The Ideological Taliban

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 3 months ago

Now comes a good and well-informed article in the same spirit as our own articles on the Taliban, from Asian Correspondent.  Concerning the primarily Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ahsan Butt observes:

Isn’t it instructive that scholars who actually know the area, such as Ijaz Khan (University of Peshawar) or the oft-cited Farhat Taj, completely and unequivocally reject the Imran Khan thesis? This idea that the Taliban are somehow representative of the Pashtun nation, and are fighting and dying for them, is just silly.

Within the study of civil war in political science, non-state movements are generally divided between ethnically focused and ideologically focused. Obviously this is often a too-rigid categorization, but it’s useful because the two types of mobilizations often have different goals.

Those movements that are ethnically motivated are generally what we call nationalist movements. These tend to be focused heavily on a particular piece of territory, since group identity and territory have a very strong relationship. So if all xs are concentrated in region X, then it’s unlikely that the xs will launch a movement, violent or otherwise, in regions other than X. This is because (a) they don’t care about regions other than X; in fact, their mobilizations are often motivated by demanding increasing separation from X and non-X areas, and (b) there’s not enough xs in the non-X region for them to congeal in a movement worth worrying about. Examples include the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka or the Bengalis in former East Pakistan.

Those that are ideologically motivated tend to be focused on control of the state or political unit at large. They are not interested in controlling a sliver of territory, they are interested in re-orienting the state. The important thing to note is that granting a piece of territory to the agents of the movement is unlikely to satisfy them, since their movement is not based on the control of territory in the first place. Examples include the Communist Party of China or the various right-wing militias operating in Latin America during the Cold War.

This distinction matters because it gets at the heart of the debate on the war in Pakistan and whether it is worth fighting. If you believe that the Taliban and their local affiliates are nationalists, then it makes sense to give them control of various districts or maybe even a whole province, in the hope that that’s what they want, and will therefore cause them to stop mounting violent challenges to the state.

If you believe that the Taliban and their local affiliates are ideologues, then it doesn’t make sense to give them control of various districts because they will only use that control to consolidate their material capabilities to launch yet further assaults on the state and its citizens.

I wish we lived in a world where the Taliban were indeed nationalists because it would mean that there is fairly self-evident solution to the violence. Unfortunately we do not and there is not. Imran Khan, however, continues to believe that they are and that there is. Reasonable people can disagree on the extent to which force should be used, what type of force (air power vs shock troops vs full-blown incisions) is to be used, how negotiations should be constructed, which actors should be invited to the negotiations, and so on. But no reasonable person can believe that the “war can be ended in 90 days” or that the Taliban are likely to go quietly into the sunset if you hand over a bunch of territory to them.

Just so.  And it’s a mistake that has been made from the beginning, i.e., believing that this is some sort of classical insurgency/counterinsurgency campaign.  To be sure, there are still the so-called “ten dollar taliban,” but more and more we are finding that they fight for ideological reasons, not for a parcel of land to control.

If no involvement in the political system is sufficient solution to the immediate crisis, then that complicates matters indeed.  If they are somehow – gasp – ideologically aligned with the radical elements in al Qaeda, Haqqani, the various Kashmir groups, etc., then inviting them to the negotiating table is a ridiculous ruse trying to hide abject surrender and failure on our part.  And if this surrender obtains, then we will be worse off for our loss in Afghanistan.  But perhaps we’ve already discussed that.

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  1. On February 6, 2012 at 4:53 am, RJ said:

    Here we are, ten years down a road wherein our troops and dollars have spent so much time in this area fighting what and for what…but now we spend out time “micro-dissecting” every little leaf we discover to see what’s what.

    Talk about being confused and lost…little boys and girls who got political power in Washington and then had to confront realities thought they were oh so smart and wise.

    Too bad not enough of their kids were in American military uniforms walking the walk while mommy and daddy were just talking the talk.

    As with most malignant narcissists, others are supposed to bleed and die for their needs…it’s the right thing to do.


  2. On February 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm, TS Alfabet said:

    Good post, Herschel.

    Ahsan’s reference to “right wing groups” in Latin America was a poor comparison as they were certainly concerned with regaining political power in the country and no further. He could have cited Daniel Ortega or Castro as examples of ideologues who were not content to simply control Nicaragua and Cuba but actively exported their “revolution” to as many, other neighbors as they could.

    I would note, also, that there are probably gradations of ideology among the various groups in Pakistan. For instance, it may well be that the Haqqanis may be a shade more criminal than purely ideological when compared to, say, the Tehrik-i-Taliban or Al Qaeda. There may be other groups that pay lip service to Taliban Islamist doctrine but are chiefly concerned with their drug enterprises and expanding their profits.

    This can be helpful to keep in mind when it comes to strategic thinking.

  3. On February 6, 2012 at 7:50 pm, RJ said:

    TS Alfabet: “This can be helpful to keep in mind when it comes to strategic thinking”

    Thinking about what? After 10 years of doing what? For what purpose…victory?

    Where in the world did you ever get the idea that the elected leaders of the United States desired victory in that region? When COIN got implemented by Princeton Patreaus what did you think that game was all about?

    Our military got transformed into the role of cops (gather up all those wonderful ROEs for an understanding) while the State Department brought into this game a bride for the grunts…”peace corps games” for a marriage made in hell!

    “Compassionate conservatism” by Bush had many hidden meanings; however, after 10 years of such games both here and in those theaters of war, do you think the American people have learned any lessons?

    How about starting with an “acceptable” definition of victory…that would be a nice and rather important component of “strategic thinking” for me.

    Why not take a little trip over to your regional Veterans Hospital and walk around meeting some the of Vets from these wars. See if you can find a relative of our elected national politicians. Walk the walk or talk the talk, take your pick.

    Malignant narcissists sometimes aren’t that easy to spot. Leading from behind is one clue you should not dismiss. Hiring an idiot woman who has had a husband cheat with countless women for a cabinet position might just be another clue. Wrapping one’s self in the heroics of a Seal Team might be another…

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Taliban and was published February 6th, 2012 by Herschel Smith.

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