The South Asia Channel

Three Myths About the Taliban

On October 7, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the United States went into Afghanistan and successfully removed the Taliban regime. But since then, the Taliban have resurged as a homogeneous ideology that represents a coalition of various groups. This coalition is largely split into two factions: the older Afghan Taliban from the 1990s; and the newer Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Today, both organizations control parts of the Pashtun belt along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Since 2001, many myths about the Taliban have emerged, with some Taliban sympathizers in Afghanistan and Pakistan intentionally fabricating these falsehoods to garnish political support, promote anti-Americanism, and excuse or appease their own brutalities. Below is an analysis that sorts the facts from these fictions.

Myth 1: The West (or U.S.) created and supported the Taliban during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

False. This might be the most significant and most frequently repeated myth of all. Neither the West nor the United States created or even supported the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban came to power in 1996 -- well after the United States had effectively left the region following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The group actually began, with support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as a draconian vigilante movement in Kandahar province that initially aimed to challenge the chaos caused by the Mujahideen -- the Afghan fighters the West had actually supported against the Soviets. 

"A handful of Taliban had fought the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s... the vast majority had never fought the communists and were young students, drawn from hundreds of madrassas (Islamic theology schools) in Pakistan," Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, wrote in his book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Rashid also notes that when Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, was fighting in Kandahar in 1995, some 20,000 students -- the majority of whom were between the ages of 14 and 24, and had never fought before -- crossed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to join his Taliban militia. Thus, the Afghan Taliban are largely distinct from the Mujahideen.

Indeed, not only did the United States not create or support the Taliban, Washington actually opposed them. For example, during the Taliban's quest for power in 1995, the United States turned down repeat requests from Pakistan to intervene on the side of the Taliban against the Mujahideen. Once the Taliban took over Kabul, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a harsh criticism of the Taliban, saying in 1997: "We are opposed to the Taliban because of their opposition to human rights and their despicable treatment of women and children and great lack of respect of human dignity." The United States then went on to support several U.N. resolutions against the Taliban.

The TTP is an even more recent and further detached phenomenon from the 1980s Mujahideen than their Afghan counterparts. In December 2007, under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud, about a dozen loosely affiliated terrorist organizations in Pakistan joined together to form the Pakistani Taliban. Mehsud, like his two successors, Hakimullah Mehsud and Mullah Maulana Fazlullah, and nearly all of their followers, was a young kid when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. Therefore, they were also never supported by the United States or any other Western nation in the 1980s.   

Myth 2: U.S. drones cause terrorism because the Taliban are fighting to avenge those killed by the strikes.

False. Many Taliban appeasers often use this myth to justify the group's brutality against innocent civilians, but there is no evidence to suggest that militant recruitment has increased due to U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If anything, the data seems to suggest a negative correlation between drone strikes and militant activities. That is because the Taliban's brutality started for entirely different reasons about a decade before the first drone strike took place.

A 2013 study by Patrick,Johnston at the RAND Corporation and Anoop K. Sarbahi at Stanford University analyzed the impact of U.S. drones strikes on terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Relying on data from 2004-2011 to test whether drone strikes angered the population to the point where it incited terrorism, the study found that the strikes did not incite terrorism. On the contrary, drone strikes were found to have a negative correlation with various measures of militant violence. Specifically the study found that: (a) drone strikes were associated with fewer terrorist attacks; (b) drone strikes were also associated with fewer people killed as a result of terrorist attacks; (c) drone strikes were linked to decreases in the use of particularly lethal and intimidating tactics, including suicide and IED attacks; and (d) the reduction in terrorism due to drone strikes was not the result of militants leaving unsafe areas and conducting attacks elsewhere in the region.

The findings are not surprising when one considers the stated goal of the Taliban: to establish a "pure Islamic state" where there is no role for technology, modernity, or democracy. In their pure state, women too have no role outside the house. The Taliban's motivation to fight is a twisted view of religion -- not drone strikes.

