How the Taliban terrorist group outlasted a superpower
Article RadarTHIS ARTICLE CONNECT:
Under the shade of a mulberry tree, near grave sites dotted with Taliban flags, a top insurgent military leader in eastern Afghanistan acknowledged that the group had suffered devastating losses from American strikes and government operations over the past decade.
But those losses have changed little on the ground: The Taliban keep replacing their dead and wounded and delivering brutal violence.
“We see this fight as worship,” said Mawlawi Mohammed Qais, the head of the Taliban’s military commission in Laghman Province, as dozens of his fighters waited nearby on a hillside. “So if a brother is killed, the second brother won’t disappoint God’s wish — he’ll step into the brother’s shoes.”
It was March, and the Taliban had just signed a peace deal with the United States that now puts the movement on the brink of realizing its most fervent desire — the complete exit of American troops from Afghanistan.
They have outlasted a superpower through nearly 19 years of grinding war. And dozens of interviews with Taliban officials and fighters in three countries, as well as with Afghan and Western officials, illuminated the melding of old and new approaches and generations that helped them do it.
After 2001, the Taliban reorganized as a decentralized network of fighters and low-level commanders empowered to recruit and find resources locally while the senior leadership remained sheltered in neighboring Pakistan.
The insurgency came to embrace a system of terrorism planning and attacks that kept the Afghan government under withering pressure, and to expand an illicit funding engine built on crime and drugs despite its roots in austere Islamic ideology.
At the same time, the Taliban have officially changed little of their harsh founding ideology as they prepare to start direct talks about power-sharing with the Afghan government.
They have never explicitly renounced their past of harboring international terrorists, nor the oppressive practices toward women and minorities that defined their term in power in the 1990s. And the insurgents remain deeply opposed to the vast majority of the Western-supported changes in the country over the past two decades.
“We prefer the agreement to be fully implemented so we can have an all-encompassing peace,” Amir Khan Mutaqi, the chief of staff to the Taliban’s supreme leader, said in a rare interview in Doha, Qatar’s capital, with The New York Times. “But we also can’t just sit here when the prisons are filled with our people, when the system of government is the same Western system, and the Taliban should just go sit at home.”
“No logic accepts that — that everything stays the same after all this sacrifice,” he said, adding, “The current government stands on foreign money, foreign weapons, on foreign funding.”
A grim history looms. The last time an occupying power left Afghanistan — when the U.S.-backed mujahedeen insurgency helped push the Soviets to withdraw in 1989 — guerrillas toppled the remaining government and then fought each other over its remains, with the Taliban coming out on top.
Now, even as United States forces and the insurgents have stopped attacking each other, the Taliban intensified their assaults against the Afghan forces before a rare three-day truce this week for the Eid holiday. Their tactics appear aimed at striking fear.
Many Afghans fear the insurgents will bully negotiators into giving them a dominant stake in the government — whose institutions they have undermined and whose officials they continue to kill with truck bombs and ambushes.
Taliban field commanders made clear that they were holding fire only on American troops to give them safe passage — “so they dust off their buttocks and depart,” as one senior Taliban commander in the south said. But there was no reserve about continuing to attack the Afghan Security Forces.
“Our fight started before America — against corruption. The corrupt begged America to come because they couldn’t fight,” a young commander of the Taliban elite “Red Unit” in Alingar said. He was a toddler when the United States invasion began, and met up with a Times reporting team in the area where government control gives way to the Taliban.
“Until an Islamic system is established,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “our jihad will continue until doomsday.”
The Taliban now have somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 active fighters and tens of thousands of part-time armed men and facilitators, according to Afghan and American estimates.
It is not, however, a monolithic organization. The insurgency’s leadership built a war machine out of disparate and far-flung parts, and pushed each cell to try to be locally self-sufficient. In areas they control, or at least influence, the Taliban also try to administer some services and resolve disputes, continuously positioning themselves as a shadow government.
“This is a network insurgency — it’s very decentralized, it has the ability for the commanders at the district level to mobilize resources, and be able to logistically prepare,” said Timor Sharan, an Afghan researcher and former senior government official. “But at the top, they gained legitimacy from a single source, a single leader.”
Over the years, the group’s top leadership has mostly remained in Pakistan, where the insurgency’s reconstitution was supported by Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani military spy agency. Those havens have offered continuity even as the rank and file suffer heavy casualties in Afghanistan.
At times, the casualty rates went so high — losing up to hundreds of fighters a week as the Americans carried out an airstrike campaign in which they dropped nearly 27,000 bombs since 2013 — that the Taliban developed a system of reserve forces to keep applying pressure where it had taken losses, according to the group’s regional commanders. Last year was particularly devastating, with Afghan officials claiming they were killing Taliban at unprecedented rates: more than a 1,000 a month, perhaps a quarter of their estimated forces by year’s end. In addition to airstrikes by Afghan forces, the U.S. dropped about 7,400 bombs, perhaps the most in a decade.
Even at the peak of the long American military presence and the coordinating effort to help the Afghan government win hearts and minds in the countryside, the Taliban were able to keep recruiting enough young men to keep fighting. Families keep answering the Taliban’s call, and booming profits help hold it all together.
Mawlawi Qais explained how his military commission in Laghman Province, where Alingar is, has an active “Guidance and Invite” committee whose members go to mosques and Quranic lessons to recruit new fighters. But he noted that most recruits come from current fighters working to enlist friends and relatives.
There has been a constant need for new blood, particularly over the past decade. “In our immediate dilgai alone,” he said, referring to a unit of 100 to 150 fighters, “we have lost 80 men.”
