AAN Papers

How Tribal Are the Taleban? Afghanistan’s Largest Insurgent Movement between its Tribal Roots and Islamist Ideology


The photograph accompanying one of our most-read English dispatches, "Ideology in the Afghan Taliban: A new AAN report”. It shows the Kherqa-ye Sharif (the Shrine of the Holy Cloak) in Kandahar. The cloak belonged to the Prophet Muhammad and was displayed to a crowd by Mullah Omar when he was declared amir ul-mumenin in the spring of 1996. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005).
The photograph accompanying one of our most-read English dispatches, "Ideology in the Afghan Taliban: A new AAN report”. It shows the Kherqa-ye Sharif (the Shrine of the Holy Cloak) in Kandahar. The cloak belonged to the Prophet Muhammad and was displayed to a crowd by Mullah Omar when he was declared amir ul-mumenin in the spring of 1996. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005).

The Taleban in Afghanistan should be treated as a primarily political movement with political aims, and not as a tribal one, concludes Thomas Ruttig, author of the new report ‘How Tribal Are the Taleban? Afghanistan’s Largest Insurgent Movement between Tribal Roots and Islamist Ideology,’ published today by AAN.

Today’s Taleban movement has a double nature, writes the author: with a vertical organisation, in the form of a centralised ‘shadow state’ that reflects its Islamist ideology; at the same time, there are horizontal, network-like, military structures which reflect the Taleban’s strong roots in Pashtun tribal society. The Taleban’s Islamist ideology has allowed it to systematically expand into non-Pashtun areas of Northern and Western Afghanistan and also provides an umbrella that creates cohesion in an otherwise heterogeneous movement.

Recent events in Afghanistan, argues Ruttig, have revealed an immense lack of understanding about the nature of the Taleban and shown how wrong political conclusions lead to mistaken approaches in dealing with the insurgency. The author criticises the increasing use of ‘tribal militias’ to fight the insurgency: “We need to distinguish between myth and reality and not use idealised versions of the past as the lens for interpreting the Taleban movement and current-day tribal interactions.”

On possible negotiations with the Taleban, the author stresses that “leaders should move beyond an approach that creates artificial divisions between ‘reconciliation’ and ‘reintegration’ of the Taleban into the political mainstream and Afghan society.” He urges external actors to understand that an approach to peace that is imposed from the top down, will be vulnerable from spoilers.

In his report, Ruttig also looks at the place of tribes and tribal institutions in current Afghan society and how they have been changed by three decades of war.

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Afghanistan Analysts Network, Thematic Report, 04/2010

Released 29 June 2010.

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