Ibrahim Moiz describes how the internal cohesiveness and organisational structure of the Taliban allowed them to weather the 20-year long US occupation of Afghanistan, without the fragmentation seen in other counter-insurgency operations.
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The United States’ defeat in its longest war, the twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan, was the latest in a series of unsuccessful foreign invasions of that rugged and battle-scarred land; only some thirty years earlier, Washington’s archenemy the Soviet Union had stumbled from its own occupation in a dazed disarray that soon brought it down.
Yet the Taliban emirate’s comeback to power in 2021 had a conspicuous difference from the mujahideen who had ejected the Red Army in 1989; where the latter swooped into a tragically fratricidal war that quickly cost Afghanistan the spoils of its survival, the Taliban movement swept back to power in a remarkably swift, almost seamless campaign that surprised even themselves with its speed.
A major factor was the largely unified and cohesive nature of the Taliban movement as compared to its predecessors, a factor that shall be examined here.
Though the Taliban triumph was simply the latest of a number of successful insurgencies in the Global South, including the Muslim world, it was in some ways the unlikeliest.
The independence wars of Indonesia (1940s), Algeria (1950s), and the short-lived Chechen republic (1990s) took place against crisis-riven European empires; Indonesia and Algeria, like the 1980s Afghan insurgency, also benefited from considerable international sympathy and support.
Circumstances seemed far worse for the Taliban in 2001: the United States straddled the world stage a unipolar behemoth, while several factors – among them the international isolation of the emirate since the 1990s and outrage at the Afghan-based Al-Qaeda network’s terrorism – starved the Taliban of similar support from foreign observers.
“Unlike other widespread, multipronged insurgencies, the Taliban insurgency grew from a compact, pre-existent core: thus they never had the problem of mediating between several political factions that haunts so many insurgencies.”
Even the invasion of Iraq that shortly followed provoked far more international outcry than the war in Afghanistan.
The paradoxical advantages of pariah status
Yet this proved, in organisational terms, a paradoxical advantage.
Whereas the mujahideen of the 1980s had no shortage of possibly competing international supporters – including Islamabad, Riyadh, Tehran, Washington, Beijing, London, Paris, Cairo, and Tripoli – there were no such competing agendas to consider for the Taliban insurgency.
They were only tacitly tolerated by a Pakistan wary of the strong Indian influence in the American-installed government, but that was far more constrained than had been Islamabad’s open support for the Afghan insurgency in the 1980s.
One contrast between the Taliban and most other insurgents was that they had once led a government, however makeshift and impoverished, before the American invasion. Unlike such widespread, multipronged insurgencies as in 1980s Afghanistan or 2010s Syria, the Taliban insurgency grew from a compact, preexistent core: thus they never had the problem of mediating between several political factions that haunts so many insurgencies.
Another factor was a particularly sharp aversion to fragmentation, since the Taliban movement had been founded in reaction to the fragmentation of preceding mujahideen groups.
A third factor was relative cohesion, part of which owed to the fact that most Taliban fronts were recruited from the same social networks –Islamic preachers, teachers, and students (taliban) that had been part and parcel of rural Afghan society for generations, only politicised and militarised by the societal upheaval of recent decades.
Where taliban fighters in the nineteenth century had mostly followed the instructions of such tribal or local leaders as led those campaigns, such traditional leadership had been largely uprooted since the 1970s, and the alternative – militia commanders whose claim to leadership more often than not lay in strength of arms – provoked enough mayhem for Islamic students in such provinces as Kandahar to try and fill the vacuum.
The close, if narrow, links of the the early Taliban founders can be seen in their founding generation: their emir, Umar Mujahid, was a “first among equals” in a network of close friends, relatives, or colleagues that comprised many of the Taliban’s early leaders: surviving founders from Umar’s network include his successor Akhtar Mansur, today’s prime minister Hasan Akhundzada, his second-in-command Abdul-Ghani Baradar, and finance minister Gul-Agha Hidayatullah.
As the movement expanded, other similar networks were incorporated: this was most obvious in southeast Afghanistan’s mountainous Loya Paktia region, where such veteran mujahideen commanders as Jalaluddin Haqqani were incorporated into the Taliban leadership and retained considerable regional autonomy partly because they came from similar taliban backgrounds.
