10 years on … who are the Taliban?

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st taliban REUTERS THE BEGINNING: US Marines from Charlie 1/1 of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit fill sandbags around their light mortar position on the frontlines of the US Marine Corps base in southern Afghanistan in this December 2001 photo. Ten years ago, US forces began bombing Afghanistan in retaliation against its Taliban rulers. Picture: Jim Hollander

A decade ago, when US bomber jets and special forces forced the Taliban regime from power in Afghanistan, the movement, which was born in the religious schools of Pakistan’s tribal belts, seemed shattered, never to return.

Since then, the various groups and factions of the Taliban – which means “students” in Arabic and Pashto – have split, regrouped and coalesced into an effective if diffuse guerrilla movement operating in two countries.

They believe Afghanistan and Pakistan should be ruled by strict Islamic law. They are likely to have a prominent voice in any peace settlement on the future of Afghanistan, and have already helped to destabilise Pakistan.

Here are some questions and answers about who the Taliban factions are, and how the fight against them is going:

WHO ARE THE TALIBAN?

The Taliban include several loosely allied factions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The biggest are the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban.

st taliban2 RECENTLY: Residents on horse-led carts hurry past burning fuel tankers along the GT Road near Nowshera, located in Pakistans Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, last year. Picture: Reuters REUTERS

The Afghan Taliban rose to prominence in 1994 under the leadership of Mullah Omar, a former imam and mujahideen guerrilla, whose army of young and fanatical fighters seized power in Afghanistan in 1996 but were ousted by US-backed forces five years later.

Often referred to in shorthand as the Quetta Shura because of its leadership’s base in exile, it prefers to call itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is an umbrella organisation of about 13 groups in Pakistan’s north-western and western tribal areas. Established in December 2007, it is blamed for many suicide bombings across Pakistan. It has also struck US targets in Afghanistan, and it shares some resources and ideology with the Afghan Taliban.

The Haqqani network, based in the lawless tribal areas of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, is perhaps the most politically worrying for the US. The Haqqanis are battling for control over their traditional power base in eastern Afghanistan, spread over Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces. Leader Jalaluddin Haqqani rose to power as a mujahideen leader in the fight against Soviet troops in the 1980s. He allied with the Afghan Taliban after Omar seized Kabul.

Omar is still the nominal head of the entire Taliban movement, and most other factions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan swear loyalty to him as Amir-ul-Mu’minin, or “Leader of the Faithful”.

HOW DO THESE GROUPS OPERATE?

Given the dispersed nature of the groups, the Taliban factions often act like franchises, comprised of myriad regional cells that operate independently at the local level, but which follow the grand strategy and Islamic principles of the movement’s shadowy leadership – primarily Omar’s. A Taliban cell at village level might typically have 10-50 part-time fighters and plenty more local mercenaries.

All three major factions share an ideology of jihad, or holy war. They often share resources, safe houses and fighters, with the Haqqanis often serving as the communications channel.

WHERE ARE THE TALIBAN BASED?

Militant cells are scattered all across both countries, but in Afghanistan are particularly strong in the south, south-west and the eastern frontier with Pakistan, where coalition forces have struggled to flush them out. In Pakistan they operate in the borderlands known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in the north-west of the country.

The leadership of all three factions is likely to be in Pakistan. Omar is believed to be based in Quetta, a Pakistani city about 130km from the Afghan border, but both the Afghan Taliban and Islamabad deny this.

The Haqqanis are primarily active in North Waziristan in Pakistan, and Paktia, Paktika and Khost in Afghanistan. This allows them to funnel men and ammunition into Afghanistan from Pakistan, and their wounded back to safe havens on the eastern side of the border. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operational leader, recently said his group is no longer based in Pakistan but is secure in Afghanistan.

The TTP is based in South Waziristan and throughout the tribal areas. The Pakistani military has been attacking their positions, but attacks and suicide bombings are still relatively common. Some TTP fighters operate in Afghanistan alongside the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis.

HOW MUCH SUPPORT DO THESE GROUPS HAVE?

In many parts of Afghanistan, and particularly among ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras in the north and north-east, many of whom suffered under their rule, the Afghan Taliban are reviled. To some Pashtuns, however, they are seen as defenders of Islam, battling foreign invaders. This view is also widely held in Pakistan.

The TTP enjoys little support in either country, however, because it is blamed for killing up to 35 000 Pakistani civilians, troops and policemen. Many Afghans and US officials accuse Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, of providing support to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.

Pakistan admits to “contacts” with the Haqqanis and other groups.

WHAT’S THE STATE OF THE FIGHT AGAINST THE AFGHAN TALIBAN?

Nato-led and Afghan forces have reported success in securing parts of the country, but there is no guarantee they can keep the Taliban at bay, especially beyond the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.

The recent assassination of former president and Afghanistan’s top peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani was a blow to a fledgling reconciliation process.

The involvement of Pakistan, with its influence over the Taliban, is seen as crucial to any negotiation process, but as long as ties with the US remain strained, it is unlikely the different parties can come to the table any time soon.

WHAT’S THE STATE OF THE FIGHT AGAINST THE TTP?

Pakistani leaders said after a recent all-party meeting attended by top military and intelligence officials they would seek reconciliation with militants to end the insurgency. This led the TTP to say it would consider talks with the Pakistani government if an Arab country such as Saudi Arabia was involved.

Previous peace agreements with militants have usually resulted in Pakistan ceding control over swaths of territory to them with a pledge to maintain the peace, agreements almost always broken by the militants. – Reuters


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