The Myth of Taliban Tribalism

by Joshua Foust on 7/15/2008 · 2 comments

One of the most frustrating things to read in the shallower punditry and scholarship on the conflict in Afghanistan is the assertion that the Taliban insurgent groups are being driven by tribal loyalties—that, because Mullah Mohammed Omar is a Ghilzai Hotak and Hamid Karzai a Popalzai Durrani, that they are somehow magically compelled toward war since their tribes have historically struggled for control of the country.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Taliban are so dangerous because they break traditional tribal loyalties.

To understand why and how traditional Afghan tribal and village life unraveled, we must go back to the Soviet war. For this, Rubin’s The Fragmentation of Afghanistan serves as a good collection and synthesis of much of the scholarship on the war through the 80’s and early 90’s. The most relevant section of his book (for our purposes at least) is Part III, dealing with the Mujahideen—namely chapters 8 through 11 (which will be summarized in the next several paragraphs).

How Tribe Mattered Less and Less

One of the key organizational units in Afghanistan during the Soviet War were the tanzim, which loosely translates as “political parties.” In reality, they were combination political parties, NGOs, militia recruiters, religious movements, and sectarian armies. As such, they played a complex role in the collapse of traditional village society, and helped to create a society into which the Taliban could thrive. This is very important, as that collapse is key to the reason why chalking up militancy to a Ghilzai/Durrani clash is so daft.

Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, friends by fiat from afar.

The tanzim were not new to Afghanistan at the start of the war—since at least 1973, when Gulbuddin Hekmatyar formed the original Hezb-i Islami as an anti-communist movement later based in Pakistan, they have been at least a marginal presence in Afghan politics. But the way they were promoted at the expense of other traditional Afghan power dynamics permanently altered society.

The result was a dramatic reversal of how Afghan society was normally structured. Indeed, Rubin notes, “the biggest impact of the international system on local power structures in the early 1980s was the penetration of village and tribal society for the first time by political parties.” Without going into too much detail for a blog (quite literally entire books are written on this topic, so this can’t be anything more than a summary) this penetration disrupted the traditional agricultural base of local power, and in their new positions of authority the tanzims relied on smuggling to raise funds. The process of “outsourcing” revenue, as it were, vastly diminished the role and importance of the khans that used to be the main community power brokers, and the nature of Pakistan’s support ensured that any independent khan-based resistance groups would be marginalized. The tanzims—almost all of which were Islamist—slowly became the primary power-groups in Afghanistan during the early 1980s as a result.

Since religious parties ruled supreme over traditional social relationships, the primary method of solving and coordination because the Islamic shura, rather than the Pashtun jirga (the two are used almost interchangeably today, but that was not always the case). By making this process explicitly religious, the tanzims secured their domination of all segments of society, even if their very nature meant they would remain completely dependent on external support to survive—whether direct aid from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, an Pakistan, or through drug smuggling.

Alongside the tanzim, the qawm system was evolving as well. In the 1980s, for example, Kunar was dominated by a aqwm-based coalition, but this was quickly subsumed by the Peshawar Seven as the fighting evolved. This was a monumental shift in how society organized itself. Nazif Shahrani notes:

Ethnicity and kinship, which are expressed linguistically through the same terms, qawm (people, tribe, group), wulus (nation, tribe, relatives), and tyfah (clan, tribe, group), represent the same or similar ideological frameworks in Afghanistan. Together with Islam, they provide the most fundamental bases for individuals and collective identities and loyalties, and they are the most persistent and pervasive potential bases for the organizationl of social formations, for the mobilization of some action, and for the regulation of social interaction among individuals and between social groups.

Thus, while the qawm became almost more important as a means of mobilizing the community into action under one of the tanzim (or even the government, depending on the ethnic group), the specific nature of their identity bases and makeup came to be much more strongly associated with the larger militant group to which they belonged. This is the same process that elevated ethnicity as a primary driver in national politics, as many qawm organized under one of the ethnic or sectarian tanzims that then became, for lack of a better term, voting blocs at the national level. (See also Gilles Dorronsoro in Revolution Unending, and Olivier Roy in Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan).

Khan!  Khaaaaaan!
Ismail Khan, the Emir of Herat, had a strong local power base.

The tanzim interacted with the rest of society in a variety of ways, whether Jamiat-I Islami under Massoud acting like a quasi-Hizbollah, Mahaz-I Milli Islam and Hezb-I Islami (Khalis) building support through the encouragement of extremist religious demagogues, of Hekmatyar’s method of recruiting boys from the madrassas to train into warriors for Lashkar-I Isar.

The end result, however, was that politically motivated religious leaders came to dominate Afghan politics and society. Thus, after the Soviet withdrawal, these leaders lost their common cause, and degenerated into a horrific civil war. Ahmed Rashid documented this fairly well, demonstrating how it led directly to the rise of the Taliban—a group, by his own portrayal, of illiterate hicks who didn’t even understand the Islam they were using as a rallying cry.

