The Taliban: Who are they? Why are they fighting? And what will make them stop?

If you take some time to consider the 22 Taliban that were killed by the US-led coalition in Afghanistan on 10 July according to an Associated Press report, chances are you are probably imagining a group of fanatical, irrational, medieval-minded men hell bent on destroying the very foundations of Western civilisation.


Or at least that is what Western propaganda would have you believe.  But is this an accurate, or useful, description of those people violently resisting British forces on the ground in Afghanistan or merely a simplistic demonisation of the official state enemy?  Indeed, it seems to me the very word Taliban has become a reductive, disparaging catch-all that successfully limits debate about exactly who the British Army are fighting – and killing – in Helmand province. 


Thousands of miles away from the war zone, British politicians are keen on trotting out the line that our brave boys are in Afghanistan to protect the population from the Taliban.  However, as Jason Burke, arguably the British journalist with the most expertise in the area, notes, "the tougher truth is that the Taliban, almost exclusively composed of the Pashtun tribes who comprise at least 40% of the countrys population, are an integral part of the Afghan people."  This inconvenient fact was well illustrated by Fazel Muhammad, a member of a district council to the west of Kandahar, who told the New York Times in June that about 80 percent of insurgents were local people.


So what is motivating these people to attack British forces? Speaking to me last year, James Fergusson, a freelance journalist who has travelled to Afghanistan several times and met members of the Taliban in 2007, explained that those fighting British forces have "a large variety of reasons and motivations and its a complex patchwork and its always changing." 


However, Fergussons own discussion with a Taliban Lieutenant strongly hints at the main motivation of many of the insurgents. Deep in Wardak province, the articulate Afghan turned to the British reporter and pointedly asked, "Supposing thousands of Afghans had invaded your country, and bombed your villages and killed your wives and children, what would you do?" Strangely this analysis is broadly supported by none other than the former British Secretary of Defence Des Browne, who argued over three years ago that "the very act of deployment into the south has energised the Taliban".


Complementing Fergussons and Brownes evidence is an illuminating poll of Taliban fighters in Kandahar, conducted by the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper in 2007. Speaking to 42 insurgents, the survey found the typical Taliban foot soldier battling Canadian troops and their allies "is not a global Jihadist who dreams of some day waging war on Canadian soil" but a young man who knows someone "killed by a bomb dropped from the sky" and "fervently believes that expelling the foreigners will set things right in his troubled countries."


The Globe and Mails findings jar uneasily with Gordon Browns assertion that Britain has to fight in Afghanistan "to prevent terrorism coming to the streets of Britain." As Rory Stewart, the former-Coalition Deputy Governor of Maysan province in Iraq who is currently running an NGO in Kabul, argued in the Guardian this week, "The idea that we are there so we dont have to fight terrorists in Britain is absurd the people the Americans and British are fighting in Afghanistan are mostly local tribesman resisting foreign forces."


Perhaps most surprising – at least for those who receive information about the war solely from the mainstream media – is the news the Taliban have been pushing for a negotiated settlement, a course of action supported by 64% of Afghans according to a BBC/ABC poll published earlier this year. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have been talking to intermediaries about a potential peace agreement, reported the New York Times recently, with their first demand the withdrawal of all foreign forces in Afghanistan over the next 18 months. This would be followed by the appointment of  transitional government comprised of a range of Afghan leaders (including Taliban leaders), the introduction of a peace-keeping force drawn predominantly from Muslim nations and, when Western forces have left, nationwide elections.


With the extent of public support for the war currently a matter of intense public debate, seeing our enemy in Afghanistan as human beings with rational concerns and legitimate grievances can only damage the Governments increasingly unpopular case for the continuing occupation. Only when people begin to ignore the deluge of Government and military propaganda pouring out of their newspapers, televisions and radios will they clearly see that the escalation of the conflict ordered by President Obama can only lead to more civilian deaths and refugees, an increase in the terrorist threat to the West and, most disturbingly, act as a successful recruiter for the very people the US and UK are fighting to defeat.


*An edited version of this article recently appeared in the Morning Star. 


Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK.  [email protected].


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