“I start in the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate…” –voice of an anonymous Taliban fighter (Smith, 2008).
This quote seemed the most fitting way to start understanding the mind of a Taliban fighter since it was echoed at the start of almost every filmed Taliban interview and video. The image of the Taliban as a hard-line, ultra-fanatical religious movement has often cast individual Taliban fighters as uneducated, brainwashed religious nuts who are innately violent and destructive. Although the Taliban have an extremely strict and anti-modern ideology based on Islamic Shariah law, many of the fighters are not strict religious adherents and believe indiscriminate violence is wrong.
These Taliban fighters do strive for Islamic rule for the nearly ninety-nine percent majority Muslim population of Afghanistan, but they also strive to stop the occupation and invasion of their country, to restore the security situation of their land, regain economic security for themselves and their families, and to reclaim the territory lost to the Durand Line on the Pakistani border, among other things. The people that make up the Taliban live in an area that has been almost continuously occupied and invaded by several different factions for centuries (amidst incredible local resistance), and which has recently been devastated by almost thirty years of war. The individual reasons for Taliban fighters to join and support a so-called “terrorist” or human-rights violating organization are complex, but are most often rooted in socio-economic, political, historical and cultural reasons and not solely in blind religious fanaticism.
Afghanistan has experienced almost constant restrictive occupation for the last thirty years; first by the Soviets, then by the Taliban, and currently by the Americans since 2001. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a conflict which has often been referred to as one of the proxy wars of the Cold war. This war lasted until the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, after the Soviet Union had begun to crumble and were no longer able or willing to support the effort. The US government, through the CIA and with the help of Pakistan’s secret police (ISI), channeled money to groups of mujahid warriors in Afghanistan (who included Osama bin Laden) to fight off the communist threat of the Soviets and gain an important strategic foothold in the Central Asian region. The extremist mujahid warriors (along with ethnic separatists) were seen as the best option to oppose the Soviets, not because they could form a stable government, but because it was hoped that they in fact, could not (Kakar, 1995: 147-9; 156).
The lack of local government along with the plethora of scattered, ‘tribal’ leaders left religious scholars with an important role in Afghanistan against foreign invasion and dominance. During the Soviet invasion a decree stating “Now is the time to free your country and wage your holy war against the Russian invader!” (The Final Call, 2001) was declared by many religious scholars, prompting the masses to take up arms and enjoy martyrdom if killed in battle. After defeating the Russians, these religious scholars went back into religious schools and mosques while some of the mujahid warriors began to fight each other for control of Kabul and other resources. For four years the scholars saw fighting, chaos and anarchy with traditional society and culture effectively uprooted, and thousands of refugees fleeing to neighboring Pakistan. In the communist controlled areas, the traditional “feudal” culture had been completely disrupted and replaced with “productive” urbanization, with Kabul swelling to over three million people (Kakar, 1995: 279).
It was in this climate that the Taliban really began to emerge. The term ‘Taliban’ comes from the Pashtu (and Arabic) word for ‘student’, and is used to describe a militant student movement group that grew out of hard-line religious schools in Pakistan in the early 1990s (Reuters AlertNet, Afghan Turmoil: 2008). In the late 1970s and 80s, Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia (a strict religious sect) began joining the mujahid warriors and heavily funding these religious schools (madrassas) to support the many “Afghani Jihad” orphans. These students, most of who were Afghani refugees living in camps on the Pakistani border, were offered free schooling and often even given a meal if they attended classes (Khan, 2003). They were schooled in the evils of non-Muslims, how to resist the Russians and any other occupation, and taught strict Islamic guidelines based upon Qur’anic verses. The Taliban brought possibilities to these students of education, work, much needed money, solidarity with others, and an actual role to play in society to make them feel useful again. It also brought hope for a future (even if only in heaven), something that is very hard for many refugees living in camps to imagine.
