Despite the US and NATO military withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Washington and allies continue to struggle with their Afghanistan policy choices, unable to decide between options ranging from full normalization, containment, disengagement, confrontation, and others.
This is thanks in no small part to the fact that the group remains shrouded in mystery in terms of their ideological, political, and organizational dynamics. As a result, ask ten individuals about the Taliban, and you will receive ten different answers—or as one might phrase it, the “Taliban in the eye of the beholder.”
The contrasting views of two prominent US and British military generals illustrate the group’s many faces around the world. Just days after the collapse of Afghanistan’s Republic last August, Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Patrick Carter described the Taliban as “country boys” with a “code of honor.” A year later, he characterized Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s deputy leader, as a “modernist” and called for the international community to embrace him and his “modernizers” faction. Former US National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster, however, takes an entirely different view of the Taliban, describing them as “a transnational terrorist organisation that is interconnected with others and it’s a creature of support from Pakistan’s ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence].” Furthermore, these and other perspectives on the Taliban are not mere academic definitions—they often shape policies as well. The first attempt to make “peace” with the Taliban was in 2006 by the British military in Helmand province, which then culminated in the 2010 London conference when “peace and reconciliation” became the main policy framework of the Western alliance.
Even within the US government, policies were divided. The US Department of State’s ongoing refusal to include the Taliban in its list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations is the policy consequence of its romanticized view of the Taliban, which contributed in no small part to the 2020 Doha Agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban. Keeping the group’s official classification in US bureaucracy ambiguous kept doors open and options available for Washington if it ever decided that it needed a quick off-ramp, which it took in February of 2020. Confusingly, the revised 2017 US South Asia strategy reflected General McMaster’s more hardline view of the Taliban.
Bearing these factors in mind, a better understanding of the Taliban’s guiding principles and ideologies can help the academic and policy communities in their understanding of the group and approach towards them. Specifically, a three-pronged framework originating in Persian literature sheds light on the machinations of despotic reigns such as the Taliban, known as “Rule by Three Instruments”: zar (gold/bounty), zoor (violence/force), and tazvir (deception).
The Taliban have shown remarkable success in aligning these three tools to advance their agenda. Not only are these ideas important to explore as an intellectual exercise, but they also have direct policy implications for international engagement with the Taliban and Afghanistan.
As with any group, the Taliban have different loyal constituencies that require constant rewards (both material and immaterial) to retain.
- Mid-level commanders
- Islamist/clerical constituency
- Ethnic/Pashtun base
The reward packages are composed of material, religious, ideational, and political elements. Rewards considered ”heavenly” in the Taliban’s interpretation, such as sexual gratification or meeting with the Prophet Muhammad, are what often motivate the group’s hard-core followers, exemplified by suicide attackers. The mid-level and field commanders are rewarded by distribution of bounties and economic assets. During their insurgency phase, extortion of aid monies, illicit drugs, and financial payments by various intelligence organizations enriched the Taliban’s field commanders.
If the rank-and-file members represented poor fighters or “the $10-a-day” Taliban, a large number of Taliban mid- and senior levels were the “fat cats.” For example, the former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was believed to have a lucrative business in the United Arab Emirates. Since their return to power, the Afghan state’s vast bureaucracy, international aid, and mineral resources have become new and additional sources for the enrichment of Taliban fat cats.
The Taliban are the Sunni version of Iran’s clerical movement, committed to creating a clerical-ruled Islamist polity. Unlike in Iran, however, the Taliban do not dilute their puritanical movement with pseudo labels such as “Islamic democracy.” As with any other ideological movement, the Taliban’s Islamic government is transformative and totalitarian in nature. A new treatise by the Taliban’s key ideologue Sheikh Abdul Haqqani provides a clear example of their version of a totalitarian Islamist polity. This was facilitated by the 2020 Doha Agreement, which—through its ambiguity in tone and definition—envisioned a vague “Afghan Islamic government” which, again, gave the Taliban the benefit of interpretation.
The Taliban have also a distinctive Pashtun ethnic identity. The vast majority of Taliban senior leadership are Pashtuns. Ensuring Pashtun political supremacy within the Afghan polity is the unifying factor between the Taliban and ethno-nationalist Pashtuns. Both former presidents of the previous Republic, Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, failed to create a cohesive and nationwide anti-Taliban narrative among their fellow Pashtuns. It should be noted, though, that there is in fact a flourishing anti-Taliban movement in Pakistan known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, demonstrating that such unification is indeed possible.
The Taliban’s use of violence to advance politico-ideological ends has been effective and strategic. During the insurgency phase, the Taliban terrorized coalition forces with cheap but effective tools such as roadside bombings and “inside attacks.” The Taliban were not a formidable military force by conventional measures, but instead found success as a highly effective terrorizing movement. This is exemplified by the fact that the group failed to capture and hold any major urban city until July 2021. Since their takeover of the Afghan state, the Taliban’s strategic use of violence against their active and potential foes is in full display. They resumed public hangings in cities such as Herat and Mazar, clear examples of “performative violence.” The Taliban’s Ministries of Defence and Interior also have a “suicide brigade” in their formal structure, ready to be deployed against any threat and particularly alongside Afghanistan’s northern and western borders.
