Why the US could not Uproot Taliban in the last 20 years?

Dr Gadde Omprasad
28th August 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

The revitalization of Taliban in Afghanistan raised many important questions like, why the US coalition forces even after spending 20 years and more than 2 trillion US $ could not uproot Taliban? In spite of fighting for 20 years with the US and its allies, how could Taliban survive for such a long time? What kept it alive? How did Taliban secure the power in such a short time? A careful examination of Taliban and its organizational structure and working style might provide the answers to these questions.

The organizational structure of Taliban is divided into three layers. The top layer includes supreme leadership, military commission, zonal and provincial governors, provincial commission (five top-level commanders) and a sharia court consisting one qazi and two ulemas. This top level leadership controls all the activities of Taliban, including its operations, spread of ideology, shaping political objectives, religious beliefs, guidance to sympathizers and issues orders in a hierarchical manner. In all aspects, a thorough doctrine of obedience, i.e. obedience to the leader is mandatory. The orders issued by the higher authority have to be followed and are unquestionable. It is this principle, discipline and loyalty to the orders that kept Taliban alive. Though the Taliban top-level leadership were not visible and did not appear in public, they kept issuing the directions to the cadre.

It is believed that they were hiding in the Khyber Phaktunkhwa, North and South Waziristan regions of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan under the secured shelter provided by militant groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Haqqani Network. These regions are under Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which are autonomous, largely ruled and controlled by local ethnic tribal groups. Geographically and topographically, the region is difficult to penetrate by the armed forces without being noticed and supported by the locals. These features kept the top-level leadership to hide in safe heavens for years from where they could issue orders, direct the actions and control the cadres.

The second layer leadership works at the district levels. District commission members, local commanders fit into this layer. Throughout the US and its allies presence in Afghanistan, this layer, kept the Taliban presence alive. Though the US operations drove away the Taliban from power, they never really disappeared from the scene and controlled at least 5 percent of Afghan territory during the peaks of US operations by 2005 and as the US decreased its operations, the territory controlled by Taliban increased to more than 60 percent by the end of 2015. This indicates that the Taliban were never out of the scene and continued to attack government and foreign properties throughout the country.

The third layer forms the Taliban cadre who are drawn largely from interior rural areas and among Pashtun communities. This cadre would be from time to time brainwashed about the righteous duties of jihad and religious practices, which is aimed at establishing a divinely ordered Islamic system in Afghanistan. The modern technology and information sharing through mobile phones kept them committed in their mission. It became difficult for both the secret service groups and state agencies to identify and recognize the cadre as they were camouflaged in the Afghan society. The ethnic affinity also made it difficult to estimate the real numbers as the cadre of Taliban mainly consisted of Pashtun tribes, which forms a large segment of Afghan and Pakistan populations. About 55 percent of Afghan and 25 percent of Pakistan populations consists of Pashtuns.

As the Taliban increased its presence in rural areas, the recruitment of cadre also increased accordingly. Though the cadres were not paid salaries, reports suggest that they were given pocket money to cover food, accommodation, daily expenses and travel. The rural unemployment and forceful recruitment made it easy for the Taliban to surge the numbers of the cadre. Revenues were raised through opium cultivation, drug trafficking, extortions, taxation, foreign funding, war looting etc. The fear of punishment for non-obedience and misuse of revenues collected prevented the group from disorganizing. Supplies of arms were never a problem. Illegal Arms making units and markets are abundantly available in Pak-Afghan border villages like Darra near Peshawar in NWFP which has centuries of history of making arms by local Pashtun and Afridi tribals.

What kept the cadres of Taliban intact and motivated is the regular support received from the fellow Islamic radical groups such as Haqqani Network, Al Qaida, TTP, Lashkar-e-Taiba and others. For example, Haqqani Network would create sensations by attacking foreign forces using human bombs. The sacrifices made by these human bombers would be hailed as the highest form of service to the divine and would be used to inspire the masses. Way back in 1995, the network which consists of about 10 thousand fighters pledged to align with Taliban.

Though the US, its allies and the Afghan government tried to keep away the Taliban from the mainstream Afghan society, they could not prevent the militant group to attract the manpower and maintain training camps particularly in the interior rural areas and across the borders in autonomous Tribal areas in Pakistan. The refugee camps in Pakistan along the borders of Afghanistan, which hosts more than 3 million Afghan refugees, would act as feeders as thousands of youth are unemployed and seeks livelihood. The same region was used as a training ground for Mujahideen forces, which fought against Soviets in 1980s. The infrastructure raised during that time by Pakistan with the help of the US was used against the US and its coalition forces after 20 years.

Now the Taliban is going to be in power for a long time as the world community is busy fighting Covid and its economic implications. India must be cautious of the implications of the rise of Taliban as it can influence the Kashmiri militant groups. Already there are indications that the Kashmir oriented militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Muzahideen have aligned with Taliban. India has to be careful in its approach towards Taliban. India must keep its contacts with the government of Afghanistan led by Taliban otherwise India will lose its grounds, which will be filled by anti-India elements.


*The Author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Central University of Sikkim, Gangtok


Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author