Country Profile


Situation Report

Four decades of war in Afghanistan have left a political and military environment infused with religious language and justifications, stifling legitimate debate and allowing the suppression of opposition. There is a widespread assumption among the elites that international norms and freedoms are 'anti-Islamic'. However, while Afghan society remains religiously conservative, the use of Islam in defence of human-rights violations committed by many of those still in power has left many Afghans suspicious of religious arguments says Thomas Ruttig of Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Religion in Afghanistan

Ninety-nine per cent of Afghans are Muslims, and the current constitution, adopted in 2004, defines Afghanistan as an "Islamic Republic". It also stipulates that Islam is the "the religion of the state" and that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam". Popular Islam in Afghanistan has very strong, though not publicly displayed, Sufi undercurrents, with the Naqshbandiya and Qaderiya the most influential tariqa (orders). Going beyond the provisions of the 1964 constitution that gave the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam dominant status, it establishes equal rights for the Shia minority The Shia are thought to make up 20 per cent of the population. Population figures are extremely unreliable for Afghanistan and range from a total of 25.5 million (Afghan government, 2012/13) to 31.8 million (CIA World Fact Book, 2014). for the first time. As the constitution prohibits "any kind of discrimination", it also gives equal rights to non-Muslim minorities. It further stipulates, "Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law". These legal provisions do not always translate into practice.

Afghan society before the Soviet occupation was religiously conservative, with a few liberal urban enclaves and little Islamist influence. However, throughout the 20th century, repeatedly top-down and violently enforced modernisation by various Afghan governments provoked armed resistance from conservative tribal actors and the Islamic clergy. The first such instance concerned the 1920s reforms of King Amanullah, and similar resistance befell Soviet-backed regimes between 1978-92. In general however, the clergy – the mullahs, who were often uneducated and outsiders in many communities, and the better-educated ulema (higher-ranking Islamic scholars; singular: alim) – remained politically weak and only of local importance. Their monopolistic grip on education had largely been broken by Amanullah's reforms. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Islamists had a marginal presence at the few universities and some rural madrassas. They were repressed under the monarchy (until 1973), the Republic (1973-78) and the leftist regimes (1978-92).

Increasing polarisation over the 1960s and 1970s between conservative and leftist reformist forces culminated in the takeover by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) The PDPA were left-wing party established in 1965 that aimed to turn Afghanistan into a socialist country allied with the USSR. in 1978, and the Soviet military intervention on their behalf in the following year which led to a mobilisation of the Afghan Islamists. With Afghanistan now a hot spot in the Cold War, they took over leadership of the anti-Soviet resistance, supported by the West, Arab regimes and foreign extremists. Support to the country's Islamists was channelled through the influence of Pakistan's Islamist military dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (ruled 1978-88). When in 1981 he decided to support only seven Islamist mujahedin groups, other groups Monarchist, nationalist and leftist (Maoist) groups. that had participated in the resistance were marginalised and cut off from Pakistani supplies. This allowed the mujahedin to reinterpret the national liberation struggle more narrowly in religious terms, as a 'jihad'.

The armed struggle changed the structure of national elites.

In the course of the following four decades of increasingly brutal conflict, millions of Afghans have been killed or displaced, infrastructure has been destroyed and the social fabric of Afghan society has been ripped apart. The armed struggle has changed the make-up of national elites, as influence has shifted from the landed, tribal aristocracy, and members of the intelligentsia – first leftist, then Islamist – have moved into leadership positions. Simultaneously, the wars resulted in a conservative backlash. The role of religion became more prominent, as a tool of self-identification against foreign occupiers, and the religious clergy increasingly took up ideological and political leadership roles. The mujahedin parties of the 1980s – both Sunni and Shia – were either led by ulema or members of the Islamist intelligentsia. Later under the Taliban, the mullahs were to become the 'transmission belts' of government rule, being the eyes and the ears of the regime.

