When the Taliban first seized power of Afghanistan in the 1990s, there was a mass exodus from the country while among those who stayed, many put up a fierce resistance. The Taliban’s return 25 years on has forced millions to flee once more and again instigated widespread backlash from people who remain. Whether journalists, judges, teachers, civil servants or human-rights activists, women and men of all backgrounds have joined protests to resist Taliban rule – and to protect the fundamental freedoms and democratic aspirations they have gained and nurtured over the past 20 years.
Just over a year after the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul in August 2021, the resistance has never been greater. To mark this moment, Afghanistan’s women have taken to the streets once more in opposition to the totalitarian regime. In a recent interview, one of the female protestors explains how women are devoted to the resistance and are willing to sacrifice their lives for justice. Along with others who challenge the Taliban today, she believes the Islamist group is a proxy for another country. In November 2021, thousands from Afghanistan’s diaspora – who are now dispersed across the world – held simultaneous anti-Taliban demonstrations in more than 20 major cities. This global protest was in response to a call from Ahmad Massoud, commander of the National Resistance Front (NRF) in Afghanistan. In a recent interview, he confirmed the armed resistance force he leads comprises more than 3,000 highly skilled fighters, who were trained by US forces and NATO when these organisations worked with the army during the previous government’s tenure. Beyond the NRF, other pockets of armed resistance have been forming across Afghanistan, all of whom vow to stand with the NRF against the Taliban. They fight for justice, dignity, pluralism and the self-determination of the people through a one-person, one-vote system in Afghanistan.
To understand the roots of this resistance requires an understanding of the ways in which the Taliban has exploited identity politics – specifically Pashtun nationalism and Deobandi Islamic identity – and the reason why it has gained a reputation as a foreign force. These factors are largely behind the Taliban’s current crisis of legitimacy, with the group failing to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan.
Over time, the Taliban has developed ties to both an extreme form of the Deobandi movement and a hegemonic expression of Pashtun nationalism. This combination has helped to define the group’s dogma and ideological characteristics while compromising its capacity to authentically represent the country’s diverse ethnic and religious composition. The Taliban’s strategy over the past 20 years – whether as militant opponent to the government of Afghanistan or as de-facto rulers – has been to forge alliances and enforce loyalties among local and regional groups, and non-state actors, based on these two essential ideologies. Despite all the efforts to crack down on dissent and portray an image of legitimacy to the outside world, there are several tensions affecting the Taliban, including some from within. It is these insecurities – both external and internal – that fuel the Taliban’s inability to form an “inclusive government” or to “reform itself”, as so many had hoped. In any case, without democratic processes in place, the people of Afghanistan consider any so-called reform impossible.
The Taliban as a Foreign Proxy
Many people in Afghanistan have grown up regarding the Taliban as an instrument of foreign interference, specifically levelling accusations against the Pakistani government for propping it up. During the months following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, there were protests to condemn Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for its support of the group. The connection between the Taliban and Pakistan is historical and underpins the widespread belief in Afghanistan that the Taliban is a foreign proxy. Though historical relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan date back to the establishment of the latter in 1947, the most critical years for an understanding of this link is the period that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It was at this time that regional powers sought to promote their interests, along with Arab nations that were allied with the Western bloc in opposition to the Soviets.
During the Mujahideen years of the 1980s, Pakistan primarily invested in the predominantly Pashtun party, Hezb-e Islami, to position it to take over Kabul when the Soviet-backed regime was defeated. Led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, it was among seven other Islamic politico-military parties based in Pakistan’s Peshawar. Another powerful party was the predominantly Tajik Jamiat-e Islami, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, while eight Hazara Shia parties, based in the Iranian city of Mashhad, later combined to become Hezb-e Wahdat, led by Abdul Ali Mazari. Meanwhile, Uzbek militias coalesced around the leadership of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a commander under the communist regime.