Taliban Cabinet Meeting, September 2021
Defections by non-Taliban mujahideen fronts, who were usually disarmed or absorbed into the Taliban army, also helped the movement expand. In part this was because the Taliban, not particularly linked to any faction or clan, were able to navigate local politics.
In part it stemmed from the considerable donations they received from local communities, from traders anxious for security, and eventually from Pakistan. And in part this was because their simple, austere messaging to an Islamic order drew on, and seemed to rescue, the legacy of the jihad that they perceived as having been hijacked by self-serving leaders.
Much of the Taliban had largely belonged to the political groups of two mujahideen leaders, Muhammad Muhammadi and Younas Khalis, who had sat out the Hizb-Jamiat civil war and whose parties largely merged into the new organisation. Yet other mujahideen had also been seen as Islamic fighters; this was not exclusive to the Taliban, even if they tended to be more attendant, at a level approaching the obsessive-compulsive, to their conduct than most others.
Their appeal was complemented by a surprisingly effective organisational structure, which struck a mostly stable balance between a unified structure and regional variance.
Comparative organisations in Afghanistan
Before proceeding further it is helpful to compare the Taliban with other political-cum-military organisations that spanned Afghanistan: the Ikhwan-descended mujahideen factions Hizb and Jamiat, led by Gulbadin Hikmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani respectively, and the Junbish Front, a coalition of northern militiamen led by ex-communist mercenary Abdul-Rashid Dostum.
Rabbani and Hikmatyar had led the 1975 Ikhwani revolt, after whose failure the militants split.
Hikmatyar took the lion’s share, forging in Hizb a disciplined, well-indoctrinated, and tightly run revolutionary group – factors that stood out in the otherwise decentralised 1980s insurgency. These advantages were undermined, however, by the character of the leader who played such a central role; Hikmatyar was infamously abrasive and suspicious of other groups, believing that they should by rights unite under his leadership, while often alienating them with his ruthlessness and his especially close links to Islamabad.
This often alienated lieutenants who otherwise shared Hikmatyar’s ideology: Hizb fragmented repeatedly into rival groups, a factor that only fuelled Hikmatyar’s paranoia and fuelled the cycle, leaving the group a shadow of itself.
Hekmetyar (left) meets Taliban representative Anas Haqqani (right) (August 2021)
Jamiat had quite a different problem; Rabbani was much more willing to delegate to talented field commanders and let them manage their fronts, but this led to such a decentralisation that such influential Jamiat commanders as Shah Massoud, Ismail Khan, and Ata Noor became practically autonomous as regional potentates with distinct armies.
Forced to rely particularly on the militarily superb Massoud in his war against Hikmatyar, Rabbani was never able to mobilise Jamiat collectively.
This “regionalist” tendency reached a destructive peak in Junbish, in essence a confederation of northern militia commanders – from both sides of the communist-mujahideen divide – whose main commonality was their loyalty to Dostum in exchange for autonomy.
Junbish was infamous for brutality and pillage, its commanders acting effectively as feudal barons. In spite of their ferocious fighting reputation, such commanders were often resented by their subjects and willing to switch sides for the right price.
These factors would see Junbish crumble against such sustained opposition as the Taliban offered.
“The Taliban lacked both the sharp centralisation of Hizb-i Islami and the laissez-faire regionalism of Jamiat-e Islami.
At each level, officials were regularly rotated – for example, current prime minister Hasan Akhundzada served at the top level as deputy prime minister, interior minister, foreign minister, and governor-general in turn during the 1990s.”
Prime minister Hasan Akhundzada
The Taliban lacked both the sharp centralisation of Hizb and the laissez-faire regionalism of Jamiat.
During the emirate, a pattern emerged of three distinct levels – national, provincial, and local – to which Taliban officials were assigned in a rough order of seniority. The top level included such positions as the main cabinet positions and the regional governors-general; the middle level included corps commanders and provincial governors; and the local level included district-level officials.
At each level, officials were regularly rotated – for example, current prime minister Hasan served at the top level as deputy prime minister, interior minister, foreign minister, and governor-general in turn during the 1990s.
At the secondary level, yesterday’s governor of Logar could be rotated to today’s governor of Helmand.
This pattern only shifted slightly in the insurgency, insofar as commanders at the secondary level were often rotated in the same broad region – today’s Faryab governor Attaullah Umari, to take an example, had formerly held the same position in the neighbouring provinces of Juzjan and Saripul, but never been rotated around the northwest region.