The long-term effects of these changes are widely evident. The political sphere is dominated by a group of surviving mujahedin leaders – now calling themselves 'jihadi leaders' – who also have accumulated impressive economic power, making them increasingly independent of external donors. Large parts of the female population continue to be excluded from public life, especially in rural areas. Women's employment is still the exception rather then the rule, Afghan women are expected to be accompanied by a male relative (mahram) when travelling, and there is an on-going debate as to whether women should be visible in the media. At the political level, this social tendency is reflected by regular attempts to curb human rights, particularly women's rights, and pressure on related institutions and activists.

The widespread assumption in the new elites that Islamic values predominate over international norms and freedoms, seen in effect as 'anti-Islamic', is mainly held tacitly. However, it is regularly expressed in Friday sermons and has repeatedly been raised in public by influential religious scholars, members of parliament and even government ministers. Criticism of jihadi leaders is treated as 'criticism of Islam' and repressed, with several early cases establishing precedents to deter later challenges The first of these was in 2003: the case of the newspaper Aftab that had printed an article accusing so-called jihadi leaders of using Islam as an "instrument to take over power" to establish the "rule of the mullahs", calling this "holy fascism"; after accusations of insulting Islam, the newspaper's editor-in-chief was forced to flee abroad. In 2005 a monthly women's affairs newspaper was banned and its editor-in-chief threatened with the death sentence for apostasy after challenging orthodox Islamic views on women's rights. In a similar case in 2008, a student and freelance journalist in Mazar-e Sharif, Parvez Kambakhsh, was jailed and sentenced to death for blasphemy after he printed and distributed to pamphlets that were judged to have questioned tenets of Islam. These pamphlets were of Iranian origin and deemed legitimate in Iranian discourse. Kambakhsh's verdict was commuted to 20 years in jail but he was pardoned by the president and brought out of the country following massive international protests.. Under these circumstances, no political actors can openly define themselves as 'secular', in spite of a quiet secular undercurrent in Afghan society A few leftist parties referred to themselves as "secular" in the early post-Taliban years, but have since ceased to do so in public..

The trend to crack down on religious debate through the courts is concerning and the trend to label criticism against religious figures 'un-Islamic' reflects an internalisation of the jihadist concept of takfir The practice of declaring opponents "kafir" which can also be applied to Muslims. The first prominent case was when Egyptian Islamic Jihad proclaimed it of – and then assassinated – President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Over recent decades it has only been minority extremist groups, the so-called 'jihadists' or Wahhabis, which have adhered to the concept., alien to Afghan mainstream Islam. It also represents a top-down politicisation of Islam, which is exacerbated by the lack of judicial independence in Afghanistan.

As a result, younger generations are torn between the demand to follow what are considered Afghan or Islamic values, and the attraction of 'Western' innovations in culture, dress and technology However, even the most radical Islamic groups have now adopted modern means of communication that in the 1990s were still outlawed by the Taliban.. In urban areas especially, many synthesise both. The failure of the post-2001 Western intervention to establish peace and stability in the country, however, has strengthened anti-Western sentiments.

The derogatory term 'kafir' has become currency in everyday speech.

The conservative backlash has further led to growing intolerance of non-Muslims, and numbers of religious minorities have dwindled throughout the conflict years. There remains only one member of the Jewish community in Kabul. Although indigenous to Afghanistan for many centuries, Sikhs and Hindus – labelled together as Ahl-e Hunud ("Indian people") in popular representation – are increasingly seen as 'foreign'. They have come under periodic pressure and many have left the country; their combined population has declined from 20,000 to 7,000 since 1978 See: Fabrizio Foschini, "A Lost Opportunity? Hindus and Sikhs do not get a reserved seat in parliament", AAN, 16 Dec 2013. In 2013, a majority in the Afghan parliament rejected a presidential decree giving Sikhs and Hindus a joint guaranteed seat in the lower house.. The (Shia) Ismaili minority, split into two isolated groups in the Baghlan and Badakhshan provinces, are also pressured; particularly by radical Sunnis, by whom they are considered 'non-Muslim' Extremists even apply this to Shiites in general.. For Westerners, the derogatory term kafir (unbeliever) has increasingly become currency in everyday speech. The recent series of apparently spontaneous killings of Western journalists and aid workers seems to be the extreme edge of this tendency For some public reactions see: Azam Ahmed and Alan Blinder, "Americans Die in Grim Trend in Afghanistan", New York Times, 24 April 2014..

