Academic journal article Military Review

The Taliban: An Organizational Analysis

Academic journal article Military Review

The Taliban: An Organizational Analysis

Article excerpt

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.--Sun Tzu (1)

One of the most widely recognized images of the present day is that of airplanes hitting the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. The terrorist organization Al-Qaeda and its host, the Taliban in Afghanistan, became household names all over the world on that fateful day. The media started churning out stories about the brutalities of the Taliban, and the world discovered a new monster.

The Taliban did not grow out of the dark overnight, nor was it unknown in the Middle East, the region of the world most severely affected after 9/11. Following its emergence in 1994 from madrassas, the Taliban achieved surprising victories over its enemies and assumed rule over much of Afghanistan. (2) Simultaneously hailed as saviors and feared as oppressors, the Taliban were an almost mythical phenomenon that seemed to embody the very essence of Afghan cultural beliefs, especially revenge for transgression, hospitality for enemies, and readiness to die for honor. The Taliban knew the Afghan people and their ways and embedded themselves in the complex Afghan web of tribalism, religion, and ethnicity.

Despite their quick overthrow in 2002 by a small coalition of U.S. forces and anti-Taliban groups, the Taliban has not gone away. In fact, today, in the face of thousands of NATO and U.S. troops, a growing Afghan National Army (ANA), and a popularly elected government, the movement's influence in Afghanistan is increasing. It continues to wage an insurgency that has prevented the new government from establishing legitimacy, and it has created massive unrest in Pakistan. Clearly, it behooves us to know something more about this archaic but formidable enemy.


Today's Taliban has been shaped by a host of influences and events:

* Afghanistan's ancient warrior culture.

* The 1979 Soviet invasion and the mujahideen who fought against it.

* The civil war and warlordism that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

* Madrassa religious ideology.

* The Taliban's initial acceptance as the hope of peace for a war-weary people.

* The movement's downfall in 2002.

* The ongoing insurgency. (3)

The Taliban is comprised mostly of Sunni Muslim Pashtuns. Historically, this largest Afghan ethnic group occupied a great swath of land from central western Afghanistan through much of the south and up the country's eastern border. The region has a long history of invaders who tried, mostly in vain, to overpower the Pashtuns. Since Alexander in 326 B.C., many foreign military forces have entered Afghanistan, among them Persians, Scythians, Kushans, Sakas, Huns, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, British, Russians, and most recently, Americans and their NATO allies. (4)

Fiercely independent, the Pashtuns have always defended their homeland against foreign interlopers. No outside power has ever been able to subdue them completely. (5) They defeated most of their would-be conquerors outright or absorbed them into their tribes through the centuries. The Pashtuns adapted to the military strategies of their invaders, and then utilized their new tactics and equipment to fight among themselves until confronted by another external threat. This military orientation has shaped the Pashtun--and Taliban--outlook: "A Pashtun is never at peace, except when he is at war." (6) The Pashtuns are inclined not to accept any form of strict authority, even at the cost of discord and insecurity. (7)

The "Great Game" in the 19th century helped shape the current political landscape of the Pashtun region. (8) It also gave the Pashtuns their first encounters with a modern military power, during the three Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839, 1878, and 1919). …

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