The South Asia Channel

The Taliban Revival

Hassan Abbas, The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). 

The Taliban have never enjoyed popular public support in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. For more than a decade, they, along with their foreign mentors, such as al Qaeda, have come under consistent military operations, drone strikes, arrests and frequent negotiation offers. None of these military and political tactics have managed to completely annihilate the Taliban from the AfPak region.

Since the beginning of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in October 2001, the Taliban have reorganized and evolved from a camouflaged Islamist movement to a bitter political reality of the region, which was -- until recently -- the safest hideout of the global jihadist network. President Obama, convinced that al Qaeda is no longer capable of attacking U.S. soil from Afghanistan, recently announced keeping 9,800 troops in Afghanistan until 2016 to assist with the country's transition.

The book The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier by National Defense University professor Dr. Hassan Abbas focuses on the renewed face of the Taliban as a symbol of resistance and how they will threaten the future of peace and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has become nearly impossible to completely exclude the Taliban from future administrations in Afghanistan. They have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to strike key civil and military targets, to generate fear among the population, and to coerce governments to comply with their demands.

The relentless use of violence by the Taliban against civilians regularly disrupts the prospects of peace talks both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Believing that they are actually winning the battle against the United States and regional governments, the Taliban want to be recognized as a legitimate political entity.

The governments, on their part, have failed to apply alternative methods to counter extremism as military options have not fully helped in eliminating the extremist threat. In the midst of this chaos, all regional players continue to covertly connect with sections of the Taliban -- mainly to protect their own interests in Afghanistan and the region. The governments of the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, for example, have all kept in touch with their favorite sections of the Taliban in order to keep the doors for talks open, while Iran and India have increased investment in Afghanistan to deepen and protect their regional interests.

The ungoverned parts of Pakistan eventually became safe havens for al Qaeda and the Taliban soon after the war in Afghanistan started. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, rose from this obscure region. According to Abbas, less of extremist Islamic ideology and more of Pashtun tribal practices have shaped the worldview of the Pakistani Taliban. While every ethnic Pashtun is not with the Taliban, he writes, their top leadership and bulk of manpower emanates from the disgruntled Pashtuns who are motivated to fight for various "ethnocentric, socio-political and criminal influences." 

The revived Taliban have expanded their quest beyond the mere demand for Islamic rule. They now insist for more economic and political control. One reason for simmering anger among the Pashtun-Taliban is the rise of the non-Pashtun in corridors of power in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns, who comprise of 42 percent of Afghanistan and are the country's largest ethnic group are disenchanted with the changing dynamics of power distribution.

But as Abbas says, the Pashtuns "grumbled that their interests were not adequately represented." However, the Taliban are no longer a single religious entity. They have become a "marketable brand name" for all extremist groups, including criminal gangs committed to guarding their economic interests. They routinely kidnap people and forcefully extort money to ensure their survival. They do not have a finish line as their existence entirely hinges on the perpetuation of violence and criminal activities.

Abbas attributes the resurgence of the Taliban to collective failures of the United States policies, President Karzai's lack of vision, and Pakistan's double standards in the war on terror. He cites five major issues that contributed to the failure of the international community to rescue Afghanistan from turmoil. 

First, the Karzai government brought back and empowered the same warlords who had previously been blamed for manslaughter and corruption. Second, the post-Taliban government did not share power with the provinces but instead centralized all authority in Kabul, which alienated the periphery from the central government. Third, the international community could not give Afghanistan a vibrant security plan. The competence of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to establish peace once the international troops depart from Afghanistan lingers as a primary concern.  Fourth, the promotion of education has not been the government's first priority. Although 5,000 new schools were established in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2011, Abbas says 40 percent of the students did not attend these schools because of security issues. Fifth, the Afghan government and the international community ignored the country's economic needs. All focus on Afghanistan was given from a security point of view without generating more economic activities and employment opportunities.

Similar to several contemporary Muslim writers, such as Oxford University professor, Dr. Tariq Ramadan; University of California associate professor, Reza Aslan; and Dr. Akbar Ahmed of American University, Abbas also unconvincingly insists that Islamic teachings are not responsible for provoking young Muslims to join groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda. He lambasts the Taliban for doing a great disservice in distorting the idea of jihad, which, he argues, actually encourages Muslims to fight against inequality and illiteracy.

"In the Islamic traditions, the word ‘jihad' refers primarily to a spiritual struggle within oneself against sin; but its secondary meaning revolves around the idea of religious armed struggle. In daily usage, Muslims often refer to their work or intellectual efforts as ‘jihad,' especially if those efforts are service oriented...thanks to Muslim extremists (but somewhat tragically for Islam), the term ‘jihad' has assumed negative connotations in the Western world, where it is seen as a synonym for Islamic terrorism," Abbas says.

But these Muslim scholars  still shy away from acknowledging that there actually are such religious texts that use the term jihad in the context of calls for armed struggle against non-Muslims rather than urging Muslims to observe self-restraint against various harmful impulses. Since 9/11, some scholars from the Muslim world have passionately been advocating for the "good jihad" and endeavoring to either disown or conceal the "bad jihad."

"Like Many Muslims, I grew up hearing my parents say that education was my jihad," writes Abbas in support of what can be termed as "good jihad." He continues: "I think of my role as an educationalist in the same way -- but because of the widespread misuse of the word, I think twice before saying it out loud."

Lastly, Afghanistan's future depends on the ability of the country's democratic system to integrate all ethnic and sectarian stakeholders for peace and stability. The new president in Kabul will not find it easy to lead Afghanistan in the midst of scores of political, economic and security challenges. However, Abbas is relatively optimistic about Afghanistan: "Afghanistan has moved on and is unlikely to meekly accept a 1990s-style Taliban takeover."  He is more worried about the future of Pakistan, saying:  "It is doubtful whether the Taliban sitting in Pakistan could negotiate on behalf of all Taliban insurgent leaders operating inside Afghanistan."

Malik Siraj Akbar is an Edward Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pakistan's first hyper-local online newspaper, The Baloch Hal. Twitter:  @MalikSirajAkbar

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images