Soon after the communist regime collapsed and the Soviets completed their withdrawal in 1989, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military commander of Jamiat-e Islami, took over Kabul in April 1992. This new Islamic government, run by President Rabbani and Massoud, was immediately challenged by Hekmatyar who, with the backing of Pakistan, started fighting to overthrow it. For this purpose, Hekmatyar created an alliance, called the Coordination Council (Shoray Hamahangi), with the leaders of the Uzbeks and Hazaras, but proved unsuccessful in bringing down the government.
Contrary to widely held perceptions, this conflict was not a simple “civil war”. Convinced that its proxy in Afghanistan would not succeed in taking over Kabul, Pakistan moved to create an alternative force: the Taliban. First appearing on the political landscape in Kandahar in 1994, the group positioned itself as a local solution to the persistent instability caused by the fighting of internal factions among the Mujahideen, who had turned on each other after the collapse of the communist regime they had fought together and defeated. According to the Taliban, the internecine battles between the Mujahideen had generated instability, moral degradation and corruption, resulting in anarchy in the various provinces ruled over by different warlords and commanders. The group set out to restore so-called order in the country via its interpretation of sharia law. The tension between “order” and “justice” has long been central to discursive traditions of the Islamic faith, and the Taliban wrongly prioritised the former. The group wished to be perceived as another Islamist movement tasked with stamping out corruption and moral degradation in the country while implementing a state modelled on Prophetic methodology.
The fusion of Islamist ideology with Pashtun sensibilities further tightened the historic alliance between Pakistan and the Taliban. The presence of Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan provided the opportunity for men from this ethnic group to be enlisted into the Taliban – as foot soldiers – on either side of the border. To this day, Pakistani strategy continues to be to seek a “friendly” (some say “puppet”) administration in Kabul comprised of new generations of Pashtun Islamist extremists, educated in its own madrassas.
When Pakistan was established in 1947 as an autonomous Muslim state, there was clear opposition from Pashtuns in Afghanistan. Pashtun elites in Kabul had been lobbying for an independent Pashtunistan as they believed the Durand Line – an agreement signed in 1893 to separate Afghanistan from India (now Pakistan) but which divided Pashtun tribal lands in two – was invalid. They therefore disputed the legitimacy of the new state of Pakistan, which included some of this territory. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Soviet Union and India had backed Afghanistan’s irredentist claims against Pakistan out of geopolitical self-interest, a posture that incited China to support Pakistan. During the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, when the country lost Bangladesh to independence, Pakistan escalated its hostilities with Afghanistan, regarding domination over its neighbours as a major national-security goal. Faced with Pashtun and Baloch nationalist movements, the trauma of the 1971 war, and an insurgency secretly aided by Afghanistan, India and the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s leadership initiated a process of domestic Islamisation to counter secessionist threats at home.
Today, there is little doubt that among several segments of Afghanistan’s society, the Taliban continues to be perceived as a foreign organisation with deep connections to Pakistan’s security forces. A significant failing of Western engagement and of the Doha peace talks in 2020 was the refusal to confront this “elephant in the room”. And Pakistan’s readiness to offer refuge to the Taliban has both undermined the group’s popularity among the people of Afghanistan and contributed to its legitimacy crisis.
The Taliban as a “Pro-Pashtun” Movement
The Taliban’s use of Pashtun nationalism as a justification for its dominance of Afghanistan along religious lines, as well as the Pashtun aversion to foreign intervention, has given the group – at times – some credibility.
Pashtun nationalism, underpinned by a strong central authority in Kabul, has long been a prominent characteristic of Afghanistan’s political system despite opposition from several other communities within the country. Since Pashtun nationalism is centred on ethnicity and tribal allegiances, the Taliban’s ideology is not fuelled by religious sentiments alone. The term “Afghan”, which refers specifically to the Pashtuns or Pathans of India, was forced on non-Pashtuns after the modernisation of Afghanistan. To this day, experts have referred to Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Balochs and others as “Afghans”, reinforcing Pashtun domination not only over the country’s territory – but also over its diverse populations.
