By Ahmed Atta
History of the Taliban
The Taliban are a movement of religious students (talib) from the Pashtun regions of eastern and southern Afghanistan who were educated in traditional Islamic schools in Pakistan. In September 1994 Mullah Mohammad Omar and 50 students founded the group in his hometown of Kandahar. Omar had had earlier been studying in the Sang-i-Hisar madrassa in Maiwand (northern Kandahar Province) since 1992. He was however disappointed that Islamic law had not been established in Afghanistan after the ousting of communist rule, and now with his group pledged to rid Afghanistan of warlords and criminals.
Within months, 15,000 students, mostly Afghan refugees, from religious schools or madrasas – one source calls them Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-run madrasas – in Pakistan joined the group. Those early Taliban adherents were motivated by the suffering among the Afghan people, which they believed resulted from power struggles between Afghan groups not adhering to the moral code of Islam; in their religious schools they had been taught a belief in strict Islamic law.
But sources state that Pakistan was heavily involved in the nascent stages of the movement, as early as October 1994, in the “creating” of the Taliban. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), strongly supported the Taliban in 1994, hoping for a new ruling power in Afghanistan sympathetic to Pakistan.
On 3 November 1994, the Taliban in a ambush conquered Kandahar City. By 4 January 1995, they were already controlling 12 Afghan provinces. Militias controlling the different areas often surrendered without a fight. Omar’s lieutenants were a mixture of former small-unit military commanders and madrassa teachers. The Taliban instantly became popular, because they stamped out corruption, and restored law and order in the region bringing safety to the streets.
In a bid to establish their rule over all Afghanistan, the Taliban started shelling Kabul in early 1995. The group first suffered a devastating defeat against government forces of the Islamic State of Afghanistan under the command of Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Pakistan, however, started to provide stronger military support to the Taliban. On September 26, 1996, as the Taliban prepared for another major offensive, Massoud ordered a full retreat from Kabul to launch an anti-Taliban resistance in the northeastern Hindu Kush mountains instead of engaging in street battles in Kabul. The Taliban entered Kabul on September 27, 1996, and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Analysts described the Taliban then as developing into a proxy force for Pakistan’s regional interests.
Afghan Civil War (1996–2001) and Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
The military goal of the Taliban during the period 1995 to 2001 was to reinstate the order of Abdur Rahman (the Iron Emir) through the re-establishment of a state with Pashtun dominance within the northern areas. By 1998, the Taliban’s Emirate controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan.
In December 2000, the United Nations Security Council with Resolution 1333, recognised the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people, condemning the use of Taliban territory for training of “terrorists” and providing a safe haven for Osama bin Laden. It issued severe sanctions against Afghanistan under Taliban control. In October 2001, the United States, with allies including the Afghan Northern Alliance, invaded Afghanistan and routed the Taliban regime. The Taliban leadership fled into Pakistan
What is the relationship between the Mujahideen and the Taliban?
Mujahideen is a generic word that means the following; Mujahidin plural of mujahid, “one who engages in jihad.” Often translated as “warriors of God”. Technically, the term has no connection with war. In recent years Muslims who engage in armed defence of Muslim lands call themselves or are called mujahidin. They are not a monolithic movement of one origin but are rather diverse. They see themselves as God-fearing people who are fighting against injustice, especially the invasion of foreign armies, but also against unjust state oppression. The term became well-known in the West in the early 1980s as the Afghan mujahidin battled against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Muslim volunteers from many countries have been fighting under that description in conflicts in Albania, Kashmir, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Chechnya. (2) Afghani guerrillas who fought against Soviet occupation and communist rule (1978 – 90). Supported by United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, they were divided into numerous political parties, following various ideological, ethnic, and sectarian loyalties.
Dominant parties included the radical Hizb-i Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the moderate Jamaat-i Islami, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masud.
The Taliban is a specific movement in Afghanistan that tried to fill the political vacuum after the Russians left and the Americans disengaged in Afghanistan.
