Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

The Taliban, an enigma wrapped in a riddle ?

April 25, 2010
(Taliban in Kunduz- REUTERS/Wahdat )

(Taliban in Kunduz- REUTERS/Wahdat )

Anne  Stenersen  of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment has published by far one of the most detailed studies of the Taliban, their structure, leadership and just how they view the world.  Its interesting  because even after all these years  they remain a bit of an enigma beginning with the reclusive founder and supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

As Stenersen notes,  a lot of the attention within NATO has been on defeating the insurgency or how best to manage it. Less attention has been given to trying to understand who the insurgents are, and what they are fighting for. Even the way we describe them is not very defined. The insurgents are often lumped together as “al Qaeda and the Talban” , even though in many fundamental ways they could be vastly dissimilar,  or described as OMF (Other military Forces) as NATO tends to do in militaryspeak, perhaps in the belief that denying them a  proper name  diminishes them.

On the ground, soldiers often describe the enemy as “anyone shooting at us”  making it even more vague. Obviously the nature of the insurgency has something to do with this : the great diversity in Afghanistan’s demography and geography means the insurgency can vary from region to region, or even from one village to the other. You could be fighting a Taliban commander in one, and a warlord linked to them in the other.

But the insurgency in Afghanistan is certainly not a collection of small, locally based militas with no overall leadership or structure. And neither do the insurgents themselves  see it that way and its important to hear their view of themselves, both in the event of trying to seek reconciliation or to crush them militarily.

Today Mullah Omar’s Taliban movement describes itself as a resistance movement with a leadership, organisation structure, a defined goal and strategy and even an official “code of conduct” for its members. And it has made clear repeatedly it  likes to be referred to as The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official name of the regime which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

A link to Stenersen’s 85-page report is available on but here are some of the other  big  take-aways :

- The Taliban’s organization consists of the leader Mullah Omar, deputy Mullah Baradar  who has since been arrested , a 19-member military shura which was led by Baradar and a 15-member legislative shura led by a Sheikh Maulavi Abd al-‘Ali, which is primarily concerned with appointing judges and setting up Sharia courts in areas under Taliban  control. In addition, it has seven committees, including committees for finance, media, preaching, and so on.

-  The insurgent movement is so diverse that there is probably no single, correct way of characterizing it.  In some areas the movement may be under the influence of a central leadership and in other areas it may be more correct to characterize it as decentralised. Due to geographical distances, and a lack of effective and secure communications channels, the leadership has probably limited capability to exert command and control in the day-to-day activities of the insurgency.

- Estimates of the Taliban size and strength vary greatly, depending of course on how one defines them.  However, the general trend is that the estimated number of fighters associated with the IEA has increased since 2006, coupled with a general rise in the levels of insurgent violence.  In November 2006, a UN report estimated the number of armed insurgents in Mullah Omar’s movement to be around 4,000–5,000. By 2009, a U.S. intelligence report estimated that the number of “full-time Taliban-led insurgents” had risen to 25,000, and that the number had increased with 5,000 over the last year only, which also reflects in the greater number of incidents.

-  The Taliban that is leading the insurgency is not identical to the organisation that ruled  Afghanistan from 1996-2001. It has gone through important changes, not least in the way the “neo-Taliban” has embraced modern technologies such as the Internet, DVDs and other communication methods. Quite  a change from a regime that frowned on watching television. But there are also fundamental changes, says Stenersen. The Taliban insurgency appears to be a more localized force than the one  that took control over Afghanistan in the last half of the 1990s, and it also appears to be more closely connected to criminal networks.

- One of the findings of the study is that the Taliban sees itself as a nationalist-religious movement fighting to resurrect the  regime of the 1990s and to bring the various ethnic groups of Afghanistan under its rule. In that sense its agenda differs from that of its ally al-Qaeda because its primary concern is re-taking power in Afghanistan and implementing their interpretation of Islamic law in Afghanistan. Their objective is not to kill foreigners in itself or to wage worldwide jihad for jihad’s sake.

- Tactics also differ from its allies including al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. Suicide attacks with a large number of casualties, which occurred on a few occasions in 2007 and 2008, do not appear to be a trend in Afghanistan. In fact, suicide attacks in Afghanistan have tended to result in much fewer casualties per attack than similar campaigns in Iraq and elsewhere. A study of attacks carried out in 2006 and the first half of 2007 concluded that in almost half of the cases, only the suicide attacker himself was killed.

- For the time being, it looks like any attempt to negotiate with the Taliban leadership directly would serve to strengthen the insurgent movement, rather than weakening it. A more realistic approach is probably to try to weaken the Taliban’s coherence through negotiating with, and offering incentives to, low-level commanders and tribal leaders inside Afghanistan. The insurgent movement consists of a wide variety of actors, which may be seen as proof of its strength – but it could also constitute a weak-ness if properly and systematically exploited. This effort, however, requires extensive resources, both in terms of manpower and knowledge of the Afghan realities.

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