The thorny subject of representation and political participation has tormented the people of Afghanistan since the 1960s when Mohammad Zahir Shah introduced a moderately democratic constitutional monarchy and limited reforms. But even during this so-called democratic age when the country’s future direction of travel was open to discussion, the governing class maintained its strategy of excluding political parties from the process. The same policy continued during the more recent period of Western intervention in Afghanistan. When the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) was adopted in 2005, the role of political parties was further diminished, resulting in the suppression of diverse political life being continued over the past 17 years. For decades, Pashtun elites have been arguing that democracy and federalism are premature until Afghanistan is able to become one “Afghan nation”. In other words, the issue of national identity should be addressed before any talk of democratic participation can begin.
With elites insisting that democracy and a free civil society are conditional on a unified concept of a nation state, one fundamental issue has persisted: any formal identity would be an idea imposed on others by the existing political elite, rather than by nationally representative consultation designed to achieve a lasting consensus or – at the least – a compromise. The Pashtun elite has placed such emphasis on this vision of a national identity that it has tended to regard the Taliban favourably, despite the group’s status as international pariahs. In a 1995 essay, just a year before the first Taliban takeover of Kabul, academic and Pashtun politician Dr Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady bemoaned the “decline of Pashtun dominance” in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he was confident the Taliban’s takeover of the country would allow the Pashtuns to re-establish their control. Since the majority of people in Afghanistan do not believe in the superiority of Pashtuns over other ethnic groups, “Pashtunism” can be regarded as dominance by Pashtun elites who have long monopolised positions of authority in the country.
Another factor adding to the complexity of the Pashtun-Taliban relationship is the claims by some Pashtun elites over territory they regard as their own, but which lies in modern-day Pakistan. This is partly why the Pakistani establishment has chosen at times to support Pashtun Islamist radicals (the Taliban) over these secular elites. Nonetheless, over time, the Taliban’s survival has become intimately intertwined with the success or failure of the Pashtun project. Still, in order not to alienate other communities, the Taliban has made attempts to hide this affinity, instead relying on its interpretation of Islam as a force with which to unify Afghanistan.
The Taliban as an Islamist Force
The Taliban is a byproduct of the mujahideen mission, which involved foreign fighters – led by Islamists – entering Afghanistan after 1979 to fight the Soviet Union on the basis of armed jihad – in other words, for the protection of “Muslims against a non-Muslim occupying force”. The teachings that led to the formation of the Taliban are reflective of this since the group was influenced ideologically and operationally by Arab jihadists and their militant commanders, themselves renowned for their strict and politicised interpretation of Islam, and for conducting terrorist operations in the name of jihad. Much of the ideology underpinning the beliefs of this Arab contingent was derived from a Salafi interpretation of Islam, which draws little distinction between Muslims around the world and seeks to simplify the teachings to create greater unity across the global community.
Consequently, the Taliban’s stringent idea of Islam derives from a combination of revolutionary Salafi ideology, introduced to Afghanistan by Arab jihadists, and from madrassas located on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. While these madrassas and their teachings were rooted in the Deobandi tradition of the Sunni Hanafi school, they were also strongly influenced by revolutionary Salafi teachings. As the Taliban has since partnered with a myriad of international terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, they have also adopted their tactics and narratives to create a unique Islamist concoction rife with contradictions. For example, in Sunni Hanafi Islam – the school of jurisprudence the Taliban claims it adheres to – suicide bombing is not permitted as a military tactic. Yet such bombings are considered integral to the Taliban’s military strategy.
