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Whither the Taliban?

by Mr. Ali A. Jalali and Mr. Lester W. Grau
Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS.

This article appeared in the 6 March 1999 issue of
The Cyber-Caravan Under the title
Taliban - a Model for "Islamicising" Central Asia?

During the past four years, the Western media has written much about the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. The coverage has included the Taliban's genesis as a political/military movement and its rapid rise to power in the strife-ridden country. Reporters have addressed many important issues including the movement's fairly rigid and puritanical interpretation of Islam, its military and political significance, its human rights violations, and its potential for spreading its brand of Islamic extremism to the neighboring countries, particularly to the newly independent states in Central Asia.

In many instances, the description of the Taliban's behavior and the reactions of rival factions and individuals to the Taliban have been over-simplified. The cultural, religious and political underpinnings of the movement's ideology present keys to understanding its policies and whether the movement has the capacity to establish and administer a viable government in Afghanistan.

On the political side, the Taliban movement coalesced to bring order to a failed state. The Taliban's commitment to fighting corruption and lawlessness won them massive popular support. Thousands of young recruits from the refugee madrasas (religious schools) across the border in Pakistan swelled their ranks. Many ex-army officers and disaffected former Mujahideen commanders, who resented the continued infighting among former Mujahideen groups also joined. This popularity led to predominant military might and a tentative legitimacy to rule the country.

On the religious side, the Taliban represented the traditional clergy with historical roots in Afghan society. Talibs and Mullahs have historically mobilized the public to oppose both foreign invasion and encroachment on traditional societal values by the state. As the Mujahideen leaders, in pursuit of their personal and factional interests, failed to lived up to their commitment to Islam and national ideals, the moral core elements of the Taliban's declared political program paved their way to political power. The Taliban are Sunni Muslim-the majority religious sect in Afghanistan.

On the ethnic side, the Taliban movement is primarily Pashtun, the majority ethnic group that ruled Afghanistan for the past two and one-half centuries. During the civil war following the collapse of the Communist government, the struggle for power between rival factions developed ethnic underpinnings. Continued control by the Tajik-led government of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masud created discontent and a sense of powerlessness among the Pashtuns. The emerging Taliban movement began in the Pashtun area of Kandahar and then received extensive support from Pashtuns across the country who thought that the movement might restore their national dominance. Even Pashtun intellectuals in the West, who seriously differ with the Taliban on many issues, expressed support for the movement on purely ethnic grounds. Conversely, non-Pashtun intellectuals have opposed the Taliban, again for ethnic reasons.

Beginning in 1994, the emerging Taliban movement gathered military power backed by popular support. They drew their legitimacy from their commitment to end corruption. As they brought security, law and order to the areas under their control, public support grew.

However, the same factors that helped the Taliban to seize control of about 80 percent of the territory in less than four years, now mitigate against their efforts to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan.

In matters of politics, the Taliban's restrictive policies, their lack of administrative skills, their economic failure, their dependence on Pakistan, and their international isolation have cost them a lot of popular support that they enjoyed at the beginning.

In matters of religion, their enforcement of a rigid and pre-modern interpretation of Islam, which prevailed mostly in Pashtun rural areas, clashes with accepted Islamic norms in the cities and other more-developed areas. The Taliban's imposition of far-reaching social restrictions has changed public perception of the movement. Many now consider the Taliban to be a reactionary and anachronistic force incapable of meeting the challenges of modern life.

In matters of ethnicity, the continued monopoly of power by the Pashtuns in the Taliban movement has blocked its acceptance as a national force. The opposition are primarily ethnic Tadjik, Uzbek and Hazara. The Hazara have another reason to suspect the Taliban since they are Shia Muslim.

These three aspects -- political, religious and ethnic-cultural - must be take into consideration when examining the nature of the Taliban movement and its viability as a sustaining political force in Afghanistan. These aspects show that the Taliban conquest of most of the country does not mean the end of Afghanistan's misery, nor does it mean peace.

Despite negative press coverage in the West, there were many positive aspects to the Taliban cause. First, the Taliban brought order, security and purpose to large sectors of Afghanistan. Second, the Taliban disarmed large sectors of Afghanistan and brought hundreds of local warlords to heel. Third, the Taliban tried to impose peace. However, as the Taliban became more of an ethnic movement, the opportunity for real peace lessened as the Taliban determined to impose their particular beliefs on the entire country. The Taliban have rejected peace and unification proposals from many sources, including moderate Afghan Islamic leaders. The Taliban firmly believe that what they are doing is right and the only way. This sets the movement in ideological rigidity and makes them reluctant to change. Further, should they compromise, they run the risk of splitting the movement and disintegrating into factions.

The Taliban will not be able to rule Afghanistan exclusively for the following reasons:

The history of Afghanistan demonstrates that seizing Afghanistan is the easiest part. Retaining control is the difficult part. As the winter snows melt and the military campaign season begins anew, the fighting will again flare up. But the real challenge, to restore Afghanistan to peace and prosperity, will wait. The Taliban have demonstrated, so far, that they are not up to the challenge. To effectively rule, they must moderate their policies, broaden their base of support and participation and draw the intellectuals and professionals into their ranks.