The Taliban shifted from these humble beginnings to rule most of the Afghan region from 1996 until their overthrow by US and NATO forces in 2001. They ruled with tremendous religious rigidity, and were condemned by human rights organizations who claimed they implemented the most brutal and strict interpretation of Shariah law ever seen in the Islamic world, which saw the closure of all girls’ schools, the ban of women from leaving their house without male familial accompaniment, as well as the ban of every conceivable kind of entertainment (Rashid, 2000: 2-3). This interpretation is informed by Shariah law combined with ancient Pashtu tribal codes (the Pashtunwali) that stress the right to revenge and to avenge injustice in equal proportion, as well as ideals of hospitality towards guests, asylum, honor and the protecting of Pashtu culture (Mardsen, 1998: 85).
Incessant fighting of competing Mujahidin warlords during the late 80s and early 90s, paved the way for the Taliban to overthrow the government in 1996, a move that was welcomed by many in the Pashtu majority who were happy to again see Pashtu political power in the country and an end to indiscriminate roving violence (Khan, 2003). In fact, Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, was reported as saying in 2000 that the Taliban had developed “out of public demand” to put an end to the anarchy and chaos and to disarm the unscrupulous militias of mujahidin struggling to fill the power vacuum created by the departure of the Soviets (Global Security, 2000). Under this auspice, many Afghanis joined the cause.
The Taliban ruled until US and Coalition forces invaded in 2001, supposedly in search of Osama bin Laden. The Taliban, using Pashtunwali codes of asylum and hospitality towards guests as their guide, refused to hand over bin Laden without evidence proving his guilt. They actually agreed on several occasions, if evidence was submitted, to capture bin Laden and bring him to justice along with three other alternative options for justice. The US would not accept this offer. Many argue that in fact the US only turned against the Taliban after they refused to sign an oil pipeline deal through Afghanistan, instead offering the deal to an Argentine consortium (Margolis, 2008). The truth lies under much propaganda, and is incredibly difficult to ascertain. The Taliban and much of the Afghani public viewed this new infidel invasion much as they had the previous invasions, believing all Afghanistan’s problems would be solved if foreign interference were to stop immediately. Development projects were seen as a controlling mechanism of the non-Muslims, and were criticized for their wasteful spending. The Taliban also suggested that some UN and international projects were not sincere in their goals of helping the Afghani people, and were exaggerating the situation to continue their financial support and missions (Global Security, 2000).
The Taliban’s original goal, according to Zaeef and Ambassador Abdul Hakeem Mujahid (a Taliban representative to the UN in 2001), was to ensure peace and security in the country. They claim to have tried to solve all issues and disputes “through understanding and peaceful means”, even extending ‘”to the opposition an invitation for peace in an effort to stop further bloodshed in Afghanistan” (Global Security, 2000; and The Final Call, 2001). The main goals after restoring order were national unity for Afghanistan (which included restoring territory lost to Pakistan with the Durand Line in the 1920s); to disarm all the warlords and build a strong central government built on Islamic values. The Taliban claimed they would return to the mosques and schools once this had been attained (The Final Call, 2001).
To the Taliban, western “extremist” visions of their rule as human-rights abusing were unjustified. As repeated in mantra-like form, the Taliban has restored security and justice, along with the idea that education is not a right, but an obligation. Within Islamic-Pushtun principles this obligation means no-coeducation, with females separately educated for their own modesty and to prevent impure thoughts among the males. For the leaders of the Taliban, questions regarding the education of women were defended by showing the hypocrisy of the world for not criticizing the UN and Soviets who did not offer non-coeducational schools, limiting much of the Afghani population from attending. It was seen as offensive by the Taliban to force women into coeducational experiences that would dishonor their culture, and they claim many women who were able to enjoy education under Taliban rule missed out on education under the Soviet and UN systems (The Final Call, 2001).