Driven by an ideology that is part pan-Islamist, jihadist and ethno-nationalist, the Taliban has partnered with a range of terrorist organisations, including Jamaat Ansarullah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Tehrik-e Pakistan (TTP), to regain power over Afghanistan. The claim that the Taliban has a local or national agenda – in contrast to international terrorist groups – is to be taken at face value. The group’s attempts to portray itself as a local Islamic movement have simply been a ruse for seeking legitimacy. Predominantly trained in Pakistan’s madrassas, the leadership of the Taliban and their concocted version of Islam have nothing to do with the way of life in Afghanistan, including in the Pashtun heartlands. Contrary to its own propaganda, the Taliban’s Islam is alien to the communities of Afghanistan and its uncompromising application – under the guise of Pashtun culture – directly opposes the country’s tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance. Since the Taliban also takes inspiration from the Iranian model of governance, whereby a theocratic Islamist state is imposed from the top down, its “supreme leader” in Kandahar oversees Afghanistan’s executive branch and judiciary today, while undertaking consultations with the ulema (Islamic scholars).
Growing evidence shows an increasingly hostile environment for Afghanistan’s diverse religious communities one year on from the takeover. When the Taliban first seized power of the country in 1997, evidence quickly mounted of massacres of Hazara minorities. Fears of a return to such horrors today are not misplaced. There are already reports of active discrimination, forced displacement, intimidation, extortion and extrajudicial killings of Hazara, Tajiks and Sufi Muslims. Such policies are entirely in line with the Taliban’s uncompromising and supremacist ideology, but they are also central to the group’s reassertion of authority through the silencing of dissent. The eradication of Afghanistan’s complex religious composition – Sufis, Shias, Ismailis and moderate Hanafis – has become essential to the survival of the Taliban regime. When the Taliban declares that its version of Islam is the “genuine local understanding”, it distorts the religion’s complex and discursive heritage while also erasing the country’s characteristic of ethnic and religious diversity.
To legitimise authority, the Taliban often resorts to violence. Its demand for nothing less than a pledge of allegiance to its spiritual leader allows no room for opposition – whether in the form of armed resistance or an active civil society. However, the group is conscious of its own weaknesses, recognising it cannot rely on brute power alone to retain control over Afghanistan; it also needs “cultural hegemony”. To achieve this, the group initiates grassroots radicalisation while maintaining a strong institutional grip on religion and culture. This can range from deciding what is taught in schools and who can learn to controlling the legal system and the training of jurists. Through intimidation and coercion, the Taliban also now dominates Islamic centres of learning from mosque pulpits to madrassas, and is promoting its hardline Islamist ideology at Afghanistan’s universities via groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Eslah. This means that Afghanistan’s youth are now at risk of being indoctrinated while the Taliban prioritises breeding radicals who sympathise with the regime.
To fulfil its objective of building a totalitarian state, the Taliban must overcome any independent authority and sources of resistance through violence and radicalisation. This means silencing intelligent, free-thinking people and rewarding the blindly obedient. As the Taliban strives to monopolise Islamic discourse and govern Afghanistan's patchwork society, it views both active civil-society members and resistance organisations as obstacles. Despite this, Afghanistan’s communities continue to fight back.
The Taliban as a Fracturing Organisation
Comprising at least four distinct factions belonging to different tribes and regions both from the Pashtun south and the east of Afghanistan, the Taliban is being challenged from within – by its own internal disunity.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is the leader of the Ghilzai tribes who straddle the border between Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. It is this branch of the Taliban – the founding Haqqani faction – that is thought to be the closest to the Pakistani establishment, despite it being the most notorious. Over the past year, the Haqqanis have been responsible for facilitating strategic peace agreements between the TTP and the government of Pakistan. Although once strong and dominant, the recent assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was reported to be residing in a safehouse belonging to Haqqani, has been exploited by the Kandahari faction to weaken the Haqqani position.
