By Arun Anand-
This is seventh part of ‘The Taliban Story’. It is a 30 part series on Taliban that we bring to our readers. You can share your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is the seventh part-
In 1990s after defeating the Mujahidin and capturing Kandahar and later on Kabul, the Taliban emerged as a highly secretive group. Though, its organisational structure hasn’t been known much but it is important to know more about it as it reflected the fault lines within the organisation.
One key fault line was that Kandahari Pashtuns were given preference over the rest in the top echelons of Taliban. These fault lines where sectarian discrimination is at the core of Taliban’s decision making continue to plague Taliban and busts the façade of Islamic unity propagated by Taliban. There were other fault lines too that emanated from functioning of Taliban. In 2021, they remain as much relevant as they were then as the fundamental structure of Taliban has largely remained unchanged.
In 1990s, these fault lines were quite apparent and have got engrained in its basic structure carrying forward a legacy that shows that it wasn’t much different from the war lords o Mujahiddin factions it had fought and decimated .
So let’s rewind to 1990s when the Taliban’s apex decision making body was the Kandahar based ‘Shura(Council)’. Mullah Omar, the chief of Taliban was also based in Kandahar. He rarely left the city. So Kandahar became the power centre and Kabul was relegated to the background though on paper Kabul was the seat of power from where Taliban ran its government. However nothing moved without consent of the Kandahar ‘Shura’. The Kandahar Shura was dominated by Durrani Pashtuns and Ghilzai Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns were completely marginalised.
The original Kandahar Shura was a loose structure with 10 primary/ permanent members. In addition, around 40 to 50 others including military commanders, tribal elders and religious leaders used to participate in the meetings of Shura. In addition there was a military Shura which took decisions about the military strategy of Taliban and then there was Kabul Shura that comprised around one and a half dozen members. They were primarily cabinet ministers/acting ministers of Taliban government. The military Shura also had around 10 members. Mullah Mohammed Omar was designated, Amir Ul-Momineen, and he headed both the Supreme Shura at Kandahar and the Military Shura. Both the Military Shura and the Kabul Shura reported to Kandahar Shura which was established as the ‘Supreme Shura’.
Now, if we look at the structure and composition of these ‘Shura’ which were apex bodies for making key decisions, it indicates a major fault line within Taliban that questions its claim of representing all Muslims in Afghanistan.In fact. Taliban has been largely representative of only Durrani Pashtuns.
‘Of the ten original members (of Kandahar Shura), six were Durrani Pashtuns and only one, Maulvi Syed Ghiasuddin was a Tajik from Badakashan(he had lived for a long time within the Pashtun belt)..of the 17 members in the Kabul Shura in 1998, atleast 8 were Durranis while three were Ghilzais and only two were non-Pashtuns.’1
These fault lines rocked Taliban’s boat when it was defeated badly at Mazar-e-Sharif in May,1997. More than 3000 Taliban troops were killed in 10 weeks of fighting which erupted in Mazar-E-Sharif on 28 May, 1997 and quickly spread to nearby areas. General Abdul Rashid Dostum played a key role in this anti-Taliban counter offensive which led to Taliban being pushed out of many provinces and areas which it had captured during the last 30 months or so.
The criticism of Taliban from non-Pashtun and Ghilzai Pashtun commanders grew rapidly after the Mazar debacle. While Taliban was compelled to look for more troops from Ghilzai tribe to replenish its ranks, it wasn’t ready to give them a proportionate share in the power. This conflict within the ranks of Taliban has continued.
The second major fault line within Taliban that emerged in 1990s was that unlike Dostum’s troops, the Talibans were not a professionally paid army. Around one third of its strength came from Pakistani Madrasa students which kept on coming and going back to madrassas after serving in Taliban for few months or a couple of years or so.
‘As such, the Taliban fighters resemble a lashkar or traditional militia force which has long historical antecedents amongst the Pashtun tribes. A lashkar has always been quickly mobilised either on orders of the monarch or to defend the tribal area and fight a local feud. Those who joined a lashkar were strictly volunteers who were not paid salaries, but shared in any loot captured from the enemy. However, Taliban troops were forbidden from looting and in the early period they were remarkably disciplined when they occupied new towns, although this broke down after the 1997 Mazar defeat.’2
The third fault line of Taliban, that emanates from the sectarian and its own organisational dynamics is absolute concentration of power in the Taliban Chief. During Taliban’s first regime in 1990s, this led to a rift between the Kabul Shura and the Kandahar Shura. One of the telling examples of this rift was an incident that happened in April 1998 after the visit of US envoy Bill Richardson to Kabul. The Kabul Shura headed by Mullah Rabbani had agreed to implement Richardson’s agenda but the very next day Mullah Omar in Kandahar rejected it. This was one of the many such incidents.
Meanwhile, a strong resistance within Afghanistan was building up to counter Taliban with popular support. In January, 1997 four Taliban recruiters were killed by villagers in Kandahar as the villagers protested forced conscription. Taliban was forcibly recruiting youth to strengthen its membership which was opposed by common people. In October 98, Taliban arrested 60 people in Jalalabad alleging there was a coup attempt. Two months after that, Taliban shot dead a student and wounded many others during a protest at the medical faculty of Nangarhar University in Jalalabad, the largest city in eastern Afghanistan which also witnessed many protest strikes against Taliban.
In 1998-99, there were several incidents where Taliban troops indulged in looting and robbery. This was an indication of growing indiscipline and loss of control of the top leadership on its own ranks. This also led to an increased speculation about an intra-Taliban war even as Mullah Omar tried to keep this flock together.
‘Thus the Taliban, like the Mujaheddin before them, had resorted to one-man rule with no other organisational mechanism to accommodate other ethnic groups or points of view.’3
(to be continued)
- Taliban: The Story of Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan Books(PP. 98)
- Taliban: The Story of Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan Books(PP. 100)
- Taliban: The Story of Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan Books(PP. 104)