The Taliban

Resumen ejecutivo
CFR "InfoGuide" Presentation, 22.01.2015
  • The Taliban has outlasted the world’s most potent military forces and its two main factions now challenge the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. 
  • As U.S. troops draw down, the next phase of conflict will have consequences that extend far beyond the region.

The Taliban was toppled in Afghanistan in 2001 for harboring al-Qaeda, but it has not been defeated. With an estimated core of up to sixty thousand fighters, the Taliban remains the most vigorous insurgent group in Afghanistan and holds sway over civilians near its strongholds in the country’s south and east. It has also metastasized in neighboring Pakistan, where thousands of fighters in the country’s western tribal areas wage war against the government. Now, as the international combat mission in Afghanistan closes, the Taliban threatens to destabilize the region, harbor terrorist groups with global ambitions, and set back human rights and economic development in the areas where it prevails.

Though the Taliban appears unlikely to dismantle the Afghan government and revive its emirate, it poses the most serious challenge to Kabul’s authority even as the United States winds down the longest war in its history and NATO scales back its largest-ever deployment outside of Europe. The insurgents’ resilience calls into question a state-building project that has cost its international backers hundreds of billions of dollars.

The U.S.-led military coalition has suffered nearly 3,500 dead and more than ten thousand wounded. Since 2001, at least twenty-one thousand Afghan civilians have been killed in conflict, and three million people have been displaced, according to the UN refugee agency. Afghan troops and police are dying at their highest rates ever.

The drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan also raises questions about Pakistan’s strategy in South Asia and its leverage over the Afghan Taliban. The insurgents could not have thrived without sanctuary in Pakistan, whose main intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, cultivated them in the 1990s and maintained ties to them after 2001. Pakistan has long sought what its military doctrines call strategic depth: an amicable regime in Kabul, to avoid being encircled by its chief rival, India, to the east, and a pro-India Afghanistan to the west.

Along with several foreign militant groups, Pakistani Taliban factions thrived in the sanctuaries along the frontier that the Pakistani military had set aside for the Afghan Taliban. But Pakistan does not control the Islamist militancy it helped enable, and its military is now fighting a movement whose primary aim differs from that of the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban has declared Islamabad apostate for aligning itself with post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy and seeks revolution in Pakistan. Under the umbrella Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan), these militants have attacked Pakistani security forces and civilians nationwide.

Thousands of Sunni Islamic militants have established rudimentary bases along the Afghan-Pakistani border. There, they harbor al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadi groups and provide staging grounds for cross-border attacks against international troops and Afghan security forces. The India-oriented terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which launched the 2008 attack on the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and is believed to have ties to the ISI, has found refuge there, as has the anti-Shia group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. These groups are suspected by Western intelligence and Afghan officials of carrying out attacks in Afghanistan, including on U.S. and Indian targets.

In June 2013, Afghan forces assumed responsibility from the international coalition for providing security, a prerequisite for the drawdown of tens of thousands of U.S.-led troops. Also in 2014, a presidential election brought the country’s first peaceful and democratic, if flawed, transfer of power. These developments might undercut the Taliban's claim to mount the preeminent resistance to foreign occuption, but the Taliban justifies the continuation of its armed campaign by asserting the government is illegitimate and un-Islamic, a puppet of the West.

Meanwhile, the persistence of ineffective, corrupt, and often-mistrusted state institutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, combined with mutual mistrust between the two countries, could give Taliban guerrillas an outsized impact on both countries' security, development, and democratization after the drawdown.

The Rise of the Islamic Emirate

Anarchy prevailed in Afghanistan in 1994. The Soviet Union's Red Army had pulled out five years prior, and international support for the anti-Soviet jihad, led by U.S. and Saudi intelligence operatives, waned soon after. Afghanistan, awash in arms, had neither a functioning government nor a productive economy. In the post-Soviet power vacuum, mujahadeen, warlords who had made common cause against Soviet forces, jockeyed for power and spoils, and the government led by the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan collapsed in 1992. Civil war engulfed Afghanistan, leaving appalling carnage but no clear victor.