Indeed, the rationale behind the Taliban as avengers of drone strikes fails further when one looks at the group's targets and victims. They have largely targeted innocent worshippers going to their mosques and churches. Their victims are either non-Muslims or the "wrong kinds" of Muslims. They have attacked innocent girls going to school because they believe women's education promotes promiscuity. They have displaced millions of innocent people from their homes and villages because those victims refused to live under the Taliban's tyranny. They have targeted the shrines of legendary Pashto poets and local musicians because, according to them, music and poetry cause society to become morally corrupt.  

Myth 3: The Pakistani Taliban have a genuine interest in negotiations and peace deals.

False. We heard this myth most recently in November 2013 when a U.S. drone strike killed then- Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. The Pakistani government and some of its leading politicians denounced Mehsud's killing as a U.S bid to derail potential peace talks with the Taliban.

Pakistan has entered into various peace deals with the Taliban over the past ten years, but each time, the peace deals -- all of which lasted only a few months -- resulted in a further strengthening of the Taliban. And every peace deal resulted in increased civilian brutalities since, in making deep concessions, the Pakistani military effectively left the local Pashtun population at the mercy of the group.

In April 2004, the Pakistani army signed the first of several peace deals with the militants in South Waziristan. As part of that deal, Pakistan agreed to grant amnesty to militant leader Nek Muhammad, release their Taliban prisoners, pay compensation to the militants, allow foreign militants to register with the authorities, and leave the militants in complete control of the territory they occupied. The peace deal resulted in the newly emboldened Muhammad refusing to register foreign militants, executing over 300 local Pashtun tribal leaders, and killing countless civilians. The Pakistani army eventually launched a military operation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that, instead of killing or capturing Muhammad, resulted in further civilian casualties and displacement. What eventually stopped Muhammad was a U.S. drone strike that killed him in June of that year.

In 2005, the Pakistani military reached its second peace agreement in FATA with Baitullah Mehsud. As part of that deal, the Pakistani army agreed not to target Mehsud and his supporters. The militants were not required to give up their arms, nor did they have to turn foreign militants into the authorities. Like the first agreement, the deal also left the militants in charge of the territory they occupied. The agreement only required that the militants cease their attacks on Pakistani military targets. As with Muhammad, the deal enhanced Mehsud's stature and made him and his militants the sole authority in parts of FATA. In subsequent months, the Taliban's brutality against the local population increased. The Taliban set up their own courts and administration in FATA. They banned television, music, and the Internet. They destroyed dozens of girls' schools while religious madrassas multiplied in numbers. This again led to a military operation that did not kill or capture Mehsud but resulted in more civilian deaths and displacement, and lLike Muhammad, it was a U.S. drone that finally killed him in 2009.

Another example of these failed peace deals were the 2008 and 2009 Swat agreements with the militants, both of which resulted in a more emboldened Taliban and increased civilian sufferings. Starting in 2001 (well before the U.S. drone program), Fazlullah, then just a militant cleric, began implementing his perverted version of shari'a law in the Swat Valley. Following a military operation in 2008, the Pakistani government reached a 16-point agreement with Fazlullah's Swat faction to bring an end to the Taliban violence. Within days of the deal, the militants increased their brutality against the local civilians and continued their destruction of homes, schools, and shops.

The Pakistani army signed yet another peace deal with the Taliban in February 2009, allowing the Taliban to set up their own state within a state in Swat. The result of was an emboldened Taliban that took control of the local administration, police, and education, and even made advances into neighboring Buner, Shangla, and Dir districts. They destroyed over a hundred schools and countless homes and shops. They started flogging, beheading, and executing local Pashtuns that did not abide by their medieval rules. They forbade women's education and allowed women to leave the house only when fully covered and with a male chaperone.

The brutality became so severe that more than 2.5 million refugees fled Swat and adjoining districts, creating the worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda in 1994, according to the United Nations. Upon severe pressure from the United States, the Pakistani army once again went into the Swat Valley to conduct yet another operation, only to face an even stronger Taliban. Once again, the result of that operation was more civilian deaths and property destruction. And the entire Taliban leadership, including Fazlullah and his 20 commanders managed to escape safely, leaving Fazlullah free to return in 2013 as the leader of the entire Pakistani Taliban.

Zmarak Yousefzai, an Afghan-American attorney in Washington D.C., is a frequent commentator on national security issues. Follow him on Twitter: @PakhtunZmaray.