groups with similar objectives to expel foreign troops and it is not always clear if these groups have formerly merged with the Taliban or merely engaged in alliances of convenience.

Take for example the Miramshah Regional Military Shura. Although a crucial Taliban asset, it is headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of the Soviet-era war commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and leader of the highly effective Haqqani Network. It is by no means certain that the Haqqani Network ever formally merged into the Taliban movement. Rather, it has pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar as the Amir ul-Momineen, even as it has always preserved its own identity and power-base independent of the Taliban movement. [3]

Yet, Sirajuddin's importance to the Taliban is made clear by the fact that he is not only the head of the Miramshah Regional Military Shura, but is also a member of the Quetta Shura and the Taliban's regional governor of Paktika, Paktia, and Khost. [4]

The level of cooperation with these groups varies according to time and place, but at core is a mutual hatred for the Western forces, rather than any ideological commitment, and thus it remains to be seen how well this cooperation will fair after the withdrawal of the US-led forces. But for now, leaders of these groups are able to work closely, have even divided geographical areas of authority, and at times have shared intelligence, propaganda activities and supported each other militarily.

Despite the uncertainties in command and control in some areas, and differences in ideology and motivation, it cannot be denied that the Taliban have achieved central control, which has been demonstrated by a common fighting strategy throughout the country. But that was not always so.

By 2003, the Taliban had been consigned to history and the Afghan government was firmly in control of the country. The Americans were presenting the Afghan war as a success and preparing to invade Iraq.

However, things started changing rapidly as shortcomings of the Afghanistan government and the reality of the new situation became apparent. Afghans were never really satisfied with the post-Taliban situation, as tolerance for foreign occupation went against their customs, traditions and attitudes. The people of Afghanistan had only initially been willing to give the occupying forces the benefit of the doubt and allow the administration, both local and foreign, time to prove that they were able to deliver on their promises.

Government security forces were largely deemed to be corrupt and became known to harass people for bribes. Anyone with a beard or turban was accused of being a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. People who lived in areas where support for the Taliban had been strong felt like they had no status or honor when they went outside of their own area. Suddenly, the Taliban's enemies, who were mostly in the northern areas and were non-Pashtuns, were given the upper hand.

Maybe the biggest reason for a new generation of Taliban to take up arms against the government was the perceived immorality of the Kabul government and its foreign backers.

Small isolated instances were exaggerated and stories spread between people and villages. Often, the narrative went unchallenged as people generally avoided visiting large cities due to safety concerns and precisely because these cities were seen as centers of immorality. Rumors of empty alcohol bottles on the streets in Kabul, young people openly performing sexual acts in the street, made Kabul seem like a part of Europe, and stories spread of foreign forces brutally attacking villages and killing innocent people including women and children. [5]

These stories were often broadcast though channels other than the Taliban, but the movement was able to exploit them. Through the past decade, locals who had previously been willing to give the foreign forces the benefit of the doubt and tolerate their presence if they were going to contribute to its rebuilding, quickly lost patience with the government and foreign troops alike. They realized that they were seeing no improvement in their circumstances and so had no reason to tolerate the perceived corruption and immorality brought in by Kabul and its international backers.

Funding the movement
On close inspection, this characteristic of the movement is symbolic of yet another aspect of the remarkable return that the Taliban have made since their ousting in 2001.

The Taliban operate in one of the world's remotest areas, where all transport infrastructure has been shattered as a result of decades of intense war. From this, the Taliban, with the help of drug traffickers, have been able to successfully incorporate an agricultural commodity into the world economy, as areas under the Taliban control today account for around 80% of the world opium market. [6]

While the outside world might disagree with their methods and criminalize their products, when seen in purely agricultural and export terms the Taliban have been able to achieve a feat that neither the Afghan government nor their international backers could perform. [7] This whole operation includes complex farm support and export networks that function despite the constant fear of attack and ongoing war, and includes processes such as the import of precursor chemicals and the provision of loans and security for thousands of small farmers. The Taliban charge a 10% tax on exports, [8] and give protection, safe passage and armed security to drug traffickers and their shipments.

The Taliban have been able to use a pre-existing trafficking network to aid and fund their movement. Furthermore, they are by no means the only group in Afghanistan that supports and benefits from the drug trade. Nor are they the largest benefactors. Several other groups, including Afghan government officials, also take part. However, most drugs from Afghanistan originate in areas the Taliban control. [9]

Estimates of Taliban revenue generated from opium-related trade vary highly. Whatever the true figures, it is clear from evidence that the Taliban are engaged in a lucrative drugs trade in Afghanistan, which is a u-turn from their governing years.