Militant group of students and religious leaders who established the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from 1994 to 1996 in order to end the protracted civil war following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the region in 1989. Led by Mullah Omar. Promotes Islam as a moral, stable, and orderly alternative to civil war, ethnic divisions, and warring tribal chiefs. Follows strict, literal, and conservative interpretations of Islam and Sunni Islamic public standards, including the implementation of hudud punishments. Influenced primarily by Wahhabi teachers and Pashtun tribal traditions. The regime was denounced by international human rights organisations for its refusal to allow the practice or presence of any other religion besides Islam in Afghanistan and for the absolute segregation of women. It was supported and recognised by only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It provided shelter for Osama bin Laden and his associates, who ran training camps for international terrorists. Forcibly removed from power by US forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The Taliban claim they follow the Hanafi fiqh (jurist school of thought) of Sunni Islam but it is highly adulterated with Wahhabism, which puts it outside the fold of Islam. To complicate things further, there now exists an Afghan-based anti-Pakistani Taliban group called Neo-Taliban Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that resembles Da’eash (Isis) in its bloodthirsty viciousness. However, there exists no relationship since the groups listed here differ in the area of geographical operations, ideology, doctrine, and tactics.
|Afghanistan during Taliban rule|
When the Taliban took power in 1996, two decades of continuous warfare had devastated Afghanistan’s infrastructure and economy. There was limited electricity, crippled telecommunications, no running water, no functioning roads or regular energy supplies. Basic necessities like food and housing were desperately in short supply. In addition, the clan and family structure that provided Afghans with a socio-economic safety net was also badly damaged. Afghanistan’s infant mortality was the highest in the world. A quarter of all children died before they reached their fifth birthday, a rate several times higher than most other developing countries.
International charitable, development organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were extremely important to the supply of food, employment, reconstruction, and other services, but the Taliban were suspicious of the ‘help’ those organisations offered. (see § United Nations and NGOs)
With over one million deaths during the war, the number of families headed by widows had reached 98,000 by 1998. In Kabul, where vast areas of the city had been devastated from rocket attacks more than half of its 1.2m people benefited in some way from NGO activities, even for water to drink. The civil war and its never-ending refugee stream continued throughout the reign of the Taliban. The Mazar, Herat, and Shomali valley offensives displaced more than three-quarters of a million civilians, with “scorched earth” tactics to prevent them from supplying the enemy with aid.
Taliban decision-makers, particularly Mullah Omar, seldom, if ever, talked directly to non-Muslim foreigners, so aid providers had to deal with intermediaries whose agreements were often overturned. Around September 1997 the heads of three UN agencies in Kandahar were expelled from the country after protesting when a female attorney for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was forced to talk from behind a curtain so her face would not be visible.
When the UN increased the number of Muslim women staff to satisfy Taliban demands, the Taliban then required all female Muslim UN staff traveling to Afghanistan to be chaperoned by a mahram or a blood relative. In July 1998, the Taliban closed “all NGO offices” by force after the organisations refused to move to a bombed-out former Polytechnic College as ordered. One month later the UN offices were also shut down.
Role of the Pakistani military
The Taliban were largely founded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in 1994; the ISI used the Taliban to establish a regime in Afghanistan which would be favourable to Pakistan, as it aimed to establish a strategic presence. Since the creation of the Taliban, the ISI and the Pakistani military have provided financial, logistical and military support.
According to Pakistani Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid, “between 1994 and 1999, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Pakistanis trained and fought in Afghanistan” on the side of the Taliban. Peter Tomsen, United States Special Envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, stated that up until 9/11 Pakistani military and ISI officers along with thousands of regular Pakistani armed forces personnel had been involved in the fighting in Afghanistan.
During 2001, according to several international sources, 28,000—30,000 Pakistani nationals, 14,000—15,000 Afghan Taliban and 2,000—3,000 Al-Qaeda militants were fighting against anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan making up a combined 45,000-strong military force. Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf – then as Chief of Army Staff – was responsible for sending thousands of Pakistanis to fight alongside the Taliban and Bin Laden against the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud. Of the estimated 28,000 Pakistani nationals fighting in Afghanistan, 8,000 were militants recruited in madrassas to shore up regular Taliban ranks.
