Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

The evolving Taleban: Changes in the insurgency’s DNA

Claudio Franco 10 min

Understanding the dynamics and complexity of the Taleban insurgency has generally proved difficult for outsiders, but it is now becoming clearer how fast the Taleban has evolved in recent years. The movement’s command structure has seen profound change – partly in response to the US wiping out whole layers of the old, mid-level insurgent leadership through ‘capture-or-kill’ operations, but also because of direct interference by Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus. As of yet, the old Emirate command structure remains active in the Taleban’s southern heartland, but the east, Loya Paktia and the north have all seen the impact of Pakistani efforts to select and promote its own proxies within the Taleban, men who have been given special training and, frequently, Pakistani citizenship. This appears to be an attempt to change the Taleban’s DNA says new AAN analyst, Claudio Franco, who has studied the insurgency for the last decade. In his first blog for AAN, he presents two case studies of the new breed of operative and describes how they threaten, not only the old Emirate leadership, but also any attempt to find peace through reconciliation.

As the insurgency grew in the years after 2001, mid-ranking Taleban field commanders tended to be men who entertained a close personal relationship with the senior leaders who controlled a front(mahaz) and who deployed them directly to the field. This type of affiliation mechanism amounts essentially to a quasi-private/personal contract between field commander and mahaz leader; in this context, the commander’s primary referent within the movement is the mahaz, rather than the movement itself. In the past few years, however, the military arm of the Peshawar-based Taleban (as opposed to the Quetta Council, which appoints governors and district governors) seems to have switched its approach, veering towards a radically different methodology in recruitment and shadow government. This new approach to recruitment found its natural launching pad in the country’s east (1) but there are signs of an attempt to replicate the model in the south as well, at least in areas controlled directly by the Taleban’s overall military commander, Mullah Abdul Qayum Zaker.

Ironically, the evolution has been accelerated by the much publicised success of country-wide ‘kill or capture’ operations during the US surge. The extremely fast turn-around of mid-ranking Taleban cadres meant that this section of the insurgency was forced to ‘rejuvenate’ unnaturally rapidly. In several provinces, this process has resulted in a generation of field operatives who are inherently different from the Taleban mid-level officials we have been accustomed to. As always, the Taliban appears to be evolving faster than outside observers can understand it.

The following two brief descriptions (2), the result of interviews carried out with the men themselves in early 2013, serve to illustrate the nature of the new generation of field leadership that the Taleban are increasingly relying upon. Although I present only a limited sample, these profiles are representative, corroborated by a considerable number of interviews and in-depth field research carried out between 2011 and 2013.


Ahmad, Clandestine Organiser

Ahmad is 27 years old, a Pashtun from Loya Paktia who finished his madrassa education in the late 1990s, when the Taleban were ruling Kabul and most of the country. The completion of his early education coincided with the aftermath of the fall of the Emirate, when the remnants of the Taleban regime were re-organizing across the Pakistani-Afghan border. In late 2001, his family, who had earlier spent time in Pakistan and had returned to Afghanistan during the Taleban regime, once again escaped across the border to flee the advancing Northern Alliance.

In 2003, he proceeded to a Pakistani madrassa, in Hangu, to further his religious education. During the two years he spent there, he was deemed promising enough by his teachers to be selected for a para-military training course held in _town, in Punjab (3); there, Ahmad’s studies radically shifted focus and he found himself being groomed, by nonuniformed men he described as para-military instructors, to be an operative deployed in the field. In Punjab, he received a fully-fledged military education, studied basic English and IT and most importantly, was trained to operate undercover while maintaining a public persona that allowed him to live an ostensibly normal life once back in Afghanistan.

Ahmad was trained to become not a field commander in charge of a combat unit, but an officer tasked with organising military operations at district or province level and as a member of an underground structure active far and wide throughout Afghan civil society. Once his training had been completed, and now in his early 20s, Ahmad travelled back to Afghanistan, as a dual citizen. His Pakistani passport and the position of his family, who were now legalised as permanent residents and provided, in kind, with the basics of subsistence, served as reminders of the services he would have to render to those who trained him.

Today, Ahmad ranks high among the Taleban in the south-east. As an advisor to MD, one of the most senior Taliban officials in the region, he acts as an interface for the provincial leadership within the province’s urban environment, and because of the unique function he fulfils, has bypassed older and more experienced field commanders in the provincial hierarchy. Where his public face is concerned, Ahmad is known in town as an ambitious student, modern, keen on computers and always ready to practice his English. Whenever the opportunity arises, he applies for jobs advertised by Coalition forces, thus gaining access to American bases in the area, for example to attend job interviews for interpreters for US units who operate in the field. He is not seeking employment. His task is simply to find out who the other candidates for a given position are.

In the urban areas, Ahmad appears to have outranked most delgai (unit) commanders and reports directly to MD. He is able to travel freely to convey messages and monitor Taleban activities in the most remote areas of the province. In short, Ahmad has become MD’s eyes and ears, with the added benefit of being able to liaise with the military leadership in Peshawar by email and travel freely across the border whenever needed.