The Kandahari, or southern Taliban tribes, are organised around their self-proclaimed spiritual leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada. The Kandaharis were leading negotiations during the Doha talks of 2020 and are therefore well-connected to the Qataris and the rest of the world through their diplomatic office there. Some analysts have argued that because this faction negotiated with the United States and the international community, it could be considered “moderate” compared to the rest of the Taliban and is therefore easier to build relationships with. However, there are flaws with this assessment. First, the faction is under the sway of its leader, who is a highly ideological and hardline figure. Earlier this year, during a select group of the ulema, Akhundzada warned that the Taliban would never change its ways “even if they were hit by a nuclear bomb”, underlining the futility of pressures being placed upon the group to reform. Second, some subgroups of this faction have links with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
There is little known about the third most powerful group within the Taliban, which oversees intelligence. While it is connected to both the southern and eastern factions, it has been said to have closer relations with the Haqqanis. Yet to form its own autonomous faction, its members predominantly reside in the two provinces of Ghazni and Wardak – the most ideologically loyal Taliban regions in Afghanistan.
The fourth and final faction is the non-Pashtun Talibs, who are quite weak in position and authority by comparison.
While the Taliban has always been characterised by internal rifts, these fissures have become more pronounced since the group regained power. Internal fracturing has become more intense over tensions about the distribution of power and access to economic resources, with the additional ingredients of drug trafficking, crime and illicit mining sharpening rivalries even further still. Since its inception, the Taliban has reportedly extracted 10 per cent tax (ushur) from poppy producers in Afghanistan and has long been engaged in the processing and smuggling of illicit drugs. In the past two decades, the Taliban has also been known to charge merchants, truckers, telecommunications firms and corporations to do business in the areas it maintained control over. Consequently, criminal syndicates and drug cartels formed by the Taliban have resulted in financial rewards for its commanders and leaders.
While Taliban disunity undermines its rule of Afghanistan, the West has overestimated the group’s capabilities. The 2020 Doha agreement provided the opportunity for the Taliban to engage diplomatically with the international community even though it never enjoyed legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Afghanistan. Its illegitimacy has only been intensified by its networks of criminals and terrorists who are associated with suicide bombings indiscriminately targeting civilians. Although the international community believed it was negotiating with one faction of the Taliban, the talks actually legitimised the Islamist group in its entirety – to the deep dismay of the people of Afghanistan.
As the Taliban remains absorbed in its own internal rifts and power dynamics, resistance among the people of Afghanistan is growing and beginning to be coordinated. There are three forms of active resistance. First, Afghanistan’s robust civil society, often led by women, continues to challenge the Taliban’s administration and its policies. Second, numerous armed resistance groups in the country’s northern region, led by the NRF, are fighting for freedom and democracy. Third, the diaspora of Afghanistan is actively involved in or supporting civil-society and armed resistance, empowering people in Afghanistan by raising awareness of the Taliban’s regime around the world and seeking to demonstrate its illegitimacy to policymakers. This combination of external pressures and internal fractures means the Taliban is at greater risk of disintegration than the group would have the world believe.
Conclusion: The Reasons for Resistance Are Clear
As armed resistance groups mobilise and anti-Taliban protests take place around the world, it is clear what the people of Afghanistan think about the Taliban. The group’s illegitimacy derives from the following factors. First, the people believe the Taliban’s takeover was the result of a failed peace process in which they were disregarded and from which they were excluded. Second, they believe the Taliban is a force that acts as a proxy for regressive forces in the region. Third, the Taliban’s ideology does not represent them; in fact, its conflation of Islamist extremism with Pashtun nationalism serves to deny the diverse religious and ethnic makeup of Afghanistan. Therefore, the Taliban will not be able to form an inclusive and representative government, and the people of Afghanistan will not be satisfied by the inclusion of a few symbolic figures hailing from different ethnic backgrounds. What is needed – and what the people fight for – is an inclusive government that facilitates self-determination through a democratic process.
Resistance has been led primarily by women and Afghanistan’s youth who have lived and grown up during a period of increased freedoms, opportunities and democratisation – prior to the Taliban takeover. Approximately 70 per cent of the country’s population is aged under 30 and they are diametrically opposed to the policies of the Taliban’s totalitarian regime. With the group failing to represent the mosaic of peoples that make up Afghanistan, the resistance movement is only likely to proliferate further in the months to come, both within and beyond the country’s borders.
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