The document further states that the parents of those Pakistani nationals “know nothing regarding their child’s military involvement with the Taliban until their bodies are brought back to Pakistan”. A 1998 document by the US State Department confirmed that “20–40 percent of (regular) Taliban soldiers are Pakistani”. According to the report and reports by Human Rights Watch, the other Pakistani nationals fighting in Afghanistan were regular Pakistani soldiers, especially from the Frontier Corps but also from the army providing direct combat support.
Kabul and Tehran, a complex Relationship
Foreign ministry spokesman Bharam Qasemi recently expressed Iran’s support for the upcoming elections in Afghanistan, saying Tehran will accept any result. In the two years of Ghani-Abdullah government, relations between the two countries have formally been marked by a narrative of cooperation and goodwill, as repeatedly stated during both Mr Abdullah’s (January 2016) and Mr Ghani’s (July 2017) visits to Tehran, as well as after last September’s trilateral meeting between Iran, Afghanistan, and India in Kabul. Yet, the Iran-Afghanistan relationship is a little bit more than a simple relationship of good neighbourliness.
Much has been said about Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan after the 2001 events. However, Iran has been playing a pivotal role in Afghanistan even well before 2001. If nations, as Anderson put it, are imagined communities, Iran and Afghanistan create a sort of shared cultural space, with ethnic, religious, and linguistic ties transcending borders and time. This is especially true in the northwestern Afghan region of Herat, which until 1857 was considered an integral part of Iran. Today, it represents the region where Iran’s sphere of influence is most visible.
Actually, the strategic intertwining between the two countries is such that what happens in one of them reverberates in the other. This has clearly led to difficulties in the relationship. Kabul, in particular, seems at times to suffer from its relationship with its cumbersome neighbour, denouncing Tehran’s excessive meddling in its local affairs.
Iran’s ambiguous relationship with the Taliban is a bone of contention with Kabul. While Tehran has constantly been denying its involvement with the group, several reports have emerged over the years exposing Iran’s role in hosting, protecting, training, and arming them.
Despite the old animosities, epitomised by the Taliban massacre of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i sharif in 1998, Iran seems to have subsequently come to terms with the organisation, giving it covert support as it was considered a powerful instrument for driving US soldiers out of the country. In particular, Kabul holds Tehran responsible for the recent skirmishes in Afghanistan’s western province of Farah, where Iran would have worked with the Taliban in order to secure control of local resources, particularly water.
The dispute over water usage rights is another major factor of disagreement between Kabul and Tehran. Over the past few months, declining rainfall, prolonged drought, and mismanagement of water resources has brought water shortage and environmental challenges to crisis level in Iran, also triggering anti-government protests in several regions of the country.
Tehran, while refusing to acknowledge its own responsibilities, has been blaming neighbouring countries’ water management policies, with the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani pointing at Turkey and Afghanistan as the main culprits responsible for the crisis. Afghanistan, in particular, has come under fire for its dam construction projects in the north and south of the country – the Kajaki, Kamal Khan, and Selma dams – as they are reported to impact the Iranian southeastern provinces of Sistan and Baluchestan. With protests erupting across the country, Tehran recently made clear that water scarcity will be treated as a national security issue. In addition to warning Kabul of possible retaliatory actions such as suspending the export of electricity to the country, Tehran has also issued a veiled threat concerning the possible use of force and military power.
Afghan representatives from southern provinces have already reported arms transfers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the Taliban aimed at dismantling some of the existing dams or preventing the construction of new ones. With Tehran asking Kabul to consult Iran before engaging in new construction projects, and Kabul instead actively seeking foreign assistance to build more of them, tension over water between the two countries is only set to exacerbate.
