A Historical Look at the Taliban’s Capabilities and Popularity

By Oved Lobel on 1 September 2021

Ahmad Shah Massoud meeting with his fighters in Afghanistan | IMAGE CREDIT: Sandy Gall

Below is a translation of a report by the Russian outlet Kommersant on 20 June 1997 by Oved Lobel, an analyst focused on inter alia Russia’s role in the Islamic world and who recently wrote a report on the history of Afghanistan’s war dating back to the early 1970s. The article is interesting in many respects, perhaps most of all in showing the very limited military capacity of the Taliban, intimately linked to its overwhelming unpopularity among Afghans. The article discusses some of the draconian practices of the Taliban that made it so despised, as well as its governing structure, and focuses on the situation in the summer of 1997, when the Northern Alliance broke the Taliban’s hold on Pul-i-Khumri and halted their offensive on Mazar-i-Sharif. As we now know with hindsight, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Army would rescue the Taliban from this predicament. The Pakistani role in underwriting the Taliban’s military advances is covered in the article, and this pattern of Taliban retreats that forced an escalation of Pakistani intervention was a repetitive one during the late 1990s. Ultimately, indeed, as covered in Oved’s report, the Taliban enterprise would basically crumble in 2000 and the Pakistan Army had to overtly invade to allow the jihadists to conquer Taloqan. This history remains relevant at the present. As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told U.S. President Joe Biden three weeks before his government was overwhelmed by the Taliban on 15 August: “We are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban [with] full Pakistani planning and logistical support”.

 

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Who Are The Taliban?

The Islamic State of Talibanistan Totters

Heavy fighting between the Taliban and the forces of the “Northern Alliance” continues in Afghanistan. An increasingly serious economic situation is developing in the territory they occupy as a result of their excessive religious restrictions and the Taliban’s lack of governing experience. For the Taliban, a quick military victory over the Northerners is nothing short of imperative. If bread riots break out among the population, the Taliban government may collapse.

 

The Taliban Are Trying To Seize The Initiative

On Tuesday [17 June 1997], the Taliban managed to seize Kunduz, the capital of the eponymous district, located about fifty kilometres from the border with Tajikistan. Several local field commanders (apparently Pashtuns) switched sides to the Taliban, which doomed the Tajik forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud defending the city. The Tajiks retreated to the Tajikistan border. It’s still unclear whether they will be able to cross the border into the CIS [Commonwealth of independent States]. It seems Taliban units broke through to Kunduz out of the Tajik encirclement they were caught in near Pul-i-Khumri. Earlier the Tajiks had reported (evidently too hastily) that they’d completely routed the Taliban in Pul-i-Khumri and taken about 3,000 fighters and officers prisoner.

The Taliban’s Kunduz counterattack comes on the heels of severe defeats inflicted on them by the United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan last week. This rather precarious “Northern Alliance” was formed by the followers of the Afghan Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud, Uzbek Abdul Malik, Hazara Karim Khalili; the Ismaili leaders of Badakhshan; as well as several other field commanders and political figures from Northern and Central Afghanistan.

According to Uzbek field commanders (their claims need to be taken with a grain of salt, but generally they have been confirmed by foreign observers), in two days of street battles in Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban suffered about 2,000 fatalities. 8,000 were wounded and captured, of whom about 300 are Pakistani officers and advisers, as well as a substantial amount of Pakistani transport and military equipment. The Northerners captured many senior Taliban leaders, including the Kandahari “Foreign Affairs minister” Mullah Gos, Herat provincial governor Mullah Abdul Razzaq, member of the central “council of six” Mullah Ehsanullah, as well as Pakistani ambassador Aziz Khan, who masterminded the Northern Taliban assaults.

In the offensive that followed, Massoud’s troops smashed the Taliban at the Salang Pass, recaptured the provinces of Parwan and Kapisa, seized the strategically important city of Jabal-ul-Siraj and came close to Kabul. The Hazara Shia defeated the Taliban at the Shibar pass in Central Afghanistan (fierce battles have been raging over it for four months already). According to the Shia, 300 Taliban were killed in the June battles for Shibar and more than 2,000 taken prisoner.

The Taliban Are Being Punished For Their Duplicity

The defeat of the Taliban confirmed the prediction of military experts that these “students” didn’t know how to fight; that is, do not know urban combat tactics, their actions are poorly coordinated, and their fighters lack sufficient training and fortitude. Western military experts have been expressing their impressions of the Taliban’s conduct in the following way: “Of course, they are able to distinguish the butt from the barrel of an assault rifle, but more extensive knowledge of military affairs rarely exhilarates them. For the time being the Taliban really are more like students compared to Massoud’s soldiers, who have a reputation for being the best fighters in the world for a reason.”

