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Newsletter 10-64
September 2010

Chapter 6. Know the Insurgents

Section I: The Taliban

Section II: Conclusion

"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

-Sun Tzu

During World War II, a newspaper reporter asked a high-ranking German officer why he had a Bible in his library. The German officer responded that to defeat his enemy, he had to know his enemy.

GEN Robert E. Lee, as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, knew the Union Army had far greater resources than the Confederate Army. He also knew that until the battle of Gettysburg, he had been able to "out-general" the Union generals who faced him. From that battle, he learned that the Union generals he now faced and the forces they led could possibly out-perform him and his soldiers. He therefore had to devise operations and tactics to overcome both the Union soldiers' resources and their ability to equal or surpass the Confederates' battlefield capabilities. He knew his enemy.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban are the insurgents and are predominately Pashtun. However, they have a distinct culture that sets them apart from their Pashtun cousins. U.S. Soldiers, whether they engage in lethal or non-lethal counterinsurgency (COIN) operations against the Taliban, should be aware of the Taliban's culture and history as they devise means to defeat them. This is in addition to knowing the culture of the non-Taliban Afghans. Actions to defeat the Taliban that do not take their culture into consideration, and how it relates to the local non-Taliban Afghans, could unintentionally bring those Afghans to support the Taliban. Therefore, U.S. Soldiers in the Afghan COIN environment must know the insurgents.

Section I: The Taliban

In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its military forces from Afghanistan after its failed attempts to defeat the mujahedin who were opposed to its oppressive efforts to maintain the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. For the next five years, rival Afghan mujahedin warlords battled each other, either individually or in alliances, for regional/ethnic control of additional territory or the Afghan government which remained from the Soviet era. While Soviet attacks had been directed against the mujahedin in the rural areas, with millions of Afghans either killed or driven to exile in Pakistan, Iran, and other countries, the post-Soviet fighting brought the destructive conflict into the urban areas where the pro-Soviet central government remained in control.

As 1994 drew to a close, the Taliban gained control of the area around Kandahar. Its success was based on several factors:

  • Afghans were tired of the fighting and destruction.
  • Many Afghans opposed the mujahedin groups. A number of these groups defected to the Taliban.
  • Afghans around Kandahar and the Taliban were of the same ethnic group-Pashtun.

The Taliban, their name which is the Pashto and Persian plural of the Arabic singular word talib (meaning student or seeker), are a traditionalist Islamic group pursuing a return to the purity of the teachings of the Quran and the Hadith (sayings) of the Prophet Mohammed. They saw the mujahedin as immoral and corrupt. The Taliban believed they fought with divine purpose to ensure others adhered to their application of those teachings and practices and that religious edicts have a divine source and carry more authority than humanitarian law that stresses human rights and individual freedoms. They also believed the purpose of government was to be a reflection of the divine will, not a guardian of individual rights and liberties.

Unfortunately for the Afghans, the Taliban became very ruthless in the enforcement of their form of traditional Islam and the suppression of Islamic and other religious beliefs that did not follow that of the Taliban. Consequently, they alienated many of the Afghans who originally supported their fight against the mujahedin and rise to power. To counter the Taliban, other Afghan tribes, either individually or collectively, waged war against the oppressive Taliban. It became the classic Afghan tribal conflict: brother against brother and brothers against cousins.

Because the Taliban are outside the common characteristics of the Afghan tribes, clans, and villages, the following areas will be addressed:

  • Taliban ethnicity.
  • Taliban religion.
  • Taliban education.
  • Taliban application of sharia law.
  • Taliban treatment of women.
  • Taliban rules of conduct and engagement.

"Afghanistan is the only country in the world with a real Islamic system. All Muslims should show loyalty to the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar."

-Osama Bin Laden, April 2001

Taliban Ethnicity

While the Taliban are Pashtun from the Kandahar area of Afghanistan, they are the product of Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan where Afghan tribal and ethnic cultures were non-existent and survival became their focal point. With time on their hands due to no job opportunities, and lacking mentorship from their family and tribal leaders, Afghan males in the refugee camps became susceptible to the religious teachings taught in the madrasas (schools). While these madrasas taught the purity of Islam, they also taught against people and governments that did not follow their form of Islam. As a result, the Taliban became a political movement; where the Taliban gained control it ruthlessly applied its Islamic religious beliefs.

