Weaker but not Wiser: The Taliban Today

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 1

More than three years after their ouster, the Taliban are still a coherent organization even though they are beset by serious political, military and financial problems. However, they are used to surviving on the bare minimum and can still count on the unconditional loyalty of significant numbers of dedicated members and supporters. Meanwhile, the continuing hunt for the group’s leadership by American and Coalition Forces is complicating all but low-level attacks. Furthermore, Mullah Mohammad Omar continues to be recognized as the movement’s undisputed leader and a decisive blow to the Taliban insurgency can probably only be achieved by his capture or accommodation.

Still Exclusive

But reaching accommodation with Mullah Omar seems all but impossible as the Taliban are notoriously exclusive and even today loath to cooperate closely with other like-minded groups. According to the Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert, Rahimullah Yousafzai, cooperation between the Taliban and field commanders of other Islamist groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami frequently occurs – but not cooperation on higher levels. [1] Their aims are in fact the same as Hekmatyar’s: to expel the Americans and create a truly Islamic state. But still they are not prepared to share the spoils of glory and power with anyone. And if they are unprepared to share power with like-minded Pashtun and Sunni supremacists, they are even more unwilling to reach some kind of agreement with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, whom they believe is a puppet of the Americans. And “no Afghani is ever going to accept the Americans,” says Abdur Rashid Ghazi, a Pakistani cleric considered close to the Taliban. [2]

A key obstacle to ending the insurgency is the madrasas in Pakistan, where thousands of “new Taliban”, who essentially subscribe to the same philosophy as the “old Taliban”, are produced every year. These “new Taliban”, for instance, are against the West and modernism and in favor of the Deobandi/Wahabbi interpretation of Sharia law and an absolutist Islamic state. Many of the students at these religious schools are refugees from Afghanistan and according to Yousafzai, many of these old and new Taliban “will be around for years.” In theory, they could become active any time, although currently, most of them are not, even though they are all very committed. And if the Taliban regained power tomorrow, they would be acting the same as before, says Ghazi: “They [still] think the same.”

Pakistani support

Most, if not all, of the madrasas teaching Taliban-ideology are located in Pakistan. But Pakistan plays an important role in supporting the movement in other ways as well. Taliban fighters are operating from bases in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan, where they can rely on considerable local and (semi) official support. The fact that the NWFP government is run by religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban has likely made it easier for the latter to work from there. “Without Pakistani support the Taliban couldn’t survive,” says Abdul Bari-Siddiqi, regional coordinator of the media development NGO “AINA” in Jalalabad. “Whenever they are attacked they slip into Pakistan,” he says. [3]

Recruitment for the Taliban mainly takes place in refugee camps in Pakistan, and recruits are reportedly getting paid for missions into Afghanistan, which could be a sign of continuing support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). [4] The key question – insofar as the future of the Taliban is concerned – is what the Pakistani authorities intend to do with them. Some observers believe the Taliban kept a low profile during the October presidential elections because Pakistan, which wanted to test whether it could build profitable relations with Karzai, had ordered them to do so. [5]

The border area with Pakistan is a main theater of Taliban activity because of this support. But in the south, in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul – that form the heartland of the Taliban – there is indigenous local support for the movement that is essentially rooted in Pashtun nationalism and social conservatism. Indeed the Pashtuns’ sense of nationalism has been accentuated by what they view as their disenfranchisement from power since the ouster of the Taliban. “The only way forward is through reconstruction and political inclusion,” says Nick Downie of the Afghanistan NGO Security Office. [6]

Splits & Schisms

Karzai is indeed trying to include former Taliban into his new government. More than once, he informed the media that most Taliban are ordinary Afghans and that only 50 to 100 Talebs “with blood on their hands” cannot count on amnesty. The key question, of course, is whether this policy is proving effective. Ever since the presidential elections, rumors have abounded that two former Taliban foreign ministers, Mullah Mohammad Ghous Akhund and Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil, might contest the parliamentary elections in April in the form of a “democratic” Taliban-style party. Some observers have interpreted this as a weakening of the movement and the start of its dissolution. But according to Ghazi, the Pakistani cleric, there is no truth in this.

