Who are the Taliban: holy-worriers or an instrument for proxies

 By: Elham Kabir

After entering Kandahar city in November 1994, and seizing the capital—Kabul, from President Burhan-Uddin Rabbani in September 1996. For the promises made to enact stability and rule of law after four years of conflict (1992-1996) throughout Mujahedeen era; or self-proclaimed (holy worries) who fought with communism—the Soviet Union. Taliban movement attracted popular support among inhabitants of Afghanistan in the early post-Soviet era. The Taliban regime was promptly recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—at first place after collapsing of the Mujahedeen regime. Additionally, Pakistan was the last country to halt diplomatic bonds with the Taliban.

During the Taliban rule, Afghanistan was declared an Islamic emirate, with Mullah Mohammed Omar, leading as Amir al-mu’minin, or “commander of the faithful”. The Taliban imposed a harsh brand of justice as it consolidated territorial control and as well Taliban jurisprudence was drawn from interpretations of sharia colored by the austere Wahhabi doctrines of the madrassas’ Saudi benefactors. The regime abandoned social services and other basic state functions—It required women to wear burqa, or Chadri; banned music and television; and jailed men whose beards it deemed too short.

The main aim of this article is to distinguish whether the Taliban are fighting for the faith or assigned for the agendas of others. To do so, it is very vital to debate over various phenomena’s—such as; who are the Taliban? How they emerged? how the regional and international political dynamics are linked with the Taliban, and what are the dilemmas?

Rise and fall of Islamic fundamentalist militia: The Taliban

In early 1990s, Taliban was emerged in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. It is believed according to researches that the Taliban movement first seemed in religious seminars—paid by money of Saudi Aribia—which preached an extremist form of Sunni Islam. Moreover, the promise made by the Taliban—in Pashtun areas on both sides of Pakistan and Afghanistan—was to restore peace and security and enforce their own austere version of Sharia once they are in power. Afterward, Taliban gained influence quickly from south-western/Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan provinces of Afghanistan and by 1998.

On post-soviet time after the Soviets were driven out, Afghans were fed-up of the mujahedeen’s excesses and infighting, which generally welcomed the Taliban when they first appeared on the scene. Their early popularity was largely due to their success in stamping out corruption, shortening lawlessness and making the roads and the areas under their control safe for commerce to flourish. But the Taliban also introduced or supported Islamic punishments—such as, public executions of convicted murderers and adulterers, and amputations for those found guilty of theft. Men were required to grow beards and women had to wear the all-covering burka. The Taliban banned television, music and cinema, and disapproved of girls aged 10 and over going to school. They were accused of various human/civil rights and cultural abuses. One notorious example was in 2001, when the Taliban went ahead with the destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues in central.

Analysts believe that the Taliban leadership, primarily based outside the country, continues to maintain control over its fighters and officials throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership council is called the Rahbari Shura and is better known as the Quetta Shura, named for the city in Pakistan where Omar and top aides are believed to have taken refuge after the U.S. invasion. The council makes decisions for all “political and military affairs of the Emirate,” according to the UN monitor. It is currently led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. (Omar died in 2013 and was succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a 2016 U.S. air strike in Pakistan.) The leader is supported by deputies, currently Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, Omar’s son, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also acting head of the Haqqani Network—a militant group in Afghanistan’s southeast and Pakistan’s northwest with close ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan’s ISI.

After refusing to turn over Osama Bin Laden in the wake of the September 11 attack, U.S.-led coalition forces with the help of the Northern Alliance invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the regime on 2001. Mullah Omar and much of the Taliban leadership fled across the Pakistani border, where they were able to regroup and gain new followers, forming the Quetta Shura in the process. Mullah Omar formed the insurgent force in 2002 in order to create a Taliban base in the Baluchistan city of Quetta. In early 2020, Taliban controlled an estimated 18 percent of districts, while the government controlled 33 percent, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War Journal. The movement was expanded in 2003 and continued to grow with heavy Taliban support. Hence, much of the Talibanlay dormant in these Afghan and Pakistani hideouts for the next several years.

Shifting political dynamics of the Taliban in the region and beyond

In January 2012, the Taliban opened an office in Qatar to begin political settlement talks on the future of Afghanistan with the U.S. The office was instrumental in the negotiations over Bowe Berghdal, the U.S. army officer held by the Taliban and considered the last American prisoner of war. The international community increasingly appears to view the Taliban as part of Afghanistan’s future. In July 2015, Afghan government officials and Taliban leaders met for the first round of talks in a new peace process. In addition, Russia has coordinated with the Taliban to hinder the spread of ISIS in Afghanistan.

