Elections as "western conspiracy", "sham show" and worse: some of the Taleban's comments on their anti-elections website. Photo: screenshot
As well as launching armed attacks on election day, the Taleban also tried to disrupt the elections with a ‘public relations’ campaign against the legitimacy of the vote. Like many others, they also appear to have been thrown off kilter by the large turnout. Their response has been characterised by incoherence and distress, with Taleban statements rejecting elections as “anti-Islamic and western concept”, insisting there had been an “overwhelming popular boycott” and criticising the “widespread fraud”. The movement has also announced the continuation of their ‘jihad’ against whoever leads the next administration. In analysing Taleban publications, AAN’s Borhan Osman also finds their justification for fighting shifting from the ‘liberation of the country from foreign occupation’ to the need to ‘Islamise the Afghan state’.
Just two days before the election, the Taleban’s main website, Shahamat, looked like it had been infiltrated by takfiris – those ultra-extremist Muslims who brand anyone not subscribing to their interpretation of Islam as non-Muslim – or kafir – and who can, therefore, in some cases be legitimately killed. Articles on the website suggested those taking part in the election could be murtads – or apostates. This is a highly defamatory term for Muslims who have converted to another faith or have no faith at all. The language and arguments were, in my many years’ reading of Taleban websites, unprecedented.
Two authored articles (1) posted in the lead up to the election were particularly marked with harsh language and extremist arguments. One cursed democracy as a western practice which, it said, fails to distinguish between the value of the votes of evil and good people, of those who are pious and knowledgeable and those who are ignorant and wicked. It also insulted the presidential candidates, attacking them as “foreign-educated dog-washers and kufr-leaning western slaves”. The second article described democracy as an “exact photocopy of jahiliyya” – a term used for the pre-Islamic, pagan society in the Arabian Gulf and picked up and applied by the twentieth century Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood theoretician, Sayyed Qutb to modern governments in the Middle East. The term was later widely adopted by takfiri and more ‘mainstream’ jihadist groups. The article said the revival of the jahiliyya system in Afghanistan was a conspiracy by the kufar (infidels) to divide the Muslim umma (the global Muslim community). It then lined up 15 reasons why democracy was incompatible with Islam, including that that it replaced Islamic laws with secular ones and allowed fornication, alcoholism and prostitution. The most far-reaching extremist argument came in the form of questions doubting the Islamic faith of those who believe in democracy. It asks: “Cannot we decide that those who seek democracy are jahil [ignorant or associated with jahiliyya] and unaware of God’s religion? If these people know the truth of both democracy and God’s religion, will not their efforts [in the way of democracy] make them apostate?”
Visions of an ideal state
I noticed shortly after the election that these two articles had been removed from the Taleban website. They might have decided, on consideration, that the views were too extremist and actually inconsistent with their usually more opaque criticism of democracy. The insurgents’ previous criticism of democracy had rarely borne such vivid ideological references. They had rather attacked democracy for being used as a cover for western injustices and for showing up the ‘double standards’ of its western advocates. See, for example, here and here. Another explanation for taking down the two takfiri articles could be that, given the larger than expected voter turnout, they became worried that promoting such ideas would make the Taleban look like a fringe group and not – as they aim to be – the true representatives of the Afghan people. Whatever the reason, the next articles published, in the aftermath of the elections, carried on some of these arguments – although in less harsh language – and introduced new reasons why the elections had been worthless.
Many of the Taleban’s articles portray democracy as an inherently un-Islamic system: see, for example, this article posted on their Shahamat website on April 13, entitled “Renewal of Promise”:
The current election process is completely duplicitous. The infidel world wants to promote the infidel tradition of the west’s unrestrained democracy in the traditional Islamic society of Afghanistan and thereby gradually abolish the Sharia-based rules for the appointment of leaders.
Taleban ‘spokesman’, Zabihullah Mujahed, makes similar points in an interview with the Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based Afghan news agency that is generally sympathetic with their anti-western insurgency. Excerpts from the interview were reprinted on the Taleban’s website, including the following:
In an Islamic country, legitimacy or the lack thereof stems from the Sharia rules, not from… imported processes… As Muslims, we must never allow anyone to make individuals [leaders] and laws for us and then impose them on us… Those who promote the kufr [infidel or anti-Islamic] and false ideology of the west in Islamic Afghanistan and [try to] make the Afghan leadership [system] match that of the US are no different from the communists of yesterday who were promoting the infidel ideology of communism in a Muslim Afghanistan.
The choosing of 5 April for the elections seems to have particularly grated on the Taleban’s nerves. This was the day Mullah Muhammad Omar was given the title of Amir ul-Momineen (Leader of the Believers) in 1996. The Taleban’s website, Shahamat, bore a conspicuous notice on election day, bashing the Afghan government for the timing of the vote, saying it was a deliberate plot by the government to insult the Taleban leader and his title. This notice was also taken off the website later.
