Soldiers of Islam: Origins, Ideology and Strategy of the Taliban

- Aabha Dixit, Research Associate, IDSA

Introduction

Labelled variously as soldiers of Islam, a militia in pursuit an obscurantist fundamentalist ideology, the greatest destabilising threat to the Central Asian Republics, the Talibanís rise to pre-eminenece in Afghanistan necessitates an understanding of their origins, ideology and strategy in the quest for unrivalled power in the country.

Creation of the Taliban

They emerged from anonymity in 1993 and in the span of four years have radically changed the complexion of the Afghan civil war by becoming the notable political elite. Essentially, the Taliban grew out of the turf battle between the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Interior Ministry in Islamabad during Benazir Bhuttoís second term. The Establishment had resisted their creation and reportedly criticised Benazir Bhutto for the use of the Taliban for their November 1994 operation in rescuing the trade caravan on its way to Central Asia that had been captured by the local warlord of Kandahar. The ISI which had run the Afghan operations with complete autonomy since the late 1970s, was averse to the Taliban because they had continued to pin faith on the Hizb-i-Islami under Hikmatyar to dislodge the Rabbani government. More importantly, the ISI viewed the Taliban as yet another Benazir Bhutto ploy to reduce its role in Afghan affairs. But Maj. Gen.(Retd) Nasrullah Babar who had assumed a mandate from the Bhutto government to attempt a parallel track, which offered the possibility of opening new options in Afghanistan, relentlessly pursued the Talib option, which initially led to the weakening of the hold of the ISI on the conduct of Islamabadís Afghan policy. Eventually, the remarkable success of the Taliban forced the ISI to coopt itself into training and guiding the Taliban ranks. Despite persistent denials by the Benazir Bhutto government, there is little doubt that the Taliban have been created, trained and equipped by the ISI and Interior Ministry special forces. According to some estimates, the Taliban require $70 million on a monthly basis to keep the militia in functional order and a Ďmajor part of this money is provided from across the Afghan-Pak border. Recent purchases by the Taliban of tanks, artillery pieces and armoured personnel carriers ( APC ) have come from illegal tax checkpoints that have been raised along the trade routes linking Pakistan to the Central Asian Republics. The Taliban have become a more cohesive force, stocked with adequate weapons, including an Air Force, as a result of the ISIís vigorous assistance. There have also been reports that Pakistani Army personnel are already present in Taliban ranks, taking part in operational and tactical missions. Today the


Taliban are over 50,000 strong, with 300 tanks, APCs and a squadron of MiG aircraft.1

While there has been no doubt that most of the funding for the Taliban has come from Saudi Arabia, the Kandahar based organisation has not been able to resist using drug production to fund its activities. Despite controlling a majority of poppy producing areas and publicly maintaining an anti-drug profile, recent reports from the UN Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) indicate poppy was harvested from 55,000-58,000 hectares during 1996, which is slightly higher than 1995. Despite political uncertainty, new routes from Afghanistan to Europe and beyond were used.2

The nucleus for the Taliban have been Afghan Talibs (students) who were studying in large numbers in madrassas throughout Pakistan. Studying in madrassas offered a way out of the dreary living conditions inside Afghanistan, as most madrassa chieftains supported the Talibs during their stay at the madrassas in a bid to increase adherents to their particular sect. Between 1989 and 1991, a few thousand Mujahideen, disillusioned with the post-Soviet withdrawal fighting amongst the various Mujahideení groups also joined these madrassas. In creating the Frankenstein monster, the brilliance of General Babarís accurate analysis of understanding the prevailing sense of despondency amongst ordinary Afghans will have to be acknowledged. Until the emergence of the phenomenon of the Taliban, the Pakistani Establishment either overestimated the strength of the various Mujahideen groups in different regions of Afghanistan or preferred to achieve their objectives by placing implicit faith of resolving the Afghan conflict in their favour by pushing one group¾ the Hizb-i-Islami under Culbuddin Hikmatyar. General Babar, therefore perceptively recognised the role of the madrassas in being the fertile ground for indoctrinating the Afghan Talibs to find a new way of establishing a new order. Closer interaction with numerous madrassas all over Pakistan and specially those belonging to the Deobandi denomination, because these were funded by the Saudis, saw the first beginnings of a new puritanical group that would seek to cleanse the country of its corrupt Mujahideen leaders.