Amid July 2015 negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan, the Taliban made the surprise announcement of the death of leader Mullah Omar.  Mullah Mansoor was selected as Mullah Omar’s successor, and was believed to be close to Pakistan’s intelligence service, and therefore had supported the Pakistan-backed talks. The Taliban’s political bureau opposed the negotiations, believing any negotiations should be conducted from its Doha office to avoid Pakistani influence. One of these factions, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, formed an official splinter group that did not recognize Mullah Mansoor’s leadership.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, and China came to an agreement in late February 2016 on a road map to end the Afghan war through negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban. Taliban representatives were expected to join Afghan officials in the first round of peace talks in Pakistan in the Spring of 2016 but the death of Mullah Mansoor by a U.S. drone strike in in May, 2016 has derailed Taliban cooperation. Afterwards, Taliban were accused of having close ties with Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told an international conference held in the northern Indian city of Amritsar that the Taliban insurgency in his country would not survive without support from Pakistan and called for the setting up of a fund to combat extremism. In his remarks at the conference, Pakistan’s top foreign ministry official, Sartaj Aziz, said the security situation in Afghanistan is complex and it is “simplistic” to blame one country for the recent upsurge in violence. Aziz called for “an objective and holistic view.”

Many experts say the Pakistani security establishment continues to provide Taliban militants sanctuary in the country’s western tribal areas to try to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad dismisses these charges. The Taliban is believed to still have strong ties with al-Qaeda, according to a 2020 UN report. The Taliban provides al-Qaeda with protection in exchange for resources and training. Al-Qaeda has up to six hundred fighters in Afghanistan, mostly in several eastern provinces, according to the UN report. But its central leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be hiding in Pakistan. The Taliban has also fought the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which is a rival of al-Qaeda and has an estimated 2,500 members in Afghanistan.

Moreover, Afghan analysts and military figures have frequently alleged Iranian involvement with the Taliban since 2007. In 2016, Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, revealed that Tehran had lines of communication with the Taliban. This news came despite Bahrami’s previous denial of involvement. Then Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmed that his country had contacts with the Taliban in early 2019. It was only in 2017 that Afghan Army Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali confirmed that the military discovered documents providing evidence of Iranian collaboration. After the city of Farah was briefly held by the Taliban in 2018, Afghan analysts and officials asserted that Iran was behind the offensive. Interviews with Taliban commanders such as Mullah Rasool reveal that parts of the Taliban are linked to Tehran.

Furthermore, China had initiated contact with the Taliban shortly after the separatist violence in its Xinjiang region surged in 1998. China saw military camps established in war-torn Afghanistan as a direct security threat given a number of Uighurs who had left China to receive military training in the country. One of such camps was established by Tahir Yuldashev, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The Taliban allowed Yuldashew to open a training camp in northern Afghanistan. Among those he trained were also Uighurs from Xinjiang and Yuldashev begun to develop close ties with the nascent terrorist group Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). China was in addition concerned about Afghan heroin that found its way across China-Afghan border. One of the main sources of the Taliban’s income was now funding separatist forces within China which did not go unnoticed by the Chinese authorities.

Similarly, Alexander Mantytskiy, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, on 2016 said that the U.S has failed to accomplish its counter-terrorism task in Afghanistan effectively and that Russia is deeply concerned about the expansion of terrorist groups such as Daesh in Afghanistan. “We have ties with the Taliban to ensure the security of our political offices, consulates and the security of central Asia,” he said. He declared the Taliban a political faction and urged diplomacy with the group. That year, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia to avoid interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. But Moscow hit out at NATO and said the NATO mission in Afghanistan has failed.

The Talibani warfare: A Battle for faith or agendas of others?

Taliban’s spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid, on his interview with BBC in 27-April-20, said “the Afghan civilians that are killed in the combat between the Taliban and Afghan government are influenced of Americans and democracy—and they denied to support the Taliban”. Such statement occurs while the Taliban recently signed an agreement with the USA—vowed to halt war with US troops completely.

More than 500 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan in the first three months of the year, the United Nations has said, even after an agreement between the United States and the Taliban on withdrawing foreign forces was signed to bring peace to the war-torn country. Fighting in the first three months of the year caused 1,293 civilian casualties, of which 760 were injuries and the rest deaths, including 152 children and 60 women, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in its quarterly report on Monday.

