Counter-Terrorism: How The Taliban Became Self-Destructive

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January 20, 2015: Over a decade of operations in Afghanistan left American forces with a lot of data on life under Taliban rule as well as what passes for “normal” life in the tribal countryside. The data was collected by polling organizations (using Afghans to conduct the surveys), data collected by NGO (Non-Governmental Organizations) aid groups, government agencies and intelligence personnel. The data confirmed some things that had already been known by sociologists, anthropologists and military organizations like the American Special Forces. That is, tribal Afghanistan (the areas outside the cities where most people live) is violent and varied. There are dozens of major tribes and hundreds of smaller tribes and clans. Aside from the violence, there is a great deal of variety in local customs. Some areas are eager to embrace modern education and culture. Others, like the ones in the southwest (Kandahar and Helmand) that are very culturally and religiously conservative. This is where most of the Taliban come from and where most of the opium and heroin is produced.

The Taliban and the Pushtun tribes they largely spring from get the most attention from the international media. What the media has missed is how much the Taliban has changed in the twenty years since it was formed (in Pakistan) in 1995. Back then it was a fanatical militant organization led by armed clerics and determined to bring peace to Afghanistan, which at that point was devastated by nearly two decades of fighting (first each other, then the Russians for most of the 1980s then each other again). The Taliban stayed pretty strict and holier-than-thou until they were driven out in late 2001 by American backed northern tribes (and Pushtun from the south who disagreed with cultural and religious policies of the Pushtun tribes who tribes that backed the Taliban.)

After 2001 the Taliban leadership received sanctuary in southeast Pakistan (where they remain to this day) and, financed by an alliance with the drug gangs of Helmand, spent years developing and trying out new tactics in an effort to regain power in Afghanistan. All this got about 100,000 people killed, over 96 percent of them Afghans. What the Taliban leadership learned was that the original, very strict, Taliban governing techniques did not work and were the main cause of the quick Taliban defeat in 2001. So the Taliban issued new rules to their subordinates in Afghanistan that amounted to the Taliban becoming less strict and more flexible. Schools for girls were to be allowed and the strict ban on music was to be eased (traditional music, as used at weddings, was to be permitted). Taliban rule was to emphasize order and consistency and violence against the population was to be a last resort. A lot of this was traditional Afghan practice which the Taliban tried to change in the 1990s by forcing everyone to live according to the rules favored by a few very old-school Pushtun tribes in southwest Afghanistan.

These new rules were welcomed by many Taliban front line leaders, as well as the people who they controlled. The problem was that the heavy losses after more than a decade of fighting had killed off most of the original Taliban leadership and too many of the replacements turned out to be opportunistic thugs or rigid religious fanatics. By 2012 polls showed that nationwide only about ten percent of Afghans supported the Taliban. The main reason for that low popularity was the inconsistent and often brutal governing techniques the Taliban had developed. Further polling, especially in areas the Taliban were driven out of, showed that when Taliban leaders followed the new rules most Afghans, at least in the tribal countryside, were willing to go along. But the majority of Taliban front line leaders were not following the new rules and were very unpopular. Some of these guys were corrupt, others were too strict and brutal and many were simply inconsistent and unreliable. Many tribes took the dangerous step of organizing local militias and opposing the Taliban with force. This was a dangerous step because if the Taliban got the upper hand they would kill most of the men and force the surviving women and children to either flee, stay and starve or become wives for the brutal young Taliban thugs they were rebelling against. Normally the Pushtun tribes are pragmatic and if a really vicious and violent enemy shows up they will submit and wait for the new guy to get sloppy or weak enough to be destroyed or chased away. The tribes might submit but they hung onto their weapons, even if they had to hide many of them for a while.

Things got worse for the Taliban when the northerner dominated central government used their access to a lot of foreign aid to make deals with Pushtun tribes who were willing to oppose the Taliban in return for autonomy and cash. That’s the traditional Afghan way of doing business with the tribes. This deal included passing national laws (that could, of course, be ignored if they contradicted local tradition) endorsing conservative customs and the authority of tribal government. This appalled the Western donor nations but made sense in Afghanistan. People who wanted to get away from this old fashioned thinking got out and increasingly leave.

All this leaves the Taliban even more dependent on the drug gangs (who supply cash for help in keeping the government or anyone else from interfering with the production and export of heroin). The old leaders in Pakistan still have a lot of authority, but little actual control and flail about trying to weed out a lot of the “bad” Taliban middle-management inside Afghanistan that technically work for them but in fact do as they please.

 

 


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