A small clerical movement emerged to protect residents from the banditry and extortion that had become routine. These vigilantes in western Kandahar called themselves the Taliban, Pashto for “seekers of knowledge.” Their ranks were soon reinforced by thousands of their co-ethnics, Pashtuns educated inDeobandi madrassas, or seminaries, along Pakistan’s western frontier. These madrassas proliferatedunder President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977–88) and served some of the millions of Afghan refugees who had been displaced by more than a decade of unrest. They were sponsored by the religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami (JUI), which mobilized its students to take up arms with the Taliban.

The Taliban was welcomed by a war-weary public as it expanded out from Kandahar. The movement established order on the basis of Hanafi Islamic jurisprudence influenced by Pashtun custom, which meshed with the rural mores of southern Afghanistan.

Pakistan assumed a crucial role in cultivating the Taliban. Under the command of Mullah Mohammad Omar, an Afghan ethnic Pashtun who had served as a junior mujahadeen commander during the anti-Soviet jihad, the Taliban swept through southern Afghanistan in 1994. The ISI shifted its support from the major mujahadeen party it had bet on to Mullah Omar's group. Pakistan believed that with ideological and material means of persuasion, including funds and arms, it could manipulate Taliban clerics and thus ensure a stable and acquiescent Afghanistan, as well as secure routes to open trade to the newly independent Central Asian states, writes journalist Ahmed Rashid.

Another outside force of looming importance for Afghanistan was al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi who had bankrolled and facilitated fighters known as the Afghan Arabs during the anti-Soviet fight, was expelled from Sudan in 1996. He returned to Afghanistan seeking a sanctuary from which he could build up his terrorist group. Mullah Omar protected bin Laden even as the al-Qaeda leader’s international fugitive status grew over the late 1990s. Bin Laden provided resources and technical capacities to the Taliban, and Mullah Omar was won over by his claim to be a righteous mujahid and revolutionary icon, according to researchers who study the Taliban. Some analysts also attribute Mullah Omar's offer of refuge to bin Laden, despite an international bounty, to the obligation under pashtunwali, the pre-Islamic tribal code, to provide guests unconditional hospitality. (Many members of the Taliban later faulted Mullah Omar’s protection of bin Laden for the U.S.-led invasion that toppled their state.)

Pakistan's ISI likely approved of or facilitated bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan, the congressionally mandated 9/11 Commission found, since some of its Islamist militant proxies who were oriented toward jihad in India-administered Kashmir trained in bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan.

Once the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, it declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate and Mullah Omar its head of state and installed clerics to helm national institutions. With an emphasis on policing morality, the Taliban established the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which attempted to enforce its puritanical interpretation of sharia. Police beat Afghans who defied the Taliban’s edicts and mores, including those mandating full beards for men and head-to-toe burqas for women. The Taliban shuttered girls’ schools and forbade women from working, so many women widowed during the anti-Soviet jihad were forced to beg in the streets and many schools were closed for lack of teachers.

By 1998, the Taliban had come to control 90 percent of the country. After nearly two decades of conflict, resources were scarce and Afghanistan remained at the lowest rungs of global human development rankings. Under protocol with the Taliban, the United Nations ran a country-wide humanitarian program in Afghanistan, but came at loggerheads with the regime over restrictions it imposed in the name of Islamization. Taliban-governed Afghanistan became an international pariah for its human rights abuses and refusal to surrender bin Laden and other members of al-Qaeda on international watch lists.

The Taliban’s severe strictures were alien to many Afghans, and after the Taliban captured Kabul, the Northern Alliance became Afghanistan's main military and political opposition. The alliance, led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, drew its support mainly from the ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara communities. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were the only states to recognize the Taliban regime, and the Northern Alliance held Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations.

Pressed into a small corner of northern and northeastern Afghanistan, Massoud’s alliance struggled to hold out against the Taliban from 1998 to 2001. Assisting their Taliban protectors, al-Qaeda agents assassinated Massoud two days before the 9/11 attacks that would quickly end the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan.

Since its emergence in 1994, the Taliban has morphed into twin insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This chronology charts the movement’s rise and the forces that have shaped its evolution.