At the same time, there was realisation in Islamabad which questioned the ability of major Mujahideen factions to retain fighters. Surplus weapons or religious ideology were no longer inducing these fighters to remain loyal to faction leaders. Like all protracted civil war conditions, once there is a dilution of revolutionary zeal among the foot soldiers, the only manner in which the leaders could retain their loyalty is through money. This condition had become evident in Afghanistan from 1993 when reports of the growing role of faction leaders in playing in the volatile money markets of Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Peshawar became well known. It was also during Najibullahís post-Soviet rule that frequent desertions by local commanders became common practice. Najib used it with great success to repulse the Pakistan aided attacks on Jalalabad and Khost in 1992.

As a result, when the Taliban, supported by Islamabad entered the Afghan arena, there was a clear strategy of targetting local commanders of regional warlords in a piecemeal fashion. This would explain in large measure their blitz through southern and central Afghanistan, capturing 14 provinces without encountering resistance. Even in 1997, this policy has been pursued with even greater success in sensuring that their non-Pashtun opponents like Ahmed Shah Masood, Abdul Rashids Dostam, Karim Khalili and Syed Naderi have beení weakened not through battles but by desertion of men, local commanders and equipment. The Talibanís recent entry into Salang was facilitated after a local commander, Bashir Salangi, switched sides. Similarly, in Uzbek territory, the Taliban took advantage of the brewing crisis. between General Dostam and Abdul Malik to "buy off" the latter, along with a string Ď of his local commanders. The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif and the fleeing of a once very powerful Dostam took place only after his entire frontline commanders switched sides for large sums of money.

Support Base of the Taliban in Pakistan

Initially, the Talibanís principal supporter was Fazlur Rahman, the Jamaat-i-Ulema-Islam (JUI) leader from Baluchistan. The first batches of Talibs from seminaries run by Maulana Fazlur Rahman were trained by the Frontier Constabulary Corps and the Sibi Scouts in training camps near the Baluch border with Afghanistan. Subsequently, reinforcements for the Taliban militia came from other seminaries located in other parts of Pakistan. The most important seminary is located in New Town area of Karachi called Jamiat-ul-Uloom-il-Islamiyyah. Run by Maulana Mohammed Yusuf Binnori, the seminary has 8,000 students from different nationalities. There have been unconfirmed reports that the Taliban supremo, Mullah Omar, studied at this seminary. But the seminary has assumed a prominent place within the Taliban hierarchy based in Kandahar, with three seminary members within the ruling six-member council. Even during the recent call by the Taliban leadership for sending more men into the frontlines following the reversal at Mazar-i-Sharif, it is believed that the elusive Mullah Omar had spoken to the "Binnori" Madrassa in New Town.

Mullah Omar clearly acts as primus inter paruts within the six-member council in Kandahar. Sketchy details of Omar have become available. Apart from making his mark in fighting the Soviets, Omar is reported to have lost one eye, but is well built (over 6 feet 6 inches tall) and is in his early forties. Well versed in Farsi, Omar is not a cleric. He was associated with Nabi Mohammadiís Harkat group which was close to the Saudis. He is reportedly influenced by the Deobandi school of thought.

