Taliban Grand Strategy after Mullah Omar
14 August 2015
For the past several years I have been writing commentaries on Eid ul-Fitr messages supposedly coming from Mullah Mohammad Omar. Shortly after the last Eid message, it was confirmed the Mullah Omar had been dead for about two years. At least the last three Eid messages carried on the “Voice of Jihad,” the official website of the Afghan Taliban, had appeared after Mullah Omar was dead. I had been commenting on the words of a ghost. But who had been putting words in the mouth of a ghost?
Apparently, a small claque of Taliban leaders, who knew Mullah Omar was dead, played on Mullah Omar’s nearly legendary elusiveness, and pretended that Mullah Omar was still alive, sequestered from the Afghan Ummah, but still issuing annual statements, like a distant and stern father-figure to the the frontline fighters continuing to expend their lives in pursuit of the Taliban’s long game: ouster of the “puppet” regime in Kabul and the ultimate return to power of Mullah Omar and the Taliban.
One wonders how the senior Taliban who were “in the know” on Mullah Omar’s death thought they could keep this secret. There is no sign that the Taliban leadership prepared the people of Afghanistan — essentially, their constituency — for the leadership transition, and the very public defections from the Taliban that occurred immediately after Mullah Omar’s death was confirmed makes it clear that many in the Taliban leadership were not “in” on the secret of Mullah Omar’s death. The most public defection from the Taliban was the departure of Syed Tayyab Agha, head of the Taliban office in Qatar, who resigned his position citing the method by which Mullah Mansour was chosen to follow Mullah Omar.
Significantly, Syed Tayyab Agha specifically noted that the choice of Mullah Mansour was made outside Afghanistan. This is an important but easily over-looked detail. The Afghan Taliban have, throughout their existence, been focused on Afghanistan, and are not to be conflated with transnational Jihadist groups. There is both an ideological and, for want of a better term, a temperamental difference between the Taliban, on the one hand, and on the other hand, ISIS and Al-Qaeda — the latter two very different from each other, but both also very different from the Taliban.
Afghanistan has been torn by warring factions since the end of the Soviet occupation. The Soviet occupation provided a rallying point that was a temporary focus of unification, but with the Soviet pull-out the factions turned on each other. The Taliban was the only organization that could establish an internal security regime within Afghanistan, with the exception of a small territory where the Northern Alliance held out. Mullah Omar was part of the fight against the Soviet occupation and part of the struggle to assert control over Afghanistan in the post-Soviet chaos. If there were anything like an Afghan nation-state, one would say the Mullah Omar was the paradigmatic nationalist seeking to lead his nation against the imposition of a foreign power, regardless of whether that power was the USSR or the US.
Thus Mullah Omar was there from the beginning of the Taliban, thoroughly a product of the Afghan milieu, and in the essentially feudal culture of Afghanistan, the personal loyalty that many Taliban had to Mullah Omar mattered. It mattered in a way that citizens of contemporary nation-states can scarcely conceive, because this concept of personal loyalty to a warlord is no longer what binds together most societies in the age of the nation-state.
Afghanistan is not a nation-state. The government in Kabul aspires to be a nation-state and to join in the global marketplace as an equal, but these concepts are foreign to most of the people of Afghanistan. The Afghans are not stupid; they are from another culture; they do not understand the culture of the nation-state system in the same way that we have forgotten the culture of feudal obligation. We aren’t stupid either; we’re just from another culture. Our mutual incomprehension is a product of forces larger than any individual, forces that have been incubating in global history for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years.
One of the most profound errors of geostrategy on the part of the US in the Cold War was to fail to recognize the national aspirations of people like Ho Chi Minh, who were communists primarily for opportunistic reasons. During the Cold War, if you wanted to stage a struggle of national liberation, you knew that you could get arms and military assistance, because if the one side refused you, the other side would likely accommodate you. There were as many opportunistic democrats as there were opportunistic communists.
