06/27/2011 12:34 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2011

Understanding the Religious Worldview of the Taliban

With President Obama's announcement of a greater-than-expected draw-down of troops, an end to the Coalition's long Afghan adventure is at last in sight. Even the elusive Mullah Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed spiritual leader, has reportedly given his blessing to exploratory peace talks with representatives of the U.S. in Qatar: a small but crucial step towards the political compromise that looks certain to end this war. Yet those talks will not succeed unless we understand the nature of the people we are negotiating with -- an understanding that remains partial even after ten years of engagement in their country.

The Taliban have always been misunderstood by the West. From the moment they took over Kabul in 1996 they were demonized as regressive, bearded nutcases who repressed women, decapitated petty criminals, banned music and kite-flying, and impaled television sets on sticks. And yet the worst of what went on during their years in power was not replicated everywhere in Afghanistan. In many places, for instance, the education of girls continued as normal -- even within Kabul. "Islam says that girls should be educated," explained Qari Barakatullah Salim, who ran a large girls' secondary school in the capital, unhindered, throughout the Taliban period. "The Prophet himself was married to an educated businesswoman, Khadijah. The Taliban leadership understands that no nation can survive without education; it is essential to humanity. We are as beasts without it."

Westerners have tended to view the Taliban as a monolithic organization in thrall to Islamic dogma. In reality they are a fluid, revolutionary movement that encompasses a strikingly wide spectrum of religious opinion. There has never been any internal disagreement about the underlying purpose of their revolution -- they wish to live in a country governed by Sharia law, as practised by the Prophet in the late seventh century. But there is plenty of debate among themselves about how best to achieve this Salafist vision. They know that their project is a work in progress, and they can and do acknowledge past mistakes, including errors of Quranic interpretation. Like people anywhere, they are capable of changing their minds. Indeed, in the 15 years that I have been meeting with the Taliban -- usually late at night, sitting cross-legged on the floor over umpteen cups of tea -- I have heard them do so many times.

When Mullah Omar refused to hand over their guest, Osama bin Laden -- the chief suspect in the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 -- most Westerners concluded there was little difference between the Taliban's ultra-conservative brand of Islam and the anti-Western nihilism espoused by al Qaeda. And yet Mullah Omar never shared bin Laden's desire to destroy the West. On the contrary, he craved formal Western recognition for his fledgling Islamic state. No Western capital has ever been attacked by the Taliban. Instead, in December 1997, Omar sent a trade delegation to Sugarland, Texas to discuss a trans-Afghan gas pipeline deal with the now defunct energy firm, Unocal. The mullahs were invited to stay at the home of Unocal Vice President Marty Miller; they were reportedly fascinated by the Miller family's Christmas tree, and the significance of the star on top of it.

The Taliban and al Qaeda may all be Sunnis, but the ideological difference between them remains vast. The latter adhere to the exclusively Arab tradition of Wahhabism, named after Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, an 18th-century Arab scholar who believed in the purification of Islam from heretical "innovations" through violence. Taliban ideology, by contrast, is heavily influenced by Pashtun culture, particularly the ancient tribal honour code known as Pashtunwali. Unlike their Arab guests in the 1990s, the typical Talib is quite comfortable with the mystical traditions that survive in the Afghan countryside, and which pre-date Islam by millennia. The Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia, moreover, most closely follows the Hanbali school of jurisprudence -- another tradition wholly alien to the Hanafi Islam embraced by Afghans.

Tariq Osman, who managed the Taliban's internet office in Kandahar between 1998 and 2001, told me that the relationship between Omar and bin Laden was always "only 10 percent about shared ideas and ideology -- and 90 percent about money." The Taliban, it should not be forgotten, were desperately broke throughout the 1990s, and they had a country to run. Omar tolerated bin Laden in part because he was one of his only sources of income. The West assumed that Omar's Afghanistan was a terrorist-sponsoring state, when it was really a state sponsored by terrorists.

There are, no doubt, ideologues among the Taliban -- and particularly among the Pakistani Taliban -- whose religious worldview is closer than we can accept to that of al Qaeda. The Haqqani Network, a Taliban affiliate organisation whose powerbase straddles the border with Pakistan, is often described as pro-Arab in its outlook, and readier than some of their Afghan Taliban allies to adopt the terrorist tactics pursued by al Qaeda. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Network's aging leader, counts a Saudi Arab among his wives. Yet even he is not beyond Western redemption. A hero of the anti-Soviet Jihad, he was once frankly revered in Washington. That famous fund-raiser for the Jihad, Congressman Charlie Wilson, called him "Goodness Personified." Haqqani is even thought to have met Ronald Reagan at the White House. People who were friends once can become friends again.

It is of course not just ironic but tragic that our former allies against Communism have turned their Jihad on us. To Pashtuns, who have lived in Afghanistan for perhaps 5,000 years, the soil of their country is literally sacred. The ejection of infidel invaders is therefore a national as well as a religious duty. "We are against war," a Taliban fighter, Commander Abdullah, explained to me recently. "It creates nothing but widows and destruction. But Jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners." His object was not necessarily to win, but to resist. "One year, a hundred years, a million years, ten million years -- it is not important. We will never stop fighting. At Judgement Day, Allah will not ask, 'What did you do for your country.' He will ask, 'Did you fight for your religion?'"

A successful political settlement will depend, in the end, on whether or not the Taliban truly believe that we are leaving. Will Obama's accelerated draw-down be enough to convince them? They are fully aware that there will still be 70,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan even after 2012. On past performance, it seems unlikely that men like Commander Abdullah will hang up their guns until every last foreign soldier has left.