The Changing Nature of Taliban Ideology
Examining the ideology of the Taliban insurgency is littered with inherent difficulties, chiefly being the fairly secretive nature of the groups highest leadership. However, thanks to extensive studies such as those conducted by Gopal and Strick van Linschoten, closer analysis is possible. This piece intends to focus on the gradual shift which has occurred in the ideology of the Taliban by first highlighting the key components of the early ideology, and the context in which it was formed. Secondly, this article will then aim to explain how the gradual evolution in ideology affects the Talibanâs at times ad hoc attitude towards development, aid agencies and outside influence in Afghanistan.
Part 1: The Talibanâs Early Ideology in Context
The Taliban grew out of the ashes that were left behind after the infighting which followed the Soviet withdrawal. The natural status-quo of the tribal structure, which had been so prevalent in explaining Afghan affairs for centuries, was critically damaged by the end of the elongated Soviet stay in Afghanistan. The ensuing brutal conflict which followed the Soviet withdrawal between the victorious Mujahideen commanders seemingly finished off the already decimated tribal structure. The second wave of destruction to the tribal network, the Mujahideen infighting, presented a new problem though, one in which the tribal structure was no longer being destroyed from the outside, but instead there was a situation in which it was being destroyed from within.
When the Taliban first arose, they came in small numbers but made big promises. The Taliban promised the beleaguered war weary Afghans of Kandahar and the rest of the largely Pashtun South that they would bring back traditional tribal, legal and social structures and restore justice. Such claims picked up particular attention, in that the traditional values which had dictated social custom and norms seemed to have been largely ignored by the opposing Mujahideen commanders. The Taliban, in contrast, busied themselves with not only following strict Islamic protocol, largely influenced by Sufi Islam (not Wahhabism, as is often assumed) but enforcing it too. The promised restoration of the tribal structure and restoration of virtuosity in accordance with tradition appealed strongly to the largely agricultural society of the South. The Pashtun South was well suited to the Taliban, not only because of their Pashtun identity but also because âthe tribal hierarchy had been upended practically overnight; the aristocratic tribes like the Popalzaiâs and the Barakzaiâs, which had owned the choice land and government posts in the ancien regime, were greatly weakened.â[i] The Taliban, therefore, were able to respond to what was popular demand, and their reputation was staked upon the early triumphs and their promises to bring back a way of life seemingly destroyed.
The early, pre-U.S. intervention Taliban ideology is important to any analysis of the Taliban as it explains the reasoning behind the higher ranking Taliban commanders. Whilst the Taliban as a group are fairly recent, the commanders of the group are not. Therefore, the experiences of the Taliban commanders during the early post-Soviet years are important in understanding why the Taliban do as they do. This understanding is important, because currently the Taliban appear to be caught in a cycle of contradictory rhetoric, in which the initial values of the Taliban in the post-Soviet years appear to clash with some of the more recent views held by what have been termed as the âNeo-Talibanâ seen during the post-9/11 intervention.
Part 2: Taliban Revival and Their Ideological Shift
By rebuilding the tribal structure which had been so badly damaged after the Soviets withdrew, the Taliban were responding to a perceived threat from within Afghan society. The post 9/11 intervention led by the USA presented a new, external challenge and this can be observed in the corresponding shift in Taliban ideology. Therefore, in response to the new external challenge to Afghan society, the reformed Taliban insurgency which returned in 2003 was required to take a different tact. In response to increased US, ISAF and NATO involvement the Taliban rhetoric began to shift towards nationalistic approaches infused with the traditional Islamic principles which initially defined the Talibanâs identity. In many ways, this is to be expected, the common grievance of Afghans was largely based on frustration regarding poor security (often blamed on the foreign forces,) and the perceived infringement on Afghanistanâs sovereignty. As a result, the Taliban seem to be conducting an awkward balancing act. A balancing act in which the traditional values of the old Taliban must work alongside newer contemporary factors. This balancing act sees the Taliban bringing together principles such as protection of Pashtun sovereignty with more modern concerns associated with political Islam.
The balancing act which the Taliban are conducting is reflected in their structure as well. The higher ranks, often perceived as the ideological core, are very much the product of the early Taliban years, in which the restoration of tribal values and virtuosity held primacy in defining their objectives. Below the old guard that makes up the leadership core, are the Taliban who are often perceived as being more pragmatic. The Taliban which make up the more pragmatic tier of the insurgency still appear to perceive themselves as restoring the tribal order in its purist form, however, they also represent a more internationally connected part of the insurgency. Many of the âNeo-Talibanâ observed today are children of refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, and upon their return to Afghanistan they brought with them the political-Islamâ often associated with middle eastern groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Below the madrassa trained Taliban tier is the tier often referred to as â$10 Taliban.