The misfortunes of the Taliban (they are by and large Pashtuns) also have an ideological aspect. Their movement has clearly exhausted its original trust limit. Kandahar had real opportunities for the more-or-less peaceful establishment of a coalition government, which would include, under Pashtun leadership, representatives of the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Ismailis. However, these “fighters for the faith” have turned out to be (at least hitherto) incapable of compromise. The first to face the treachery of the Taliban were the Shia Hazara. The Taliban are mostly Sunnis and view the Shia as “traitors”, “heretics” and “bitter enemies of genuine Islam”; that is, even worse than atheists and Communists. When the Taliban first approached Kabul in the spring of 1995, they staged a massacre in the Shiite suburbs of the capital and tricked and imprisoned the leader of the Shiite “Wahdat” party Abdul Ali Mazari, who then died under mysterious circumstances. Shiite leaders express their attitude towards the Taliban in the following way: “If we surrender to them, they will slaughter us all. We simply have no choice—we have to fight to the end.”

The Tajiks also mean business. When the Taliban seized the provinces of Parwan and Kapisa north of Kabul in January, they embarked on a massive ethnic cleansing campaign and deported hundreds of thousands of Tajiks from their villages. It is not surprising that Massoud has managed to create an extensive guerrilla sabotage network in the rear of the Taliban whose agents have already repeatedly organized anti-Taliban insurrections.

One gets the impression that the former “Pashtun monopoly” on the central government in Afghanistan has come to an end. In addition to the traditionally influential Tajiks, the leaders of the previously discriminated against Turkic peoples of northern Afghanistan (primarily Uzbeks and Turkmen) are gaining more and more political weight. The aggressive nationalism of the Pashtuns has crashed into the equally aggressive nationalism of the Uzbeks and Tajiks. Since all sides possess more than enough weapons, nobody should entertain the notion of a quick military victory by one side over the other.

Allah’s Chosen

The name of the movement, “Taliban”, is the plural form of the word “Talib”, common in Arabic, Iranian, and Turkic dialects (in the Punjabi parlance of Pakistan, “Tullab”). Generally speaking, any student can be called a Talib. In the Pakistani context, this moniker was assigned primarily to madrassa students. Living conditions in these “schools” are very difficult. For the slightest offense, students are subjected to severe physical punishment and torture. There is no need to talk about the education of the Taliban “students”. At best, they memorize long passages from the Qur’an, for the most part without understanding their meaning. From childhood, the Taliban are accustomed to strict discipline and obedience to their elders.

For the Pakistani special services, they [the students/Taliban] are a welcome addition not only to the Kandahar army, but also to the fanatical Islamic groups fighting against India in Kashmir. Unquestioning loyalty to the ideas of “jihad” and “fighting for Allah till victory or death” is hammered into the Taliban. Many of them know no other life outside war. For the most part, they are deprived of contact with the outside world and are subjected to constant and primitive brainwashing. The mullahs endlessly repeat to them individual quotes from the Quran and “victory” slogans.

Many young men formulate the meaning of their life as follows: “We are Allah’s chosen. For us there is no turning back—always and only forward! We will either win or perish, like martyrs in the name of Allah, in order to immediately go to heaven.” Senior officers and Pakistani instructors often treat the Taliban like cannon fodder. When the Taliban approached Kabul last fall, they had to cross a minefield. Since the Taliban did not have sappers, the commanders ordered the fighters to simply move forward. With cries of “Allahu Akbar”, thousands of Taliban charged towards the mines. About 400 were killed on the spot.

Talibanistan

Who actually controls the Taliban is unclear. It is believed that supreme power rests with Mullah Muhammad Omar Akhund. According to Western journalists, he is about 35 years old. He was born into a poor family in the southern province of Kandahar. Mullah Omar is reputed to be a very insular and simple person, only once or twice giving interviews to journalists, and usually rejects any foreigners. Omar has extensive experience from the war against the Soviet army—he was wounded four times and lost his right eye. In September 1994, he founded the Taliban movement in his native village near Kandahar, seeking with its help to overcome the endless infighting between the Mujahideen. Almost all of the movement’s political leaders are from Kandahar, where the Taliban is headquartered. The Taliban claim that Omar alone makes the major military and personnel decisions. He is very highly regarded among the Pashtuns, who respect him for his worldly wisdom and his spiritual experience as a Muslim preacher.

The internal structure of the Taliban government gives the impression of being a clerical military dictatorship, where guarantees for individual rights are out of the question. When the Taliban occupy the latest populated area, they often don’t just behave like occupation forces. They treat the population with complete disdain, like cattle—they herd people into their homes and the mosque by kicking and whipping them, as if they were rams, they beat them without reason or warning, etc. After the capture of Kabul, the Taliban systematically destroyed all government buildings and public transportation infrastructure that remained in this destroyed city. They fanatically crusade against secular literature, cinema, video, music, and radio broadcasting (the only exception made is for Kabul’s “Radio Sharia” propaganda). The Taliban smash computers and VCRs, burn cassettes and any books and magazines that they think are “indecent” and “unislamic.” The justifications for Taliban prohibitions can be mind-boggling. For example, the use of recycled paper is strictly prohibited on the grounds that the Qur’an could have been printed on it earlier. This spring, the Taliban shocked Muslims in most Asian countries by banning the very ancient local holiday of Nowruz.

