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Afghanistan: Contradictions Hint At Division Within Neo-Taliban

  • Amin Tarzi --> Taliban fighters in custody in northern Afghanistan in January 2002 ( WASHINGTON, September 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Media efforts have intensified by the various elements that oppose the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. The stepped-up public campaign of the so-called neo-Taliban has accompanied increased insurgency and terrorism efforts by those same guerrillas.

But while they have managed to convey their messages with greater frequency, their pronouncements have sometimes been marked by glaring contradictions. While inconsistencies are not new to the neo-Taliban, their recent frequency suggests strains could reemerge between Afghan opponents of the central government and their foreign allies.

At least a dozen people have purported to speak for the "Taliban" since 2003, when a man named Mohammad Mokhtar Mojahed claimed that a 10-member, Taliban "leadership council" had been created. They have sometimes issued contradictory statements -- even leaving aside spokesmen from self-described splinter groups that loosely identify themselves with the ousted Taliban regime.

In late 2004, Mufti Latifullah Hakimi emerged as the primary voice of the Taliban. Unlike previous spokesmen, who contacted media outlets by fax, Hakimi began giving telephone interviews. Since Hakimi's arrest by Pakistani authorities in October 2005, two men have come forward, declaring themselves spokesmen for the Taliban: Dr. Mohammad Hanif and Qari Mohammad Yusof. They have sometimes been joined by other self-described spokesmen.

Minor Discrepancies

There has also been a marked difference in the use of the Internet by the movement. A website recently emerged that purports to represent the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name of the country during the rule of the Taliban. It is updated daily -- sometimes more than once a day. While the website continues to follow a neo-Taliban trend of exaggerating the number of losses to Afghan or foreign troops and minimizing its own casualties, it also contains updated information on operations -- including suicide missions -- carried out by the insurgents. The website has included statements made by Mohammad Hanif and Mohammad Yusof, as well as statements allegedly made by the Taliban leadership.

Statements issued by Mohammad Hanif and Mohammad Yusof have differed from the website most markedly in references to insurgents. The two spokesmen usually refer to their organization as the "Taliban," while the website increasingly refers to the organization as the "Islamic Emirate" and the fighters as mujahedin (also mojahedin). Mujahedin is a term that, in the course of Islamic history, has been used by many groups to identify their struggles to defend Islam. But it gained global currency in Afghanistan during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

The original Taliban, who emerged from the ranks of the mujahedin in the mid-1990s, differentiated themselves as talibs -- meaning "seekers" or "students" -- of Islamic sciences. The choice highlighted their struggle against former mujahedin commanders and leaders who had been in control of Afghanistan since 1992.

Familiar Rift?

The most recent contradiction between statements of the spokesmen of the Taliban and the website of the "Islamic Emirate" followed the suicide attack that killed Paktiya Governor Hakim Taniwal on September 10. Soon after that attack, Mohammad Hanif told a Peshawar-based news agency Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) that the killing was carried out by a Paktiya resident. He added that he had "no further details" beyond the attacker's name. Similarly, on the day of the Taniwal assassination, the "Islamic Emirate" website posted a report that identified the attacker as a heroic "seeker of knowledge" (mujahed talib al-'ilm) of the Islamic Emirate -- using the term "talib" in its traditional linguistic, not political, meaning.

On September 11, another suicide bomber targeted a number of Afghan security officials attending Taniwal's funeral in neighboring Khost Province, killing six people. The website indicated that a "heroic mujahed of the Islamic Emirate" carried out a "martyrdom-seeking" attack against high-level officers at the funeral.

But speaker Mohammad Hanif, speaking to AIP, expressed "strong condemnation," and said his movement had not committed the attack on the funeral.

The stark contrast could be related to conflicting ideologies within the ranks of the neo-Taliban. But it might also indicate a lack of any centralized command and control of the activities or policies of the far-flung movement.

A majority of neo-Taliban militants and sympathizers might well have viewed the assassination of Governor Taniwal as legitimate. He was a close confidant of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, after all. But an attack on the attendees of any funeral service is generally disdain as running counter to Pashtun tribal norms.

A rift arose under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan between many traditional Taliban and elements who identified themselves with Arab Islamists -- namely Al-Qaeda. Allies of the Arab elements eventually gained the upper hand.

But the same ideological split could be resurfacing, if indications are correct of increasing contacts between some neo-Taliban and self-proclaimed "jihadists" operating in Iraq.

The "Islamic Emirate" website refers to the insurgents as "mujahedin" -- the same term being applied to insurgents and terrorists in Iraq. That -- and the existence of an Arabic version of the same website -- could indicate a link between the people behind the website and more radical global Islamists who are not sensitive to Pashtun traditions.

The Afghan Insurgency

A U.S. military vehicle damaged by insurgents near Kandahar (epa)

HOMEGROWN OR IMPORTED? As attacks against Afghan and international forces continue relentlessly, RFE/RL hosted a briefing to discuss the nature of the Afghan insurgency. The discussion featured Marvin Weinbaum, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 83 minutes):
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RFE/RL's coverage of Afghanistan.


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