The Taleban appear to have woken up to the importance of organisational symbols and their political meaning. Compared to how little they cared about their image during the 1990s and the initial years of the insurgency, the Taleban now project an increasing consciousness of their ‘brand’. This is seen in both their media and the actions of fighters and officials on the ground. Borhan Osman traces this change through one phenomenon – the Taleban’s use of their flag.Photo posted recently by Taleban social media activists showing, they said, fighters in Kunduz. Vehicle carries the movement’s flag and fighters appear all to be in camouflage, while one wears a headband. (2016)
This piece is part of series looking at the Taleban in transition. Read previous pieces of this series: here, here, and here. This dispatch discusses the heightened importance that the use of the flag has gained among the Taleban as a possible indicator of the movement’s increased self-awareness of its political brand. It first describes the different fields in which the Taleban now assertively showcase their flag and then analyses the apparent reasons for this.
The proliferation of the flag: from the Qatar office to the battlefield
One area where the Taleban’s sense of a political identity has become most visible is in the use of their flag, which has a white background inscribed with the shahadah, the Islamic statement of faith and sometimes, also, the movement’s official name, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The flag is now on display wherever there is a Taleban presence. This is in sharp contrast with the movement’s years of rule.
During the 1990s, the core of the emerging Taleban movement was drawn primarily from the students of village madrasas who had rarely had any exposure to concepts of protocol used by modern political organisations. Neither fighters or commanders wore uniforms or carried symbols of affiliation. Their clothing was that of any other man from the south – black turbans, worn by most men in provinces such as Uruzgan, and loose trousers with particularly long shirts, again normal for southern Pashtun village men. Former fighters recalled in conversations with the author how, on the frontlines, they would have been at risk of losing track of where their own territory ended and that of their enemies began had it not been for the fact that Northern Alliance forces were more distinctively clothed and had flags. The same attitude continued when the Taleban insurgency began around 2003. Until around 2009, as per the author’s observation, it was hard for a stranger visiting the countryside to tell government-controlled from Taleban-controlled territory, unless the Afghan national flag was flown on a government building or armed Talebs were physically in sight. Telling the two sides apart has now become much easier.
In hindsight, the opening of the formal Taleban office in Qatar in 2013 was a landmark moment. For the first time since their fall, the Taleban opened a formal office, in the Qatari capital Doha in June 2013; it was intended to become the movement’s first public face to the world. The office’s opening, with official Qatari hosting and United States endorsement, amounted to some kind of political recognition for the Taleban after they had fought for more than a decade against adversaries – the Afghan government and its foreign backers – who labelled them as mere malcontents and terrorists. The Taleban celebrated the opening of the office as a step in this direction and one towards victory. However, the Afghan government was furious at the way the office was presented to the world as that of some sort of ‘alternative government’ during the inauguration ceremony. At the heart of the dispute was the Taleban’s white flag and the office’s insignia which bore the inscription ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official name of the Taleban as a movement and its name for the country before it lost power.
Qatari officials, under pressure from Kabul and Washington, lowered the flag and removed the insignia. The Taleban officially closed the office in protest. Although the office has remained de facto open, with officials running their operations not so covertly, the movement’s drastic reaction underscored the value it attaches to its brands of identity, the flag and the name – given how closely it links these to its claim of legitimacy. The proliferation of the flag, however, continued, on the ground and virtually.
The first thing that catches a visitor’s eye when entering ‘Taleban territory’, these days, is their white flag. They are planted on landmarks, such as the rooftops of mosques, the public squares of villages and schools and along major travel routes. When insurgents capture new areas, no matter how small or large, one of the first things they do is mark it by planting their flag. According to the author’s observation and accounts by local residents, in places such as Wardak, Helmand and Ghazni, where the Taleban-controlled territory lies only a stone’s throw away from the bases of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the flags of the two conflicting parties fly almost side by side. At least that is how it looks from a distance.
Nowadays, according to consistent accounts from local residents living in Taleban-controlled areas in a number of provinces (for example, in Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Paktika, Ghazni and Nangarhar), Taleban squads rarely travel without carrying a flag even when they consist of only a few motorbikes or cars. Since the Taleban have in recent years seized many ANSF vehicles, such as the police’s Ford Ranger pickup trucks, and the army’s Humvees, the main identifier distinguishing who is driving is the flag carried. The logos of the army and the police on these vehicles are left intact, but the official tricolour flag is replaced with the white one.