The movement had used the 18th anniversary of Mullah Omar receiving his title to detail how they think the leader of Muslim country should be chosen, though – the first time in the recent past that they have discussed how Omar was selected. Although the article does not promote their method as a direct alternative to elections, this appears to have been the intention. The piece is interspersed with texts from the Quran and Hadith (the Prophet’s sayings and actions that have been collected, sourced and scrutinised). It promotes the appointment of a leader through a shura of ulama (Muslim clerics). The piece starts with praise for the 1500-strong meeting of mullahs in 1996 in Kandahar that, according to the article’s author, revived the long ignored, but principled tradition of the ulama appointing the amir or Muslim ruler, in this case Mullah Omar as Amir ul-Momineen. It then declares that it is religiously obligatory for all Muslims (everywhere) to swear allegiance to the amir and blames “the mess and conflict across the Muslim world” on the absence of such a pious amir. It compares the failure of other jihadist groups in the world with “the success of the Taleban’s jihad”, which, it says, has prospered thanks to the restoration of amir-hood or emirate. The article does not mention by name the other jihadist groups, but does refer to the “repression” in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. It was the first time in the recent past that the Taleban have, in such detail, described their method of choosing a leader.
The second argument made by the Taleban against the elections is that, since Afghanistan is ‘under occupation’, they could not produce a legitimate leader anyway. The official Taleban statement on the elections posted on the Shahamat website the day after the poll, on 6 April, said the only goal of the vote was to “create false legitimacy for an illegitimate rule under the US occupation.” It also called the election an “imported process”, a “conspiracy” and a “sham show” and said it had to be rejected because of the “lack of national sovereignty and violation of the fundamental human rights of the Afghans”. This already contradicts their other anti-elections argument since it implies that democratic elections would be legitimate if there was no ‘occupation’.
The third argument the Taleban have with the elections is the “the widespread fraud” they say marred them. Again, this is somewhat ironic given they feel the ‘occupation’ had already wrecked a process which they fundamentally disagreed with anyway. However, it is clear that the Taleban have been following news of the election as avidly as everyone else. The Shahamat website shared two video clips (here and here, initially posted on Facebook) that show ballot-stuffing in remote areas. It also quoted the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission saying it had registered 11,000 [sic] complaints of rigging. Different articles on the Taleban website point out incidents such as multiple voting, the early ballot-shortages in polling stations indicating early ballot-stuffing, also that Mullah Tarakhel (a Kuchi and MP from Deh Sabz just to the north of Kabul city) had reportedly prevented observers from watching the vote in the east of Kabul, or that Balkh’s governor Atta Muhammad Nur had allegedly forced voters to vote for Dr Abdullah.
The Taleban’s version of the election day events
The Taleban have insisted that “the overwhelming majority of Afghans” boycotted the vote, after the nation responded to their call to do so (see the already cited official Taleban statement). Realising that the picture presented by the media and common observers was very much at odds with this account, they then portrayed the mass media and political commentators as “badly biased and pro-western”. Various articles published during the election period are dotted with remarks demonising the media. This had already started during the two-week boycott of Taleban news by many in the Afghan media in the wake of the Serena attack on 21 March when four Taleban gunmen murdered the Afghan AFP, reporter Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two of his three children. The Afghan media has since been systematically called “puppets of the west”, “liars” and “Satanic” in an unprecedented campaign against Afghan journalists (see AAN reporting here).
Looking at their written outreach, the Taleban have also exaggerated the scope of their claim to have disrupted the elections. Taleban provincial ‘officials’ interviewed for the Alemara website on 7 April said they had been able to “confine the elections to a few cities only”, block lines of communication between districts and centres and launch massive attacks in all parts of the country. On the day, the Taleban’s website and Twitter account kept readers bombarded with ‘live-blogging’ and live-reporting of supposed attacks, minute by minute, from across the country. This frenzied media campaign was clearly an attempt to influence how voters – and the media – felt about the elections. Subsequently, the Taleban, once again excoriated the press for not reporting their assaults and being biased against them, although this time, it turned out, much of the media had indeed implemented a full or partial blackout of violence on election day. Later, officials would say the day had been one of the most violent in terms of the number of security incidents, although exactly what effect this had on turnout, especially locally is still not clear. What probably can be said is that the insurgents were not able to appear to disrupt the elections successfully. This again raises questions about their overall military capabilities (see here for recent AAN reporting) as well as the role of the media (to be looked at in a forthcoming AAN dispatch).
Having failed – in the eyes of many – to materialise their pre-election threats to target those participating in the elections, the Taleban’s resorted to a strange logic, saying in this article that the insurgents had managed to kill many Afghans, even if the media had maintained a “diabolical” silence:
Yesterday was a tragic day of (massive) killing of Afghans on the occasion of the election day. There were reports of more than 1,000 attacks… The Taleban published reports of clashes and explosions throughout the country. They had already warned that they would disrupt the election… [E]lection has been nothing but a conspiracy for (massive) killing of Afghans.
