“Who Is The Taliban?”

From  Anand Gopal  at The Nation:

When US-led forces toppled the Taliban government in November 2001, Afghans celebrated the downfall of a reviled and discredited regime. “We felt like dancing in the streets,” one Kabuli told me. As US-backed forces marched into Kabul, remnants of the old Taliban regime split into three groups. The first, including many Kabul-based bureaucrats and functionaries, simply surrendered to the Americans; some even joined the Karzai government. The second, comprising the movement’s senior leadership, including “Commander of the Faithful” Mullah Omar, fled across the border into Pakistan, where they remain to this day. The third and largest group–foot soldiers, local commanders and provincial officials–quietly melted into the landscape, returning to their villages to wait and see which way the wind would blow.

Meanwhile, the country was quickly being carved up by warlords and criminals. On the brand-new highway connecting Kabul to Kandahar and Herat, built with millions of Washington’s dollars, well-organized groups of bandits would regularly terrorize travelers. Last year “thirty, maybe fifty criminals, some in police uniforms, stopped our bus and shot [out] our windows,” Muhammadullah, the owner of a bus company that regularly uses the route, told me. “They searched our vehicle and stole everything from everyone.” Criminal syndicates, often with government connections, organized kidnapping sprees in urban centers. Often, those few who were caught would simply be released after the right palms were greased.

Into this landscape of violence and criminality rode the Taliban, promising law and order–just as they did when they first formed in the mid-1990s, when they were welcomed by many Afghans as relief from the rapacious post-Soviet warlords. Within two years after the 2001 invasion, the exiled leadership, based in Quetta, Pakistan, began reactivating networks of fighters who had blended into Afghan villages. They resurrected relationships with Pashtun tribes. (The insurgents, historically a predominantly Pashtun movement and mostly concentrated in the country’s south and east, still have very little influence among other minority ethnic groups like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hezaras.) With funds from wealthy Arab donors and training from ISI, the Pakistani intelligence apparatus, they were able to bring weapons and expertise into Pashtun villages.

In one village after another, the Taliban drove out the remaining minority of government sympathizers through intimidation and assassination. Then they won over the majority with promises of security and efficiency. They implemented a harsh version of Sharia law, cutting off the hands of thieves and shooting adulterers. They were brutal, but they were also incorruptible. Justice no longer went to the highest bidder. “There’s no crime anymore, unlike before,” said Abdul Halim, who lives in a district under Taliban control.

The insurgents conscripted fighters from the villages they operated in, often paying $200 a month–more than double the typical police salary. They adjudicated disputes between tribes and between landowners. They protected poppy fields from the eradication attempts of the central government and foreign armies–a move that won the support of poor farmers whose only stable income came from poppy cultivation. The areas under insurgent control were consigned to having neither reconstruction nor social services, but for rural villagers who had seen much foreign intervention and little economic progress under the Karzai government, this was hardly new.

At the same time, the Taliban’s ideology began to transform. “We are fighting to free our country from foreign domination,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told me over the phone. “The Indians fought for their independence against the British. Even the Americans once waged an insurgency to free their own country.” This emerging nationalistic streak appeals to Pashtun villagers, who have grown weary of the American and NATO presence.

Read the whole thing here

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