The Taliban Revisited

December 29, 2009

There has been a lot of talk in American news media over the past month about the concept of “good” and “bad” Taliban. This nuance in American national dialogue was diffused in some measure by President Barack Obama’s stated desire to send more troops to Afghanistan in part to help keep conflict there from spilling over into Pakistan. Mr. Obama and his administration have spent a great deal of time discussing with the American people Pakistan’s ongoing struggle with militancy and radicalism, as well as, Pakistan’s past tolerance of members of what has come to be termed the Pakistani Taliban.

The Taliban is a militant Sunni Islamist movement known for spreading authoritarian and anti-modern ideology. Like other Islamist movements, followers of the Taliban argue that Islam is not only a religion but also a political system. The Taliban is not a monolithic movement with followers who hold uniform beliefs and consistent goals. Instead, the Taliban is made up of members from various ethnic Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan, small militant tribes in Pakistan, and political dissidents that include Arabs, Chechens, Indian Punjabis, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others. Members of the movement often hold conflicting ambitions, and this has led researchers, news analysts, and some in the intelligence community to differentiate between these groups and to label some as “good” and some as “bad.” The degree to which these groups are bad is relative to how seriously they threaten national interests at home and abroad and if it is believed that they can be reasoned with.

Conflict in Afghanistan spills over into Pakistan in real time. Conflict within these two neighboring countries is particularly problematic due to the various Taliban actors involved. The war in Afghanistan rightfully focuses on the Afghan Taliban, yet the conflict in Pakistan is caused by the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani government is fighting the Pakistani Taliban, and is unconcerned with the Afghan Taliban. Furthermore, the Pakistan government does not consider the Afghan Taliban to be its enemy. Many within Pakistan’s government believe the war in Afghanistan is inflicting undue turbulence on top of their own country’s instability.

In February 18, 2009, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari formally handed over some parts of Pakistan to the Pakistani Taliban. This was followed by a peace deal which implemented Sharia law in Swat Valley, placing that region firmly under Pakistani Taliban control. These agreements were partially predicated on the idea that various groups within the Pakistani Taliban were “good” and that they could be “reasoned with.” This proved to be untrue, however, and the Pakistani military has subsequently been forcibly removing the Pakistani Taliban from the region ever since.

The lesson to be learned from Pakistan’s troubles is that the concept of “good” and “bad” Taliban is flawed. The Taliban is made up of so many different actors and it’s hierarchy is so fluctuating that the various groups under the Taliban umbrella change their ambitions and alliances over time. Taliban actors are not dependable in either short-term or long-term agreements.

Followers of the Taliban by definition seek to overthrow the political status-quo. Believing that some of these followers could be “good” is a perilous and ill-advised gamble.

For a more in-depth history of the Taliban, see my previous post on the movement.

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