“Ready to fight for five more years”
The change of leadership and the handover of security from foreign to Afghan forces could be taken up by the Taleban leadership as a legitimate and face-saving opportunity to consider peace talks again. However, they are instead maintaining that these changes mean nothing: “We see no difference between the new and old administrations whatsoever,” said the group’s spokesman in the already cited interview. “It is only some officials who have swapped places.” (past tense used in original).
In order to make this contention, two themes are emerging in the Taleban’s discourse on the war. The first, expressed in the spokesman’ interview, is that “the military presence of occupiers” will remain after 2014, including what they call the “so-called non-military presence,” (ie the training of Afghan forces in the planned NATO follow-up mission). They insist there will be no acceptance even of western trainers of the ANSF.
The second theme is a characterisation of the Kabul administration as a form of “indirect occupation”, with its government of “pro-western politicians”. The current state, the spokesman says, stands against the “establishment of a purely Islamic system” longed for by the “two million martyrs” (a figure reached by counting lives lost from before the Saur Revolution and Soviet Invasion to the present day). These two themes taken together are used to justify the unabated continuing of the ‘jihad’ as long as there are foreigners supporting the Afghan government and until a government deemed ‘Islamic’ by the Taleban themselves is in power. The Taleban have seemingly begun to shift their focus more on the Islamic nature of Afghanistan’s government. This looks very much like a change made to try to justify their continuing fight. They are “ready to fight for five more years” throughout the next president’s term, unless victory comes earlier, said the spokesman and there will be no talks with Kabul, regardless of who becomes president, because Karzai’s successor will be as powerless as he is. (See Zabihullah Mujahid’s interview translated into English here for further insight. It is not accurate in all details; AAN relied on the Pashto original.)
Nervous Taleban changing their election narrative
The high voter turnout and the enthusiasm that went along with it, seems to have come as a shock to the Taleban. Reliable figures on many aspects of the election are still missing. Yet it seems safe to say that the 2014 elections mobilised far more people who showed a genuine resolve to actively choose their next leader compared to the two previous presidential elections. The response of the insurgents was outrage. They responded with a self-righteousness aggression aimed not only at the government and the foreigners, but, in effect, also against a major segment of Afghan society. In this article from 8 April on the Taleban’s Alemara website divided the voters into three groups: those who thought they would benefit economically from the new government; the beneficiaries (and employees) of the first group; and young Afghans who have grown up with western propaganda during the past 13 years and think that prosperity lies only in a secular system. All these three classes of people are condemned as deviants and disloyal to Islamic and Afghan values.
For a movement that has bet on the unpopularity of its enemies, while portraying itself as the only patriotic solution to the country’s problems, it is obviously not easy to see masses of people turning out and proving the opposite. The elections have already been read by some as a referendum against the Taleban. Yet still, the insurgents assert a different narrative: that the whole nation still believes “the only solution to rescue the country… comes from the continuation of jihad.”
To keep the appeal of jihad unabated among its fighters and supporters, the insurgency’s justification has had to shift to something other than the presence of foreign forces who are fast dwindling to the point where they may longer be a provocation to those who have resented their presence. This is where the theme of the Islamisation of the state comes in handy. From the point of the Taleban strategists, however, this must be an aim which actually motivates their fighters. This is probably why the Taleban’s recent PR has been overusing the adjective ‘jihadi’ to qualify any effort – and coining ‘jihadi attack’ for the single assaults on election day – as an integral part of the broader cause.
Compared to the insurgency’s rhetoric during the past two elections (2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentary), the Taleban’s 2014 narrative is remarkably different. Then, they argued, for example, that the MPs would have no power anyway as decisions were made in western capitals. They also pointed to the military operations by foreign forces as proof of the government not calling the shots in affairs of state. Reading their messaging regarding the April 5 elections, however, the focus has shifted to elections in essence being an anti-Islamic, foreign concept and the boycott by the “majority of the people” plus “widespread fraud” that rendered the election illegitimate. That these two arguments partly contradict one another – one rejects democracy altogether on principle, the other implies the elections would have been acceptable if there had been no ‘foreign occupation’ or ‘widespread fraud’ – might well be a sign of underlying anxiety among the Taleban leadership: if they cannot prevent or persuade the population from going out to vote, how can they present themselves as a viable alternative to the post-2001 state?
(1) The articles have been unpublished from the Taleban website, but they could still be found elsewhere on internet. The first article titled An election of only the compelled in towns on 2 April by Saadat Larawai was reprinted on a pro-Taleban website here. The second article initially published by Shahamat on 3 April under the title Conventional democracy is a portrait of the jahiliyyah by Mawlawi Selab Omar was shared here on Facebook.
This article was last updated on 2 Apr 2020