Taliban fighters on patrol in January 2010. AFP Photo
Taliban fighters on patrol in January 2010. AFP Photo

Voices on Afghanistan: Taliban strategy a persistent threat

Borhan Osman is an analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. He explains how the Taliban persists as the main threat to the Afghan government and describes the difference between the group in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Twitter: @Borhan

What specific groups are the main security threats facing Afghanistan now?

There are currently two types of armed actors threatening security and state stability in Afghanistan. One is a relatively well-organised insurgency and another is the warlords and armed groups who challenge the authority of the central government and are responsible for insecurity in parts of the country.

In the insurgency, the groups representing it are specific and knowable. The landscape of insurgency in Afghanistan is characterised by a lack of multiplicity, unlike most other recent or current conflicts where you have myriad of militant groups with deeply diverse agendas and differences, such as during the Iraq insurgency or the current situation in Pakistan and Syria. When we speak of insurgency in Afghanistan, we talk mainly of one group, which is the Taliban. There are other groups as well, such as the Hezb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but its role has been largely confined to militant rhetoric and is less visible on the battlefield. So, in the insurgency, the Taliban pose the biggest threat to the government.

However, speaking broadly of security threats, the Taliban does not have the monopoly. There are also warlords and local armed groups in different parts of the country in various licit, semi-licit and illicit forms, whose threat to security is of no lesser scale than the Taliban.

How do you define the Taliban? Do you believe that some groups that are anti-state get lumped into what has become a very wide term (Taliban)? 

The Taliban is a rather close-knit group and it is difficult to find distinct entities within it. Yes, on the very local level, you might feel there are different groups, sometimes following different chains of command, but that difference will disappear as you get to a higher level. If the Taliban were different groups united by a common enemy, you most likely would have seen some splits. But there has been no single successful split over the Taliban’s decade-long insurgency. Any attempt at breaking away has led to isolation of the person or commander involved. Any such commander or leader, no matter how important their position was, once disowned by the central leadership, has become a pariah and alone. This stands in sharp contrast with the mujahideen factions during the 1980s and 1990s whose only glue was the presence of Soviet troops and their allied regime in Kabul. Once, the common enemy was gone, the various factions started fighting each other.

Basically, the mujahideen were divided from the very beginning. And the Taliban are not like the mujahideen who were made of different groups with no central command. The Taliban had managed to establish a well-centralised form of government in over 90 per cent of Afghanistan before they were toppled in late 2001. Although the group is now running an insurgency, the cause, the leader, the philosophy of obedience and most importantly the political vision have not changed. So, you don’t really see distinct groups inside the Taliban. You don’t feel there are different ideologies or different modus operandi to establishing the envisioned Islamic government among the Taliban.

What is the role of militants known from the anti-Soviet campaign of the 1980s, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network?

Hekmatyar is leading his own insurgent group, which is not comparable with the Taliban. Most of his Soviet-war era comrades have integrated into the government, leaving him without many men to do the fighting. He is not seen as a major player in the current insurgency. The presence of his group has been limited to certain areas in a few provinces. Hekmatyar has always kept a distance from the Taliban, and even used a hostile tone towards it during both the Taliban’s government era and the current insurgency.

Regarding the so-called Haqqani Network, it has never been a separate entity different from the Taliban. The leader of the network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was an active minister during the Taliban’s government and has remained an important part of the movement during the insurgency. The ‘network’ has played a significant role in the post-2001 campaign against the foreign troops and the new government. So, it has been an integral part of the Taliban, nonetheless western media and officials’ tend to brand it as a separate group. What has probably led to this view is the ‘network’s’ operational and financial semi-autonomy, which has probably helped it be more effective.

What is the connection between the Pakistani Taliban and the Taliban fighting the Afghan government? How would you differentiate them?

While the phenomenon of the Afghan Taliban is now two decades old, what is called the Pakistani Taliban is a newer phenomenon. It emerged after the Afghan Taliban kicked off their fight against the US-led coalition forces. Inspired by the Afghan Taliban, their Pakistani counterparts entertain almost the same goal, of enforcing sharia in Pakistan, but they have followed various agendas over different times: from supporting their Afghan counterparts in the battle against foreign forces to establishing an Islamic system in Pakistan. However, the Pakistani Taliban is distinct: their tactics and the rigidity of their tactics, their more extremist militant ideology, and their loose structure make them more a separate entity from the Afghan Taliban.

On the Pakistan side, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan umbrella organisation’s leaders have publicly sworn allegiance to the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Omar. Also, the Pakistani Taliban does not hide its presence in Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. Indeed, the main goal of the Pakistani Taliban initially was to fight alongside its Afghan counterparts in Afghanistan. But the goals shifted gradually after the Pakistani government launched a series of campaigns against it. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban have been reluctant to be seen as associated with the Pakistani Taliban. This reluctance is partially due to the fact that the Afghan Taliban does not want to upset the Pakistani government, who are seen to have allowed them use Pakistan as their shelter.