That said, the group is not without challengers in the militant ecosystem. The regional branch of the Islamic State, known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K), is a double-edged sword for the Taliban. While there is a serious competition over ideological doctrines and material resources, IS-K has provided a golden opportunity for the Taliban to present themselves as “good terrorists” capable of fighting “bad terrorists.” The pro-Taliban voices in Western and regional capitals, including in Delhi, are being lured to this proposition. The Taliban can also use the pretext of fighting IS-K to suppress their political opponents.
Furthermore, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan has now joined the club of “digital authoritarianism.” The group is learning fast from other authoritarian regimes to use social media to propagate their agendas while suppressing independent media and controlling digital platforms. Afghan social media users are increasingly targeted by the Taliban’s feared General Directorate of Intelligence for posting critical comments, including Afghan and foreign journalists who have been detained by the Taliban for their online comments. Similar to like-minded authoritarian neighbors in Iran and China, the Taliban have an impressive presence on social media, particularly Twitter.
Deception has historically been an integral part of warfare and political strategies, including by the Taliban. Before their first successful occupation of Kabul in 1996, they led many to believe that they were clearing the way for the return of King Zahir Shah. They followed the same strategy in their second attempt in 2021, by claiming that the Taliban have now changed (i.e., “Taliban 2.0”). However, after capturing the throne, they began implementing their Islamist vision, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Despite huge international coverage and press that came with both the US-led war and the Taliban’s takeover last August, the group—incredibly—kept Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death a secret for more than thirteen years. Even Iran and Pakistan could not match this level of secrecy in disguising their nuclear programs!
The Taliban utilized social media and smartphones in their warfare strategies as well. Their reconnaissance team quietly erected and filmed the Taliban’s flag on iconic public squares then under Afghan Republic control, disseminating the video clips on social media platforms to announce the “liberation” of the city. In cases such as these, the Taliban first occupied the virtual and information space before the physical space.
Furthermore, a plethora of Taliban apologists in Islamist and Western media, think tanks, and political circles have assisted them enormously in their deceptive strategies. While pro-Russian voices and views within Western policy circles are frequently exposed and ostracized, the pro-Taliban circles have yet to be recognized as an important constituency. Examples include The New York Times’ decision to publish a purported op-ed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the International Crisis Group’s recruitment of a close relative of the Taliban’s foreign ministry spokesperson as a consultant, and its consistent advocacy for engagement with the Taliban or writing of books for the Taliban by Western authors.
Breaking the cycle of mis-engagement with Afghanistan
While there is consensus on the human cost of the conflict and its implications for regional and global security, there have been divergent prescriptions to resolve it. The Taliban represents an important piece of this multifaceted conflict.
Reflective of this complex nature, there have been two distinctive international approaches towards the Taliban: containment during their first reign of the 1990s, and engagement from 2010 onward. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on US soil demonstrated well the futility of the containment strategy. The 2020 Doha Agreement was the culmination of intended Taliban engagement. Apart from the Taliban, few parties remain supportive of the Doha Agreement. Norway, a strong investor in the engagement strategy, recently expressed its ”disappointment” with the Taliban, joining many other actors with buyer’s remorse. US President Joseph R. Biden’s (and previously former President Donald J. Trump’s) wishes to disengage from Afghanistan continue to be challenged by the United States’ security, political, moral, and emotional attachment with Afghanistan.
In the context of the Taliban’s reinvented Islamist authoritarianism with twenty-first century technology, the international community must also rethink its approach to supporting the Afghan people against the regime’s wave of repression. This means leaving old methods of engagement behind for good.
Dismantlement of the Taliban regime is the only way forward
The alternative to the existing strategy of “containment, engagement, and subsequent disengagement” is the dismantlement of the Taliban’s reign. In a “post-terrorism” world, when the global war on terrorism is being ridiculed as a “forever war” amid great power competition and a war-weary citizenry, the dismantlement strategy may seem far-fetched. However, a junta based on plunder, fear, and deception is incapable of addressing Afghans’ basic needs as well as responding to regional and global security concerns. A dismantlement strategy will align Afghans’ needs with regional stability and global security. Such an endeavour needs serious, creative, and sustained United Nations (UN) leadership, particularly the UN Security Council. There are already pockets of resistance to the Taliban, too, as symbolized by courageous Afghan women.
The Taliban’s first reign was dismantled spectacularly due to the combined efforts of Afghan, regional, US, and NATO partners. In a post-Taliban Afghanistan, the group could become a political party similar to Pakistan’s Islamic parties.
Afghanistan has become a humanitarian catastrophe for its citizens, gender apartheid for its women, a regional black hole, and a deep scar on Western credibility. The Taliban’s trademarks of reward, violence, and deception have characterized their “anti-resistance” strategy. The world cannot afford to remain neutral about the outcome of this struggle. Will the international community, and particularly the United States, follow the famous saying that “Americans will always do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives,” or will history repeat the cycle of reactive politics that always ends with thugs in charge?
Dr. Davood Moradian is director-general of the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies (AISS).
The South Asia Center (SAC) is the hub for the Atlantic Council’s analysis of the political, social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the region.
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