Religion of the Taliban

The Taliban are followers of Deobandi Islam which originated in India in the 1850s. Deobandi Islam can track its lineage through Sufi Islam to Sunni Islam. Sufi Muslims pursued a strict interpretation of the teachings of Mohammad and Islamic law and were called Deobandi. While the Deobandi sect originated in the Sunni community, Deobandi followers are not strictly Sunnis. Deobandi Islam students are taught that Islamic societies have fallen behind the West in all spheres of endeavor because they have been seduced by the amoral and material accoutrements of Westernization, and have deviated from the original pristine teachings of the Prophet.

Under Deobandi Islam a Muslim has two requirements:

  • First is loyalty is to his religion and only then to the country of which he is a citizen or a resident.
  • Second is the sacred right and obligation to go to any country to wage holy war (jihad) to protect the Muslims of that country.

Deobandi Islam also teaches political activism. This originated with the 1857 rebellion in India against the British and grew to include any religion that did not adhere to the Deobandi theology. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and now the presence of NATO forces there are seen as a threat to the pure expression of Islam in Afghanistan.

Educating the Taliban

The Taliban are the product of religion-only Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan. (Note: madrasas is the Arabic word for any type of schools, regardless of what they teach. Teachers in the madrasas, like many of their counterparts in other parts of the world, form the minds of their students, in some cases creating indoctrination and ideological foundations that are counter to what may be acceptable norms.) However, the schools the Taliban attended are radically different from the traditional Deobandi madrasas where it took 10 years to complete the training provided by Deobandi Islamic religious scholars. At the madrasas attended by the Taliban, instruction centered on memorization of the Quaranic text in Arabic, which is a foreign language to most of the students. There was no other instruction. Upon graduation, the talib (student) was qualified as a village mullah, officiating at births, marriages, deaths, and providing religious education for boys in exchange for cash contributions or gifts.

The talib at these religious madrasas were orphan boys or boys who were forced to attend. They had no contact with women or girls, and thus no understanding of the feminine gender. They also had almost no contact with the outside world. Consequently, they never learned how to socialize. They were indoctrinated.

The pre-madrasas training for the Taliban was not from their family and village/clan elders. These young men were the products of broken homes and the refugee camps in Pakistan that housed tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from the Soviet invasion and subsequent Afghan civil war. There were no schools, no family and village/clan elder structure-only hunger and idleness. They knew their languages, but only in speaking as there was no means to learn their written language, their history, and their culture. Their young minds were available to be molded by the madrasas.

Sharia Law

After the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the Islamic community began to develop a body of law known as sharia. This law was based upon the Quran (the Prophet's revelations) and the Sunnah (the words and deeds of the Prophet). For legal solutions that could not be found in these sources, the Prophet had sanctioned the use of jihad (independent reasoning). New issues not covered by sharia were and are addressed by Muslim scholars based on their interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah. This has led to differences in the sharia legal systems in Islamic countries due to their adopting one form of Islamic belief over another. Additionally, application and definition of sharia requires the consensus of the Muslim community.

Sharia law guides the daily lives of Muslims, their family and religious obligations, and their financial transactions. It influences, to varying degrees, the legal code in most Muslim countries. Due to the influx of Muslim-believing people into Judeo-Christian areas of the world, there are efforts to incorporate sharia law into the laws of non-Muslim countries that apply to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody. This is highly controversial due to varying applications of sharia law based on differing interpretations of the Quran and Hadiths.

The Taliban, which places a very strict interpretation on the Quran and the Hadiths, uses its form of sharia law as a tool to enforce their Islamic beliefs. This allows the Taliban to justify cruel punishments and the unequal treatment of women, such as dress, independence, and inheritance. Examples of how the Taliban applies its version of sharia law are as follows:

  • Amputation of one or both hands for theft.
  • Stoning for adultery.
  • Women losing any freedoms they previously had under the Soviets and previous Afghan governments.
  • Banning all forms of television, imagery, music, and sports.
  • Wearing white shoes-the color of the Taliban flag-was illegal.
  • Men were required to keep their beards at a specified length.
  • Atheism and conversion from Islam were considered apostasy and were punishable by death.
  • Minority Shia were brutally persecuted and oppressed by the Taliban:
    • More than 15,000 Shia were killed in Hazara Province.
    • Shia women were enslaved and later sold to tribal leaders in Pakistan.

Taliban Treatment of Women

"They made me invisible, shrouded and non-being; a shadow, no existence, made silent, and unseeing; denied of freedom, confined to my cage; tell me how to handle my anger and my rage?"