A De-tribalized Insurgency

Which brings us to how the Taliban (or “neo-Taliban,” in the keen words of Giustozzi) are organized. In short, there is nothing tribal about them, because by the time they emerged so much of the normal tribal and community relationships and rivalries had been destroyed. Even the “original” Taliban, as documented by Rashid in Appendix 2 of Taliban, had a variety of both Ghilzai and Durrani in its leadership.

The neo-Taliban might have been different, except that as Giustozzi documented in Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop in Chapter 2.5, there was still a variety of Ghilzai and Durrani (and Karlanri) in the Rabbari Shura’s membership. In fact, the Durrani are over-represented, and represent a slim majority of the Taliban’s current leadership. Furthermore, the neo-Taliban’s recruitment strategies are based on Pashtun nationalism and pan-Islamism, not any kind of tribal dynamics.

Abu Laith al-Libi, one of the former leaders of the neo-Taliban, now dead.

While the above is a very lengthy way of pointing out that it is silly to claim the Taliban fight because of some ancient tribal rivalry, it is important to look at why that is such an uninformed idea. This goes beyond simply viewing the tribal affiliations of the Taliban’s leadership—getting at why and how the current de-tribalized insurgency is as tough as it is has enormous implications. Previous rulers were able to “rule” the Pashtuns by exploiting tribal divisions, whether undermining individual leaders through tribal division or simply enacting FCR-like rules that hold tribal leaders responsible for their community’s actions.

The current structure of the Taliban, as a de-tribalized resistance movement, means that normal methods of working within the tribal system are far less effective, if at all (this helps to explain why the reconciliation effort has stalled—it just doesn’t apply). Since the Taliban is a movement that is inclusive of traditionally rivalrous tribes, even rivalrous ethnicities (most extraordinarily, some marginalized Hazara groups in Ghazni), that rivalry cannot be exploited to undo the movement.

Indeed, Giustozzi notes that Imran Gul, director of the Sustainable Participation Development Program in Banu, which is just outside North Waziristan, lamented the destruction of traditional tribal society and sees enormous danger as the same thing happens in Pakistan:

Gul belives that the tribal system is in crisis and that it can no longer provide ‘peace, income, a sense of purpose, a social network’ to the local youth, who then turn to radical movements (collectively known as Pakistani Taliban) as the only outlet where they can express their frustration and earn the prestige once offered by the tribal system. Officials working in the region support this view…

Which gets back to why we even bother exploring this in the first place: there are still those who think a tribal approach to counterinsurgency—as in Anbar—is the best way to tackle the insurgency in Afghanistan (John McCain just reiterated this call). Such an approach could not be less effective if we designed it to be: tribal, even local considerations—since a significant number of Taliban recruits come from local communities, the dynamic of “evil foreign al-Qaeda stepped over the line” that fomented local resistance in Anbar probably won’t happen in Afghanistan—simply do not apply in the same way.

This isn’t the post to discuss alternate solutions—that requires significantly more space. Suffice it to say there is danger in the military-first approach to Afghanistan, but vastly more danger in replicating that in Pakistan (“Military incursions in the tribal areas further undermined the influence of the elders in the NWFP and might have had the same result in Afghanistan,” writes Giustozzi). Recognizing the folly we seem to willfully commit is of incredible importance, and, sadly, ignored in much discourse on the topic.

Further Reading:

‘Weapons of the not so Weak in Afghanistan: Pashtun Agrarian Structure and Tribal Organization for Times of War & Peace’, Thomas J. Barfield, Boston University, for Agrarian Studies Colloquium Series “Hinterlands, Frontiers, Cities and States: Transactions and Identities” at Yale University. February 23, 2007 [link]

Coll, Steve (2004). Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Penguin Books [link]

Dorronsoro, Gilles (2005). Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present. Columbia University Press [link]

Giustozzi, Antonio (2007). Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. Columbia University Press [link]

Rashid, Ahmed (2001). Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press [link]

Roy, Olivier (1990). Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press [link]

Rubin, Barnett (1995). The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System. Yale University Press [link]

Shahrani, Nazif (2002). “Factionalism, and the State in Afghanistan,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 104, No. 3.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Qumandan July 15, 2008 at 7:42 pm


Alex August 4, 2008 at 8:48 am

Would love to hear your alternative solution to the ‘divide and rule’ strategy. Are you saying that a wedge cannot be driven between local political leaders (Taliban) and foreign al-Qaeda? Cannot drive a wedge between different tribes/groups that comprise the Taliban? If I am reading you correctly you say that is not possible becuase the Taliban are so inclusive in their approach to the tribes?

If that is the case it seems your logic might be somewhat circular (though you may be correct in that it may not work for other reasons)? The cohesiveness of the Taliban is precisely what our strategy shoudl be aimed at destroying no?

Thanks for your thoughts

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