Political Ideology and Tactics of the Taliban in Afghanistan: What is it and will it change?

The Taliban have fought against the Afghan government and its allies for twenty years. They came stronger in the recent times and finally captured power on 15 August 2021 with the fall of Kabul. They have adapted their tactics to commit violent acts to achieve political goals. However, they did not change their rhetoric, ideology, and political ideas over these years despite the political contexts have changed. They have become more brutal since the US troops withdrew from Afghanistan; the longest war America’s troops ever fought on foreign lands. Immediately after the announcement of the withdrawal of United States troops, they launched offensive attacks on the Afghan military and expanded their control rapidly and achieved a military victory by mid August 2021 that is a shocking surprise even to the US, the superpower equipped with most sophisticated and perhaps largest network of intelligence in the world. In this context, it is worthwhile to ponder a critical strength of the Taliban – ideology and tactics.

Who are the Talibans?

The word literally means ‘students’ in Pashto. The emergence of the outfit traced back to the early 1990s in the northern part of Pakistan, as resistance fighters against the Soviet imperialism. The Pashtun movement came out from the religious seminaries, paid by the Saudi Wahhabi ideologues who prescribe a hardline version of Sunni Islam. They promised to establish a regime characterized by their version of Sharia laws. The Islamist group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 until the US-led war in 2001 under the name of Emirate. After that, they went into hiding in the remote villages and carried insurgent attacks on the US-backed government, the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. What followed were decades of devastating conflict. More than 40,000 Afghan civilians, at least 64,000 Afghan military and police and more than 6,000 US troops and more than 1,100 NATO soldiers were killed. The US has spent trillion dollars on the war and reconstruction projects. With more than 85,000 full-time fighters and training bases and cross border supports from Pakistan, and its state military the Taliban ensured a military victory in Afghanistan.

What lies at the core of the Taliban ideology, has it changed over the years?

Firstly, their ideology, rhetoric, and political narratives got popular for a brief period due to curbing corruption, disorder, and for establishing secure areas and roads for business and commercial activities. However, their popularity saw a demise among the Afghans, due to following tactics of capital punishments, public executions, amputations, etc. punishments based on the interpretations of the stricter Sharia laws imposed by their Islamist leaders. Men had to grow beards, women’s mobility and education were totally banned. Children were not allowed to play football. Music and cinema were banned, cultural and artistic expressions were subject to torture and killing. Gross human rights violations and abuses in different forms were the everyday practices of the Taliban. They also destroyed different universal, cultural heritages despite the international outcries. TVs and VCRs were destroyed and possessions like these were subject to public punishments, hence many Afghans had to bury these in their backyards. This is the most prominent feature of the Taliban ideology that prescribe an orthodox-centered religiosity, restricted cultural practices and expressions, zero regards for human rights, women’s education and empowerment, restricted entertainment and sports activities, and no artistic expressions. And all these had to be enforced through violent means.

Secondly, the Taliban are well organized under the leadership of Haibatullah Akhundzada. He is the head of the council that administers about a dozen commissions in charge of areas like health, finance and education. Below these commissions are the local officials in charge of managing regular, everyday affairs. This type of parallel state was also evident in the earlier time in the 1990s. They have also parallel judicial systems that has been common and popular among some Afghans. They also garner political, socio-cultural and financial supports from these. Other sources of finance come from growing and controlling opium poppies and the drug trade. They also have parallel tax collection system and receive foreign aids and donations from Pakistan and Iran allegedly. The Taliban also earned millions from mining and trading minerals throughout the controlled territories. This parallelism is one aspect of their ideology that has not changed over the years.

Thirdly, another ideological feature is that a gender bias is visible among the Taliban narratives, doctrines, and rhetoric. Their support bases consist of the thousands of Afghan men and sympathizers predominantly. The religious and historical references are aimed at the men as enforcers of Sharia laws, where female members are subjugated under their male counterparts. This has not changed over the last twenty years.

Fourthly, the Taliban ideology emphasizes that they have been engaged in a righteous jihad aimed at establishing an Islamic system based on Sharia laws and complete obedience to the amir, or the supreme leader instead of the state, constitution and government of Afghanistan. Experts argue this is advanced to facilitate smooth operation of the internal affairs and in particular on maintaining internal cohesiveness so that the foreign powers may not destabilize their control over districts. This idea of religious supremacy and this self-proclaimed righteousness behavior have also not changed over the years.

Fifthly, another ideological consistency is the Pashtun supremacy. The Taliban has a narrow social base as its power and legitimacy are emanated from the mullahs, the leaders from Kandahari Pashtun tribes. Any attempt to go beyond these and exercise multilateralism or pluralism in local and national governance has resulted in clashes in these years. Power sharing and restructuring the governance processes and institutions remained difficult after these years. The Kandahari Pashtuns are seemed to hog all the powers, attentions and resources. They have been negating and rejecting pluralism, secular bases for statehood and Afghan nationalism, popular mandates, and going beyond the idea of Islamic emirate.

Sixthly, the use of force, tortures, killings have remained the predominant tactics to fulfill their political objectives up to this day. The post-withdrawal time has also experienced killings of civilians, Afghan military officials, sympathizers of Afghan national troops, and even comedians who mock the Taliban narratives or ideology. In the previous years, the Taliban were seen to play along the US strategies, i.e. long, direct talks for political settlements. However, once the US troops left, they have returned to the previous 1990s era tactics of insurgence in a swift manner waging complex attacks on military officials, outposts, government spokespersons. They have carried out targeted assassins. If this continues, the violence will spiral out of control and the Afghans once again will find themselves in a protracted civil-war, or war-like situation in the coming days.

Lastly, the Taliban were seen in the past to provide safe havens to the violent extremists like Al Qaeda members, and other cross-border violent extremist outfits. The Taliban and Al Qaeda still have strong ties with each other. Al Qaeda received protection and in exchange for trainings, resources, arms, and political support from the Talibans. The Talibans also gave shelters to the top leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al Qaeda. This nexus remained strong over the years.

As the situation in Afghanistan evolves, the Talibans do not seem that they would change their core tactics of insurgency and their narratives, rhetoric, ideology. The Afghans are contemplating what future might look like with the Taliban taking over again political power in Afghanistan. There are no credible signs that the Taliban will uphold the constitution, which protects basic human rights, women’s education and empowerment. They have already changed the name of the country from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to Islam Emirate of Afghanistan. It is highly indicative of their future plan. The Taliban know what their ideology is, what their narratives are, what they want. So far, their strategy seems to have worked in their favor, supported by the ideology and violent tactics.

Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain
Delwar Hossain, PhD is Professor of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Director, East Asia Center, University of Dhaka.