The Taliban also take offence to the claim of indiscriminate killings and arbitrary violence. Taliban leaders, along with fighters stressed the fact that they were to avoid civilian deaths as much as possible. Certain statistics would seem to back this up. Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan are more prone to hit “hard” military targets than civilians with nearly half (43%) of all bombings causing no civilian fatalities. This “low accuracy” rate was attributed to the “amateur” abilities of the Taliban by Coalition troops. The Taliban affirms that this is a calculated decision to avoid killing innocents and inciting anti-Taliban sentiment in the country, a tactic that has proven effective in demonizing the Coalition among the locals for their indiscriminate bombings that have killed scores of innocent civilians (Williams,2007).
Controversy over the makeup of the Taliban is clouded by mass propaganda (American, Russian and local), conflicting accounts and faked reports. The Taliban’s strict ban on entertainment makes video, radio, or local newspaper accounts and debate almost non-existent. Interviews of the Taliban were highly tense situations, evidenced in the fact that every single Taliban member being interviewed other than top officials giving declarations hid their face from the camera with part of their turbans, perhaps in fear of revealing their identities and being punished. The responses were formulaic and expected. Mantras were common among the interviews of Taliban leaders, spokesmen, and fighters, suggesting some level of “brain-washing” or at least preparation and indoctrination before interviews. There seemed to be standard answers for standard questions. Phrases such as “puppets of the Americans” or “slaves of the non-Muslims” were repeated ad naseum (Smith, 2008. Also see list of Taliban interviews in the Bibliography). The difficulty in assessing the validity and motives of the speakers from these accounts is compounded by the fact that most were dubbed into English, and not subtitled, leaving little room for objectivity and verification of translation.
So who is the Taliban really? One side, namely that of Marc Sageman describes the Taliban as conscious actors, who are politically and religiously motivated and do not need brainwashing to take up the Taliban cause (Sageman, 2004: 99-137). He also suggests that they are not uneducated or lower-class individuals, but in fact are represented by many educational and class levels. These types of reports have been contrasted with the more common perception of Taliban fighters as lower-class people who have been seduced, bribed, tricked, manipulated or coerced into blowing themselves up as “weapons of God”. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghanis intelligence service, has reported apprehending bombers who were deranged, mentally and physically retarded, unstable or on drugs. Several of the bombers caught by the NDS were supposedly carrying mind altering hallucinogens or sedatives to calm their nerves before death. Media and think-tank reports also mention cases of physically disabled suicide bombers, including a blind man, an amputee, and a disabled man whose only motive was to make money for his family (Williams, 2007). Although there are clearly some educated and upper-class Taliban members, the evidence and choice of interviewees seems to corroborate the latter view for the majority of its fighters. All of the interviews of former Taliban members described their motivations to be mostly economic or through coercion (sometimes by force).
Most of the fighters interviewed were former blue collar workers, who took up arms in solidarity with the Taliban against the non-Muslim infidels and their servants (the current Afghani government). High levels of unemployment (as high as 60% country-wide); lead many young men to join the Taliban for pocket money, a mobile phone, or other financial incentives. Where the government is failing to provide basic services for its citizens, the Taliban seems to be jumping in to fill the gap with radical alternatives (IATT, 2008).
Many of those interviewed were former farmers who had been kicked off their land in poppy raids by the current government. They had family and friends who had been killed by invaders, had lost their homes and livelihood to violence and were unable to leave the country. A definite link between the eradication of poppy and the growth of the Taliban in rural areas can be determined (Smith, 2008). The Taliban offered these often lonely, marginalized men a chance to bring security, money, and medical care to their families. It also offered them a chance to belong, and feel like productive members and agents in their own future.
The poppy-Taliban connection is an interesting one, especially when one considers that the cultivation of the poppy for narcotics purposes is strictly prohibited by the Qur’an. All of the Taliban respondents interviewed about poppy cultivation openly admitted this fact, but stated they had been in cultivation for financial reasons. The Taliban seemed to help these former farmers finance their basic human needs after they were stripped of their livelihood. This suggests that Sageman’s proposal that Taliban fighters are mostly religiously motivated is flawed, since so many informants clearly disobey Islamic rules in full knowledge of their own wrong-doings.