Although sectarian undercurrents are evident in strong mutual biases in both Sunni and Shia communities, one important feature of post-2001 Afghanistan – in striking difference to Iraq – is that violent Sunni-Shia conflict has been largely absent, in spite of attempts by radical groups to trigger such a conflict. An inherent discrimination against the minority is reflected in the fact that Sunni-Shia disputes are generally solved on the basis of Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence. That being said, the constitution obliges the provision of a separate judiciary for intra-Shia disputes.

No official Christian community exists in Afghanistan, but since the Taliban rule of 1996-2001 there have been a growing number of conversions No printed sources are available; this is based on the author's observations.. Some are the result of proselytising Christian aid groups, mainly among marginalised communities, others via conscious renunciation of Islam due to war crimes committed in its name Many of these are members of the Afghan intelligentsia but remain secretive even from family members.. Denouncing Islam continues to be treated as apostasy in accordance with sharia law and, in theory, carries the death sentence The case of one Afghan who turned to Christianity and received the death sentence received broad media coverage in 2006. In early 2014, a UK court granted asylum to an Afghan atheist..

Conflict and the Development of Religious Narratives

Although it was the Soviet invasion of 24 December 1979 that brought Afghanistan to the attention of the broader international public, armed conflicts had begun earlier, in the mid-1970s. They then evolved from small-scale guerrilla warfare into an on-going internationalised conflict.

Afghanistan's conflict years can be divided into five phases: 1) small Islamist groups fighting a central government that included leftist elements (1975-78); 2) localised and mainly spontaneous but widespread popular uprisings against the left-wing regime (1978-79); 3) An Islamist-led and externally supported insurgency against the Soviet occupation, as the conflict was internationalised during the Cold War (1979-89) and during the Najibullah years (1989-92) after the Soviet withdrawal; 4) factional wars, which saw the victorious mujahedin groups – known as tanzim in Afghanistan, a term which indicates their military-network character Most of the tanzim are Islamist, but there are exceptions: Jombesh-e Melli Islami (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan) and the Ismaili militia. Both emerged from pro-PDPA militias but switched sides when the USSR stopped financing the regime. Jombesh, based in the Uzbek and Turkmen population, were led by 'General' Abdul Rashid Dostum. The nameless militia from the Ismaili religious minority has since been remodelled as a political party, Hezb-e Paiwand-e Melli (National Accord Party), led by Sayed Mansur Naderi. Afghanistan's Ismaili community is split into two branches, the mainly apolitical branch loyal to the Agha Khan in parts of Badakhshan, and those led by the Naderi family in the Kayyan valley of Baghlan province, north of Kabul. – fighting for supremacy (1992-94/96) and then conflict between the re-united tanzim and the Taliban (1994/96-2001); 5) US-led military intervention, triggered by the events of 9/11, and anti-Western insurgency.

Throughout every phase of conflict, political forces have expressed and legitimised themselves in religious terms. With the withdrawal of NATO/ISAF combat forces scheduled for the end of 2014 and of all US forces for 2016, a new 'Afghanised' phase of the conflict may occur, fought out between central government forces and the insurgents, as a political settlement remains out of sight.

Phase One: Opposition to the Central Government

Beginning in the early 1960s, Afghanistan began experiencing political tensions in which religious motifs were already prevalent Religious motifs were already prevalent in these Islamist-versus-leftist political conflicts. For example, the visit by Soviet leader Khrushchev in 1960 sparked demonstrations led by the Islamic clergy against what they perceived as a growing influence of pro-Soviet atheists in the country. A new wave of ulema-led demonstrations broke out – and was repressed – in 1970, after a leftist publication praised Lenin in terms reserved for the Prophet Muhammad.. These tensions resulted from the inability of conservative, stagnating institutions to absorb the growing educated classes that were the long-term output of Amanullah's reforms. The 1964 constitutional reforms, which strengthened parliament but did not legalise political parties, radicalised both leftists and Islamists and drove them underground. Both mobilised students, leading to campus clashes. Both also infiltrated the military and began working towards violent regime change.