Although the drug trade within Afghanistan is mainly in the south of the country, Taliban allies such as the Hezb-e Islami, based in the east, and the southeast-based Haqqani Network are able to generate revenue from similar trade and distribution networks. Hezb-e Islami earns substantial revenues from smuggling timber and gemstones while the Haqqani Network gains the majority of its revenue through the smuggling of weapons. [10]

Public relations battle
It is not clear from the evidence that the Taliban want to become a major social service provider, rather they choose to focus on the military campaign. Alongside this, however, they have implemented decrees and services that give the impression that they are actually in control of the country. Their target is to win local support and neutralize negative publicity that lingers from their years in government before the US invasion in 2001.

In 2006, the Taliban drafted a new constitution of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (see footnote) and also created mobile courts that usually have a religious figure sitting as the judge; the Taliban assist in implementing any decisions that come through these courts. This justice system serves as an alternative to the one provided by the government of Afghanistan, which local people often mistrust. Through these courts, the Taliban have been able to swiftly resolve disputes that have been circulating in the government's justice system for years, and many Afghans view the Taliban system as capable of delivering fast and tough justice on thieves, bandits and murderers. [11]

In 2007, the Taliban announced a budget of US$1 million to support education in areas under their control. In some places, the Taliban have allowed the government education system to continue with some amendments to the curriculum and putting in mullahs as members of school staff.

As of March 2009, over 81 previously closed schools have opened up under these new arrangements between the government and the Taliban in parts of the country, and about 15% of students within these schools are reported to be girls. [12]

In 2007 and again in 2009 the Taliban issued codes of conduct for its fighters which stated that suicide attacks would be used only to target high-ranking officials and that fighters should take steps to avoid civilian casualties. The code also prohibits their Mujahideen taking part in kidnapping for ransom, or forcing people to donate cash. The central leadership can disown any member or commander for any serious violation of the code of conduct; in 2008 they sacked Mullah Mansur Dadullah for failing to obey the rules of the Emirate. [13]

This is not to say that the Taliban are not responsible for the loss of civilian lives in Afghanistan, but that they do realize the impact of such losses on their own credibility and seek to limit the damage to their reputation. They do so by either making high-profile statements like the codes mentioned above, by explaining civilian losses as regrettable parts of attack targeted primarily on government and foreign forces - or simply by denying responsibility (See How the Taliban won the cultural war, Asia Times Online, May 16, 2014).

1. Giustozzi, A, 2010. Negotiating with the Taliban: Issues and Prospects. The Century Foundation.
2. Giustozzi; Nijssen, S, 2011. The Taliban's Shadow Government in Afghanistan.
3. Ruttig, T., 2010, p. 60-62, 87-88. The Haqqanni Network as an Autonomous Entity. In: Giustozzi, A., ed., Decoding The New Taliban - Insights from the Afghan Field. London: Hurst & Company. And Giustozzi, A.
4. Roggio, B., 2010. The Afghan Taliban's top leaders. The Long War Journals.
5. Reuter, C., and Younus, B., 2010, p. 102-5. The Return of The Taliban in Andar District. In Giustozzi, A., ed., Decoding The New Taliban - Insights from the Afghan Field. London: Hurst & Company.
6. Peters, G. S., 2010, p. 7. The Taliban and the Opium Trade. In Giustozzi, A., ed., Decoding The New Taliban - Insights from the Afghan Field. London: Hurst & Company.
7. Peters, G. S., 2010, p. 7. The Taliban and the Opium Trade. In Giustozzi, A., ed., Decoding The New Taliban - Insights from the Afghan Field. London: Hurst & Company. And Barnett Rubin, 2009. A Regional Approach to Afghanistan. Video.
8. Peters, G. S., 2010, p. 7. The Taliban and the Opium Trade. In Giustozzi, A., ed., Decoding The New Taliban - Insights from the Afghan Field. London: Hurst & Company.
9. Peters, G. S., 2010, p. 7-23. The Taliban and the Opium Trade. In Giustozzi, A., ed., Decoding The New Taliban - Insights from the Afghan Field. London: Hurst & Company.
10. Peters, G. S., 2010, p. 14. The Taliban and the Opium Trade. In Giustozzi, A., ed., Decoding The New Taliban - Insights from the Afghan Field. London: Hurst & Company.
11. Nijssen, S., 2011. The Taliban's Shadow Government in Afghanistan.
12. Nijssen, S., 2011. The Taliban's Shadow Government in Afghanistan.
13. As for note 12; and Afsar, S., Samples, C., Wood, T. 2008. The Taliban: An Organizational Analysis. Military Review.
NB: It is important to note that in order to distinguish themselves from other warring factions both inside and outside of Afghanistan, the Taliban Afghanistan in Afghanistan refer to themselves as leaders of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), and it is this organization that this analysis is concerned with.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Tafhim Kiani completed his Masters degree in 2012 from Birkbeck College, University of London in Middle East in Global Politics: Islam, Conflict and Development. Tafhim can be reached at tafhim_kiani@outlook.com.

(Copyright 2014 Tafhim Kiani)

How the Taliban won the cultural war (May 16, '14)



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