Talibans without turbans

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Is the Taliban movement capable of making a comeback in Afghanistan? The question may sound a rhetorical one, considering this movement’s crushing defeat at the hands of the Northern Alliance and its US backers. Yet, the Taliban may not be a spent force. It still has the sympathy and support of the Pashtun community, Afghanistan’s largest and most disadvantaged ethnic group, and, given the volatility of the country’s affairs, the movement may yet have the capacity to regroup.

The Taliban, a Pashtun-based, student-backed and ulema-led movement, was first heard of in 1994. Within two years, it had taken control of the Afghan capital Kabul, and only one year after that it controlled 90 per cent of the country. The rise of the Taliban was partly due to the collapse of law and order that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. The Pashtuns, having no militia group of their own, were the main losers in the power struggle that followed, which boosted the fortunes of Uzbek leaders, such as General Abdul-Rashid Dostum, and Tajik chieftains, led by Ahmad Shah Masood.

The movement’s dependence on a core of militant students, from which it takes its name, was also not a coincidence. Graduates of religious schools in Afghanistan were under-represented in the country’s power structures, and Afghanistan was ruled by an elite group of fighters, or Mujahidin, who had fought the Soviet occupation during the 1980s. These men were often foreign-educated, as was the case with the then president, Burhanuddin Rabbani. However, once the Taliban had managed to mould itself into an organised force, its student members succeeded, with help from foreign backers, in overpowering the older generation of Mujahidin leaders.

Pakistan was the friend the Taliban needed. Both India and Russia had thrown in their lot with the country’s traditional warlords. The Taliban was a fresh movement, and Pakistan decided that the time had come to teach India a lesson, if not in Kashmir, then in Afghanistan. Islamic movements in Pakistan, including the Islamic Party of Afghanistan, also supported the Taliban, and the presence of Pashtun tribes on Pakistan’s side of the border with Afghanistan proved strategically vital.

Once in power, the Taliban movement brought an austere version of Islam to Afghan life, to the displeasure of many inside and outside the country. But what is now all but forgotten is that the Taliban also brought order to a chaotic country, ending military strife in areas under its control, fighting administrative corruption and suppressing the cultivation and trade in narcotics. More importantly, it also empowered the country’s largest ethnic community, the Pashtun.

Since the Taliban movement was ousted from power in Afghanistan by American-led or supported forces, thousands of its members have been killed or captured. Others have fled into Pakistan, or have just walked back to their villages, discarded their characteristic black turbans, and blended into the local community. Most Taliban leaders are believed to have survived the US attack and are now in hiding among Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan or close to the Pakistani-Afghan border. At least some of these leaders may be eager to regain power, and those who have succeeded in retaining at least some of their weapons may well be responsible for the occasional hit- and-run attacks that have taken place against Northern Alliance troops and their US and Western backers.

Indeed, the Taliban, or segments of it, is likely to become part of Afghanistan’s future political scene. The new composition of the country, like that in place before the emergence of the Taliban, is unjust to the Pashtuns, the new government established by the Northern Alliance and its Western backers having failed to give this group a proportionate share of power. In addition, the Taliban still have the sympathy of Pashtun tribes, and these tribes have taken back former fighters into their ranks. Should renewed hostilities break out, these fighters will be a valuable asset, and the Pashtuns have not forgotten the massacres that Uzbek and Tajik militias committed against their kinfolk after the fall of the Taliban.

Signs of a power struggle are visible in today’s Afghanistan, one example being the tension between the army commander Ata Mohamed and General Dostum. Crime, drug-dealing and administrative problems are rife, and local chieftains are reclaiming their former zones of influence. Under these conditions, the Pashtun community needs protection, and the veteran fighters of the Taliban are capable of providing it.

The Pashtuns have several grievances. Before his assassination, Afghan Vice-President Abdul-Qadir, a Pashtun, walked out of the Berlin Conference setting up the post-Taliban Afghan administration to protest the imbalance in the country’s new power-sharing formula. While it is true that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is Pashtun, the ministries of defence, foreign affairs and the interior, as well as other vital posts in the government, are all in Uzbek and Tajik hands.

One likely scenario for the future is an alliance between the remnants of the Taliban and the Islamic Party of Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The latter fled to Iran following the Taliban takeover in 1996. Yet, just before the United States went to war against the Taliban, Hekmatyar said that his forces would join in fighting the Americans, warning that the US forces would suffer a similar fate to that which had befallen the Soviets. After he fled the country, a large section of Hekmatyar’s supporters joined the Taliban.

Unconfirmed reports have linked the Islamic Party to the bombings that took place in Kabul in September, and a recent attempt on Karzai’s life has been blamed on the Taliban. It is too early to speculate, but if Hekmatyar and the Taliban decide to bury the hatchet and join forces, a force of considerable potential would emerge.

A new group calling itself the Secret Army of Muslim Mujahidin has also claimed responsibility for several hit- and-run attacks on US and Western forces in Afghanistan. The group issued a statement on 5 September promising to fight until “the last foreign soldier” had left the country.

Little information is yet available on the identity of this so-called Secret Army, but observers are guessing that it is Pashtun-based and Pakistani-aided. Does this ring any bells?

The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report.

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