Domestic Factors Driving the Taliban Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 13

Four years after the fall of the Taliban, insurgent violence has been steadily increasing across Afghanistan. This new wave of violence comes amidst Kabul’s attempted peace process, and points to the seriousness of the security situation in the country (Sada-ye Bamdad, June 3). Furthermore, insurgent tactics have grown more dangerous, with Taliban fighters grouping in larger contingents. During a major U.S. air strike on May 29, for example, U.S. forces killed 50 Taliban militants in Helmand province; on May 24, 60 militants were killed in Uruzgan province; and on May 22, 60 Taliban were killed in Kandahar province (Pajhwok Afghan News, May 22, 24, 29). The continuation of the Afghan insurgency and the ongoing struggle of the security forces to defeat it can be understood after examining the domestic factors that are driving the insurgency and causing insecurity in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Government Lacks Support from the People

After the establishment of the Karzai government, many Afghans were satisfied with the peace process that was to bring democratization to Afghanistan. In the years since the fall of the Taliban, however, Afghans have begun to lose confidence in government institutions and feel distanced from them (Kabul Weekly, May 31). For instance, in an exclusive interview with BBC Afghan Service, the former foreign minister of the ousted Taliban regime, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, explained that the Taliban’s success was because their leaders and fighters came from among the people and, therefore, shared the strongest bonds with them. Although the Taliban’s strong bonds with the people were exaggerated—since many Afghans were opposed to the Taliban—the Taliban solidified their support base in the Pashtun community.

At first, most Afghans joined the government with the hope that the economic and security situations would improve. Yet, the present government now seems to be distancing itself from more and more Afghan citizens, especially those from the poor and religious sections of society (Eqtedar Weekly, June 3). While it is true that the government has only had limited time to complete these improvements, the people are growing increasingly dissatisfied (Cheragh, May 17). For instance, the Senlis council, a drug policy advisory forum, in a report released on June 6, stressed that the government is rapidly losing support from the southern population.

This dissatisfaction may be causing people to refrain from joining the police and security forces. President Karzai, in his June 1 session with former Northern Alliance leaders—many of them part of the Afghan mujahideen that fought against Soviet troops and now often called “warlords”—told them that in order to prevent violence in Afghanistan his government needs more security forces. Karzai said, “According to a survey, for Kabul every one police officer works for an estimated 500 people.” According to one warlord who declined to be named, in Uruzgan and Daikondi provinces, one police officer provides security for an estimated 1,200 people; in Herat, there is one for an estimated 900 people; and in Kandahar, there is one for an estimated 700 people. Furthermore, presidential spokesperson Karim Rahimi, while answering a question about the police’s inability to prevent riots in Kabul, said that Kabul’s police forces are undermanned and are not provided with the basic equipment, such as tear gas, to quell demonstrations (Azadi Radio, Jun 6).

When the government has only been able to muster a 55,000-strong police force to maintain order in four years, it demonstrated that people feel alienated from the government and are less willing to join the police forces. As a result, government security forces become less reliable. While Kabul hopes to expand the security forces to 62,000, security analysts in Kabul think that 62,000 is a grossly inaccurate number, and that an estimated 200,000 police are needed to maintain order.

Double Standard with Warlord Leaders and the Taliban

Since 2002, the Afghan government has pursued the policy of weakening the power of the warlords. As part of this policy, Karzai has attempted to absorb the Taliban into the government to destroy their movement. Despite these attempts, the double standard that the government has been playing by weakening warlords while inviting the Taliban to join the peace process has allowed the Taliban to build up their support base and increase their attacks (Erada Daily, May 27).

The policy of weakening the warlords has also proved impossible to achieve and the government has failed to remove the warlords from power throughout the country. The warlords resist being weakened since they have fought for control of Afghanistan for decades and feel that they have done the “dirty work” of helping to establish the current government in Kabul. “The international community,” writes Payam-e-Mujahid Weekly on June 1, “ousted the Taliban with the military pressure of mujahideen commanders [warlords] and then dismissed these commanders from power with political moves.”

A former Afghan mujahideen leader, Mohammad Mohaqiq, who claims to have supported the new process of state and nation-building in Afghanistan, directly expressed mujahideen/warlord dissatisfaction with Karzai’s government and with coalition policies as well. In an exclusive interview with The Jamestown Foundation, Mohaqiq, while criticizing the international community’s goals in Afghanistan, stated that, “mujahideen, coalition forces, NATO and the Afghan government have a consensus to fight against terrorism, but instead the international community and Afghan government ideologues started a propaganda campaign against mujahideen leaders and began labeling them as ‘warlords,’ a loaded term.” He continued, stating that if the warlords do not cooperate with the government, “will it [Kabul] be able to restore security and continue the democratization process in Afghanistan?” Although many Afghan citizens do not support the warlords—who were engaged in the bitter civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s—these leaders now exercise control in many parts of the country. In most of the provinces where the government presence is weak, warlords provide stability in the area.