Massud and Hekmatyar represented a new type of Afghan political leader.

The leftists gained the upper hand with the coup d'état on 17 July 1973 that brought to power a member of the royal family, Sardar (Prince) Muhammad Daoud, who proclaimed a republic. An unsuccessful uprising in opposition to leftist influence on the government in July 1975 was significant to the subsequent development of Afghan conflict, as it featured some of the most well known actors of the decades to come. These included the two most prominent mujahedin leaders, Ahmad Shah Massud, a Tajik from the Panjshir valley who later became defence minister of the first post-PDPA government and was assassinated on 9 September 2001, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a detribalised Pashtun also from the Afghan north who is among the leaders of the current insurgency. Both Massud and Hekmatyar, as students of engineering, represented a new type of Afghan political leader, possessing a modern education but being religiously conservative at the same time Massud and Hekmatyar were also archenemies, and their fighters often clashed while fighting the Soviets.. The surviving leaders of the 1975 uprising fled to Pakistan where they received support and training by President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's government and continued to wage small-scale cross-border guerrilla warfare.

Phase Two: Uprising Against the Left-wing Regime

When Daoud sidelined the leftists, they staged another military coup on 28 April 1978, led by PDPA-linked officers. The new leaders immediately faced a wave of uprisings. Later, more organised resistance led by Pakistan-based Islamists caused them to call for Soviet military assistance. In late 1979, the Soviet leadership finally decided to intervene directly, enabling Pakistan's Islamist military dictatorship, the Afghan mujahedin and their ideological mentors, the Islamist parties in Pakistan, to brand the struggle as a 'jihad' against Soviet and Afghan 'atheists'.

The early period of the conflict was also driven by antagonism between Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, which had experienced a tense relationship ever since Pakistan emerged as a separate state in 1947. This conflict had its roots in Afghanistan's claims to Pashtun and Baloch-inhabited areas The Pakistani provinces now known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, as well as the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). that had been annexed during British colonialism and allocated to Pakistan in 1947, epitomised by the contested mutual border, the Durand Line. To further its irredentist claims, Afghan governments supported and hosted ethnic separatist movements across the border. From 1975 onwards, as a result of the failed Islamist uprising in Afghanistan and the escape of its leaders, Pakistan retaliated in similar fashion. Initially the insurgents were supported against President Daoud's short-lived republic, and then against the Soviet-backed government.

Phase Three: Islamist-led Insurgency

The US, Saudi Saudi Arabia's role (Saudi Arabia had committed to matching the amount of support provided to the mujahedin by the US (USD 3-4 bn) furthered the emergence of a new Islamist strand in Afghanistan, wahhabism. Small Wahhabi groups had only previously existed in remote parts of the northeast, as a result of the forced conversion of non-Muslim Nuristani groups under the reign of Amir Abdul Rahman (1891-1901). In 1980, Saudi Arabia was instrumental in renewed coalition building between the six major Sunni tanzim. The product was called Ittihad-e Islami bara-ye Azadi-ye Afghanistan (Islamic Union for the Freedom of Afghanistan) and was led by a professor of Islamic theology, Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf. When the front imploded, Sayyaf (who was recently a 2014 Presidential candidate) led Ittihad as his personal Wahhabi-oriented, and generously funded tanzim (Ittihad bought up field commanders from other tanzim, as it lacked a natural base of support in the country). Saudi Arabia was also instrumental in the sending of non-Afghans to join the Afghan jihad. These included the young Osama bin Laden, laying the foundations for the later emergence of al-Qaeda. It was Sayyaf's organisation, under commander Jalaluddin Haqqan, which hosted most of these jihadist 'internationalists'. Ittihad was renamed Dawat-e Islami after 2001., Pakistani and Iranian responses to the Soviet invasion of December 1979 internationalised the conflict, and their arms, financial and ideological support to existing Islamist groups Before 1973, the diffuse Islamist movement was organised in a few urban groups and rural madrassas. The Sunni urban groups gathered around a group of theology professors at Kabul University's Sharia faculty, some of whom had been students at Cairo's al-Azhar and were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. This group was known as Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Association) and remained an umbrella group for most urban Sunni Islamists prior to the PDPA takeover in 1978. In 1969, the Jamiat-e Islami established the Muslim Youth (Jawanan-e Musalman). Small Shia underground groups, struggling for the minority's political emancipation, had also existed from the late 1940s. One staged an abortive coup d'ètat over the Afghan New Year of 1949. For more background on this and other Afghan political parties: Thomas Ruttig, Islamists, Leftists – and a Void in the Center. Afghanistan's Political Parties and where they come from (1902-2006), Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Kabul/Berlin 2006. The Shia groups, as well as political activities outside the capital Kabul remain under-researched. A rare exception is Faridullah Bezhan, "Ethno-religious dynamics and the emergence of the Hezb-e Seri Itehad (Secret Unity Party) in Afghanistan in the late 1940s", Central Asian Survey, 31:4, 445-64. established the mujahedin tanzim as the dominant forces on the Afghan scene.