Iran and Afghanistan also share strong economic ties. In 2017, Iran replaced Pakistan as Afghanistan’s biggest trade partner, with trade between both countries totaling about $2bn, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. As Iran’s economy suffers from the reintroduction of US sanctions, Afghanistan’s growth is set to slow down too. The economic crisis that Iran is currently experiencing, which has sent unemployment soaring and the national currency plummeting, has also led to a mass exodus of Afghan migrants from the country. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a record number of 550,000 Afghans have left Iran since the beginning of the year. This has obviously led to a decline in remittances, thus less money coming in from Iran, combined with an intense competition for new jobs among returnees.
But the reintroduction of US sanctions is also set to affect trade between the two countries, with the risk of endangering the ambitious Chabahar port construction project and undermining regional connectivity. Iran’s Chabahar port, located in the southeastern region of Sistan-Baluchistan, at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, is part of a new transportation corridor for Afghanistan that could potentially reduce Kabul’s dependence on Pakistan. But the development project, led by India, risks being halted due to the reinstatement of US sanctions, as New Delhi looks reluctant to expose itself to potential US Treasury punitive measures. Currently, the fate of Chabahar, as well as the possibility for Afghanistan to cut its dependence on Pakistan, rests on the concession of sanctions waivers from Washington.
Another fallout from the US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, which has led to the steep fall of the Iranian rial, has been the development of a foreign exchange black market along the Afghanistan-Iran border. According to estimates, nearly $5m enter Iran illegally from Afghanistan every day, helping to ease the economic woes of eastern Iranian cities like Mashhad. This kind of informal economy also allows Afghans to profit from the depreciation of the rial, as Afghan businesses buy cheap goods from eastern Iran and sell them on for higher prices in western Afghanistan.
Last but not least, the links between Iran and Afghanistan is also evident in the security sphere. As Tehran formally commits to contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan, its objectives in the country remain tied to its regional strategy, resting on the overall goal of reaffirming its role as a regional power and getting rid of US presence in the region. Tehran’s shadowy relationship with the Taliban acts as a leverage in this sense. However, Tehran has a real interest in Afghanistan’s stability, since further destabilisation of the country could lead to the spread of militant movements, returning to haunt Iran, as well as the intensification of narcotics trafficking, for which Iran is a major destination. Stability is an objective that Tehran shares with Washington. Indeed, Iran has a history of helping the US in Afghanistan, first by brokering a deal – in late 2001 – which paved the way to the establishment of Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government, and then by cooperating with international forces to counter the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Despite a perception among analysts that the current deterioration of US-Iran relations risks jeopardising the common effort towards peace, Iran is set to continue to play a crucial role in the country. Tehran, in fact, perceives its commitment to the region as an instrument to break the Washington-imposed isolation. As part of its renewed “Look East policy”, Iran is trying to consolidate its ties with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries in order to escape the isolation and to withstand increasing US pressure.
In conclusion, despite its recent setbacks, Iran is set to continue to project its influence on Afghanistan, perhaps even more, in the context of a US-sponsored attempt to isolate Tehran in the region. How to bring Iran to play a responsible and constructive role – aimed at the stabilisation of the country – depends on the West’s openness to engagement and dialogue with Tehran. A mere containment approach – such as the one advocated by the Trump administration – will not contribute to Afghanistan’s stability, if only for the simple fact that it is extremely difficult to rescind established cultural, economic, and security ties between countries whose border has for long been considered an imagined barrier.
Did the US support the Taliban?
Although there is no evidence that the CIA directly supported the Taliban or Al Qaeda, some basis for military support of the Taliban was provided when, in the early 1980s, the CIA and the ISI provided arms to Afghans resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Counting the cost of Trump’s air strikes in Afghanistan
Since President Trump announced his Afghanistan strategy and committed more troops to the conflict last August, the number of bombs dropped by the US Air Force has surged dramatically. New rules of engagement have made it easier for US forces to carry out strikes against the Taliban, with its resources diverted to Afghanistan as the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq winds down.