The growth chart of the Taliban has run parallel to the mushrooming of sectarian madrassas in Pakistan in recent years. The Punjab government had conducted a secret survey in 1997 which revealed staggering figures. As revealed in a micro-study of one sectarian organisation, the Muridke (Sheikhupura district) based madrassa belonging to the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) had spread its tentacles with 28 centres in Punjab alone. This madrassa is of recent origin having begun its functioning in 1987. Today, it has spread its tentacles into Baluchistan with 3 centres, 3 centres in interior Sind, 43 centres in Karachi alone, besides having representative bodies in various universities. At a macro-level, the mushrooming of sectarian bodies has been documented in another survey conducted in 1996. There were 2,512 functioning deeni madrassas, representing all schools of sectarian thought in Punjab. This figure sharply contrasts with the creation of 868 madrassas between 1947 and 1975. All these madrassas were reported to have a student enrolment of over 2 lakh students. A nation-wide survey would reveal the overwhelming influence that madrassas have come to assume in Pakistani politics as well as in the Talibanís growth chart.

 

Talibanís Route to Power in Afghanistan

The rise of the Talibs is thought to have begun with the capture of the small town of Doorahi on the outskirts of Kandahar, although other reports have indicated that Talibs were initially used along border areas to prevent cross border smuggling of goods. From there the Talibs moved to Spin Boldak, a town controlled by Mullah Akhtar Jan who owed allegiance to Hikmatyar. After Spin Boldak, it was a remorseless movement towards the periphery of Kabul, capturing 10 provinces in the process. The unexpected success meant requiring more Talibs for operations. As a result, in less than six months after Spin Boldak, their ranks swelled from 2,500 to over 30,000 by the time they were perched at the gates of Kabul. But significantly, they had to fight no major battle, as bribery accounted for most turnarounds. They fought two battles in 1995 to gain Farah and Nimroz provinces.3 But without battle experience, Masoodís forces were able to keep them at bay along the perimeter of Kabul for over a year. Before the capture of Kabul, they suffered a few defeats when the Rabbani forces pushed them out of Zabul and parts of Hilmand province.4

Their capture of Kabul in September 1996 was a combination of several factors, which significantly did not include exhibiting their military prowess on the battlefield. Rapid desertions amongst the Pashtun militia. then aligned with Masood for the defence of Kabul, the failure of Dostam to switch sides from the Taliban into Masoodís camp, thereby relieving pressure on the Afghan capital from the north-west and the slow but steady progress made by the Taliban to cut Masoodís links with Jalalabad, forced the Tajik militia to make a strategic retreat from Kabul. In the post-Kabul capture scenario, buoyed by their recent successes, they pushed ahead into Jabal-us-Siraj, Gubahar and Bagram. But they suffered humiliating defeats near the Salang Tunnel. These reverses forced the Taliban to undertake the now familiar strategy of encouraging defections amongst local commanders before making their advances. In February 1997, their move into the Ghorband Valley, which lies adjacent to the Panjshir Valley, came after local commanders switched sides, along with their equipment. This weakened Masood and the Shia forces of the Hizb-i-Wahdat, located near the Shiber Pass. In their push through the Chorband Valley, a month later, they were able to split the Hizb-i-Wahdat by having two key commnanders desert Khalili, allowing the Taliban an open route towards Mazar-i-Sharif. These two key commanders had belonged to a faction of the Hizb-i-Wahdat led by Haji Diljo, with whom the Taliban had nearly clinched an accord in July 1997 in Maidan Shahr.í5 Azizullah and Gafoor, two commanders from the Ghorband Valley who belonged to Masood defected during the same period, weakening the Masood-Khalili alliance.

In simultaneous negotiations with Uzbek leaders belonging to the Rasul Pahalwan faction, the Taliban had been successful in weaning away Abdul Malik Pahalwan and Gul Mohammad, the younger brothers of Rasul. By exploiting natural differences between Dostam and the Pahalwan faction for leadership of the Jumbush Milli as well as agreeing to pay Abdul Malik a staggering sum of $200 million, the Taliban ensured that most of Dostamís field commanders on the frontline deserted Dostam, forcing the Uzbek warlord to flee Mazar-i-Sharif. Failure to understand the sensitivities of the Uzbeks and the Shia population, led to the Taliban being counter-attacked by Abdul Malik and Karim Khaliliís forces, exposing the Talibanís poor record in actual fighting.