It is all too easy to make the opposite mistake with the Taliban, and to identify them as nationalists when it is, rather, their ideological position that defines them. The Taliban are not opportunists. It is also ideology that defines Al Qaeda and ISIS, and in each case these ideologies are distinct. While both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban emerged from the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation, the two organizations were and are profoundly different. The Taliban are Afghan, while Al-Qaeda is a transnational Jihadist organization, with financing from the wealth of the Arab world and volunteers from all over the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda was to Afghanistan as the Lincoln Brigades and other foreign fighters were to the Spanish Civil War. Al-Qaeda thought globally and acted locally; the Afghan Taliban thought locally and acted locally. Al-Qaeda were war tourists in Afghanistan.
I have read stories in the press over the last few weeks that have characterized the Taliban as being rivals with ISIS for carrying the banner of international Jihad. This is nonsense. The sphere of interests of ISIS and the Taliban overlap in a few places, but the organizations are profoundly different in outlook and structure. Elsewhere I have discussed in detail the philosophical basis of ISIS ideology. Few of any of these philosophical bases hold true for the Taliban. Regardless of what happens with Islamic state — which is actively recruiting and seeking to advance its agenda throughout the Islamic world, something foreign to the Taliban — the Taliban, as long as they are in existence as a distinct entity, will continue to seek power in Afghanistan. And I would not be surprised if there were a few ideologues within the Afghan Taliban who imagine a “Greater Afghanistan,” as there are always those who imagine such a thing. But this is not the conception that defines the movement. ISIS, on the other hand, defines itself in expansionist terms.
The continuing existence of Al-Qaeda, and the growing influence of ISIS, change the political and military context in which the Taliban pursue their traditionalist vision for Afghanistan, but they do not alter that vision. It is possible (though not likely) that the ISIS Caliphate could be so successful that it would expand over and absorb Afghanistan. One suspects, in this case, that ISIS would allow these forbidding mountains and valleys to be ruled by their traditional ruling class, and little or nothing would change in Afghanistan. Perhaps that would even be an acceptable future for the Taliban. It would be fascinating to interview some Taliban on this prospect, though, as I said, I believe it to be highly unlikely.
Al-Qaeda is now too degraded in its capabilities to figure prominently in the political or military settlement of the region. Ayman al-Zawahiri was reduced to the stunt of proclaiming his loyalty to Mullah Mansour in order to try to maintain the relevance of Al-Qaeda. While Al-Qaeda’s status could well change — some outside power might decide to pour money into the group to reinvigorate it as a militant proxy (possibly to counter to highly successful militant proxies of Iran, which many in the Gulf worry will be given a boost if Iranian sanctions are dropped) — I view this scenario as unlikely as that of an expansionist ISIS Caliphate absorbing Afghanistan.
With the Taliban split over the death of Mullah Omar and the rise of Mullah Mansour, what is the group to do? What is the way forward for the Taliban? Because of the Taliban are an Afghan presence, rooted in the traditions of Afghanistan, the Pakistani politicking that resulted in the appointment of Mullah Mansour is, to a certain extent (though not in an absolute sense) irrelevant to the Taliban. The Taliban still have, in large measure, the hearts and minds of the people. The Taliban can still, as Mao said, move among the people as a fish moves through the sea. This has not changed. The Taliban can continue to fight. Insurgencies can persist for very long periods of time. The example of Colombia is often cited in this connection.
The Taliban grand strategy emerges from the intensely feudal, intensely traditional, and intensely local character of the Taliban. This will not change any time soon. Peace talks held on the governmental level will not greatly change this. The failure of peace talks on a governmental level will not greatly change this. The attempt by Pakistan’s ISI to control events in Afghanistan will not greatly change this. As long as Afghanistan’s traditional culture persists, Taliban grand strategy and its long game will persist.
In earlier millennia, Afghanistan was criss-crossed by trade routes, and studded with a few influential cities. But the traditional life of the people was virtually untouched by the presence of trade and urbanization in this form. The nation-state structures that have been imposed upon the region have scarcely made any more impression on the Afghans than Silk Roads and a few wealthy cities. It is only when an industrialized economy transforms the life of peoples in isolated mountain valleys that this will change, and such a transformation will not happen any time soon.
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