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The Taliban Primer

Himal Southasian article by Rahimullah Yusufzai
Friday 3 April 2009

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Who is Baitullah Mahsud?

Unravelling the Taliban phenomenon has never been easy, but it has undoubtedly become more complex with the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in 2003, making it necessary to differentiate this group from the Afghan Taliban. The former constituted the ‘original’ Taliban, militants who captured power in Afghanistan against heavy odds in 1996 by fighting and defeating the mujahideen who had earlier waged jihad, or holy war, to oust the Soviets. But members of the Afghan Taliban have been vigilant, regrouping after the ouster of their regime in Afghanistan in December 2001 as a result of the post-11 September 2001 invasion by the US. Indeed, militants with the Afghan Taliban are now resurgent, and pose a tough challenge to troops from 41 NATO and non-NATO countries, including the US, United Kingdom, France and Germany.

Those now considered Pakistani Taliban, drawing inspiration from their Afghan, Pashto-speaking, counterparts, have fought the Pakistan Army and brought it to a standstill in some of the tribal areas such as South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Bajaur, Mohmand and Darra Adamkhel as well as Swat district. The militants have established their influence in a wide swath of territory bordering Afghanistan, and have forced the Pakistan government to sign lopsided peace treaties with them. However, the Pakistani Taliban did not enjoy the kind of public support that the Afghan Taliban did, due to the simple fact that the latter group has been resisting US-led foreign forces occupying its homeland. Blame is heaped on the Pakistani Taliban militants, on the other hand, for destabilising their country and fighting their own soldiers.

At any time, this focus on armed militancy is a departure from the group’s purported mission of acquiring and spreading knowledge. As is well-known, Taliban, in Pashto – the mother tongue of most Taliban – is the plural of ‘Talib’, the seeker of knowledge, a term used for students of madrassas. Taliban who graduate from madrassas and receive a degree are called Mullah, Maulvi or Maulana, or respected ‘givers of knowledge’. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban Islamic Movement, describes himself as a ‘Talib’ instead of ‘Mullah’ because he admits that he was unable to complete his religious education and obtain a degree. However, his followers not only call him a Mullah and Mujahid, but also refer to him as Amirul Momineen, or Commander of the Faithful.

The origins of the Taliban are a matter of debate, but most writers and analysts maintain that the group was created by Pakistan, in order to install a friendly regime in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. For their part, Taliban leaders insist that they constitute an indigenous movement that emerged in 1994 when the warring Afghan mujahideen groups, which had overthrown the Soviets in 1988, failed to provide security to the Afghan people or fulfil the promise of enforcing a system of government based on Islamic law. That Taliban members were welcomed by most Afghans when they first emerged was primarily due to the hope that they would bring peace to a ravaged state torn apart by warlords, and defeat the Afghan mujahideen. The members of the latter, due to their infighting and excesses against the people, were by that point hated, and were often referred to as topakyan, the Pashto term for gunmen. In due course, however, Taliban affiliates likewise began to lose support. They had begun behaving like other armed Islamist groups, and became involved in a bloody and protracted struggle for power with the rival Northern Alliance and other mujahideen factions.

The policies put forth by Taliban officials in Afghanistan during their rule from 1994 until 2001 have been heavily criticised. The ban on female education was universally condemned. Though the Taliban relaxed the ban subsequently by allowing girls up to nine years of age to attend school, and facilitated women receiving nursing education, the group’s continued refusal to let women study in colleges and universities clearly constitutes a violation of basic individual human rights. Taliban members were also accused of committing excesses against their rivals, particularly those belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, and of keeping the courts and the media under totalitarian control. They also provoked the ire of Western and other countries by giving refuge to Osama bin Laden, in addition to militants from all over the world.

