Understanding the Taliban Insurgency: The Cause, Motivation, and Culture of Resistance

History of Afghan tribes

Whenever the word "Taliban" appears, the image that we normally get is an image of a ragtag warrior, fighting the holy war that going on against his enemy.  The Taliban territory includes the harsh, mountainous, landlocked country of Afghanistan,which stands at the midway mark of the ancient Silk Road connecting China and India to the Middle East and Europe.  Its critical geostrategic location has been coveted by a never-ending stream of foreign interlopers, from Alexander the Great to the generals of Soviet Russia and the United States.  In 1219, Genghis Khan laid waste to the land because its people chose to resist rather than submit.  The region became an agrarian backwater under Mongol rule.  In 1504, Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and the Persianised Mongol "Timur the Lame" (Tamerlane), established the Moghul Empire in Kabul and dominated India.  However, by the early 1700s, central government in Afghanistan, which had never been strong for long, had collapsed, and much of the region was self-ruled by the Afghans, also known as the Pashtun¸ fiercely independent tribes who speak Pashto, a Persian dialect.  The years of struggle made the Afghans fiercely independent, as they fought the British in the 1800s, Soviets in 1980s, and now NATO forces at Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The tribal bloodlines and inspiration for resistance

All Pashtun tribes can be traced to their common descendent.  Folklore has it that the Afridi tribesmen of the Karlandri confederation have common tribal ties with direct lineage.  Afridis controlled and taxed the passage of other tribes and foreigners through the Khyber Pass.  The British thought the Afridi fearsome characters and fine shots, and so paid them off handsomely or, preferably, enlisted them in the Khyber Rifles and other crack frontier units to help them keep the other Karlandri tribes at bay, most notably the Wazirs of North Waziristan and the Mehsuds of South Waziristan.  Although the Wazirs and Mehsuds were hereditary enemies who constantly fought one another, they would unite in Jihad against any foreign attempt to gain a foothold in Waziristan, spurred on by local religious leaders (mullahs) and their martyrdom-seeking students (talibs).  Although smaller than the Durrani and Ghilzai confederations, the Karlandri confederation, which straddles the present Afghan-Pakistan border, includes the most autonomous territories of the Pashtun tribes.  From the time of Herodotus and Alexander, historians have described how the Pashtun traditionally identify them first and foremost by qawm, which Westerners usually translate as "clan," a sub-tribal identity traditionally based on kinship and residence.  In the past, male members of each qawm were invariably blood-related.  But the change towards a market economy has somewhat lessened the strict importance of kin relations and encouraged new qawms based on patron-client economic networks.  More recently, qawm has come to mean any segment of society bound by solidarity ties, whether by kinship and residence, occupation and patron-client relations, religious interests, or dialect.  A qawm can involve a varying number of individuals, depending on context and situation.  During the Soviet-Afghan War, as in the present Taliban insurgency, the notion of qawm became even more ambiguous and flexible to allow for strategic manipulations of identity to carry out group actions in shifting contexts.  Especially among the hill tribes, qawms are still heavily family-oriented and very much the primary reference groups for military action.  Thirty years of war began when the Communist government threw caution to the wind and immediately proclaimed a secular socialist government that tried to force far-reaching land reforms and push programs to better the status of women.  The tribes rebelled, the regime was about to collapse, and so the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to fight for communism.  The radical reforms were rescinded, but the Soviet occupation generated even greater tribal resistance.  The call to jihad brought in Muslim volunteers from around the world, together with financial and logistical support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Tribal ties and cultural constructions

A key factor helping the Taliban today is the moral outrage of the Pashtun tribes against those who would deny them autonomy of action, including a right to bear arms to defend their tribal canon, known as Pashtunwali.  Its sacred tenets include protecting women's purity (namus), the right to personal revenge (badal), the sanctity of the guest (melmastia), and sanctuary (nanawati).  Melmastia (hospitality) explains why Taliban fighters sheltered the foreign fighters of Al Qaeda.  Hospitality and protection must be offered to all visitors without expectation of remuneration or favor.  Any Pashtun who can gain access to the house of another Pashtun can claim asylum there, regardless of the previous relationship between the two parties.  Pashtuns have their ways of obtaining food and shelter when they travel within the Pashtun belt.  All Pashtun tribes organize along patrilineage, where inheritance, wealth, social prestige, and political status accrue exclusively through the father's line.  Within such a social structure there must not be any suspicion that the male pedigree (often traceable in lineages that span centuries) is "corrupted" by doubtful paternity.  Thus, revenge for sexual misbehavior (rape, adultery, abduction) warrants killing seven members of the offender's family, as compared to cases of murder, which call for the killing of the actual murderer (or in some cases one of the murderer's close kin).  But hospitality trumps vengeance: If a group accepts a guest, all must honor him, even if prior grounds justify revenge.  Violating the guest brings eternal shame to all, which is one good reason why the U.S. offers of millions of dollars for betraying Bin Laden continued to fail.  The practice of Hamsaya ("one who shares the same shadow") is in return for protection from stronger tribes or provision of some goods.  For example, it could entail an exchange of military service for land.  This practice explains why tribes quickly follow whoever is strongest, through the recruitment of locals.  It also explains how the Taliban consolidated power so quickly in the 1990s.