Afghanistan and Pakistan Schism

Afghan President Mohammed Daud Khan (1973–78), advocating a greater Pashtunistan carved from Pakistan’s western provinces, lends covert support to Pashtun and Baloch separatists. Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1973–77) replies in kind, authorizing his intelligence services to shelter Afghan Islamist opposition leaders. This program, known as the “Afghan cell,” establishes the Pakistani intelligence service’s ties to an estimated five thousand Afghan Islamist militants, including those Pakistan will later sponsor as mujahadeen leaders. Daud uses this as a pretext to crack down on the domestic Islamist opposition. His repression and the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan's (PDPA) subsequent seizure of power, in 1978, push Afghan Islamists into Pakistan’s tribal regions. Many go to training camps in North and South Waziristan.

The Taliban Insurgency

After the Taliban refused a U.S. ultimatum to hand over Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks, U.S. special forces invaded alongside the Northern Alliance and some Afghan Pashtun forces. Mullah Omar’s regime disintegrated, and its leadership fled across the Pakistani border. Of an estimated sixty thousand rank and file, half are estimated to have been killed, wounded, or captured in late 2001 and early 2002. The remainder blended back into society or fled to the ethnic Pashtun- and Baloch-majority areas in Pakistan where many had lived as refugees during the Soviet occupation. Pakistan’s Deobandi JUI party began to mobilize tens of thousands of madrassa students to resist the U.S.-led invasion.

As Kandahar fell in December 2001, prominent Afghans at the UN-sponsored Bonn Conference shaped the contours of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government. A loya jirga (“grand council” in Pashto) convened delegates from across the country to elect a transitional administration in June 2002 and another to ratify a constitution in December 2003. The Taliban was not invited to the Bonn Conference and did not participate in the subsequent loya jirgas and elections. The new political order was thus constructed without the Taliban's participation.

Geopolitical Causes

The international coalition's seeming eagerness for a political transition signaled to Pakistan that outside military forces would soon depart. Apprehensive of a rerun of Afghanistan’s 1992–96 civil war, Pakistan’s leaders hedged with respect to the nascent government in Kabul's durability, especially once U.S. attention pivoted toward Iraq.

General Pervez Musharraf, who had taken power in Pakistan in a 1999 coup, embarked on what many analysts of Pakistani politics call a “double game.” He pledged to support Washington’s “global war on terror” and facilitate supply routes vital to military operations in Afghanistan but continued to cultivate Islamist militants, the Afghan Taliban among them, according to regional security experts. Since 2001, Pakistan has received more than $25 billion in direct aid and military reimbursements from the United States.

Pakistan's fraught relationship with India is central to understanding its relations with Afghanistan. In the years after 2001, Pakistan grew anxious as it perceived Kabul pursuing closer ties with New Delhi. (India has been rebuilding its economic and diplomatic networks in Afghanistan and is the fifth-largest government donor to Afghan development projects.)

Islamabad would prefer a degree of instability in Afghanistan to a stable central government friendly with New Delhi, analysts say. Indian interests have been a focus of attacks, and militant groups linked to Pakistan are suspected in attacks on India's embassy in Kabul and consulates in Jalalabad and Herat.

Mullah Omar relocated to Pakistan, where he has been monitored or protected by the ISI, according to some U.S. officials. He began to reconstitute the Taliban’s military and political hierarchy under the leadership council, which issues directives on his authority. Mullah Omar has not been seen since 2001 nor heard from since 2008. The Taliban's cultural commission produces annual statements on the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr issued in his name.

Domestic Causes

The Taliban gained support within Afghanistan as disaffection with the new government and large supporting international presence grew. Journalists and human rights groups have documented abuses inflicted by warlords, militias, and Afghan security forces, including land confiscation, extortion, wrongful detention, and exclusion from government jobs and development initiatives. Many Afghans saw the central government as indifferent to or complicit in these abuses, giving impunity to the security forces and warlords it depended on to extend its authority to the hinterland. Poor Afghan poppy farmerswho have perceived eradication efforts as heavy-handed or punitive, or for whom there is no economically viable alternative, likewise turned to the insurgency. When U.S. General Stanley McChrystal took command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the summer of 2009, he argued that civilian casualties caused by ISAF air strikes and combat units undermined counterinsurgency efforts and tightened the rules of engagement.

Dating back to its founders' roots in the anti-Soviet jihad, an essential theme in Taliban discourse is justice. Though the movement has grown broadly unpopular as it has become increasingly associated with violence and instability, it has retained, to some degree, a reputation for delivering swift justice that first launched it to power. Annual Eid al-Fitr statements highlight government-sanctioned corruption and injustice. Likewise, the Taliban operates shadow courts (PDF), adjudicating disputes where insurgents maintain a substantial presence as an alternative to overwhelmed and often corrupt official courts.