Heavy bombing against the Taliban and IS saw more Afghan civilians killed and injured from the air in 2017 than at any time since the UN began recording fatalities in 2009. In the first quarter of this year – before the Dasht-e-Archi incident – 67 people were killed and 75 injured by the strikes, more than half of them women and children. There was no respite in the bombardment even during the bitter Afghan winter, a time when fighting usually draws down before picking up again in the spring.
At the same time, the US has launched a five-year plan to massively expand and overhaul the Afghan Air Force, including providing it with 159 Black Hawk helicopters. John W Nicholson, the top US general in Afghanistan, has pledged that a “tidal wave of air power” will be unleashed.
The aim of this air barrage, analysts say, is to try to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, and perhaps bring an end to America’s longest war – which has dragged on for 17 years. But when helicopters mow down children at a religious ceremony, as in Dasht-e-Archi, it raises significant questions for both Washington and Kabul, and provides potent propaganda for the Taliban.
Although the Afghan government said the strikes targeted senior Taliban leaders planning an attack on Kunduz city, “those helicopter pilots must have seen the children”, says Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. “You can’t attack an open-air gathering in a helicopter and not see who you are going to kill.”
A grim conclusion, she added, is the possibility that the Afghan Air Force did not see those particular civilians as “their people”. In a 5 June report, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said the attack was a “war crime”.
After initially denying that civilians had been killed, the Afghan government eventually apologised well over a month later and offered compensation to victims’ families. It has since announced an investigation. “The key difference between the government and insurgents is that a legitimate government will always seek forgiveness for mistakes,” President Ashraf Ghani said.
Activists say the US also bears responsibility for such attacks carried out by Afghan air forces. “They train the pilots, the controllers, and they provide all the equipment,” said Patricia Gossman, the senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The Nato mission in Afghanistan, Resolute Support, said US and international forces had “no involvement” in the 2 April attack. While advisers “assist in the development of doctrine that guides the Afghan Air Force decision-making process”, a spokesperson said, they are not involved in decision-making for Afghan mission planning or targeting.
The spokesperson added: “Both the Afghan Air Force and US Forces-Afghanistan adhere to the International Laws of Armed Conflict. We constantly reiterate the importance of minimising civilian casualties, from operational planning, to targeting, to execution.
“Distinguishing military targets from civilian persons, limiting collateral damage, and using only proportional force are all assessed and applied prior to each strike.”
But Afghan forces are not the only ones that make mistakes. US bombs killed at least 154 civilians in 2017, according to the UN mission in Afghanistan, while the Afghan Air Force killed 99. Observers say that about a decade ago international forces made a concerted effort to bring down the number of civilian casualties from air strikes. Then Afghan president Hamid Karzai was a strident critic of US bombings, decrying them as violations of Afghanistan’s sovereignty.
“They had a dedicated Civilian Casualty mitigation team that analysed each incident, they had people who made site visits,” said Ms Gossman. “Since 2014, the Civilian Casualties Team at Resolute Support is much smaller, they don’t do site visits. They don’t talk to victims, witnesses or other local sources like medical personnel.” Resolute Support says it and the US military only investigate allegations of civilian casualties from their own actions. Those investigations may include site visits if it is safe to do so and if reasonably available information is insufficient to confirm or disprove the allegation.”
Most civilian casualties in Afghanistan are still caused by anti-government groups like the Taliban and IS and, despite the heavy bombing, it does not appear that the US has become more careless in its approach to protecting civilians. The total number of munitions dropped by the US Air Force increased by 226 percent from 2016 to 2017, while over the same period, civilian casualties from Afghan and US air strikes rose by seven percent.
Total civilian casualties from all sources actually decreased slightly, driven in particular by a lower toll from ground offensives. So although more civilians died in air attacks, it looks like the increased air cover may have prevented the Taliban from mounting major assaults on population centres, says Clark.
In any case, the Dasht-e-Archi incident should be “a wake-up call for the government, people in charge of the air force and the US trainers”, she added.