Afghan hill societies have withstood many would-be conquests and bouts of turmoil by keeping order with Pashtunwali in the absence of central authority and state institutions.  When seemingly intractable conflicts arise, like repeating cycles of revenge, or problems caused by hosting guests and giving sanctuary, rival parties convene councils (jirgas) of elders and third parties to seek solutions through consensus.  Although the Taliban argue that sharia always supersedes Pashtunwali, in fact, the Taliban's idiosyncratic version of sharia incorporates Pashtunwali's main tenets.  For example, in allowing executions for murder or violations of women to be carried out by members of the aggrieved family, state punishment is confounded with personal vendettas, and vengeance becomes that main agenda in mind.

Clergy and political power through tribes

Over the course of the War, state institutions decayed.  There were also profound changes in local communities that helped pave the way for the emergence of the Taliban after the War.  The old elite of large landowners and tribal elders ceded to a new cadre of younger military hotshots from less prestigious backgrounds that began to play an important role in the administration of community life.  At the same time, there was a sharp expansion of the role of the Islamic clergy (ulema).  Clerics with an advanced madrassah education (malawi) and knowledge of religious law (sharia) enjoyed greater prestige than the boorish mullahs.  The ulema were able to leverage this prestige into political influence that cut across tribal boundaries by networking with Pakistani political parties that funneled money and supplies to the mujahedin (some provided to them by the U.S. via Pakistani Intelligence), and by morally restraining military commanders from arbitrary actions that benefited only themselves and their kin.

The Taliban shadow justice system is easily one of the most popular and respected elements of the Taliban insurgency by local communities, especially in southern Afghanistan.  The 2009 doctrine attempts to expand and reinforce the success the movement has had with the establishment of a parallel legal system that is acknowledged by local communities as being legitimate, fair, free of bribery, and swift.  During May-June 2009, community elders confirmed the Taliban's creation of this parallel legal system and its popularity.  The elder's account of how the legal system is organized and how it functions matches the 2009 Taliban code of conduct rule on justice exactly.

The relationships between Pakistani and Afghan Taliban

Taliban movements, both in Afghan and Pakistani, share the same name as "Taliban" but pursue different goals.  They represent the ideology dominated by the ethnic Pashtun ethnicity, and they have such different histories, structures, and goals that sometimes make it hard to distinguish between these two.  Taliban factions have shifting relationships with Al Qaeda; Taliban -- the word Taliban means "religious students" -- are the primary enemy, mounting attacks daily against NATO troops in Afghanistan.  The tribal elders are known as Maliks who have the inherited system in the past and needed the government's appointment.  It is reported that because there is no the executive and judiciary in the tribal areas, the settlement of tribal internal affairs mainly needs the Maliks's negotiation.  Therefore, the Pakistan government needs the tribal elders' help.  Since the foundation of Pakistan, there has been peace between the central government and the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agency), and they even have used each other.  During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the FATA became the main channel of a large-scale American assistance to Afghan Mujahedeens or the holy warriors who would fight the Soviet invading force in a Muslim land, and had a reliable base for Pashtun nationalism, coupled with the radical religious forces on both sides of the border.

After the Soviet withdrawal, a protracted civil war had been carried out between tribal warlord Najibullah and Mujahideen.  As a result of no guaranteed domestic security and peace, the Afghan refugees were all reluctant to return home, and then FATA continued to be the home for millions of Afghan refugees.  During more than two decades' stay of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the national difference between Pakistanis and Afghans has diminished, particularly in the areas where there is an Afghan concentration.  One entire Afghan generation has been born and grown up on Pakistani soil.  They feel more at home in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.  They have also gotten married into Pakistani families.  Many carry Pakistani national identity cards and form an important electorate vote bank which was evident in the 1997 general elections when they voted in large numbers for the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). 

The Taliban came into power in Afghanistan in 1996.  They not only drove the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance away to the northeastern area of Afghanistan, but also increased its influence over neighboring countries, especially over the Pashtun tribes of FATA.  Some tribal natives also joined the Taliban military operations against the Northern Alliance.  The number of refugees in some places is even beyond the local population, which puts enormous social and economic pressures onto the local government and people.  The migration of people from Afghanistan to Pakistan has affected power structures in FATA.  To escape poverty and underdevelopment of the tribal areas, many tribal left for the settled areas of Pakistan or to the booming oil economies in the Gulf.  These workers have provided substantial remittances to their families, and these families now also seek power and influence consonant with their new wealth.  Migrants have also become aware of inequities in the tribal areas and have garnered greater appreciation for the rights that Pakistani citizens enjoy everywhere except in FATA.  This upsurge of power of the ethnic Pashtuns brings strong support throughout the FATA region, which is the core areas of Taliban influence.

Without understanding the relationships and the cultural constructions, it is almost impossible to stop the insurgency that is taking place on the both sides of the border in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  NATO must find ways and means to defuse the situation on the ground, or the stiff resistance through armed struggle will be the only outcome at the end of a blood campaign.