-Zieba Shorish-Shamley, from Look into my World,
Published on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Taliban, in the areas of Afghanistan they controlled, stripped away what remained of the freedoms Afghan women had gained under the Soviets, especially in the urban areas. Women who previously had professional careers, owned successful businesses, or had jobs in civilian and government career fields found themselves forced to give up that part of their lives and become subservient to the male elder in their family. They were forbidden to own property. If an Afghan woman became a widow or was single, she lost everything and had to beg on the streets to survive.

The Taliban, like the mujahedin before them, were primarily from the rural areas of Afghanistan where women had little to no contact with Western influences or Afghan urban areas regarding feminine freedoms and dress. In the rural areas, women were treated as property. While that was not a part of the urban Afghan culture, the Taliban made it that way, and used their version of sharia law to enforce the restrictions they placed on Afghan women.

Several Taliban officials who were ministers in the Afghan government made statements regarding the role of women in Afghanistan:

  • Taliban Minister of Religion Al-Haj Maulwi Qalamuddin: "To a country on fire, the world wants to give a match. Why is there such concern about women? Bread costs too much. There is no work. Even boys are not going to school. And yet all I hear about are women. Where was the world when men here were violating any woman they wanted?"

Taliban Minister of Education Syed Ghaisuddin when asked why Afghan women needed to be confined at home: "It's like having a flower, or a rose. You water it and keep it at home for you, to look at it, and smell it. It [a woman] is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled."

Taliban Minister of Culture Qudratullah Jamal: "If we are to ask Afghan women, their problems have been solved."

Taliban Minister of Foreign Affairs Moulvi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel: "We do not have any immediate plans to give jobs to (women) who have been laid off. But they can find themselves jobs enjoying their free lives."

Taliban Minister of Justice Mullah Nooruddin Turabi: "If a woman wants to work away from her home and with men, then that is not allowed by our religion and our culture. If we force them to do this they may want to commit suicide."

Simply put, the Taliban took all means necessary for Afghan women under their control to be classified and treated as the property of either their husbands or their fathers.

Taliban Code of Conduct and Rules of Engagement

Like most governments and organizations, the Taliban have their own code of conduct and rules of engagement. It is called "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahedin." It was written by Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and consists of 13 chapters and 67 articles. Following are excerpts from the book:

  • Any Muslim can invite anyone working for the slave government in Kabul to quit their job and remove himself from the corrupt administration.
  • It is strictly prohibited to exchange prisoners for money.
  • Killing can only be decided by the imam or his deputy. No one else has the right to do so.
  • If a military infidel is captured, any decision to kill, conditionally release, or exchange such a prisoner can only be made by the imam or his deputy.
  • Suicide attacks should be at high value and important targets because a brave son of Islam should not be used for low-value and useless targets. In suicide attacks, the killing of innocent people and damage to their property should be minimized.
  • All mujahedin must do their best to avoid civilian deaths and injuries and damage to civilian property.
  • Weapons used to be taken from people by force. This practice is no longer permitted. People may hand over their weapons voluntarily.
  • No mujahid is allowed to smoke.
  • A male who has not yet grown a beard may not stay in a common sleeping area with other men.
  • It is forbidden to disfigure people. For example the cutting off of ears, nose and lips are severely prohibited. Mujahedin should refrain from such activities.
  • Mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate should not collect donations from people forcibly. People should be free to choose who they want to give to.
  • Mujahedin should not search people's homes. If there is a need to do this, they should get permission from authority and the search should be done in the presence of the imam of the local mosque and two elders.
  • Kidnapping for ransom is strictly prohibited.
  • Mujahedin must be well-behaved, and treat the people properly, in order to get closer to the hearts of civilian Muslims.

Section II: Conclusion

The Taliban make up a very unique Islamic organization with many of its members from the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban's Islamic beliefs and application of those beliefs, coupled with its application of Pashtunwali, brought it into focus as a result of its providing security to al Qaida. The Taliban's record of denying religious freedom, treating women as chattel, and applying sharia laws that strictly adhere to their Islamic religious beliefs is counter to the culture of almost all other civilizations.

Afghans desire peace, security, freedom, and opportunities to both live and better their lives and those of their offspring. If the Taliban can provide for those desires, it will regain control of Afghanistan. However, the Taliban's strict Islamic interpretations will push Afghans away, but only if there is no better alternative than what the Taliban offers.


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