A recent Washington Post report on Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency highlighted a fact about the nature of the Taliban that should have been obivous for some time. The group has, for a considerable amount of time now, lost its monolithic identity. Not all members of the Taliban in 2015 resemble the caricatured ultra-religious fundamentalists the world came to know in the late-1990s and early-2000s. The report, for example, begins with a portrait of Taliban in the northern areas of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, where the leadership “allows girls to attend school” and the “fighters are not Pashtun.” “The Taliban here are against the ideology of the Taliban in the south,” notes one former Taliban member. WaPo hits home the point by noting that this former member “has a Facebook page, tweets regularly and wears a beanie emblazoned with ‘NY.'”
In fact, the dynamic identified in the report has long been at play in Afghanistan. In particular, it is one of the major reasons initial attempts at a U.S.-brokered peace process in Doha, Qatar between the Afghan government and the Taliban failed. The Afghan government at the time, furious at the Taliban’s attempt to portray itself as a “government-in-exile” in Qatar, wanted guarantees that no attacks would occur. This was something the Taliban “leadership” in Qatar could not grant even if they wanted to, simply because the hierarchical chain-of-command within the Taliban that existed up until the late-2000s at best had broken down in favor of localized factions identifying as “Taliban.” To be sure, these groups maintained their overarching allegiance to Mullah Omar, the group’s patriarch and spiritual leader, and also resisted Afghanistan’s governance. Nevertheless, in areas where these groups maintained control, there was no standard practice in terms of social or economic order.
Additionally, as the Afghan government under Karzai consolidated control and began to successfully govern Afghanistan’s borderlands, many of these Taliban factions saw their objectives shifting. For example, as hinted at in the WaPo investigation, the surprisingly “progressive” Badakhshan Taliban are focused on gaining control of the strategic geographic nexus where Afghanistan borders Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan, an area that has immense value as a “gateway for the smuggling of opium to Europe.”
In strategic terms, for the Afghan government and remaining international forces, this ideological and practical “branching out” of the Taliban is both a threat and an opportunity. It is a threat because the task of preempting Taliban attacks or generally understanding the group’s intentions for advancing its territorial control are more complex. Additionally, more “moderate” manifestations of the Taliban, such as the one described in the WaPo piece in Badakhshan, could have greater popular appeal with local populations. Meanwhile, the lack of complete national coordination by the Taliban means the Afghan National Army’s enemy is scattered and comparatively weak. In fact, as the Taliban has disintegrated into regional franchises, Afghanistan’s national security apparatus has grown more sophisticated.
As a final thought, one worrying outcome of the Taliban building influence in areas where it previously struggled is border security. In Badakhshan and elsewhere, a growing Taliban presence means an inability of the Afghan state (and indeed the Tajik state) to effectively govern cross-border traffic, leading to concerns about smuggling, trafficking, and even cross-border terrorism. As Shah Waliullah Adeeb, the provincial governor in Badakhshan told WaPo, “They are trying to make northern Afghanistan insecure … They can use it as a base to attack other Central Asian countries.”