The resurgence of the neo-Taliban

Antonio Giustozzi
15 December 2007

The re-emergence of the neo-Taliban in Afghanistan is hardly breaking news, but the reasons for its spreading influence in the last two years have rarely been reported, much less explained. Until 2006, its campaign was confined largely to the Pashtun heartland south of the Hindu Kush mountains, but as of late 2007 it has established communication- and supply-lines in the west, north and northeast of the country, through which are being channelled fighters and munitions in order to open new fronts against international forces.
Antonio Giustozzi is a researcher at the Crisis Research Centre at the LSE, and author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Resurgence of the Neo-Taliban in Afghanistan (C Hurst, 2007). The book can be bought here
Western observers have been puzzled how the neo-Taliban has encroached on areas inhabited mainly by ethnic minorities, where traditionally they have been viewed as a Pashtun movement and received lukewarm support - at best. This brief article attempts a provisional answer to this question (for an extended study of the neo-Taliban, see Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Resurgence of the Neo-Taliban in Afghanistan [C Hurst, 2007]).

A strategy of expansion

The neo-Taliban's achievement in widening its sphere of influence is all the more remarkable given that the movement's fighters are recklessly brave - a fact remarked on by coalition troops - but tactically often naïve. This explains why they have suffered high casualties and turned to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as "force multipliers". From 2005, the movement also resorted to suicide-bombings, although these have more of a psychological than a strategic impact. Contrary to a widespread view among Afghans, therefore, military proficiency is not the key to the neo-Taliban's success.

The movement is more technologically accomplished than hitherto and its media-savvy propaganda campaigns utilise DVDs and other formerly detested symbols of western influence. And while some field-commanders now rely on laptops to track logistics and casualties and help plan attacks, technical illiteracy among rank-and-file fighters continues to hamper its campaign, ruling out the effective deployment of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

External support - from foreign jihadists, from Pakistan and now possibly (on a much smaller scale) from Iran - is another oft-cited explanation of the neo-Taliban's resurgence, as is its (usually overestimated) involvement in the opium trade. However, these factors alone would not have allowed the neo-Taliban to become anything more than cross-border nuisance-raiders: entrenched support from among the wider Afghan population has also been required.
Among openDemocracy's articles on Afghanistan's war:

Marco Niada, "Afghanistan: no time to lose" (21 April 2004)

Hamish Nixon, "Afghanistan's election world" (13 September 2005)

Irfan Husain, "Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words" (16 March 2006)

Marco Niada, "Afghanistan: the last chance" (12 July 2006)

Fred Halliday, "The Malvinas and Afghanistan: unburied ghosts" (3 May 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: low level, high impact" (14 June 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: six years of war" (4 October 2007)

While travelling in the north of Afghanistan recently I discovered that its modus operandi mirrors that employed in the south, namely recruiting core fighters and propagandists from among the many Afghans living in Pakistan who are sympathetic to its aims. The latter travel deep inside Afghanistan, seeking potential recruits and mobilising support. They rely primarily on conservative clerical networks, mostly Deobandi-influenced, for practical and motivational support. It is difficult to estimate how much backing the neo-Taliban enjoys among the clergy, but many of them seem to look forward to the return to power of Mullah Omar, under whose regime they enjoyed unprecedented influence, locally and nationally. Certainly, hostility towards foreigners predominates among the mullahs, who often feel that Afghanistan is moving away from their own interpretation of Islam and that their role in society is diminishing.

Moreover, the support of the clergy alone would not have got the neo-Taliban very far; it was also essential that the mullahs acted as an intelligence network, reporting on village-level developments, thereby allowing the movement to identify and exploit opportunities to expand its recruitment. Throughout many areas the movement has courted disgruntled, disenfranchised and marginalised individuals and communities, which are often alienated by a dysfunctional system of remote-control government from Kabul in which cronyism and corruption drive provincial appointments.

The first to join the neo-Taliban (the clergy itself apart) are often socially marginal elements such as petty criminals, bandits and the young unemployed. But mass support has only been built where the movement has won over entire communities - as happened first in the Kandahar region, then increasingly among the southeastern and eastern Pashtuns. This has allowed the neo-Taliban to expand its ranks (my estimate is that it has now more than 20,000 men under arms). There is a high casualty-rate, though community-mobilisation mechanisms mean that family-members take the place of fallen fighters.

There are signs that this pattern is being replicated in the west and parts of northern Afghanistan, particularly within Pashtun pockets, which exist in almost every northern province. The big question now is whether the Taliban will win over Tajiks and Uzbeks. While the presence of many pro-Taliban Tajik and Uzbek clerics is well attested, how will local communities respond to further incursions by the movement? The neo-Taliban is assiduously attempting to overcome the widely held perception that it is a Pashtun movement, hostile to minorities. Its skill in exploiting provincial grievances and conflicts cannot be underestimated.

Across the gulf

Should negotiations with the neo-Taliban be considered as part of a solution to the conflict? Time seems to be on the movement's hands, given that the Canadian and Dutch governments among others are keen to reduce their involvement. The movement's principal objective remains a Deobandi re-Islamisation of Afghanistan. Despite many reports to the contrary, neither broader notions of Afghan nationalism nor ethnic politics drives the neo-Taliban leadership, although they may still influence its middle- and lower-ranking cadres.

The neo-Taliban has two non-negotiable demands: the withdrawal of all foreign troops and a greater role for religious law in framing Afghanistan's legal and social structures. For this reason a power-sharing agreement would achieve what many in the west want - disengagement - but at the price of risking a new phase of anarchy. A compromise agreement would be difficult to negotiate and (even if it were concluded) unlikely to last long.

Some external observers, particularly in Pakistan, suggest that the only way to cut a deal might be via a move towards greater decentralisation or federalism in Afghanistan; this, they argue, would allow divergent views of how to run Afghanistan to coexist, and different factions and strongmen to exercise influence. The situation is poised between a war difficult to win and an unlikely peace.

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