Sadiq, Taliban Commissar

Wardak province, __ district: Sadiq is 35 years old and served as a low-ranking Taleban official during the last two years of the Islamic Emirate. When US air-power propelled the Northern Alliance towards Kabul, Sadiq was in Kandahar and within weeks he found himself on the run, destination Pakistan. Sadiq never lost touch with his patron, a high-ranking Taleban leader hailing from the east, and once in Pakistan, he was directed towards Charsadda, in the Peshawar area, on the border with the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). There, he found a support infrastructure that helped him resettle his family and provided a safe haven for him and other fleeing Taleban cadres.

Sadiq was offered accommodation and for years, received a basic income from the Taleban in Peshawar, just about enough to keep him and his family going. What mattered most, however, was the fact that his family’s legal status in Pakistan was guaranteed, at least for as long as he remained available to train and deploy to Afghanistan upon request. As the Afghan insurgency developed between 2003 and 2006, Sadiq remained linked to his former patron, who progressively reactivated his network in Afghanistan, despatching active fighters and establishing a network of undercover operatives in several eastern provinces. These were the years of the Taleban resurgence in the south, but the east, Sadiq says, was still quiet and a considerable number of eastern cadres were kept dormant in Pakistan. It was in 2008, he remembers, that he started to sense things were changing; in the early summer of that year, Sadiq and many of his companions were despatched to the Mansehra area, near Abbottabad in Pakistan, for three months of intensive training.

During this training course, Sadiq gained the skills of an administrator tasked with coordinating Taleban activities in a district or province. He was, in effect, turned from a low-ranking cadre into an efficient local ‘commissar’.(4)

By early 2009, he was ready to be deployed and according to his narrative, in June of the same year, he was among 250 mid-ranking officials despatched to Afghanistan by the Peshawar-based leadership. The leaders’ instructions were clear: this wave of trained operatives would have to rein in the many fighting units active in their area of operation, fighting units that depended directly on the whims of different and often competing military fronts, the various mahaz groups. Their mission was to establish themselves as the main coordinating and supervising entity for all delgais in the field, an ambitious target that was achieved by entrusting these newly-arrived officials with the distribution of funds originating from the central leadership. These officials were rotated regularly and soon became professional administrators, ‘commissars’ directly empowered by the central leadership, and as such able to by-pass local hierarchies determined by military and political dynamics between local commanders.

There is one factor that made operatives like Sadiq unprecedented in the recent history of the Afghan insurgency: Sadiq’s role and true function is known only to a very limited number of Taleban cadres and commanders, the members of the district’s nizami komisiun (military commission). Further, his real identity is revealed exclusively to his direct superiors. This enables Sadiq to live a normal life, to move freely and to monitor activities without risking arrest or retribution. Sadiq seems very proud of such an achievement. ‘This is my driving license,’ he says, producing a stack of papers from his waistcoat pocket, ‘and this is my Afghan ID. I don’t need to hide. We are not like the commanders in the south who need a Kalashnikov to be respected…’

He explains how the system works: a network of district ‘coordinators’ operate under a provincial authority which responds directly to the central leadership. However, while the provincial authority needs to be visible to a significant number of commanders, the district-level commissars can only exist and operate if undercover. It is the senior military commanders who sit within the district military commission, rather than Sadiq himself, who relay orders to the field and keep in touch by radio with delgai commanders deployed across the district.

There are other examples of operatives like Ahmad and Sadiq, all involving well-trained and relatively educated Taleban officials who have successfully ‘infiltrated’ civil society. Rather than individual cases, however, what matters first and foremost is the common denominator that differentiates them from most other insurgents: these operatives are all dual nationals, and Pakistani documents were provided upon completion of their training programme and seldom, if ever, as a result of a normal naturalisation process.

A Pakistani passport guarantees a future for these insurgents whatever the situation in Afghanistan in the years to come. At the same time, it alters their nature as insurgents, marking their role as agents of a foreign country active within the Afghan insurgency. As a rule of thumb, the immediate families of this class of operatives reside across the Durand Line in Pakistan; these families receive support in kind, and wages are often paid directly to the family. Needless to say, such an arrangement makes their families ‘hostages’ of that country’s security apparatus.

It also keeps the men themselves primarily linked to Pakistan’s security apparatus, rather than to the Taleban leadership or to whatever ideals or aims the insurgency might have. Moreover, with their families’ legal status and welfare depending directly on the official’s services, such a system pre-empts the possibility of reconciliation with the Afghan government – if it is not desired by Pakistan – once and for all. Even in case of capture by government or Coalition forces, spending time in jail would appear to be their only course of action if prisoners want to avoid retribution against their families.

Both Sadiq and Ahmad confirm that they and other cadres were selected mainly from among families of refugees who had either settled in Pakistan before the Taleban regime or immediately after its collapse. In both cases, however, at the time of deployment they were residing across the border. Incidentally or otherwise, the tightening of the Pakistani laws on the status of Afghan refugees has actually provided the perfect mechanism to anchor a generation of trained cadres to Pakistan.