Back then, Merchants in the book market in central Kabul talked about seeing many Pakistanis “here for jihad.” In Rish Khor, on the outskirts of Kabul, operated a training camp for the Harakat ul-Mujahidin, a Pakistani-supported terrorist group waging a separatist campaign against India. It was members of this group that hijacked an Air India flight from Nepal to Kandahar in December 1999, eventually releasing the hostages after Taliban mediation and escaping. Afghanistan provided a useful base not only to train pro-Pakistani militants and terrorists, but also to give them field experience.

Politicians in Islamabad repeatedly denied that Pakistan supported the Taliban, the reality was quite the opposite. Though some Taliban trade occurred with Turkmenistan and even Iran, and the Taliban benefited from the supply of opium to all of its neighbors, Pakistan remained the effective diplomatic and economic lifeline for the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. Senior ISI veterans like Colonel “Imam” Sultan Amir functioned as district advisors to the regional Taliban leadership. Pakistan also supplied a constant flow of munitions and recruits for the Taliban’s war with the Northern Alliance, and provided crucial technical infrastructure support to allow the Taliban state to function.

This did not represent a radical change in Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Rather, Islamabad’s support of the Taliban was simply a continuation of a pattern to support Islamist rather than nationalist factions inside its neighbor. Nor was the ISI the only supporter of the Taliban within the Pakistan government. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister Nasrullah Babar also staunchly supported the group. Robert Kaplan, correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly went so far as to argue that Bhutto and Babar “conceived of the Taliban as the solution to Pakistan’s problems.” Ahmed Rashid commented, “The Taliban were not beholden to any single Pakistani lobby such as the ISI. In contrast the Taliban had access to more influential lobbies and groups in Pakistan than most Pakistanis.”

Taliban volunteers, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, described Pakistani instructors at Rish Khor which, according to Afghans interviewed, also served as a training camp for the Harakat ul-Mujahidin, the violent Kashmiri separatist group engaged in terrorist operations against India. Citizens of Kabul derisively spoke of “Punjabis,” volunteers from Pakistan. Guarding ministries in Kabul in March 2000 were Taliban officials who only spoke Urdu, and did not speak any Afghan language. The Pakistani government did not dispute reports that thousands of trained Pakistani volunteers serving with the Taliban.

While the Pakistani government was directly complicit in some forms of support for the Taliban, just as important was its indirect support. In 1971, there were only 900 madaris (religious seminaries) in Pakistan, but by the end of President Zia ul Haq’s administration in 1988, there were over 8,000 official madaris, and more than 25,000 unregistered religious schools. By January 2000, these religious seminaries were educating at least one-half million children according to Pakistan’s own estimates. The most prominent of the seminaries — the Dar al-Ulum Haqqania from which the Taliban leadership was disproportionately drawn — reportedly had 15,000 applications for only 400 spots in 1999.

Ahmed Rashid comments that the mullahs running most of the religious schools were but semi-literate themselves, and blindly preached the religious philosophy adopted by the Taliban. Visiting one such religious seminary in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, students told a Western reporter that, “We are happy many kaffirs [infidels] were killed in the World Trade Center.” Regarding Muslim casualties in the World Trade Center, one student responded, “If they were faithful to Islam, they will be martyred and go to paradise. If they were not good Muslims, they will go to hell.” The seminary students generally learn only Islam, tainted with strong strain of anti-Westernism and anti-Semitism.

In spite of that, the Taliban under Mansur initiated or strengthened its relations with Russia, China and Iran, among others. Utilizing the fears of these countries of a spillover of militancy from Afghanistan and a US long-term presence in the country, Mansur’s representatives regularly met with senior officials in recent years. The meetings aimed at gaining support of these countries in return for the Taliban’s assurance that the foreign jihadists operating in Afghanistan-Pakistan with an intention of attacking the above mentioned countries would be stopped from doing so. The visits, at times, involved Taliban envoys travelling outside their Afghanistan-Pakistan axis. These developing relations were a source of increasing Pakistani discomfort with Mansur, even though he had enjoyed a friendly relationship before taking over the leadership. Mansur seems to have successfully shifted the perceptions of the Taliban in China, Russia and some Central Asian republics from being a threat to a potential bulwark against the threat of ‘extremists’.

The Taliban’s dilemmas

During Doha talks regarding the US-Taliban Agreement—From Moscow to Beijing, Tehran to Islamabad, Taliban delegations have found welcome in diplomatic halls. Post US-Taliban agreement has several aspects that arises concerns.

