The withdrawal of international troops from a combat role has seen Taliban violence spike in Afghanistan. Understanding the group's rhetoric is essential to a peaceful reconciliation, writes Milo Comerford.
The Taliban are locked in a fierce war with the Afghan state over territory and legitimacy. However, because of the loyalty the Taliban commands in the Afghan populace, any project to build a pluralistic and democratic Afghanistan is likely to involve the movement or, at the least, its support base.
The country's new president Ashraf Ghani has stated his commitment to negotiation with the Taliban as part of a political grand alliance to end the country's decades-long conflict. This alliance already includes his political rival Abdullah Abdullah, who was made Chief Executive of the country in a power-sharing deal after the 2014 elections.
An understanding of the significance of the Taliban's rhetoric, ideology and organisational structure is essential to any meaningful and long lasting peace process in Afghanistan. As Michael Semple writes in a recent report for the United State Institute of Peace, insights into the movement's doctrine, organisation and rhetoric will better inform efforts to end Taliban violence in Afghanistan.
Semple characterises the Taliban collective identity as being at heart that of armed mullahs or fighting scholars. This description encapsulates the two main identifiers of the Taliban: violent jihad and perceived religious legitimacy.
The Taliban's political objectives are guided by doctrine and rhetoric, much of which consists of religious and historical references. Taliban rhetoric asserts that the group is engaged in a righteous jihad aimed at transforming society and establishing a divinely ordered Islamic political system in Afghanistan. Taliban violence is presented as essentially defensive in the light of 'invading' forces, rendering jihad a religious obligation for all Muslims, as was required in the early caliphate during times of existential peril.
For the Taliban, opposition is tantamount to defying Islam.
Religious legitimacy is central to the movement's rhetoric, with opposition to the Taliban portrayed as amounting to defying Islam. Participation with the Kabul government is not just presented as an abandonment of Islam, but as a betrayal, tantamount to actively conspiring with foreign unbelievers against the Muslim community.
The Taliban has an engrained culture of centralisation, conformism and reverence for its leader, features that can be traced back to the centralised culture of the Pakistani madrassas from which the Taliban emerged. It is these features that have made the movement so resilient to rapid change and external pressures. This doctrine of obedience is based on a strictly hierarchical religious command chain, whereby God is seen as working through the person of the amir, the movement's leader. As such, submission to the leader is required in much the same way as submission to God. In this way the group's success in maintaining unity is built on the theological basis of their organisational structure.
The structure and organisation of the Taliban is central to the movement's perceived religious legitimacy. During the ascendancy of the Taliban in the late 1990s, the group's leader Mullah Omar was proclaimed amir ul momineen (commander of the faithful, a title historically given to the Caliph), based on the decrees of sympathetic ulema (religious scholars), who granted him ultimate religious authority. As such the Taliban asserts that their decrees and orders have the full authority of Islam.
Despite Mullah Omar's title, which is traditionally associated with leadership of the global ummah, the Taliban's messaging is predominantly nationalistic, seeking to bring about an 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan', in stark contrast to the limitless caliphate of ISIS. However, it also draws upon grievances about US aggression and abuses against Muslims in other conflicts associated with the 'global war on terror' when this narrative better suits their rhetorical agenda.
The movement shifts their 'case for jihad' whilst retaining organisational cohesion.
This elasticity shows how adept the movement is at shifting their 'case for jihad' whilst retaining organisational cohesion; the Taliban's rhetorical defense for violent jihad evolves alongside developments within the movement and in the wider political context. Indeed, Semple distinguishes between five distinct phases of Taliban conflict, each with a subtly different rhetoric of justification (Thomas Ruttig, the author of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Afghanistan situation report, draws a similar distinction).
A common theme throughout the Taliban's shifting messaging plays upon the disaffection of the Afghan populace, initially with the mujahideen who toppled the Communist regime, then later with international forces. Many of the Taliban's original members had been brought up in refugee camps and were outraged by the chaotic, violent and corrupt rule of the mujahideen, who overthrew the Soviets. The need to combat the moral corruption of these commanders comprised the rhetorical defence for the initial Taliban advance, with the movement claiming that the jihad against Soviet occupation had been betrayed.
Despite their constant evolution, the Taliban asserts that their fighters are the true mujahideen, continuing the legacy of martyrs in previous Afghan conflicts. Themes of martyrdom are particularly prominent in the movement's rhetoric. Primary source analysis by Michael Semple of the filmed profiles of suicide attackers (fidayeen) shows that they emphasise many more religious qualities than warrior-like ones, justifying their acts theologically and predominantly invoking religion in their explanations for their actions.
Violence is essential to the rhetoric, ideology and organisation of the movement. Taliban politics has only ever occurred in a context of armed struggle, rather than compromise and negotiation. As such, Taliban leaders would need to build a case for peace consistent with the group's ideological heritage to avoid alienating its supporters; however, the movement's rhetoric creates a variety of problems for the prospects of peace.
Peace must be framed as a conclusion to the decades-long Talibani 'jihad'.
A particularly thorny issue will be the establishment of a shared narrative of the conflict that suits both sides' perceptions. Such an agreement is likely to be particularly elusive when considering the perceived 'rights' and 'wrongs' of the post-2001 conflict, and in particular the status of those who died for both sides of the cause. In a similar vein, the peace process would have to be framed as a conclusion to the decades-long Talibani 'jihad', or at the least as the continuation of the struggle through non-violent means, to avoid a peace agreement seeming like a defeat for followers of the movement.
The Afghan Taliban's response to their Pakistani counterpart's attack on the Peshawar Army School in November 2014 could be seen as encouraging for prospects of peace in Afghanistan. "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has always condemned the killing of children and innocent people at every juncture," the Taliban announced in a statement on the day of the attack. "The intentional killing of innocent people, women and children goes against the principles of Islam and every Islamic government and movement must adhere to this fundamental essence".
However, statements such as this encapsulate the ever-shifting rhetoric of the movement with regard to a meaningful peace process (the Taliban opened up a diplomatic bureau in Doha two years ago, demonstrating its receptiveness to peace proposals if not its willingness to actively engage in a peace process, argues Semple). Taliban violence is only worsening, but with Afghanistan completing the most peaceful handover of power in its recent history and the withdrawal of international troops from a combat role (a major focus of Taliban rhetoric) in 2014, the prospects for peace in the country seem greater now than at any time since the fall of the Shah in 1973.
This commentary was first published on 5 February 2015.