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Gilles Dorronsoro Headshot

Who Are the Taliban?

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In recent weeks, reporters have seized on intelligence analyses concluding that most of the Taliban in Afghanistan are economically motivated, and only a small percentage are actually committed to the fight on principle. After extensive travels in Afghanistan in the spring and summer of 2009, I try to shed light on who the Taliban are and what motivates them.

We often hear that the Taliban are 90 percent hired hands. Is that accurate, and if not, why do people join the Taliban?

No. Analysts who describe a 90/10 split between the so-called "$10 Taliban," who are said to fight for money, and committed core fighters are mistaking the fact that some Taliban are part-time, non-professional fighters to mean that they are non-committed. That's not true.

Most of the fighters do not join the Taliban for money. They join because the Afghan government is unjust, corrupt, or simply not there. They also join because the Americans have bombed their houses or shown disrespect for their values. For young people, joining the Taliban is a way to earn social status.

The Taliban may give fighters money, for example, if they want to marry. And some part-time fighters may fight for money, though in my experience, that's becoming increasingly rare. If you're in an area where the Taliban are fully in control, they can also pressure a family member to join the group.

As for buying allegiances in the interest of fighting al-Qaeda, we have never been able to buy out the Taliban. It's never worked. You can give them money, but that doesn't mean you can split the movement, or bring about changes of strategic significance. They'll accept your money simply because it's in their interest at the moment to do so, but buying out these people is not a realistic option, because money is not their main objective.

Whatever his initial motivations in joining the Taliban, once a fighter has seen a friend or family member killed by foreign forces, he becomes fully committed to the cause. The fighting builds solidarity with the Taliban. Recruits train with the Taliban, they live among the Taliban. And the way they fight shows that they're serious about driving foreign troops out of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns made their point with the Soviets, and they are making it again with us. They do not surrender. They fight very, very courageously.

Fighters can stop fighting to work, or to tend to their families, but that doesn't mean they want to work for the Karzai government. And loyalty is often not a matter of individual choice; it's a matter of family honor to fight the people who've killed your father or your brother.

That's why it's difficult to divide the Taliban. The idea of jihad is a very strong one.

How many Taliban are there in Afghanistan?

U.S. estimates Taliban strength in Afghanistan at around 25,000. I'm skeptical of that figure, because there are part-time as well as full-time fighters. There are also seasonal variations. When fighting occurs, the Taliban leadership can send reinforcements from Pakistan or mobilize more locals. It's not a regular army; there's no formal payroll, even if they are increasingly professional. So it's difficult to estimate their numbers.

What do the Taliban want?

To drive out the international coalition and reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with a Sharia-dominated society.

Are the Taliban local?

Yes, most of the Taliban fighters are local, and they are largely accepted by the Afghan population in Pashtun areas. There is an understanding that if you don't mess with the Taliban, they won't enter your house. They provide judges and Sharia-based justice. When people grow opium, they do not interfere, though they do collect taxes on it. I've never heard of people complaining because Taliban taxes were too high.

The Taliban are locally accepted in Pashtun areas because what they are doing makes sense. They say "we are waging a jihad against the foreigners," and most of the Pashtuns agree.

Are the Taliban ideologues?

Most of the Afghan people are illiterate. They don't have political education as we understand it. So they are not, in the modern sense of the term, "ideologues," but they do have values. Traditional Pashtun values include protecting the honor of women, dressing modestly, and other conservative Muslim customs.

Many westerners interpret the Taliban's lack of sophisticated ideological discourse as a lack of commitment. The fighters are basically farmers. Most of them are very young. Their world view is not very complex, but they certainly have one. It is a narrative of morality, justice, religion, and freedom from foreign forces. These values resonate deeply. The Pashtuns may be inarticulate in explaining it, but their way of life is still very much there.

They know what they stand for, and they view the foreigners as a threat to their families and their values.

Is there an economic and smuggling dimension to the Taliban's work?

Yes, but while the Taliban have an economic dimension, they're not driven by it. They need money to buy arms, food, and the like. So they levy taxes on opium and other agricultural produce.

It's impossible to know exactly where and in what quantities the Taliban get their funding. This is a complex and fluid situation, and there are no open sources providing comprehensive information. In some places, Taliban funding clearly comes from outside the country, meaning from Pakistan, or from Arab countries by way of Pakistan, or from Afghan citizens in Pakistan. Right now, Helmand province is in a state of open war, so the Taliban have deployed professional, full-time fighters, and that takes money. In Badghis province, in the Northwest, it's more low-key.

The Taliban also try to maintain control of contraband, like opium, or make deals with the people who control it. The networks running opium in the South of Afghanistan are linked to the Karzai government, and the Taliban merely take a cut of the business.

In the East of Afghanistan, in particular, Taliban commanders used to kidnap people like businessmen for ransom, and some of them kept the money for themselves, rather than for further Taliban operations. But Mullah Omar instructed fighters only to kidnap people for political objectives, and to stop kidnapping on an economic basis.

When a foreigner is kidnapped in Afghanistan, there's no way of knowing how much money the interested parties have paid for his release, and they're quite understandably reluctant to share that information. When countries want to recover their nationals, they have ways of making payment through third parties, and they can arrange prisoner exchanges. When Taliban fighters under the leadership of Mullah Dadullah captured Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo in early March 2007, the Italian government pressured the Afghan government to release five Taliban prisoners, including, apparently, Dadullah's brother.