It seems that the Taliban leaders are striving to recreate the “halcyon communal life” as it (in their opinion) once existed in the early stages of Islam’s establishment. According to the Taliban, the country should have a single religious, political, and military leadership—as Muhammad in his day was a military leader, caliph, and prophet. The post of just such an unchallenged and absolute leader for the Taliban is occupied by Mullah Omar. He bears the title “Amir al-Mu’mineen” (“Commander of the Faithful”) and is the supreme authority on all religious and secular issues, as well as the main commander of the “holy army” of the Taliban. Underneath him is the “council of six” ruling in Kabul, which Western experts sometimes call the “Mullah Junta.” The decisions of this council are communicated to the broad masses of the Taliban by a limited number of spiritual advisers, who are called Mawlawis (sort of like Islamic officers). They have divided Kabul into twelve new districts. Each district is headed by its own Mawlawi—the supreme military authority, judge, mayor, and police chief.

The Taliban’s Inquisition

The regulation of life in today’s Kabul is very strict—just like in a military school (or madrassah). Twice a day, all men must drop everything and go to the mosque. Whoever delays is whipped. All the former Kabul mullahs were demoted by the Taliban and driven out of the mosques. The new mullahs behave more like counterintelligence officers—they want to know literally everything about their parishioners: who did what yesterday and this morning, who came to visit or travelled for business (and what kind of business?) What did the neighbours on the right do yesterday and what did the neighbours on the left say, etc. The Taliban morality police, which often makes and implements decisions without trial or investigation, keeps order in the streets.

Almost every week, the mullahs come up with new prohibitions and marching orders. Recently, for example, they ordered all windowpanes to be painted black so that immodest male glances would not dishonour the women inside the house. The Taliban’s hatred and fear of women is a well-known fact. It seems that they are quite seriously convinced of the inherent depravity of all women, without exception. So, the only way for a devout Muslim to evade these evil snares is to plant a woman at the farthest end of the house and cover her with a veil to be on the safe side. Women are prohibited not only from going to work, school, or university, but also from shopping at the bazaar. All working women are perceived by the Taliban at best as “prostitutes”, at worst as “servants of Satan.” The Taliban has on several occasions brutally beat female employees of foreign international organizations and the Red Cross who did not have time to hide when they approached. There are known cases when the Taliban forced brides en route to their weddings and wrapped in a veil to show them their fingers and cut them off if the girls had dared paint them.

Members of the Kabul “Islamic Inquisition” (their organization is called the Agency for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) regularly visit institutions and measure men’s beards. Those who have it shorter than the prescribed length (the tip of the beard should protrude from the fist) are mercilessly expelled. The Mawlawi courts are actually tribunals. Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys, and every kind of appellate court have been abolished. The words of three devout Muslims, who “verify” the fact of crime, are enough for the court. Of course, the testimony of women is not considered. If any accusation is brought against a woman, she is barred from the trial. The Malwawi’s verdict is considered infallible due to his “divine authority”. In general, it is immediately enforced. So, if a woman is found in absentia “guilty of violating the covenants of marriage,” a patrol is immediately sent after her, which leads her to the place of execution. Since the “champions of God’s work” are forbidden to touch “other people’s women,” they force the relatives of the condemned woman to tie her up, load her onto a cart, and then execute her. A young woman suspected of “adultery” was stoned in Kabul two months ago, and the first stones were to be thrown at her by her husband and children.

The Taliban’s Economic Imbecility

At first, the population of Kabul even welcomed the arrival of the Taliban. People hoped for a stable authority and an end to the never-ending street battles. Now the mood of the people has changed. In Kabul they say more and more often: “It would be better if everything were the way it was before. I’d rather they fire rockets at one another from time to time, as long as there’s food. What’s the use of the present order if there is nothing to eat?”

When it comes to economics, the Taliban have proved inadequate. The modern state cannot exist on the principles of primitive natural exchange in the context of the simplest cash transactions (as the Taliban mullahs would like). Although several banks are still open in Kabul, they do not actually do anything. Loans and non-cash monetary circulation have been abolished—all the transactions of the Mawlawis are done exclusively in cash, which they carry around the country in bags. Unemployment in Kabul and other major cities is over 90%. Factories have either been destroyed or shut down. Those that are still working only carry out military orders. The Taliban have no money, the bazaars are empty, and international suppliers are afraid to come to their cities. In a conversation with foreign journalists in May, Taliban “foreign minister” Sher Mohammed Stanikzai admitted that the Kabul authorities did not know how to feed the population. According to Western experts, if the Taliban does not succeed in defeating the northerners as quickly as possible, it will not survive this winter.

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