“Schism Hinders Taliban’s Effort at New Image”
The New York Times, January 3, 2015, p.A1
“A series of kidnappings and robberies struck northern Helmand Province this summer, paralyzing residents and embarrassing the Taliban leaders who controlled the area. Responding to growing complaints, the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan ordered a hunt to find the criminals, but soon discovered an inconvenient truth: Their own people were behind the banditry, earning thousands of dollars in ransoms every month. Within a matter of days, the culprits had been captured and executed, including two notorious fighters known as Pickax and Shovel. Though the episode went largely unnoticed outside the Taliban stronghold, it highlights a question that is on the minds of many: More than 13 years after the war here started, who exactly are the Taliban? Are they the bandits responsible for the abduction and killings of numerous villagers? Or are they the disciplined leaders who hanged the fighters who had taken to criminal tyranny? Increasingly, it appears, they are both. More than a decade of constant fighting has deeply changed the movement that the American-led invasion helped remove from power in 2001. Much of the cadre of fighters that first rose up to battle rapacious warlords during the country’s civil war has been killed or remains in exile. On the ground, the movement now relies on a mixed bag of members, many of whom fight under the banner of the Taliban but bear no resemblance to the spiritual movement of the 1990s. … Some of the Taliban factions pressing their military goals remain idealists, but many are basically criminals who have used the Taliban brand to further their lucrative enterprises in the opium trade and commodity smuggling, Afghan and Western officials say. … From the highest levels of the central organization led by Mullah Omar, known as the Quetta Shura, the group is clearly trying to signal that it is moving away from some of the hard-line policies and practices that defined its harsh rule from 1996 to 2001. A spokesman for the group denies that the kidnappings in Helmand this summer were perpetrated by true Taliban fighters. … But that perspective is not the whole story. Across the country, villagers living under Taliban control offer a far more complicated picture. Many feel the Taliban have hardly changed at all. They still inflict brutal policies in some areas under their control and are merciless with villagers who cross them. Some refuse to listen to the directives of the Quetta Shura, going their own way in how they fight and rule.”
Quickie Analysis: We still call them “the Taliban,” but do we understand who “the Taliban” are anymore? Taliban leaders seem to be having the same problem making centralized authority work as the Afghan government itself.