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The Taliban: a split personality?

It’s not just the Taliban’s tactics that have changed. Its structure, ideology and members have evolved too since 2001. Paula Hanasz reviews a recent analysis of how and why this has taken place.

Revolutionary songs exalt those who once banned all music. Videos portray the exploits of the glorious guerillas, who are fighting to eradicate all images of animate things. Mobile phones and the Internet abet an organization that bombs and threatens telecommunications companies. Welcome to the world of the neo-Taliban.

These scenes are vividly described in Antonio Giustozzi’s latest book, which focuses solely on Afghanistan’s insurgency in the period 2002-2007. Giustozzi outlines how he sees the swelling insurgency as part of an international jihadist movement and how the current Taliban differs as an entity ideologically and tactically to its pre-2001 predecessors.

Giustozzi’s ‘Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop’ argues that the neo-Taliban’s use of technology has seen a change in tactics of both propaganda and weaponry. The neo-Taliban have adopted from their foreign jihadist allies a more liberal attitude toward imported technologies and techniques: tapes and CDs of jihadist songs sell well in markets despite a government ban, video cameras are taken into battle, and commanders now come equipped with laptops, even when operating in Afghanistan where reliable electricity is rare.

Propaganda videos show confessions and executions of ‘spies’, interviews with successful commanders and episodes from worldwide ‘jihads’ (especially Iraq). Since 2003 the neo-Taliban have also invested in hundreds of motorcycles, using them for transport, reconnaissance, communications, battlefield coordination, and attacks against road blocks. The motorbikes are usually fitted with mobile phone chargers.

The significance of foreign links, Giustozzi argues, is the shifting of the insurgency objective from simple liberation to global jihad

The neo-Taliban are still lagging behind their Iraqi counterparts in the manufacture of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), but the lag narrowed considerably in 2006.

Likewise the technology of suicide bombs and skills of volunteers improved significantly, bringing the failure rate down from 60-70 per cent in 2004, to 10-15 per cent a year later. Some improved weaponry has undisputedly been coming in from abroad, and the Taliban themselves have admitted to receiving technical help and financing from Arabs.

Such internationalization is the second way that the neo-Taliban distinguish themselves. While the ‘old’ Taliban are generally not flocking to the new jihad, foreigners (especially Arabs and Pakistanis) are.

However Giustozzi is sceptical about how much this has helped the insurgency. He points out that commanders, who are always Afghan, often find the foreign volunteers undisciplined and extreme in their behaviour – some have been asked to leave so as not to alienate local populations.

And it is the foreigners, unfamiliar with the terrain and without ties to local populations, who have the highest mortality rate. The significance of foreign links, Giustozzi argues, is the shifting of the insurgency objective from simple liberation to global jihad.

The ‘occupiers’ are not the primary targets of neo-Taliban attacks. This is a deliberate tactic, borrowed from Iraq, of keeping the allied forces in and wearing them out. In this way the neo-Taliban strategy differs from classic insurgency. Victory is to be achieved at the global level or not at all.

A war - but what kind?

Giustozzi attempts to fit these shifting tactics and attitudes into recognizable patterns and theories. Are the neo-Taliban fighting a ‘war of the flea’? Have they been reading Mao Tse-tung? Does the insurgency fit a ‘fourth generation warfare’ model? Or is it a combination of all three?

Giustozzi tentatively concludes that a ‘war of the flea’ was being fought until 2005 when the internationalist jihadist tendency started emerging. But he is hesitant to press the point too much and seems to invite the reader to discuss, debate and form their own opinion.

He concedes that it is as yet unclear whether this tendency for international jihad will continue or boil down to something resembling the Islamicist parties of Pakistan which, while reactionary, accept electoral competition.

But even if the insurgency in Afghanistan is part of a global movement, the neo-Taliban still spend per year less than 1 per cent of what the US military spend in Afghanistan per month; their field radios are commercial fixed frequency types, giving anyone open access to their battle plans; and even with improvements in IED and suicide bomb technology and imported weaponry, their arsenals are inferior to NATO’s. So why then does Giustozzi’s state that he feels the counter-insurgency effort is failing?

The insurgency, he claims, would be a mere annoyance had it not been able to exploit the intrinsic weakness of the Afghan state (both pre- and post-2001)

Giustozzi sees strategic inconsistency as part of the problem. He argues that US efforts wavered between the traditional approach (continuously eradicating Taliban strongholds to prevent consolidation of power) and the alternative of prevention, through aid and development. He is not convinced that either strategy - even if followed consistently - could have resulted in an unambiguous defeat of the insurgents.

The insurgency, he claims, would be a mere annoyance had it not been able to exploit the intrinsic weakness of the Afghan state (both pre- and post-2001), and therefore technical solutions will not resolve an ultimately political problem.

Like the counter insurgency effort, this book has been put together ‘on the run’. Though written in only a few months, it is comprehensive, lucid and focused; only the occasionally shoddy diagrams and tables betray the haste with which they were produced.

The author has been researching and writing about Afghanistan for over a decade, and supplements his (exhaustively referenced) sources with his own extensive interviews with Taliban and coalition members. Giustozzi has intimate knowledge of key players, tribal systems and rivalries, and the histories of local power struggles.

Though not nearly as readable as Ahmed Rashid’s 2001 classic ‘Taliban’, the strength of the book is its currency: this is not a post-facto analysis of what went wrong and what should have gone right. It is not a polemical or normative thesis. It is short and hastily written precisely because it concerns an ongoing, continuously unraveling phenomenon. Giustozzi explicitly wishes to stimulate and engage policy debate, not provide an autopsy.

Giustozzi has sacrificed breadth of coverage for timeliness. The outcome is a sort of work-in-progress, a first attempt to define the neo-Taliban and catalogue the insurgency in order to stimulate policy discussion amongst those who may influence the outcomes of the counter-insurgency effort.

This is not just a who’s who of terrorism in Afghanistan since 2002. It’s also a what’s what, and why’s why.

Paula Hanasz

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