international analysis and commentary

Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the blurred line between insurgency and terrorism


In June 2015, almost fourteen years after the start of the US-led war against Al-Qaeda and its Afghan Taliban host, the White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz referred to the latter as “armed insurgents”, and not “terrorists.” This characterization of the Taliban comes at a time when the government in Kabul and the Afghan people are suffering some of the bloodiest attacks by them since 2001.

To add insult to injury, Schultz spoke right around when Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, and Sirajudin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani Network – two groups that are onthe US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations – pledged allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the new leader of the Afghan Taliban. Is it really fair then to draw a clear line between one and the other?

Such broad-stroke characterization stems from the failure to understand these groups’ core ideological and historical narrative, which they employ to define themselves and unite with each other. In order to grasp the essence of this narrative, one needs to take a closer look at the developments that took place in the region spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak) during the Russian invasion in the 1980s.

At the time, fundamentalist movements ranging from the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia to the Pakistan-based Deobandi is freely proselytized among Afghan refugees, spreading an extremist and violent interpretation of Islam. They established thousands of Madrassas (religious schools) along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. And they gradually sidelined the traditional Islamic mysticism and the Sufi orders that had held swayin the region before the war against the occupation. The emphasis these movements put on a radical, highly politicized vision of Islam and on the concept of global jihad by violent means, to establish what they perceived a “true” Islamic government, created fertile territory for the emergence of both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, as well as of other extremist groups.

The legitimacy of the Taliban as an Islamist movement is based on this carefully crafted socio-historical narrative, which was promoted by ideologues such as Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, the so-called father of global Jihad. He claimed that Afghanistan had a special place in the Islamic world because the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate was established in the 8th Century AD thanks to the efforts of medieval Afghans, or Khurasanids – this denomination recalling the traditional name of Afghanistan, Khurasan.

I still remember listening to the radio broadcast of a sermon by Mullah Niazi, one of the top Taliban commanders after the Taliban took Mazar-e Sharif in mid-1998. He quoted Al-Jahiz, a 9th century Egyptian historian, on the centrality of Afghanistan, and of the Taliban, in inspiring the global movement for the establishment of a new Islamic caliphate: “…in one of his address, Imam Ibrahim Mohammad ibn Ali, Abbasid Imam said: Kufa and Sawad [early Islamic name for South Iraq] are Ali’s partisans, those of Basra are supporters of Othman… those of Syria know no one except the family of Mu’awiya (Al Mu’awiya) and nothing except obedience to the Umayyads, those of Mecca and Medina believe only in Abu Bakr and Umar. You have therefore to turn your effort towards Khurasan. There, are found brave men of strong hearts, unaffected by passions and not distracted by heterodoxies.”

The fact that ISIS refuses to call nation-states in the AfPak region by their names and uses Khurasan instead to denote the region as a whole flows from the same narrative. Furthermore, the Taliban justify their proximity and sometime cooperationwith other more or less violent Islamist groups around South and Central Asia on the basis that the Afghans are the only people of the Muslim faith who have managed to wage a victorious Jihad. In this light, Afghanistan becomes not only a safe haven, but also a role model for extremists around the world.

In light of this juxtaposition of past and present, of “doctrine” and “practice”, the Al-Qaeda leadership was welcomed in Afghanistan right after the establishment of the Taliban regime. It was free to operate as it pleased and was supplied training bases for its fighters and facilities for their families. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged allegiance to the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar as the Amir ul Mominin (Commander of the Faithful). Later on, members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were also invited to come to Afghanistan and establish bases. In a gesture of solidarity with the IMU, the Taliban bestowed the title of Amir of Central Asia (Mawara un Nahr) to the group’s late leader Juma Namangani. Subsequently the Taliban government recognized Chechnya as an independent countryand hundreds of Chechen fighters with their families moved to Afghanistan to fight besidethe Taliban. Many members of these groups are still fighting alongside the Taliban against the Afghan government.

On the surface, keeping the Taliban off the US terrorist list appears to have some advantages. The American and Afghan governments have been able to engage in peace talks with the Taliban. These negotiations would have been difficult to initiate hadthe Taliban been a designated terrorist organization. Also, the rebranding of the Talibanas insurgents gives the US and Afghanistan some leverage over the Taliban’s biggest supporters in the region, especially Pakistan. This too should help bring the Taliban to the table.

However, the failure of the international community to go to the roots of the problem and clearly define terrorism, as well as their attempts at dividing terrorist groups, including the Taliban, into “good” and “bad”, has only encouraged more countries around the world to use these groups as proxies. It has also hindered efforts to formulate a comprehensive and cohesive strategy to combat violent extremism effectively. In South Asia, the Taliban and their fellow radical movements capitalize on this confusion as a means to justify their brutal tactics, further expand their sphere of influence and encourage other newer formations like ISIS to spread terror all over the world.

In the end, while the Afghan government and its international allies, especially the US and the European Union, hope to bring the Taliban into the political process, the Taliban have resisted all calls to do so and continue to pursue their violent strategy across Afghanistan. Taking advantage of regional rivalries, they are also making contact with various powers in their neighborhood, namely Iran and Russia. In January 2016, Russia’s official envoy to Afghanistan said that Moscow was now working with the Afghan Taliban in order to stop the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the region. By doing so,they are not only presenting themselves as a political force, but also legitimizing their radical ideology.

Given past experience, there is no guarantee that they will not cooperate with violent extremists groups in the future like they have done with the likes of Al-Qaeda in the past. If that were to happen again, the ultimate price would be paid not only by innocent Afghan civilians, but also by people across the AfPak region, if not the world.