Others, such as Downie, believe it is a “savvy move” on the part of the Taliban with the intention of seizing political power through the creation of a double structure akin to the IRA and Sinn Fein. But Yousafzai, the Peshawar-based journalist, thinks the Taliban are not sophisticated enough to have worked out such a scheme and instead believes that rumors about a split are wishful thinking on the part of the Afghan authorities: “Ninety-five percent of the Taliban is still with Omar,” he says. Yousafzai also points out that Akhund and Muttawakil were never very important within the Taliban – and that talk of a rapprochement between Muttawakil and Karzai has been going on for a long time already without any results.

Problems & Challenges

“In comparison with other political groups in Afghanistan, they are a much disciplined group,” says Yousafzai. But nonetheless they are faced with several challenges. The ongoing anti-Taliban operations make it difficult for the insurgents to plan large-scale attacks because it is too dangerous for high-ranking commanders to meet for planning. The Taliban are thus forced to restrict their operations to using remote controlled bombs, rocket attacks, minor ambushes, and low-level night attacks.

In addition, the overwhelming power of American and international troops force the Taliban to seek softer targets, such as NGOs, reconstruction projects or Afghans “cooperating” with the new authorities – such as voters. In this respect, it is “business as usual” in post-elections Afghanistan. [7] During the election period, attacks on registered voters and election workers occurred frequently. “Indirectly, [voters] are supporting the U.S.,” says Ghazi – and therefore the Taliban killed some of them in southern districts.

Kidnappings also seem to be a new feature in Afghanistan, but it is uncertain whether the Taliban are involved in this. The kidnapping of three UN election workers in October 2004 has been claimed by Jaish-e-Muslimeen (Army of Muslims) that is led by a one-time Taliban commander, Akbar Agha. According to Yousafzai, he founded the group in November 2001 to fight the Americans and has never been close to the Taliban after he fell out with them in the late 1990s. The UN employees were subsequently released in November. However a Turkish construction engineer was kidnapped and killed in December – bringing the 2004 toll of slain aid personnel, election workers and contractors to some 40 people. [8]

Apart from operational constraints, the Taliban have another worry: a lack of money. According to some reports, the Taliban are financially benefiting form the cultivation and smuggling of drugs. [9] But this, apparently, doesn’t suffice. With their loss of state power, they lost much of their revenue. And finding money is more difficult than it used to be as “most Arab sponsors of Islamic movements are now looking to Iraq,” says Yousafzai. Perhaps, in a desperate bid to secure new sponsors, the Taliban are engineering some cosmetic changes. While they used to be exclusively focused on Afghanistan, in the last few months the availability of global jihadi propaganda material has increased in the country – alluding to a possible package deal with sponsors interested in global jihad.


The Taliban is clearly weaker than before but remains a disciplined group. Their weakness is likely to force them to attack soft targets – such as reconstruction and aid projects that are critically important to the development of post-war Afghanistan. Although they have not heeded the lessons of the past and are as reclusive and exclusive as ever, financial problems have forced the Taliban to accommodate foreign sponsors interested in global jihad. But even without much support, the Taliban cannot be expected to give up their fight easily. Not only because, as Ghazi said, they hate the Americans with a passion, but also because they can count on considerable indigenous support in the south – and on much more in Pakistan. And they have something to fight for, says Yousafzai: “They desperately want their power back.”


1. This and following quotes of Rahimullah Yousafzai come from an interview with Mr. Yousafzai in Peshawar on November 24, 2004. Mr. Yousafzai is the only foreign journalist to have interviewed Mullah Omar.

2. Interview with Abdur Rashid Ghazi, Islamabad, November 21, 2004.

3. Interview with Abdul bari-Siddiqi, Jalalabad, November 26, 2004.

4. International Crisis Group, Afghanistan: From Presidential to Parliamentary Elections, ICG Asia Report No 88, November 23, 2004, www.icg.org

5. Interview with Vikram Parekh, senior analyst for Afghanistan with the ICG, Kabul, November 1, 2004; Abdul bari-Siddiqi is of the same opinion.

6. Interview with Mr. Downie, October 30, 2004, Kabul.

7. Interview with an Afghanistan NGO Security Office official, November 11, 2004, Kabul.

8. International Herald Tribune, December 16, 2004.

9. The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2004.