Ideology of the Taliban

Initially metamorphosed into a militia by using disenchantment amongst the ranks with existing Mujahideen leaders, the Taliban revealed their Islamic ideology only after the capture of Kandahar. Between Doorahi and Kandahar, the ISI cultivated the Taliban amongst their principal backers viz" Saudia Arabia and the US with a "catch all" philosophy. To the US and Pakistan, the Talibanís attempts to curb poppy growing and heroin refinement was a welcome step as their own attempts to break the nexus between the smuggler and drug producer were unsuccessful. If the anti-drug programme undertaken by the Taliban provided tacit backing from Washington, pushing for a pristine Islamic society found favour with the Saudis, who were not only bankrolling the madrassas inside Pakistan, but were now reported to be funding the Taliban as well. The only discordant voice came from the Iranians, who along with other ethnic minority groups like the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks perceived the entry of the Taliban as an attempt to reintroduce Pashtun hegemony in Afghanistan, undermining the plural character of Afghan society.

In areas controlled by the Taliban, efforts to impose a very narrow interpretation of the Shariah were made. All Western technological advances including TVs, VCR, photography, films were condemned and individual items destroyed and publicly displayed. Capital punishment was used frequently and the position of women and children was reduced to pathetic proportions. All these efforts, dubbed as "obscurantist", came in for strong criticism from the West, forcing countries like the USA to refrain from recognising the Taliban regime in Kabul. But in the past year, the Taliban leadership has shown some sensitivity to world opinion by seeking to re-define its interpretation of women and children. Similarly, they have modified their strong objection to photography and routinely allow the foreign Press to film Taliban fighters. The top leadership, however, remains adamant about not being captured on film. Another indication of the Taliban bowing to international pressure was the recent controversy over blowing up Buddha statutes in Bamiyan. A spate of criticism finally forced the Taliban leadership to issue a denial. A third indication of the Taliban leadership becoming less doctrinnaire in their approach is the recent 3-point offer by Mullah Omar to the northern Opposition alliance which recognises the multi-ethnic character of Afghanistan and seeks political accommodation. Such a change of tactics has taken place undoubtedly with prodding from Pakistan, which now places a greater premium on getting a semblance of order and peace in the country to facilitate closer links with Central Asia. The Taliban are not isolationist in approach, and have offered closer contacts with the rest of the world. These have largely been conditioned by the fact that there has been negative publicity about their implementation of Shariah laws.6

But there has been sharp reaction from human rights groups in Europe and the US. Ulrich Fischer of the Greens Party accused the Taliban of creating a "religious police stateí and that Western countries should be very conservative in their official recognition of the Taliban." The presence of the Saudi terrorist, Osama bin-Laden, in Afghanistan, proved embarrassing for the Taliban as well. Initially, the Taliban confirmed that Laden was in Afghanistan, but when pressures for his extradition increased, the Taliban leadership refused extradition, but announced that Laden would not be allowed to use Afghan soil to target other countries.

Divisions within the Taliban

In these four years of existence, the Taliban have been successful in maintaining a monolithic image, with Mullah Omar as the head of the movement. But a closer analysis of the Taliban leadership structure would reveal that there are factions within the organisation. The first such divide came to notice during the siege of Kabul in 1996. There were reports that some factions of the Taliban were not averse to doing local deals with the Rabbani government, while the Kandahar based leadership shunned all contacts with Kabul. In one such instance, the local commander of the Taliban forces had agreed to an "unofficial" 10-day ceasefire, which pro-Rabbani leaders within the Taliban were reported to have resorted to, so as to Ďtest the sincerity of the Rabbani government." This ceasefire had been brokered by a Pakistan political leader, Mohammad Khan Sherani, and was done to secure the release of 85 Talibs.7 Elsewhere, specially around their strongholds in Kandahar, the Taliban had spurned all offers to cease fires with Rabbani. A Kandahar based Taliban leader, Mullah Rabbani, had been quoted as saying that "we donít believe in talks with Rabbani as long as he is in power."8 In another instance, fighting between Rabbaniís forces and the Taliban broke out in Dilaram area of western Afghanistan, when an unofficial ceasefire came into effect in other areas where they faced each other.9

