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Five myths about the Taliban

Taliban fighters poses for a photograph while raising their flag. (Gulabuddin Amiri/AP)

A little less than two decades after it was forced from power in Afghanistan by the U.S. invasion prompted by the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban has now captured most of the country and the capital, Kabul. The group’s return has raised questions about how it was able to seize so much territory so quickly, and whether it has changed from the brutal regime most remember from the 1990s. Its comeback has also revived several erroneous or outdated beliefs.

Myth No. 1

The Taliban has been variously portrayed as a proxy of Pakistan, so much so that #SanctionPakistan began trending across social media in response to the Taliban’s recent military advance. Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has long blamed Pakistan for the Taliban’s resurgence, as have many Western analysts.

It’s true that the Taliban could not have resurrected itself after 2001 without support, sanctuary, funding and protection from Pakistan’s primary intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and other Pakistani actors. But it is a complicated relationship: The Taliban deeply resents Pakistan’s attempts to keep it beholden. In February 2010, for example, the ISI arrested Abdul Ghani Baradar, then the Taliban’s deputy leader, after he discussed peace negotiations with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai without Pakistan’s permission. Baradar’s release was brokered in 2018 after U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad intervened. Many within the movement also blame Pakistan for the death of the group’s second emir, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, in a U.S. drone strike in 2016 in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

The Taliban has repeatedly resisted Pakistani pressure. Though Pakistan faced demands from the United States and Afghanistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, its efforts to strong-arm the militants into talks, notably the Murree process in 2015, badly backfired when many senior Taliban members refused to attend (some even left Pakistan to avoid retaliation for their decision). More recently, the Taliban has tried to widen its diplomatic relations, with senior figures seeking to build ties with China, Russia, Indonesia and even Iran, in part to lessen Pakistan’s grip.

Myth No. 2

The main proponent of this myth has been the U.S. military. Its origins date back to the troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama in 2009, partly premised on the idea that the Taliban could be divided and conquered. A range of respected policy experts, notably in an influential 2009 Foreign Affairs piece, argued that the Taliban could be split, “flipped” and realigned to support the Afghan government. This idea stubbornly persisted, even though there were no obvious signs that it was correct. In 2017, Gen. John W. Nicholson, then commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, described this strategy as: “We go at them hard. They go at us hard. Then we start peeling people off,” meaning that individual leaders and groups would seek reconciliation as “fissures” formed within their ranks.

Indeed, the Taliban is not homogenous. Its leaders have had to accommodate commanders and fighters with diverse interests and viewpoints, allowing them leeway at the local level. And the transition from fighting an insurgency to governing the country may yet exacerbate existing fault lines. But the Taliban has shown itself to be a cohesive and disciplined organization. Despite enormous military pressure, it has maintained a clear chain of command and avoided any significant splits or factional disputes. It has acted as one when it has truly mattered: The Taliban emerged even stronger after the succession crisis that followed Mohammad Omar’s death in 2013, drove the Islamic State from its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan, ordered its forces to obey several temporary cease-fires and violence-reduction measures, and, since May, has coordinated a sweeping military campaign to capture most of the country. 

Myth No. 3

The Taliban’s swift military sweep has led many to conclude that the group was never genuine in its desire for peace talks and planned to take power by force all along. Afghanistan expert Michael Semple told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in March that “they are engaged in a military campaign to try to reestablish their Islamic Emirate — a government of Afghanistan dominated entirely by the Taliban movement.” Even as the Taliban seized control of the presidential palace in Kabul, USA Today and other outlets speculated that the militants intended to “declare the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

But for all its military success, the Taliban has no blueprint for a post-victory state. The group’s public statements suggest that it didn’t expect the Afghan government to fall this quickly and have been caught unprepared. Taliban leaders have made only vague allusions to the kind of state they plan to build, and some have assumed that this is a ruse to hide their true intentions. While many in the Taliban probably envision a return to an emirate of some sort, there is little consensus among the leadership about what that would look like, or about other key governance issues (which helps explain why it has taken them so long to form a government). In the meantime, the Taliban’s leaders have sought to calm the international community’s fears and buy themselves time by insisting that they are talking “with other parties to form an inclusive government acceptable to all Afghans.”

Myth No. 4

The Taliban’s refusal to give up al-Qaeda after 9/11 was the main justification for the war in Afghanistan. Now that the group is back in power, there is growing concern that al-Qaeda will return in force, too. Rita Katz, of the SITE Intelligence Group, told the New Yorker that there is a “universal recognition” that the terrorist group can now “reinvest” in Afghanistan as a safe haven. Nathan Sales, a former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the New York Times that “it is virtually certain that al-Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot terrorism against the United States and others.”

The Taliban has never renounced or broken ties with al-Qaeda, a group that remains popular among Taliban fighters, and forsaking it in favor of the United States is a political nonstarter. To secure a political guarantee for U.S. military withdrawal, the Taliban nevertheless had to pledge to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for attacks on the West. Its leaders are betting they can deliver on this promise because al-Qaeda is a dramatically diminished presence, numbering a few hundred fighters by U.S. intelligence estimates. And the Taliban, never interested in international jihad, has little reason to allow al-Qaeda to regroup, given the likely dire consequences for its rule should it do so. 

What is often overlooked is that the two groups have a fraught history: Osama bin Laden’s repeated attacks on Western targets, even after Taliban leaders sought to rein in al-Qaeda, were effectively responsible for the Taliban’s fall from power last time around. There have been growing concerns among the movement’s leadership about the presence of foreign groups on Afghan soil, leading the Taliban to place tentative restrictions on al-Qaeda and foreign fighters earlier this year. An al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan is in no way inevitable, and much depends on how the international community engages with the Taliban on this issue now.

Myth No. 5

Afghanistan’s decades of conflict have often tracked along ethnic and tribal lines, with the Taliban seen as dominated by select tribal cadres among the nation’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Indeed, the Taliban’s rise has long been portrayed in Western media as a Pashtun issue or an expression of “Pashtun nationalism,” as Selig S. Harrison put it in the New York Times. Semple has written that the “movement has retained a narrow social base, and its power is concentrated in the hands of mullahs from the Kandahari Pashtun tribes.”

That might have been true in the 1990s, but the Taliban’s recent takeover was partly premised on ethnic and tribal outreach far beyond its Pashtun base. While the leadership is still dominated by the old guard of southern Pashtun founders, the mid-level commanders and foot soldiers are much more diverse. The post-2001 government’s neglect, combined with rampant corruption, graft and ethnic infighting, fueled disillusion and disenfranchisement among Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek populations. This enabled multiethnic outreach that was integral to the insurgency’s spread through the west and the north of Afghanistan and its march on Kabul this summer.

In recent years, the Taliban has tried to present itself as multiethnic, appointing local officials from Tajik and Hazara areas and assuring Shiite communities that they can worship in peace. Shiites remain skeptical, though — especially given the alleged Taliban summary executions of Hazaras in July, and the Taliban’s pre-9/11 history of violence against Shiite populations.  

Twitter: @a_a_jackson

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