In all of this, however, two Taliban accomplishments have largely been ignored. In the opinion of this writer, Taliban officials managed to bring stability to a lawless country like Afghanistan, although admittedly this was made possible only by introducing harsh punishments and disarming the general population. Another Taliban success was banning poppy cultivation and completely stopping the production of opium. While the United Nations has conceded this fact in its reports, the US and its Western allies, which have failed to check poppy cultivation (producers have fought back with a vengeance) and drug-trafficking despite deploying thousands of troops in Afghanistan since 2001, have been reluctant to acknowledge this clear Taliban achievement.

Mapping the splinters

Today, the term Taliban is generally used for all those who are involved in fighting US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani security forces in Pakistan. Fighters of all orientations are lumped together under this rubric. Meanwhile, stories of the Afghan Taliban tend to overshadow the small resistance groups operating in Afghanistan, including the one led by former Afghan mujahideen leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, who briefly served as Afghanistan’s prime minister during the 1990s. The Mullah Omar-led Taliban Islamic Movement itself is an alliance of Taliban and former Afghan mujahideen factions, held together by a strong leader and a totalitarian shura, or council, modelled on the lines of the politburo of the erstwhile communist parties.

A R Nagori, “Lal Masjid series”

The Pakistan Taliban grouping is also an amalgamation of Islamic fighters, brought together by its members’ hatred of America, fascination with the Afghan Taliban, and a belief in jihad. Most of the Pakistani Taliban militants are grouped in an umbrella organisation, the Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP). This movement was launched in mid- December 2007, in a secret meeting of senior Taliban commanders hailing from a broad section of territory – South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber, Mohmand, Bajaur and Darra Adamkhel tribal regions, and the districts of Swat, Buner, Upper Dir, Lower Dir, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Tank, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan, Mardan and Kohat. The TTP is headed by Baitullah Mahsud, based in South Waziristan and currently the most powerful Pakistani Taliban commander. In his late 30s, Mahsud is referred to as the Amir Sahib, the chief, by his followers. Like many other Pakistanis, he began fighting as a young man during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan, and later joined the Afghan Taliban.

Two Pakistani Taliban groups that were not part of the TTP were those led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazeer in the Wana area of South Waziristan. After a period of hostility towards each other, these two leaders recently set aside their differences with Baitullah Mahsud and joined hands in a new organisation, known as Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen, with the objective of fighting the US-led foreign forces and their allies in the region, particularly in Afghanistan and the Pakistani border areas. The formation of this alliance has brought all groups of the Pakistani Taliban on one platform, and will facilitate their coordination with the Afghan Taliban.

The madrassa-educated Taliban serve as the core of the Pakistani Taliban, while jihadi fighters affiliated to a diverse group of militant organisations are their allies. While the Islamist militants operating in the NWFP include both Taliban and non-Taliban forces, the Taliban militants are much larger in number and have significantly more influence in the area. Militants with the Pakistani Taliban also have close links with their counterparts and fellow Pashtun in Afghanistan, thus operating on both sides of the Durand Line.

The non-Taliban militants of Pakistan tend to be pro-government, and enjoy cordial ties with the Pakistani authorities and security forces. Some of the non-Taliban groups include the Lashkar-e-Islam, led by Mangal Bagh; the Ansarul Islam, headed by Qazi Mehboobul Haq; and the Amar Bil Maroof Wa Nahi Anil Munkar (Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice), founded by the late Haji Namdar Khan and now run by his lieutenants. All three groups are operating in the Bara area of the Khyber tribal region. Another non-Taliban group is the Salafi Ahle Hadith, which was led until 2008 by Shah Khalid, who was killed in a clash with the rival Taliban fighters in Mohmand Agency. The non-Taliban groups are also Islamic extremists and largely anti-US, but do not have ties to al-Qaeda. Except the Shah Khalid group which sent fighters to Afghanistan to fight against the US-led NATO forces, the other non-Taliban groups mostly refrain from carrying out attacks against Western targets. They also avoid attacking Pakistani security forces and government installations. Instead, they are involved in fighting against each other as is the case in Bara area and sometimes indulge in carrying out kidnappings for ransom or forcibly enforcing their strict Islamic code on the people in areas under their influence.