Still, fighters keep signing up, he said, in part because of deep loathing for the Western institutions and values the Afghan government has taken up from its allies.
“Our problem isn’t with their flesh and bones,” Mawlawi Qais said. “It is with the system.”
Afghan officials say that in places where the Taliban don’t have stable control for local recruitment, they still draw heavily on the approximately two million Afghan refugees who live in Pakistan, and on the seminaries there, to recruit fighters for front-line fighting.
Taliban recruitment officials and commanders say they don’t pay regular salaries. Instead, they cover the expenses of the fighters. What has helped in recent years was giving their commanders a freer hand in how they used their local resources — and war booty.
Some revenue collection, such as taxing goods, was centralized. But increasingly, the movement became deeply intertwined with local crime and narcotics concerns, adding to the financial incentives to keep up their holy war.
“The friends who are with us in the front lines of jihad, they don’t get exact salaries,” said Mullah Baaqi Zarawar, a unit commander in Helmand Province. “But we take care of their pocket money, the gas for their motorcycle, their trip expenses. And if they capture spoils, that is their earning.”
In areas where they are comfortably in control, many Taliban fighters, and even the leaders, keep other jobs.
During his interview, Mawlawi Qais paused to apologize for his dusty clothes — he said he had been milling flour all morning, which is his day job. Many of his fighters also have second jobs when not fighting.
To help ensure that recruitment streams would not dry up, the insurgency prioritized an increasingly sophisticated information operation, shaping the Taliban’s narrative through slick video productions and an aggressive social media brigade.
Instances of U.S. or Afghan forces causing civilian casualties, whether real cases or made up, are splashed across social media in conjunction with Taliban training videos of their fighters jumping through fiery rings and drilling with their weapons. The message has been consistent: To join us is to take up a life of heroism and sacrifice.
They had powerful symbols to draw on: They were fighting for a supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, who sent his own son as a suicide bomber for the cause, against a government propped up by an invading military and led by officials who often keep their families abroad.
After their deal with the Americans, the Taliban’s propaganda has only intensified, and has taken on an ominously triumphal note. In his annual message for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, released last Wednesday, the Taliban’s supreme leader issued a promise of amnesty for enemies who renounced their loyalty to the Afghan government.
Alingar is also an example of how the Taliban have figured out local arrangements to act like a shadow government in areas where they have established control. The insurgents collect taxes, sending around 20 percent to the central leadership while keeping the rest for the fighters locally, Taliban leaders in the district said. They have committees overseeing basic services to the public, including health, education and running local bazaars.
Supplies and salaries for health clinics and schools are still paid for by the Afghan government and its international donors. But the Taliban administer it all in their way — a compromise reluctantly agreed to by aid organizations since the alternative would be no services. And the insurgents’ approach to schooling is giving the strongest evidence yet that the movement is clinging to its old ways of repressing women, art and culture.
Out of the 57 schools in Alingar, 17 are girls schools, according to Mawlawi Ahmadi Haqmal, the head of the education committee in Alingar. But the local Taliban insist that girls’ education must end after sixth grade, at odds with international requirements for education aid. In the curriculum, the Taliban have also slashed culture as a subject because it promoted “vulgarities such as music,” Mawlawi Haqmal said.
After the Taliban swept to power in the 1990s, defeating other factions in the vacuum left behind by the Soviet withdrawal, the United States seemed mostly indifferent to the group’s oppressive rule. But that changed in 2001, when Al Qaeda leaders taking shelter in Afghanistan carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on American soil.
Al Qaeda’s Saudi leader, Osama bin Laden, had spent a long time in Afghanistan, and once even fought on the American side against the Soviets at the end of the Cold War. The Taliban’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, allowed him to stay in Afghanistan and the two had grown close, with Bin Laden pledging allegiance to him as an Islamic emir.
Wounded and seeking immediate revenge, the Bush administration had no patience for the Taliban’s proposals to find a way to get rid of Bin Laden without directly handing him to the Americans. The United States began a military invasion.
A group that had found success against Afghan factions withered quickly in the face of the U.S. airstrikes. The Taliban’s fighters went home as the Islamic Emirate disintegrated. Their leaders crossed the border into Pakistan or ended up in American prisons.
Many Taliban commanders interviewed for this article said that in the initial months after the invasion, they could scarcely even dream of a day they might be able to fight off the U.S. military. But that changed once their leadership regrouped in safe havens provided by Pakistan’s military — even as the Pakistanis were receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid.
From that safety, the Taliban planned a longer war of attrition against U.S. and NATO troops. Starting with more serious territorial assaults in 2007, the insurgents revived and refined an old blueprint the United States had funded against the Soviets in the same mountains and terrain — but now it was deployed against the American military.
“Most of our leaders were part of that anti-Soviet war. This was our land, our territory, and our colleagues had familiarity,” said Mr. Mutaqi, the Taliban chief of staff. “Afghanistan’s history was in front of us — when the British came, their force was bigger than the Afghans, when the Soviets came, their force was bigger, and the same was true with the Americans — their force was much larger than ours. So that gave us hope that, eventually, the Americans, too, would leave.”
From the start, the insurgents seized on the corruption and abuses of the Afghan government put in place by the United States, and cast themselves as arbiters of justice and Afghan tradition — a powerful part of their continued appeal with many rural Afghans in particular. With the United States mostly distracted with the war in Iraq, the insurgency widened its ambitions and territory.
By the time President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the Taliban had spread so far that he raised the number of American troops on the ground to about 100,000. In addition to an Afghan Army and police that eventually grew to about 300,000 fighters, the U.S. military also propped up local Afghan militias as urgent measures. The war had entered a vicious cycle of killing and being killed.
Source: The World News