The motivation for the 3rd tier of the Taliban insurgency is relatively hard to define, as it largely depends on the common grievance prevalent in the area. For example, motivating factors of the 3rd tier may include grievances such as damage or death caused by coalition air strikes or night raids, general frustration at the lack of security or lack of faith in the ability of the NUG or local government to name but a few. The identity of this tier of Taliban is often further clouded by the fact that during the early years of the insurgency, labelling rivals as âTalibanâ to the Americans or NATO was seen as a convenient way of disposing political opposition, regardless as to whether they were Taliban or not. Furthermore, tribal conflict, often conducted separately to Taliban affairs, is often termed as Taliban-linked violence. The result being that grievances of tribes were often ignored, or their motivation for opposition was lumped together into the general Taliban motivation. All the factors which contribute to the decision of a â$10 Talibanâ to take up arms are further supported by the Talibanâs traditional role as restorers of the tribal structure (even if this is no longer their primary purpose.) Despite there being a relative shift towards political Islam amongst the Taliban, and thus more politically orientated goals perhaps more familiar to Western observers, the Taliban continue to carry a reputation as restorers of virtuosity and protectors of Pashtun identity. How much the Taliban actually represent such traditions largely depends on who is being asked.
Part 3: The Taliban and their Attitude Towards NGOâs, Aid and Development
The Taliban rhetoric rarely correlates with their actions. For example, the Taliban frequently claim that they are willing to work with regional neighbours and foreign developers as long as they are beneficial for the people of Afghanistan. However, attacks against local religious figures or government education officials continue in Taliban held areas. Despite the Talibanâs blatant contradiction of many of their statements, the fact that they are at least attempting to paint themselves as cooperative is significant. Gopal and Strick van Linschoten highlight that the Taliban, unlike groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, have attempted to paint themselves as a legitimate political entity, one which could control Afghanistan responsibly. In an attempt to portray themselves as politically legitimate, their structure closely resembles that of the current government, with shadow governors at district level preforming governmental roles in districts under Taliban control. Whilst much of the Talibanâs attempts to paint themselves as legitimate in the eyes of the rest of the world is heavily undermined by their actions, the intent is there, the intent to seem like a legitimate political possibility in Afghanistan.
The Taliban insurgency has struggled to come to terms with exactly what they think of development, aid, education and NGOâs in Afghanistan. The political leadership of the Taliban, in a move which highlights the Talibanâs attempts to be seen as politically legitimate, have given the green light to aid and development as long as it remains respectful to Taliban interpretations of Afghan culture and remains neutral. However, a recent BBC documentary[ii] shows some of the difficulties that journalists and foreign aid staff may face when dealing with the Talibanâs pragmatic and at times unpredictable approach to outsiders.
However, as highlighted by a report by A. Jackson for the Humanitarian Practise Network, the Talibanâs political leaderships âability to ensure that military commanders and fighters on the ground adhere to its instructions is limited.â[iii] Whilst the political leadership has claimed to support aid and development, this has not always been the case, and individuals supposedly protected by the Taliban are still targeted.[iv] Strategic and military concerns often over rule the Talibanâs pragmatic approach to development. For example, road construction work is not supported by the Taliban, and attacks on road workers are fairly common[v] despite promises made in 2016 that road improvement would be supported.[vi] The Taliban feel that road construction gives disproportionate advantages to the security forces in a tactical and strategic context, and therefore road construction is not neutral. Local commanders attitudes towards aid and development may also be affected by the perceived effectiveness of the aid or development in question. The Taliban have continuously criticised the value of aid, stating that it is short term and of little value, and as a result, aid projects which are perceived to be ineffective may be rejected by the Taliban. Whether this reason for rejecting requests by aid and development agencies is genuine, it is not surprising. It would be naive to assume that the Taliban would sit and watch aid and development take place in their territory if they felt it was causing more support for the government in a âhearts and mindsâ respect.â
The Taliban have perhaps recognised the position they are in as well, in that it must not be lost on them that a stable, prosperous Afghanistan would perhaps begin to see the Taliban as a relic of the less stable past. Therefore, aid in Taliban controlled areas must take part in a balancing act, one in which they must remain neutral (in the eyes of the Taliban,) avoid accusation of being spies or too closely linked to government, respect Taliban interpretations of Afghan culture and not draw support too openly to the government when in Taliban territory.
It would be wrong to say that a revolution in ideology can be observed amongst the Taliban. The original militants who made the Taliban on the back of promises to restore virtuosity and tribal structure to the war weary south continue to exist amongst the group today. In fact, most of the higher ranking commanders of the Taliban were part of this cadre, meaning that the more traditional Taliban ideology of the pre US and NATO intervention years still holds an important position within the group.
However, with the revival of the Taliban in 2003, there seems to have been an evolution rather than a revolution. The Taliban political leadership appears to want to create an air of political legitimacy around themselves, by making promises (often broken) to protect development projects, civilians and education and religious officials. Whilst many of these promises are not kept, they do suggest that the Taliban are keen to adopt certain aspects of modernity as part of their move towards political Islam, albeit at their own pace. The evolution in the ideology of the Taliban has led to a confusing situation for the outsider looking in, as the commands of the political leadership are at the mercy of the interpretation of the militants on the ground, leaving NGO staff, journalists and aid projects in a delicate position. With the Taliban posing an ever increasing threat, and seizing and controlling an increasing amount of the country, it seems likely that the requirement for aid and development agencies to work within Taliban territory will continue. With this in mind, the importance of possessing an intricate and thoughtful knowledge of both local and national affairs is more important than ever.
[i]Page 17 of, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/201705-AGopal-ASvLinschoten-TB-Ideology.pdf