Whatever the motivations of individual Taliban members to join, it seems that local sympathies and recruitment for the Taliban are in fact increasing and spreading across the Islamic world. The continued presence of foreign invaders who disrespect local cultures and values jeopardizes the possibilities for peace in the future. Almost all of the Taliban interviewed say they will continue their fight to the last man standing, as long as any infidels reside in and control their territory. A newly signed pipeline deal brokered by the Americans solidifies the “need” for continued American “pipe-line protection troops” in the region for many years to come (Foster, 2008). This means that this war will inevitably continue, and perhaps even intensify in the future.
The Taliban’s negative image has been widely broadcast in North American media. Clearly, the Taliban is guilty of many human rights abuses and atrocities, but theirs are not the only hands with blood on them. Many of the individual Taliban fighters are victims of massive cultural, structural and direct violence that shapes their worldview and in a sense, “legitimizes” their continual struggle against repressive foreign invasion. They are “justified” in continuing their struggle because they see injustice in their lives brought about by foreign powers. More objective research into the mind of the Taliban fighters, their individual backgrounds, daily lives and mindsets would be the first step towards achieving peace in the region, since the root causes of the fight have yet to even truly begin to be addressed. Any justice in the region must be all-encompassing, and include solutions to local structural injustices, as well as the injustices created and continued by American invasion. The foreigners must be reigned in, basic structures rebuilt, local cultures revitalized and reconciliation processes enacted. The Taliban strive for recognition of their values, and until they receive this recognition, they will continue their fight to the death, in the name of Allah.
Foster, John. (June 19, 2008). A pipeline through a troubled land: Afghanistan, Canada, and the new great energy game. Foreign Policy Series. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Vol. 3, No. 1.
Global Security. (November 8, 2000). IRIN interview with Taliban Ambassador. Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2000/11/war-001109-saafg.htm.
Internet Anthropologist Think Tank (IATT). (February 28, 2008). Afghan youth join Taliban to escape poverty. War Intel Blog Spot. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://warintel.blogspot.com/2008/02/join-taliban-to-escape-poverty.html.
Kakar, M. Hassan. (1995). The Soviet invasion and the Afghan response, 1979-1982. University of California Press.
Khan, Feroz Hassan. (January 10, 2003). Strategic insight. Rough neighbors: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Center for Contemporary Conflict. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.ccc.nps.navy.mil/rsepResources/si/jan03/southAsia.asp#references.
Mardsen, Peter. (1998).Taliban: war, religion, and the new order in Afghanistan. Zed Publishers, New York.
Margolis, Eric. (July 30, 2008). Let’s speak the truth about Afghanistan. Huffington Post. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-margolis/lets-speak-the-truth-abou_b_115591.html.
Rashid, Ahmed. (2002). Taliban: Islam, oil and the new great game in Central Asia. I.B. Tarius Publishers, New York.
Reuters AlertNet. (January 8, 2008). Afghan turmoil. Reuters Foundation. Retrieved October 2, 2008, from http://www.alertnet.org/db/crisisprofiles/AF_REC.htm?v=in_detail.
Sageman, Marc. (2004). Understanding terror networks. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
Smith, Graeme. (March 22, 2008). Talking to the Taliban. Globe and Mail, CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc., Canada. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/talkingtothetaliban.
The Final Call. (January 1, 2001). Who are the Taliban? The Final Call On-line Edition. Retrieved October 2, 2008, from http://www.finalcall.com/perspectives/interviews/taliban01-09-2001.htm.
Williams, Brian Glyn. (July 19, 2007). The Taliban Fedayeen: The world’s worst suicide bombers? Global Terrorism Analysis: Terrorism Monitor. Vol. 5, No. 14. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?issue_id=4183.
SELECTED YOU TUBE TALIBAN INTERVIEWS: