The Battle for Afghanistan

Policy Paper
Nov. 9, 2010

As Afghanistan’s cultural and political heartland, Kandahar is a province of key strategic importance for foreign forces, the Afghan government, and the insurgency. A sizable chunk of the Taliban’s senior leadership hails from the province, and the cultural and political dynamics of rural Kandahar shape aspects of the movement’s character to this day.

This study attempts to understand the Taliban of Kandahar by looking at the factors that spurred their rise and the networks and structures through which they operate. The findings include:

  • The Taliban’s resurgence in Kandahar post-2001 was not inevitable or preordained. The Taliban—from senior leadership levels down to the rank and file—by and large surrendered to the new government and retired to their homes. But in the early years after 2001, there was a lack of a genuine, broad-based reconciliation process in which the Taliban leadership would be allowed to surrender in exchange for amnesty and protection from persecution. Rather, foreign forces and their proxies pursued an unrelenting drive against former regime members, driving many of them to flee to Pakistan and launch an insurgency.
  • Once the Taliban leadership decided to stand against the Afghan government and its foreign backers, they were able to take advantage of growing disillusionment in the countryside. In particular, the dominance of one particular set of tribes caused members of other, marginalized tribes to look to the insurgency as a source of protection and access to resources. The weakness of the judiciary and police forced many to turn to the Taliban’s provision of law and order, while widespread torture and abuse at the hands of pro-government strongmen eroded government support. At the same time, the heavy-handed tactics of U.S. forces turned many against the foreign presence.
  • Despite popular belief, the Taliban in Kandahar cannot easily be divided into an “ideological core” and rank-and-file fighters motivated mainly by material concerns. After 2001, most senior Taliban leaders in the province had accepted the new government, or at least rejected it but declined to fight against it. Most did not invoke the notion of jihad as an immediate reaction to the new government. Rather, only after a protracted campaign against former Taliban did many of them feel they had no place in the new state of affairs and began to see the presence of the government and foreign fighters as necessitating jihad. And after the emergence of the insurgency, there were a number of attempts by senior leaders to come to terms with the Afghan government, yet at the same time there were very few attempts to do so by rank-and-file field commanders.
  • The Taliban have developed an intricate shadow government apparatus. At the top is the shadow governor, who works closely with a body called the Military Commission. In theory, the governor directs strategy, coordinates with leadership in Pakistan, and liaises with other actors in the province, while the Military Commission adjudicates disputes and serves in an advisory role. There is also a detailed district-level apparatus, including shadow district governors and, in some districts police chiefs and district shuras.
  • Parallel to this formal structure are numerous informal networks through which the Taliban make decisions and propagate influence. Although there are detailed mechanisms in place, involving the provincial shadow apparatus, to deal with battlefield strategy or intra-Taliban disputes, many times strategic decisions or punitive actions are taken through informal means. These include cases where senior leaders in Pakistan direct operations through their network of commanders in Kandahar.
  • Contrary to popular perception, the Taliban in Kandahar do not appear to receive regular salaries. Rather, each commander is responsible for raising funds for his group, which is typically done through capturing spoils in operations or collecting (sometimes forcefully) local taxes. Some funding also comes from external sources, such as merchants in Pakistan and wealthy donors in the Persian Gulf states.
  • In addition to winning support from marginalized communities and offering law and order, the Taliban were able to gain influence through severe intimidation and widespread human rights abuses. Moreover, a brutal assassination campaign against anyone even remotely connected to the government—tribal elders, government officials, aid workers, religious clerics, and others—succeeded in widening the gap between the local communities and the government.
  • The Taliban’s rise in Kandahar after 2001 can be divided into four periods. From 2001 to 2004, the group was involved in reorganizing itself, resuscitating old networks, and forging new connections. Between 2004 and 2006, the burgeoning movement was focused on consolidating itself, while winning rank-and-file recruits outside those who had worked with the Taliban in the 1990s; it began to amass members in large numbers. A turning point came in the western part of the province in 2006, when the Taliban suffered a major battlefield loss against foreign forces in Operation Medusa. This was one factor that spurred the next phase, asymmetric warfare, between 2006 and 2009. These years were marked by the increased use of suicide bombings and roadside attacks. The year 2010 marks a new phase in the struggle. While the insurgents are still relying heavily on suicide attacks and roadside bombs, foreign troops are giving unprecedented attention to the province, and violence has escalated to levels not previously seen in this war.

For the full text of this 44-page report, please click here.

Anand Gopal is an Afghanistan-based journalist. He is the coauthor of the New America Foundation’s “Battle For Pakistan” paper on militancy and conflict in North Waziristan.