To talk or not?

In the presence of so many militants’ groups, most of which are Taliban and heavily armed, it is understandable that there would be disagreements on policy and strategy. Splinter groups emerge frequently owing to differences among the militant commanders. Some of the groups and their commanders are more intolerant than the others; however, it is generally rare for the Taliban to allow dissent or tolerate other armed groups. There are many examples of Taliban groups differing on issues such as education for girls, the role of women in society, negotiating and cutting deals with the government, relations with al-Qaeda, and using kidnapping for ransom or for achieving political objectives. For instance, the Taliban in Swat, under Maulana Fazlullah’s leadership, banned girls’ education beyond class five; but the TTP opposed the ban, and urged its Swat chapter to review the decision. The TTP pressure prompted the Swat Taliban to relax the ban, but the issue did manage to expose the differences in their ranks. The question of holding peace talks with the Islamabad government and concluding deals also resulted in differences within the Taliban ranks.

Additional influences have come from much farther away. The effect of Arab fighters on the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban has been significant. Though fighters from all over the world came to wage war in Afghanistan during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupying forces, and also subsequently to resist the US-led coalition troops, the Arabs had a greater influence on the Taliban due to the fact that the former were larger in number and possessed more resources. Figures such as Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, Sheikh Omar Abdur Rahman, Sheikh Taseer Abdullah (also known as Mohammad Atef or Abu Hafs) and Ayman al-Zawahiri were all Arabs who had leadership roles in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad and, later, in the fight against the US-led Western forces following the attacks of 11 September 2001.

The Arab influence exercised by the al-Qaeda leaders and other small groups with roots in West Asian countries ensured that the Taliban (and, before them, the Afghan mujahideen) would accept and absorb conservative theology such as Wahhabism and Salafism that had not previously been influential in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A puritan form of Islam intolerant of certain aspects of the local culture thus made inroads, through the medium of al-Qaeda, into the Pashtun lands on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier.

Today, al-Qaeda and its offshoots are keen to continue the ongoing violence, and also dictate when and whether negotiations can take place. Al-Qaeda has rejected talks with the US and its allies, and has been putting pressure on the Afghan Taliban not to enter into negotiations with the government in Kabul and its Western sponsors. Mullah Omar could have diluted his stance on negotiating with the Afghan government if they was not for this constant pressure on him from al-Qaeda and some of his own radical Taliban colleagues to reject offers of peace negotiations by President Hamid Karzai.

The Taliban leadership has been demanding that all foreign forces be withdrawn from the country before the offer of talks can be considered. Despite persistent Taliban refusals to hold talks with either the Kabul government or Western countries with troops in Afghanistan, however, there is one dissident Taliban group with an even more inflexible stance on this issue. This faction, led by Commander Mansoor Dadullah, has publicly accused Mullah Omar’s supporters of betraying the Taliban’s cause, by showing lack of firmness in rejecting offers of peace talks by the Afghan government. The group has been taking a more hardline position after his expulsion from the Taliban movement on charges of indiscipline.

The possibility of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and its Western backers seem to be drying up, even as the US indicates a willingness to hold talks with moderate Taliban. This is unlikely to work, as an overwhelming majority of the Taliban is loyal to the rabidly anti-Western Mullah Omar. Past efforts by the US and the Afghan government to negotiate with so-called moderate Taliban were not able to make headway, as few Taliban were tempted to break ranks, and the ones who did so were either killed or forced to go into hiding. In terms of strategy, Washington and Kabul have failed to create divisions among the Taliban in the past, and any new effort to this end is likely to meet with the same fate.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, resident editor of The News International, in Peshawar, has reported on Afghanistan and the NWFP since the 1980s.

-Himal Southasian, April 2009


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