Afghan Taliban propaganda has capitalized on these sources of alienation, railing against foreign forces and the central government, which it calls an illegitimate dependent of the West. In a country whose literacy rate is estimated at less than one-third of the population, the Taliban disseminates its message in poetry, music, and video, transmitted through cassettes and DVDs—the very media that the Taliban prohibited during its rule. A website bearing the name of the Taliban’s self-proclaimed "Islamic Emirate" publishes videos and statements. The Taliban conveys threats through night letters, or leaflets, and text messages.

Blowback in Pakistan

As the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency took shape, a parallel Pakistani Taliban insurgency arose on the other side of the 1,500-mile-long border, stretching from the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP, since renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) through the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistani Taliban militants have focused on waging a violent campaign against the Pakistani state and all those they consider rivals. With ties to al-Qaeda and the sectarian terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the TTP is implicated in the surge in violence against Pakistani Shias.

Under U.S. pressure to rid the FATA of al-Qaeda, the Pakistani military conducted operations in the territory for the first time in July 2002. These incursions turned many militants against the state. So too have Pakistani security forces’ actions against residents suspected of aiding Pakistan’s Taliban. Their operations have entailed mass displacement, and international human rights groups and journalists have implicated Pakistani security forces in torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and forced disappearances. These abuses, for which the FATA’s frontier legal status offers little means of redress, has left tribal-area residents stuck between two forces seemingly indifferent to their rights.

Two particular incidents galvanized Pakistani Taliban factions to join forces against the state. In 2006, a CIA drone strike on a tribal-area madrassa reportedly killed eighty-three students. A year later, Pakistani special forces seized the Red Mosque in Islamabad, killing dozens of student vigilantes and militants who had occupied it. By late 2007, some thirty militant groups declared the formation of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Though nominally loyal to Mullah Omar, they have ignored his reported entreaties to de-escalate their fight with Pakistan.

For many years, Pakistan sought to contain the rebellion by negotiating truces with some militant groups while fighting others. The United States, among others, criticized these deals, saying they allowed Taliban factions to consolidate control. They also elevated the militants' status as interlocutors while undermining the political agents and tribal intermediaries who had long been central to the FATA’s governance, according to some regional analysts. Taliban assassination campaigns targeting tribal elders have further undermined governance there.

The Drawdown

The 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) has assumed the primary role in combating the Afghan Taliban at a time when quality of life for many Afghans has seen some gradual improvements. Progress in areas like education, media freedom, and women's rights is enjoyed by many Afghans, particularly in urban centers, but remains fragile.

But the future success of Afghan forces is not assured. A June 2014 UN report observed that the Afghan Taliban appears to be expanding its control of pockets in the south, east, and north of the country. Withdrawals of international soldiers have "generally coincided with a deterioration of Kabul's reach in outlying districts," the International Crisis Group reported in May 2014, and an independent assessment of the ANSF commissioned by the Pentagon anticipates that trend will accelerate in the coming years.

The Afghan Taliban’s leadership exerts command and control from Pakistan but delegates tactical decision-making to regional commanders and councils. Quetta’s cleric-dominated command is most robust nearby in the Taliban’s southern heartland—in the Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan provinces. In the east, the semiautonomous Haqqani network is predominant; Pakistan’s ISI has historically had a closer operating relationship with the Haqqani network than with the Kandahari leadership. (In late 2014, the Pakistani military declared its intention to target the Haqqani network.)

The Taliban has also expanded military operations in northern Afghanistan, underpinning its claim that it wages a national insurgency. Insurgents affiliated with Gulbuddin Hekmatayar, commander of the mujahadeen party-turned-insurgent group Hezb-i Islami, remain a small but significant element in northeastern Afghanistan.

An Adaptive Insurgency?

The Afghan Taliban insurgency has sought to broaden its appeal by projecting a more benign image and claiming to recognize some international norms. Mullah Omar ruled in 2006 that local commanders should use discretion on whether to impose the proscriptions that characterized past Taliban rule. For instance, TV, music, and female education and employment could be permitted, and fighters may facilitate polio vaccinations. That same year, the Taliban’s leadership issued a code of conduct as it grew concerned that insurgents’ brutality and corruption was undermining the movement’s argument that it alone could bring Afghanistan security and justice.