The Afghan government, with its contradictory policy, now faces a critical dilemma. When the government weakens warlord control over certain areas, it strengthens the Taliban because the government is unable to fill the security vacuum. On the other hand, when Kabul allows warlords to exercise greater control over regions, the international community criticizes the Karzai government for appointing them. For instance, after the May 29 Kabul riots, warlord Amanullah Guzar was appointed as Kabul’s police chief (Radio Afghanistan, June 5). According to an individual who declined to be named, following the appointment of Guzar, the German ambassador told Karzai that if Guzar remains in the post, Germany would cut its aid to Afghanistan. The warlords, however, exercised a key role in easing the tensions and violence in Kabul after the riots. These pressures by the international community will not help weaken the insurgency in Afghanistan (Kabul Weekly, May 31).

Following the riots, Karzai set up a session with high-ranking government official and warlords. During the session, most of the leaders criticized Karzai’s policy on warlords and called on him to meet the people’s security expectations. The moderate Afghan Islamist leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, who supported Karzai as the head of the transitional government in 2002, told Karzai at the session that segments of the poor and religious population no longer support him and are increasingly dissatisfied with his government.

Tribal Society Makes Democratization Difficult

An additional factor contributing to instability in Afghanistan is the country’s tribal society. The tribal structure of Afghan society is largely illiterate—approximately 60 percent of Afghans cannot read—and the result is that the new process of transitioning to democracy is harmed by this structure. Many Afghans living in rural areas tend to view everything modern as unacceptable. Many of them are unwilling to tolerate the new topics on the agenda such as democracy, civil society and women’s rights. An Afghan journalist speaking to The Jamestown Foundation, who declined to be named, believes that some of those who burn schools or execute other anti-government actions may actually be disaffected elements from the tribal population. “Most of our people in rural areas do not want their sons to be educated,” the journalist explained. “They think schools and education is like a fire that changes their traditions and values and can change their life.”

Aside from the difficulties created by the lack of education, the tribal structure of Afghan society hinders the rural population from easily joining the new government processes. Even the Afghan democrats and technocrats who are playing the key roles in Afghanistan’s democratization continue to identify themselves by tribe, ethnic and language affiliations. They do not push for the Afghan “nation,” but instead try to place people from their own tribe and ethnicity in important government posts (Shargh Weekly, February 25). Furthermore, Afghan history is a bright example of intolerance against new values. Every government that has tried to bring change has always acted from the top down. For the current government, instead of trying to change the viewpoints of society first—by encouraging democratic or Western values—they have tried to impose democracy on a culture that does not understand or accept it.


The government must focus on the domestic factors driving the insurgency. If the people’s expectations are not met, and if they feel further distanced from the government, then security in Afghanistan cannot be guaranteed. While foreign influence plays a part in the insurgency, the main drivers are domestic.

The government as well as foreign countries, while keeping military pressure on the Taliban and anti-government elements, must focus on reconstruction. They should not give up on providing foreign aid to provinces where insecurity is occurring. Unfortunately, in the past four years, the primary reaction to the insurgency has been military. In traditional society, people do not respond well to military methods. Instead, people must be motivated ideologically and traditionally against anti-government elements.

The Afghan government should adopt the policy of confidence building measures in Afghanistan. This will not succeed without cultural programs. The mass media and other civil institutions must participate in the cultural activities in order to create a wave of propaganda against anti-government elements. Print and broadcast media should critique the weakness and faults of the Taliban with rationale taken from the Quran, Hadith and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad in order to create Islamic legitimacy for the government. The Taliban have been marketing their movement successfully, with one method being an active DVD distribution campaign. Yet the government has failed to counter this propaganda operation. Providing employment and improving infrastructure are also major factors in confidence building and in strengthening the bonds between the government and the people.

The international community must cooperate with Karzai’s government in order to secure Afghanistan. They should allow Karzai to use effective warlords to secure the country. The policy that Karzai’s administration has followed since the May 29 riots in Kabul must be continued. Karzai has appointed some of the most effective warlord elements to important posts and by this the other warlord leaders will cooperate with the government. When pursuing these strategies, the international community must be sensitive toward placing pressure on him to discontinue those strategies. Threats such as the one from the German ambassador only serve to tie Karzai’s hands and prevent him from providing security effectively.

The Afghan national police and army are the backbone of security in Afghanistan. The projected 70,000-strong army is too small to secure the country; indeed, it may not even be enough to deal with two insecure provinces in Afghanistan. The government must expand recruitment and do so quickly. While the presence of international forces is necessary, Afghanistan’s own security forces must play the most important role in securing the country in order for the government to retain domestic legitimacy.