               First, the presence of Pakistan’s foreign minister in Doha during the signing ceremony and engagement with the Taliban and the United States’ leadership at all critical gatherings underline the country’s relationship with the group. When asked by a journalist about Islamabad’s role in reaching the deal, Qureshi said this “wouldn’t have happened without Pakistan.” Going forward, Islamabad’s role may not be as critical overtly in the intra-Afghan peace process as it was during the first phase of the process. However, the debate on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s future may become critical to the negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In fact, it may be an issue that can make or break the most crucial phase of the peace talks. In any case, Pakistan would want to see the Afghan Taliban furthering its position in Afghanistan now that they have won much-needed legitimacy that previously was missing from their ranks. The ongoing squabbling among the Afghan political leadership is merely a concern for Islamabad. It’s something that won’t bother Pakistan as it only consolidates Islamabad’s position and the acceptability of its role internationally.

               Furthermore, Will US-Taliban deal limit India’s leverage in Afghanistan? Nearly 20 years later, India has a mounting diplomatic challenge as the Taliban, which New Delhi has despised, appears to be making a comeback to Kabul’s power corridor. Despite significant investments and interests in Afghanistan, India has largely stayed out of the Afghan peace negotiation between the US and the Taliban armed group, that started nearly two years ago and culminated in a deal on February 29. And now with the US withdrawal under way, and a potential start of the intra-Afghan talks, India has to find its place in the post-peace geopolitics of the region.

               Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan and militant groups in the region will have a huge impact on the future of India in Afghanistan,” Azamy said, adding that while Taliban in the 1990s was far more independent of foreign influence, they still leaned towards Pakistan on policies related to India. Both Kabul and New Delhi have accused Islamabad of backing armed groups – charges Pakistan has denied. However, as intra-Afghan talks trudge forward, India is at a crucial crossroads that will set the tone for its future involvement in Afghanistan, and by extension in regional security. But much will depend on the Taliban’s place in the power structure.

At the meantime, Afghan women’s rights, which were once at the core of the US strategic goals in Afghanistan, are now considered an intra-Afghan issue, which the US will not interfere with. This clearly shows that Afghan women were political tool that were once useful, but not anymore.

Conclusion

This article sums-up and elucidates diverse scenarios such as—the phenomena of Afghans, Taliban as an instrument for regional countries and beyond, last but not the least the shifting dynamics of the Taliban. It explains that how the illiteracy rate and living under poverty line changes people’s mindset, for instance—According to UNESCO statistics, most of the inhabitants in Afghanistan are illiterate and more than 42 percent lives below the poverty line. 63 percent of Afghanistan population are below 25 years of age and 46 percent (11.7 million children) under 15 years of age.  Based on Asia Foundation found in 2009 report, half of Afghans—mostly Pashtuns and rural Afghans—had sympathy for armed opposition groups, primarily the Taliban. Based on the statistics of illiteracy and living under poverty line—It is very stress-free to convince Afghanistan inhabitants to either join the Taliban or support them in any term.  And most of the follower of The Taliban in Afghanistan are either brainwashed of the money that Taliban provide for their troops or preached of their false objectives in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the so-called Taliban movement wholeheartedly welcomed by Afghans after they made promises to fix the damages that Mujahidin did back on 1990s. The aptitudes were to enact stability, rule of law, civil and human rights after the mujahidin era in Afghanistan. afterwards, when the Taliban took-over the political power in Afghanistan—not the promises made were fulfilled, but, Afghanistan’s situation became worst. As a consequence, it has been years since the collapse of the Taliban, nonetheless, still Afghans are being sacrificed of the brutal war even after, the US-Taliban agreement lately. Moreover, after U.S.-led coalition forces alliance invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the regime on 2001. The Taliban had been in exile for serval years, throughout post-exile era despite Pakistan, many other regional & international countries such as China, Russia, and Iran tried to influence and have close ties with the Taliban or the “guerilla troops”. Taliban are known as guerilla troops with control over opium cultivation and trade in Afghanistan. Thus, in order to eliminate a rival country in the region and beyond through proxies, having in-control of such cheap militia group is not a bad acknowledgment.

Elham Kabir, living in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has more than 5 years of professional experience with different institutions. Presently, he is working as a deputy communications expert for, Afghanistan Airfield Economic Development commission at ARG—Presidential palace. And currently studying my Master’s program in International Relations at Kardan University located in Kabul, Afghanistan. Twitter: @Theelhamkabir

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