In June 2013 the Taliban said it established an office mandated with investigating and punishing cases of civilian casualties. It cooperates with the UN’s biannual reporting on civilian protection, contributing to it at times and rebutting its findings in others. Nevertheless, the Taliban considers government workers, including judges, prosecutors, civil servants, teachers, and health workers, and anti-Taliban clerics above all, permissible targets for assassination, and has picked up its attacks on international humanitarian organizations (PDF).

Profiteers and Ideologues

Sympathetic private donors from the Gulf and some Afghan émigrés helped finance the Taliban’s resurgence, which required wages for its foot soldiers. The insurgency has since diversified its income with ventures that have given small Afghan Taliban networks greater autonomy vis-à-vis the central leadership, whose legitimacy has been diminished in the eyes of some of the rank and file because of the perception that it has grown beholden to Pakistan while in exile.

Persistent insecurity in Afghanistan has created opportunities for profiteering, and some Taliban factions have adopted warlord-like behavior. Taliban factions levy taxes, extort companies—including international military and development contractors—in protection rackets, exploit natural resources, and traffic opium poppy. (Afghanistan, which remains the world’s top producer of opium poppies, grew a record crop in 2014, according to the UN’s drug agency, despite international counternarcotics efforts to which the United States has contributed $7.6 billion.) Such opportunism has shifted the Taliban from “a group based on religiously couched ideology to a coalition of increasingly criminalized networks, guided by the profit motive,” the UN’s Taliban monitoring team reported in June 2014. In 2012, the panel estimated the group’s annual revenue at $400 million.

The 2009–2012 surge that brought U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to more than a hundred thousand coincided with stepped-up kill-or-capture missions. Pakistani arrests wiped out many mid-level commanders, weakening the chain of command. Some analysts believe that the younger leaders who have filled their ranks are more ideological, more lethal, and less likely to compromise on a political settlement.

Taliban leaders who favor reconciling with Kabul have found themselves vulnerable. Kabul has charged that Islamabad has spoiled opportunities for talks. Some prominent Taliban officials who have advocated for reconciliation or engaged with Kabul have been assassinated, the UN reports.

Metastasis in Pakistan

The Pakistani Taliban remain less constrained by a desire to build political legitimacy, but also more fractious than its Afghan counterpart, regional experts say. In Pakistan the Taliban has waged a lethal campaign against girls’ education and polio vaccination, accusing public-health teams of conspiring with the West to sterilize Muslims.

Pakistani ground offensives and the U.S. drone campaign, which took out successive TTP leaders Beithullah and Hakimullah Mehsud, have put the Pakistani Taliban under pressure. Under Hakimullah's successor, Mullah Fazlullah—former chief of the Swat Taliban—leadership squabbles have splintered the tribally diverse umbrella group.

In the summer of 2014, the Pakistani military launched a long-anticipated offensive on North Waziristan, long a hotbed for the Haqqani network and other militant groups. The United States escalated drone strikes in support of the Pakistani operations. Already under pressure, various factions left the TTP umbrella. Meanwhile, some foreign fighters have left the region to fight in Syria.

Cooperation or Competition Ahead?

Afghanistan and Pakistan’s mutual mistrust continues to stymie a resolution to their respective insurgencies: Pakistan has called for Afghanistan to hand over Fazlullah, who has accessed hideouts in Afghanistan when under pressure in Pakistan. Kabul accuses Islamabad of protecting Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani network; the Haqqanis fled North Waziristan ahead of the 2014 offensive, and have since reestablished their military infrastructure and intensified their suicide bombing campaign in Kabul. Afghanistan also objects to Pakistani forces shelling Afghan territory. The rocket fire, targeting Pakistani militants fleeing tribal-area offensives, has reportedly killed, wounded, and displaced Afghan civilians who live along the border.

Though united by similar worldviews and reported linkages among their ranks, the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans’ divergent objectives make it unlikely that they will make common cause in the near term, according to many experts who have studied the conflict. The downsizing of the U.S.-NATO security umbrella in Afghanistan could heighten both Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s incentives to use insurgent proxies for leverage against one another.

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