The reason for this appears to be that a politically vulnerable insurgency, far more than a government, requires regional expertise.
Regional commands, officially subservient to the Taliban’s leadership council, were set up to coordinate this activity: the most famous is the Waziristan-based council led by the Haqqanis, who have dominated much of the Taliban shadow government in their native Loya Paktia region.
Finally – unlike the stricter structure of Hizb – Taliban commands in the insurgency were fairly flexible in order to match the official “shadow government” positions with field commanders whose influence extended beyond their remit.
For example, the influence of provincial commanders Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim in Helmand and Abdul-Salam Baryalai in Kunduz extended far beyond their assigned provinces.
Revolving and resolving in Taliban disputes
None of this necessarily insulated the Taliban leadership at any level from disputes, especially given the active counterinsurgency attempt to fragment the insurgency.
Disputes have never quite gone away even in the Taliban’s top rungs – the insurgency’s early years saw Daddullah Lang, an unpredictable but militarily valuable wildcard, and his straitlaced counterpart Akhtar Usmani reportedly escalate to fist-fighting, and during the early 2010s Taliban second-in-command Akhtar Mansur and military commander Abdul-Qayum Zakir constantly squabbled.
Competition also increased with a windfall of Taliban leaders’ releases from prison in the early 2010s; Mansur, for instance, promoted the recently released Ibrahim Sadar as a foil to Zakir. Yet this was usually resolved within the insurgency’s structures.
The major exception to Taliban conflict containment came in the mid-2010s.
Already facing a challenge by Daesh – who had flipped Abdul-Rauf Khadim, Zakir’s former colleague, and several lower-ranked commanders in the east – the Taliban leadership faced a crisis when their founder Umar’s death was leaked by Kabul. Mansur’s swift assumption of the succession annoyed many colleagues in the Taliban’s top rung, some of whom resigned after unsuccessfully nominating Umar’s son Yaqub as his father’s successor.
But the most serious reaction came from a group of mostly Nurzai commanders in western Afghanistan, who mutinied in western Afghanistan and continued to serve as a serious headache right until their leader Abdul-Mannan Niazi was killed in spring 2021.
“Most speculation over Taliban appointments, which darkly warn of impending internal struggles, misses the key point that rotation is a typical function; only the Taliban emir is considered exempt.
This mutiny presented the Taliban with its most serious internal challenge; even as they attacked the mutineers, Mansur’s faction tried to win over dissidents by promoting a respected and inobtrusive Nurzai judge, Hibatullah Akhundzada, as his presumptive successor.
When Hibatullah replaced Mansur the following year, the mutiny lost steam as Nurzai dissidents reconciled. Playing a key role in the smooth transition was Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin Haqqani and Umar’s son Yaqub, both of whom deputised for Hibatullah.
As a broad rule, the regular rotations at each level have reduced potential tensions over specific portfolios.
For example, a recently-promoted Sadar quietly turned over his military command to Zakir after only a few months in 2014, and both subsequently deferred to Yaqub when he took over as the Taliban’s defence minister.
By the same token, it is not surprising that Baradar deputises for the lesser-known Hasan, in spite of some media conjecture that this represents a point.
In the Taliban structure, often rotated and not especially formal, losing an official post does not equate to losing one’s influence: an ousted official is still part of the same level of Taliban leadership, and may well recover his former position in the next rotation.
Most speculation over Taliban appointments, which darkly warn of impending internal struggles, misses the key point that rotation is a typical function; only the Taliban emir is considered exempt.
This does not mean that the Taliban structure will withstand any pressures; every movement has a shelf life, and every political group breaks down at some point. But the history of Taliban organisation, during emirate and insurgency alike, shows a level of flexibility, sophistication, and adaptability that bely their homespun roots and has so far served them well as an organization.
Giustozzi, Antonio. Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. London: Hurst Publishers, 2007.
Giustozzi, Antonio. The Taliban at War, 2001-2018. London: Hurst Publishers, 2019.
Nojumi, Neamatollah. The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Mass mobilization, civil war, and the future of the region. New York: Palgrave & Macmillan, 2002.
Sinno, Abdulkader. Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.
Images in this article used courtesy of Twitter/Muhammad Jalal & Muhammad Haris
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