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Organized force

Gabriel DomínguezAugust 9, 2013

A new UN report blames the Taliban for a sharp rise in violence against civilians. In a DW interview, Afghanistan expert Kristian Berg Harpviken examines the structure, tactics and aims of the militants.

This file photo taken on September 26, 2008 shows fighters with Afghanistan's Taliban militia standing on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak province, west of Kabul. (Photo: AFP)
Image: STR/AFP/Getty Images

DW: Militarily speaking, who are the Taliban?

Kristian Berg Harpviken: The Taliban are an organized fighting force. They combine a relatively strong central command with a networked structure in which each of the various factions operate with considerable independence. Establishing control over certain territories has been a main rationale for the Taliban. While their military tactics have changed a lot, their ultimate objectives have not. For the Taliban, military capacity and the ability to control territory are key to their success.

Kristian Berg Harpviken is director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Copyright. PRIO.
Harpviken believes the Taliban have rebuilt their fighting capacityImage: PRIO

There is no way to be certain about their numbers, but estimates indicate that they have some 15,000 full time fighters within their ranks, and at least as many fighting part-time. Their numbers dropped heavily after the US-led intervention in 2001.

However, the remains of the Taliban leadership - greatly helped by an unpopular foreign military presence and a contested Afghan government - have managed to gradually rebuild the group's fighting capacity.

How are the Taliban related to al Qaeda?

There is considerable interaction between the two entities, but there are also many differences. On the one hand, al Qaeda is focused on a global struggle and recruits primarily disgruntled Muslims with higher education levels. The Taliban, on the other hand, are focused on Afghanistan and recruit fighters mostly among rural Afghan Pashtuns with low-level Islamic education. The tensions between the two have always run high, and the cooperation is largely dictated by necessity, as a reflection of the international isolation prior to 2001 and the common international military front (since 2001).

It is also worth noting that the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban are different entities, with the latter coming into existence much later as an umbrella organization for a variety of radical Pakistani groups. While some groups within the Pakistani Taliban are close to their Afghan counterparts, others are quite distant.

Is it fair to label the Taliban a terror group?

If you regard causing 'terror' as a military tactic that aims at spreading fear by targeting civilians, then the Taliban can undoubtedly be categorized as a terror group. Moreover, much of its terror tactics have been learned, partly by emulation, partly through systematic instruction, from the experience of al Qaeda in Iraq and elsewhere.

Do the Taliban rely on a worldwide support network?

No. Unlike many other rebel groups around the world, the Taliban don't have the support of a strong global network. The exception is Pakistan, where a large part of the Taliban leadership resides. The militant group has undoubtedly received assistance from the Pakistan's security apparatus. The Taliban also draw support from the large Afghan refugee population residing in Pakistan.

What are the Taliban's main strategies?

The Taliban combine an agile and adaptive military tactic with political appeal. On the political side, the Taliban's main attraction is that it confronts what many see as an aggressive international occupation and a dysfunctional Afghan government. Concretely, we have seen how the Taliban has gradually expanded its area of operation, oftentimes through a careful three-step model where it starts with political cultivation, moves on to targeted military raids, and finally to a full-time military presence over a three-year period. A major element in the Taliban's strategy has been the establishment of local shadow administrations, which focus narrowly on security and justice.

How much local support can the Taliban count on?

I would say the Taliban have considerable support in their core areas in the south and east, but that much of that support is conditioned on the absence of alternatives. The dynamic is not solely political; there is also a very trivial element in all of this: local dignitaries and others not privileged by the government are attracted to the Taliban. Furthermore, the Taliban are able to offer certain services that the government cannot offer. Their Islamic courts are a prime example, acting swiftly and with no room for corruption, and are therefore often warmly welcomed, despite the cruelty of the punishments.

Afghan villagers stare at US Marines from 2/3 Fox company during a patrol through their village in Farah Province, southern Afghanistan, on September 23, 2009. (Photo: AFP)
The militants have considerable support in south and eastern AfghanistanImage: AFP/Getty Images

Who is backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, both financially and logistically?

The Taliban clearly receive various types of support from elements within the Pakistani state apparatus. They also receive support from various private benefactors in the Islamic part of the world, particularly from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf. Cognizant of how external support creates dependence, the Taliban work hard to develop their own sources of income, particularly through various forms of taxation, drug trafficking and the extraction of natural resources.

Why are the Taliban considered by some to be formidable fighters?

The Taliban have fought in Afghanistan. There are fighters within their ranks with experience from the Afghan army and from other rebel groups in Afghanistan, but the number of people with international experience is probably negligible. That being said, there is little doubt that a systematic transfer of knowledge takes place, particularly with al Qaeda instructors that have made experiences elsewhere.

What are the Taliban's main goals in Afghanistan?

The Taliban's goals are simple: Security and Islamic justice. Security basically means the ability to control the territory to facilitate movement, a measure that has been popular with large parts of the local business networks.

A burqa-clad Afghan woman walks in a cemetery Kabul on November 23, 2011. (Photo: AFP)
The Taliban want to re-implement their interpretation of ShariaImage: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Islamic justice means a traditional strict interpretation of Sharia, with widespread use of physical penalties. Despite occasional rhetoric about Palestine or the holy sites on the Arab peninsula, the Afghan Taliban are politically mainly focused on controlling Afghanistan, with little interest in the global struggle.

Sociologist Kristian Berg Harpviken is director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.