How are the Taliban different from al-Qaeda?

In every respect. Al-Qaeda fighters are mostly urban, have little religious training, and wage international jihad. Their objectives are global.

The Taliban, on the other hand, are mostly from the countryside, their leaders have more religious training, and they have mostly local objectives. They just want to take Afghanistan back.

How are the Taliban connected to al-Qaeda?

The Taliban inherited al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan before the Taliban were, as were all the Pakistani groups, the Uzbeks, the Chechens, you name it. The Taliban did not invite al-Qaeda into the country. Al-Qaeda was there, and was later connected to the Taliban through personal relationships--familial ties--between Mullah Omar and bin Laden. Their families are intermarried.

So they are connected in a certain way, they are also connected by people like Jalaluddin Haqqani, who has been in contact with the Arabs since the 1980s.

What is the likelihood that the Taliban will give safe haven to al-Qaeda if they win in Afghanistan?

The Taliban don't need al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda doesn't need the Taliban. If the Taliban takes the Afghan cities, al-Qaeda could again use them as a sanctuary. Beyond that, though, I don't see a strong connection. For the most part, al-Qaeda works not with Afghan radical groups, but with Pakistani ones, like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Karachi, where some neighborhoods are clearly outside the control of the police and the army, is probably a better al-Qaeda sanctuary now than the Afghan mountains.

But if the Taliban win in Afghanistan, it will be extremely difficult to control whether al-Qaeda is there. Almost impossible. The Taliban are very secretive. Most of the time in Afghanistan, when you want to know something that is secret, you just ask. But when the Taliban were in control, nobody knew what they were thinking. It's almost like a secret society. They have always worked like that. We cannot do much to infiltrate the Taliban movement.

Can General Stanley McChrystal's strategy succeed in Afghanistan?

No. If the White House heeds General McChrystal's advice and sends more troops into the South and East of Afghanistan in hopes of retaking Pashtun population centers, American casualties could rise close to what they were in the worst years in Iraq--leaving President Obama worse choices, and fewer options.

As McChrystal tells it, the key element of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is to "secure the population." The thinking is that the population centers of the Pashtun belt must be cleared of Taliban insurgents, and that a significant military force can win hearts and minds through development projects. But McChrystal's report is ambiguous in its definition of a "population center." My interpretation is that he uses "population center" in reference not to urban areas, but to more densely populated rural areas--clusters of villages--in the Pashtun countryside. So McChrystal's strategy naturally requires reinforcements, because troops will have to be in contact with the population, patrolling constantly to make their presence felt and keep out the Taliban. Over time, the population will come to feel protected, and the insurgents will be marginalized. So goes the plan. But after eight years of war, this approach is surprisingly ignorant of the realities of Afghan society, and the limitations of America's tolerance for casualties.

As I saw in Afghanistan over the summer, 20,000 coalition troops were unable to retake more than a third of Helmand province, which is only one of eleven provinces now under de facto Taliban control. Imagine how many troops--and how many casualties--it would take to secure every one of those provinces, even under the most promising circumstances.

And the circumstances are not so promising. In two centuries, the Pashtuns have never once desired a permanent presence of foreign fighters. Westerners rarely understand how unpopular they are in Afghanistan due to real grievances, from smaller matters like the road-hogging conduct of NATO patrols, to the mistreatment of prisoners and the killings of relatively small, but significant numbers of civilians.

In the countryside, Western countries are essentially perceived as corrupt and threatening to traditional Afghan or Muslim values. Contrary to our self-perception, the villagers see us as the main providers of insecurity. The presence of coalition troops means IEDs, ambushes, and air strikes, and consequently a higher probability of being killed, maimed, or robbed of a livelihood. Any incident quickly reinforces the divide between locals and outsiders, and the Afghan media provide extensive coverage of civilian casualties. In April of this year, the Afghan networks showed graphic coverage of children killed in a botched NATO air strike, with predictable effects.

Frankly, we don't have the human resources to do the work General McChrystal envisions. Very few Westerners speak a local language, and it is too much to expect soldiers carrying 100-pound packs to have sustained contact with the population in hostile villages, where the threat of IEDs is always present.

What, then, of "an Afghan partner?" The Afghan police, the crucial element in any counterinsurgency strategy, remains weak, routinely infiltrated by the Taliban, and rarely able to help the coalition. Without local help, U.S. troops cannot distinguish between civilians and Taliban, most of whom are locals, anyway.

NATO's current projections of building a 250,000-strong Afghan army in a few years are not realistic. To build an army of 150,000 by 2015 would be a good result. Afghanization is a long-term process. That means any strategy implying high casualties will be politically unsustainable for the coalition. So far this year, 130 coalition troops have died trying to implement the "clear, hold, and build" strategy in Helmand, with little to show for it. The same strategy, at a national level, and for an undetermined number of years, is politically unfeasible.

What strategy should the NATO coalition pursue instead?

To succeed, the coalition must control Afghanistan's cities, where institution building can take place, and the population is neutral or even favorable to the coalition. The Afghan army and, in certain cases, small militias must protect cities, towns, and the roads linking them together. That will reduce the number of coalition troops who get killed. And fewer casualties will buy the coalition more of the resource it needs most--time--helping it build up the Afghan security forces to the point at which they can stabilize the country and keep out al-Qaeda.