In another instance, there was an instant rejection of proposals made by the Kabul regime by the Quetta based Taliban spokesman, which in turn had come within hours of Islamabad officially rejecting them as Ďbackward". But the Kandahar based leadership council under Mullah Omar agreed to meet the Kabul delegation in their first official contact in October 1995. The Kandahar group is more purist in its approach demanding that Afghans keep beards among other edicts that they have issued, Ďwhile the other centres of the Taliban, mainly the Pakistan based ones, want a less doctrinnaire imposition of Islamic values and life styles.

When UN Special Envoy Mehmoud Mestiri had resumed his peace parleys in Afghanistan in March 1996, he had been assured by the political leadership of the Taliban, represented by Maulvi Mohammad Rabbani, who also commanded the forces encircling Kabul, that the Taliban were ready for discussions with the Rabbani government. With this perceived shift in the Talibanís strategy, Mestiri had moved to Kabul to tie up other details. This would explain in large measure the Talibanís removal of heavy weaponry from areas surrounding Kabul very recently. But no sooner had Maulvi Rabbani given this assurance to the visiting UN envoy, the religious leadership based in Kandahar rejected talks with Kabul, scuttling Mestiriís efforts. In an bid to shore up their support bases, the Taliban leadership called. an Ulema Shoora in Kandahar comprising 1,500 delegates, which in turn declared Maulvi Omar, the 37-year-old founder of the movement, as the next Amirul Momineen.

During the recent forward move into Nangrahar in September 1996, hardliner elements in the Taliban leadership like Mullah Mohammad Ghaus and Maulvi Wakeel Ahmed, who have been favouring a tougher stance against the Kabul government, brushed aside the neutrality claims of the Shoora-i-Mashreqi and virtually walked into the capital, Jalalabad.

With the passage of time and after the incorporation of local commanders who Ďhad defected from other Mujahideen groups, the Taliban leadership has been exposed to more dissensions. Broadly, two types of divisions exist in the organisation. The first division is between factions of the Taliban itself, with some factions, notably those led to Mullah Ghous and Maulvi Ehsanuilah, plugging a more moderate line. Another faction, led by Maulvi Khairullah and Maulvi Rabbani, are believed to be more orthodox and are presently supported by Mullah Omar. The second split is between the new entrants and the older leadership. Differences in the comings days would be magnified with newer warlords being inducted into the Taliban organisational set-up.

Conclusion

Several conclusions can be drawn from this detailed study of the Taliban First, their embryonic connection with Pakistan is well known and widely acknowledged within Pakistan. Further proof has been provided by Islamabadís recognition of the Taliban government in Kabul. Second, despite the desire of the Taliban to put into place a conservative and orthodox regime, there have been numerous examples of the Taliban making concessions to improve their international image. Third, in the past four years, the Taliban have shown the capability to build a massive force in comparison to their opponents, but their performance on the battlefield has been less than satisfactory. The Taliban have not been able to coalesce into a fighting force capable to crushing its opposition. Fourth, despite their present dependence on Islamabad, the Taliban have given enough indication that they would seek to operate independently once in control of the country. Fifth, for Pakistan, the rise of the Taliban might have helped to break the logjam that had been created because of the indecisive intra-Mujahideen fighting since the Soviet withdrawal. But unleashing into the civil war an unknown element has radically altered the character of the civil war. But this by itself does not guarantee Islamabad a feeling that it would achieve its objectives in Afghanistan.

NOTES

1. Hindustan Times, September 26, 1995.

2. The News, March 18, 1997.

3. Frontier Post, May 14, 1995.

4. Muslim, May 14,1995.

5. "Taliban Confirm Accord with Hezb-i-Wahdat", The News, July 16.,1996.

6. The Frontier Post, February 22, 1997.

7. The News, June 21, 1995.

8. Muslim, June 1, 1995.

9. Frontier Post, June 14, 1995.