The Taliban as a Social Movement

On December 8, the Yale Afghanistan Forum sponsored a panel entitled, “The Taliban as a Social Movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Speakers were Mariam Abou-Zahab, of Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) at Sciences Po, and Alexander Evans, UK Foreign Office and 2009 Yale World Fellow. Professor Alessandro Monsutti moderated the panel.

The Taliban arose in the Pashtun areas along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although some people believe that the traditional Pashtun tribal structure is intact in this area, and that the Taliban are a temporary aberration, Abou-Zahab and Evans argued that the Taliban represent a transformative social movement.This has implications for those who wish to see the Taliban defeated. The conflict cannot be viewed simply as an insurgency. It is more like a civil war, in which battles are often the continuation of local struggles. Taliban fighters are not mercenaries. They view themselves as a movement for justice, delivering the security and order that the government does not. The Taliban seek to change the existing society, and therefore cannot be appealed to through hierarchical political structures.

Abou-Zahab said that Pashtuns are not homogenous or classless. Rather, they can be divided into four groups:

1. The traditional leaders, who have been discredited by corruption, are seen as bought off by the government.
2. The new rich: merchants and smugglers with transnational ties, who finance the Taliban.
3. The educated class: non-tribal and integrated into the wider society
4. The common people: peasants, the landless and young people who feel alienated from the existing society.

In Swat, poor people often migrate to Karachi or the Gulf states, and come back with money, which increases long-standing land disputes. The war in Afghanistan provides another opportunity for advancement, and honor within a religious context. Often the mullahs are the only element of the traditional leadership that maintains any credibility and, with democracy, poor people often voted them into power. Now they have access to patronage networks, and are here to stay. As conflict continues, there are more and more displaced people. A whole generation has faced extreme violence and is being urbanized by force (for example, Kabul’s population has quadrupled since 1978). These people are easy recruits for the Taliban.

Alexander Evans discussed the Pakistani government’s response. In the tribal areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the government is weak, and when it is present, it is usually in negative ways. Since the days when British “political agents” distributed money to the tribes, tribal leaders have been seen as agents of the government, rather than representatives of the people. The recent violence in Swat has had a greater impact on the Pakistani public and government than earlier border troubles. In Evan’s metaphor, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are like the Appalachian mountains, while Swat, where people have their summer homes, is like Long Island, The government is now realizing the border problem cannot simply be ignored or contained.

Evans described how the lack of a justice system helps the Taliban and other militants. To settle a land dispute, the civil court may take five years, is likely to be corrupt, and its decision will be unenforceable. The tribal jirga is seen as equally corrupt and ineffective. The decision of the local militia leader, however, while it may not go in your favor, will at least be prompt and enforceable. The popular culture also plays a role in the attraction of the Taliban. Fighters can become heroes: it is a path to celebrity in a society with low social mobility. Even the army now propagates stories of martyrdom. In the tribal areas, radio is the primary contact with the outside world, and one pirate radio operator, Mailana Fazlula, has a following among women. He speaks about throwing Americans out of Afghanistan, but also about Islam teaching husbands to treat their wives better, and his female listeners give him their jewelry to finance jihad.

Evans described how what are called the Taliban are really four separate movements.

1. The cross-border insurgency, with action in Afghanistan and leaders in
Pakistan, and support on both sides.
2. Local (non-Taliban) militants in Pakistan, who range from terrorists to
crime bosses.
3. Local (non-Taliban) Afghan militants, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani.
4. The international terrorists, who pose the greatest threat to the outside world, but are often married to local families, and hard to separate from those kinship ties.

Evans mentioned that when he has interviewed people from the tribal areas, they overwhelmingly told him that what they want is development, education and economic opportunities. Both Evans and Abou-Zahab agreed that, while the present generation may be lost, any hope for the future lies with the children.

Many thanks to Mariam Abou-Zahab, Alexander Evans, Alessandro Monsutti, the Gattis Smith Lecture Series, the South Asian Studies Council, the Muslim Students Association, and everyone who attended the event.

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