Others believe that the entire strategy of pounding the Taliban militarily is misguided. A recent BBC study found that Taliban fighters are openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan. Barnett Rubin, who served as senior adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US Department of State from 2009—2013, said the air campaign was having “no strategic effect”.
“They are just fighting the same war over for the 17th time,” said Rubin, who argues that a consensus between Afghanistan’s neighbours and the major powers is a pre-requisite to creating a stable Afghanistan.
Why Karzai suspended talks after Taliban opened Doha office
When the Qatari government (blessed by Washington) allowed the Taliban to open an office in Doha with the Taliban flag flying outside and signs everywhere proclaiming the office to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, former president Hamid Karzai took the symbolism as an affront. For Karzai and his government, the announcement, the flags and the signs brought the enemy unwanted legitimacy. Instead of being treated as insurgents or terrorists, the Taliban got the symbols of statehood. Just a week earlier, Karzai had been in Doha speaking at the Brookings Institution’s annual US-Islamic World Forum, clearly warning the Americans and the Qataris not to give the Taliban these symbolic victories.
So when Karzai announced that his government would not participate in any peace negotiations with the Taliban under these ground rules and furthermore suspended the talks with the United States on a long-term strategic agreement to provide for a post-2014 security relationship between America and Afghanistan it was not exactly a surprise. After all, he would have been savaged by his own supporters if he had done anything less. Still, it presents one of several hurdles on the road to peace. After years of putting the onus on the Taliban for standing in the way of peace, this latest turn of events places the onus on our ally: the man we handpicked to be the president of Afghanistan.
Karzai knew he had a weak hand as the leader of a small poor country. But he is not afraid to let his views be known. And, beyond that, he did not handle perceived slights from Washington well. But Karzai overestimated American interest in a long-term partnership with Afghanistan. He believed the US craved strategic access to Afghan military bases to continue drone operations against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and to conduct intelligence surveillance over Pakistan, Iran and other parts of Central Asia. But he misjudged just how badly many Americans simply wanted to get out of the war and abandon the Afghans to their fate. Thus he played his weak hand with a naivety that often backfired. Washington undoubtedly tried to smooth things over and persuade Kabul that its interests would not be sold out down the negotiations road.
The Taliban’s patrons, the Pakistani army and its notorious ISI intelligence service, were undoubtedly very pleased with the outcome. Mullah Omar, who lives under ISI protection in Pakistan, would never have agreed to the Doha outpost without ISI approval. They control his life and the lives of the Taliban team in Doha. As the former head of Afghan intelligence, Amrullah Saleh, likes to point out, the Taliban negotiators fly home to Karachi whenever they want to see their boss or their families. They are not independent players.
In terms of the Pakistani generals, they believe time is on their side in Afghanistan, that America has already lost the war and that their clients will prevail. The generals control the Afghan portfolio in Pakistan and would not let former prime minister Nawaz Sharif interfere with their plans. Sharif probably had no plans to do so; he told me years ago that he feared the Taliban and the army would have replaced him with a bearded fanatic if he had crossed their red lines. He was almost certainly right.
Talking to the Taliban makes sense
Talks with the Taliban is a good idea. A political process that helps to reconcile Afghans together is badly needed. But nothing in Afghanistan is ever straightforward and the start of a political process to end a conflict that is now more than three decades old was always going to be tough, and so expectations should be kept low and friction expected.
The Afghans should run the show. The Qataris need to step back from the stage, Kabul will never trust them. Karzai will probably back down in a few weeks, after all he needs the post-2014 deal with us more than we do and his standing is wobbly at home. We have a prisoner in Taliban hands, we want to get home and a prisoner swap that trades him for some Guantanamo prisoners is probably a good deal. In diplomacy, symbols and flags matter greatly, however. And it’s been a tough start.
Ahmed Atta is a writer and political analyst
- Homeland Security 2015
- Wilson Center for Political Studies
- Harvard Studies