In military training and marches, fighters also carry out synchronised flag waving. They carry the flag when marching, fly it over the vehicle’s flagpole in motorcades and plant it in ground if they are at a training site. These practices are not only carried out in front of the camera for the sake of recording and broadcasting, but have increasingly become part of the movement’s routine exercises in the field.
White headbands modelled after the flag have also been trending among those conducting military exercises, and sometimes, among fighters on the frontline. In some cases, small hand-written banners are pinned on the outside of homes frequently visited by the Taleban (whose residents are usually sympathisers). These banners, as seen by the author or reported by locals in Logar and Ghazni in 2016, bear slogans such as, “Long live the Islamic Emirate,” and, “Long live Amir ul-Mumenin Haibatullah Akhunzada,” and are signed by the local commander.
The use of the flag is not confined to the military sphere. Since a Taleban shadow civil administration of sorts has emerged in recent years, the white flag has also entered the ‘civilian arena’. It is an unmistakable feature in meetings with community members, conferences with education officials and other ceremonies that Taleban organise. Whether fixed or makeshift, the offices where Taleban ‘civilian officers’ work are also decorated with the flag. According to accounts from local people and videos seen by AAN, it is also put on display on the sites of construction projects supervised by the Taleban and paid for with money gathered by the movement from local residents. In 2016, these included the paving of sub-district roads in Kunduz, Baghlan and Nangarhar. In addition to being put on display in fixed sites, the flag was also flown for ground-breaking and inauguration ceremonies. This routine use of the Taleban’s flag is a marked departure from the movement’s years of rule when flags were seen relatively rarely and even senior officials did not necessarily have them on their desks.
What does the surge in the use of flag mean?
The proliferation of the flag in recent years can be explained on several grounds.
First, it (possibly) stems from a sense of increased need for unity among the Taleban. That need is obvious when comparing how the Taleban operate today to how they operated during the 1990s. When Taleban were in the privileged position of comprising the state and the ruling party, it was far easier for them to stick together than now, during an insurgency when they are chased as outlaws and rebels by both ANSF and foreign forces. The flag has emerged as a powerful political symbol and an effective tool for enhancing emotional unity in turbulent times.
Second, the flag is also useful for boosting the morale of fighters. This is especially relevant on the battlefield. The more a territory is dotted with flags, the more it persuades fighters of their influence. Such prolific marking of conquered territory is also more significant for the Taleban of today than in the 1990s. During their time in government, the Taleban were in control of most of Afghanistan and their dominance was taken for granted and, away from the frontlines, rarely challenged. Today, territorial control is scattered along very localised geographical lines. Areas remain contested between ANSF and Taleban often down to the district level. Perhaps nothing else can invoke a sense of the expanding presence of the movement as easily as displaying the flag.
Third, flying the flag is a way for the Taleban to try to demonstrate to the population that they, not the government, are the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. The Taleban constantly frame their campaign as a struggle to restore Afghan sovereignty, rather than just pursuing territorial control. They consider the current government as having been illegally imposed by foreigners. Bringing back their flag is an unequivocal declaration that they are back as the ‘legitimate’ government. This is best manifested in their use of the flag in civil arenas (eg courts and construction works) that they believe signals local governance.
Fourth, the heightened emphasis on the flag arises from the Taleban’s attempts to project their legitimacy to a global audience. The movement craves political legitimacy and recognition not only among the local population, but also from a much broader audience. While it does not have an opportunity to display its flag on international platforms, with the exception of briefly when it opened its office in Qatar, it instead uses its media to showcase this primary indicator of its brand. Taleban media products are directed at various audiences, including foreign governments and nations. Be it visual media, such as films and photographs, or written materials such as magazines and website articles, the white flag is invariably exhibited in a prominent manner.
The Taleban’s flag has been prominently displayed in their communications in recent years, in evident contrast with the movement’s years in rule, and in a bid to promote the movement’s political brand. The proliferation of the use of flag is based on various rationales and follows practical purposes in different contexts. In general, this is a pattern that, at a macro level, appears to manifest a notable increase in the Taleban’s self-awareness of its political identity as a distinct political force. It may also indicate the Taleban’s enhanced savviness in modern political practices and publicity techniques. This is a phenomenon that also expresses itself through several other trends as well, including the way the Taleban increasingly refer to their movement using its formal name, ‘the Islamic Emirate’, and themselves as ‘Emiratis’. It can also be seen in the concerted way a distinct political identity is promoted on Taleban media and. These other trends will be discussed in future dispatches as part of the Taleban in transition series.
Edited by Kate Clark, Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kouvo
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020