It must also be noted that figures like Ahmad – young, educated cadres attached to senior field commanders – have become Pakistan’s most effective method to keep an eye on the Afghan Taleban leadership: ‘You don’t need to be an ISI agent to be a spy,’ he says. At times, he explains, the very appointment of certain advisors and assistants is a condition for front leaders getting certain levels of support. Besides, given the operatives’ senior roles and frequent contacts with field commanders, they act as monitoring agents, reporting on both leaders and their field commanders, either directly to Pakistan, or to Taleban leaders who act openly as Pakistan’s proxies.


The rise of Mullah Zaker

In the last 12 to 18 months, Mullah Zaker, who appears to have assumed control of Taleban military operations countrywide, has apparently aligned himself with this ‘Peshawar model’ and has been attempting to import the military commission-based shadow government framework to the south. This might appear to help soothe the tension between the Peshawar and Quetta shuras, tension that seems to have peaked in 2012 – by imposing the same military commission-based model countrywide. However, it would actually be akin to an attempted co-option or take over of the old Emirate power structures.

Until early 2013, in the Taleban’s southern core provinces – Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan and Helmand – the difference of approach between Zaker and the senior military leader in the south, Mullah Akhtar Mansur, was clearly discernible in the field, in terms of models of command, shadow government and recruitment. Today, with Zaker’s ascent reportedly certain, it has to be seen if and how the province and district level layers may be transformed (and made uniform) to reflect any new status quo.

As mentioned, the deployment of this type of operatives is a symptom of the Taleban’s foreign support network adapting to a change of circumstances in the field: President Obama’s surge and emphasis on capture-or-kill operations actually fostered the establishment of the new system by clearing out those who might have opposed it in the field. Critically, it also deprived the mahaz leaders of the personnel they needed to administer the movement’s affairs and run operations effectively. Also, it curbed Quetta’s reach into the field and weakened its potential to counter Peshawar’s push to ‘reform’ the command structures.

The military commission model is also actually better suited to running a traditional, low-intensity campaign based on guerrilla operations, which does not necessarily seek territorial control (where a more visible leadership presence on the ground would be necessary). Somehow, the insurgency’s evolution along these lines appears also to be the result of lessons learned in Helmand and Kandahar between 2006 and 2010, when the insurgents gained and then lost substantial swathes of territory.

The main result of this strategic adjustment is a profound and far-reaching modification of the insurgency’s nature, partial in geographic scope but still significant where the Taleban organisational model is concerned. The key to such adjustment is the deployment of commissar-like figures who are anchored to Pakistan and irreconcilable, whose options for the future are limited to either a victorious campaign or to leading a normal life in Pakistan.

Where this new type of mid-ranking leadership cannot be deployed, as in the case of Loya Paktia, which although aligned with Peshawar, has been allowed to keep its own, Haqqani-led shadow government model (5), the problem is pre-empted by fielding operatives like Ahmad who, although officially a personal advisor, have de facto outranked most senior field commanders. What matters for Pakistan is being able to deploy trained senior operatives who are firmly anchored across the Durand Line.

The nature of the Taleban movement is therefore changing, alongside the nature of Pakistani involvement. To handle the insurgency, Pakistani advisors and stakeholders no longer have to intervene from the outside. What they are doing, essentially, is attempting to change the movement’s DNA from within, achieving leverage through recruitment. They are also responding to the Taleban’s need for well-trained and educated personnel and not just cannon-fodder. These trained cadres are less-expendable assets and need to be safeguarded. Embedded within society, they can survive, thrive and be effective. Thus, as they are fed into the insurgent military structure as a vital layer that executes strategy in the field, a critical layer of the movement is pushed ever-deeper underground, and tied ever-closer to Pakistan’s security apparatus.


(1) East here refers to Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman and Nuristan.

(2) All names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identity.

(3) Interviewees frequently describe how significant the Pakistani support network is for the Afghan insurgents, both strategically and where the day-to-day running of military operations is concerned. However, the Pakistani security apparatus appears to have been extremely careful in maintaining some degree of plausible deniability, often deploying retired officers and enabling a sort of parallel structure deputed to interact directly with the Taliban. It remains extremely difficult, therefore, to point the finger towards one or other component of the Pakistani security services, or even assess whether we might be talking of a rogue section of a given intelligence agency.

(4) Here commissar is used in the Russian-Soviet tradition, meaning a political or military appointee who responds directly to the central hierarchy.

(5) Loya Paktia remains dominated by the Haqqani Network and was allowed to maintain a governor-based shadow government model. What matters for local Taliban officials here is their proximity to Sirajuddin Haqqani and his inner circle. Although by and large aligned with Peshawar and Mullah Zaker, the Haqqani can rely on autonomous funding streams and certainly represent a unique case within the Taliban.