5 January 2015

Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan Impeded by Internecine Warfare Amongst Differing Factions

Azam Ahmed
January 3, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — A series of kidnappings and robberies struck northern Helmand Province this summer, paralyzing residents and embarrassing theTaliban leaders who controlled the area.

Responding to growing complaints, the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan ordered a hunt to find the criminals, but soon discovered an inconvenient truth: Their own people were behind the banditry, earning thousands of dollars in ransoms every month. Within a matter of days, the culprits had been captured and executed, including two notorious fighters known as Pickax and Shovel.

Though the episode went largely unnoticed outside the Taliban stronghold, it highlights a question that is on the minds of many: More than 13 years after the war here started, who exactly are the Taliban? Are they the bandits responsible for the abduction and killings of numerous villagers? Or are they the disciplined leaders who hanged the fighters who had taken to criminal tyranny?

Increasingly, it appears, they are both.

More than a decade of constant fighting has deeply changed the movement that the American-led invasion helped remove from power in 2001. Much of the cadre of fighters that first rose up to battle rapacious warlords during the country’s civil war has been killed or remains in exile. On the ground, the movement now relies on a mixed bag of members, many of whom fight under the banner of the Taliban but bear no resemblance to the spiritual movement of the 1990s.

The significant military gains the Taliban made in the past year have focused new attention on the group’s character and challenges, as its leaders try to make the case to Afghans that they are stronger and more legitimate rulers than the American-backed government.

Some of the Taliban factions pressing their military goals remain idealists, but many are basically criminals who have used the Taliban brand to further their lucrative enterprises in the opium trade and commodity smuggling, Afghan and Western officials say.

Still others have splintered from the mainstream Taliban, having grown more extreme and less inclined to engage in peace talks. A recent report from the United Nations Security Council said that much of the movement was “opposed to reconciliation” with the government, and it said the likelihood that the Taliban’s core leadership could break the internal stalemate was “slim.”

“The old Taliban leadership is aging, and they have lost their ability to exert command and control from Pakistan,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a former American ambassador to Afghanistan. “They lost credibility with younger fighters, but also their grasp of day-to-day combat.”

Part of the reason is that battlefield losses to the coalition military campaign have forced a major turnover within the Taliban’s ranks. Scores of midlevel Taliban commanders have been killed and replaced in the last decade, leaving a young and more hardened set of field leaders in their place with less connection to the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the reclusive emir of the movement who has not been spotted since the war started.

“This movement is heavily fragmented and held together by a piece of string and a prayer,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, a researcher and an author of the book “An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger inAfghanistan.” Mr. van Linschoten added, “Mullah Omar is burdened with all of this weight, and he is more or less keeping this movement together — or at least the idea of him.”

From the highest levels of the central organization led by Mullah Omar, known as the Quetta Shura, the group is clearly trying to signal that it is moving away from some of the hard-line policies and practices that defined its harsh rule from 1996 to 2001. A spokesman for the group denies that the kidnappings in Helmand this summer were perpetrated by true Taliban fighters.

In some Afghan areas under Taliban sway, it is not uncommon to hear stories of a more farsighted governing style. Insurgent commanders have opened girls’ schools in some places and operate court systems that are seen as fairer and more effective than the government’s. In some cases, they attend weddings with music without a word of consternation — once unthinkable for a group that banned musical instruments and performances. And the group has been calculatedly aggressive about its publicity campaign on social media.

In short, some leading Taliban have seized on the need to capture hearts and minds.

“They have a much more realistic perspective on what government is now,” said one senior Western diplomat. “They are much more realistic about things. One thing they learned is that if they want to come back and take over Afghanistan, they can’t be at war with everybody.”

“The Afghan people have a lot of expectations now,” the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

But that perspective is not the whole story. Across the country, villagers living under Taliban control offer a far more complicated picture. Many feel the Taliban have hardly changed at all. They still inflict brutal policies in some areas under their control and are merciless with villagers who cross them. Some refuse to listen to the directives of the Quetta Shura, going their own way in how they fight and rule.

Kunar Province provides an interesting case study of the disagreements.

Even those living in the same district cannot agree on what is happening. The district governor of Marawara says that the government controls 75 percent of the area and that the Taliban have been on a charm offensive to win back popular support. But an elder in the same area says the exact opposite: that the Taliban control 75 percent of the territory and are worse than ever.

“There has not been a single percent change in their ideology,” said Hajji Pacha, an elder from the district. “They are still the same bastards.”

Some Taliban leaders, including those among the network of shadow governors that ultimately answers to the Quetta Shura, claim they have been unfairly saddled with a bad reputation for behavior long since past.

“It is very true that we used to have many cruel and imprudent people among us who were misusing their supremacy by harassing ordinary people or beating them,” said Ershad Zazai, the Taliban shadow governor of the Sarkano district of Kunar Province. “But now we do not have such people in our group, or they have changed their behavior because we do not have ruthlessness in the principles of the Islamic Emirate.”

In that respect, the only consistent element of Taliban intelligence is that there is no consistency. Even Western analysts who study the group have differing views on its direction, success and cohesion.

Still, many ask how the group could have made the gains it did this summer — killing a record number of policemen and soldiers — if its structure is supposedly so incoherent.

One explanation is simply that the gains are explained more by government weakness than by Taliban strength.

“The officials are not in touch with the local people,” said Hajji Zahir, an elder in the Marko district of Nangarhar Province, which has seen a large upswing in violence. “They have closed the door on the people — the people do not trust them and so the government cannot go out.”

And while much has changed since 2001, there are still some areas, especially in the Pashtun heartland in the south and east, that value the Taliban way of life and moral code.

“The Taliban still carries the banner of Islamic morals,” said another senior diplomat with extensive experience in the country. “The Taliban still grabs people’s minds. And in a fight about who is right, you must gain the minds of the people.”

“Afghans are not looking for many things, mostly justice and security,” the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly, added. “There is no justice in this government. There is justice under the Taliban.”

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