Efforts towards uniting them proved unsuccessful The time between the abortive July 1975 uprising and the Soviet intervention in late 1979 saw a number of attempts to unite the diverse Islamist groups. However, these attempts deepened splits and led to the establishment of various Sunni Islamist groups, the later tanzim. The reasons were deep-seated rivalries, particularly between Jamiat leader Burhanuddin Rabbani and one of the organisation's leading members, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who were unable to agree on organisational leadership. As a result, Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan was established in 1976 as a unity party, becoming Hekmatyar's faction, while Rabbani revived Jamiat (For more, see Kevin Bell, Usama bin Laden's "Father Sheikh:" Yunus Khalis and the Return of al-Qa'ida's Leadership to Afghanistan, The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, May 2013, pp 13ff). There was also a conceptual conflict over how to combat the new communist regime. When the younger generation, non-clergy Islamists like Hekmatyar declared 'jihad' against the PDPA government, the Ulema-led tanzim challenged the legitimacy of their religious qualifications. This was an indirect claim by the ulema for hegemony in the resistance movement, which failed to materialise due to their relative inefficiency compared to the tanzim led by Hekmatyar and Rabbani. Similar arguments were used against Taliban leaders when they began their movement that was, and is, lead mainly by lesser-qualified village mullahs. In Rabbani's case, success was mainly due to the efficiency of well-educated commanders like Ahmad Shah Massud in the Panjshir and Ismail Khan in Herat., the enormous resource flows actually exacerbating rivalry between individual leaders. Although the Islamist tendency of the tanzim was well known by this point, when a group of mujahedin leaders were invited to the US in 1985, President Ronald Reagan nevertheless referred to them as the 'moral equivalent' of the US founding fathers Mujib Mashal, Hekmatyar's never-ending Afghan war, al-Jazeera website, 28 Jan 2012. Hekmatyar – who considered America alien to Afghanistan and as 'kafir' as the Soviet Union – declined to meet Reagan..

In the 1980s, the tanzim remained divided, with ethnic and sectarian differences among the reasons Together with Sayyaf's new organisation (see footnote 18), there were seven major Sunni tanzim based in and supported through Pakistan, usually referred to as the Haftgana (or "Peshawar Seven"). There were nine major Shia tanzim, based in and supported by Iran, though they remained fragmented throughout the war against the Soviets. Only in 1989 when the Soviet troop withdrawal heralded political change could the leadership in Tehran force eight of the Hazara groups to merge under the name Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan (Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan). They were dubbed the Hashtgana (or "Tehran Eight"). The ninth Shia group, the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Harakat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan), mainly mobilised among the Sayyids, who see themselves as a distinct ethnic group, and remained separate., though their resistance to uniting as a broad alliance was actually caused by competition for external resources, much of which were privatised rather than being used for the war effort.

After Pakistan's sidelining of non-Islamist resistance groups, six Sunni tanzim dominated the scene: Hekmatyar's Hezb-e Islami, which received most external support; Rabbani's Jamiat-e Islami; a second Hezb-e Islami led by the religious scholar, Mawlawi Yunis Khalis; the ulema-run Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami (Islamic Revolution Movement) under Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi, which later joined the Taliban (and was relaunched after 2001); and two smaller groups, Jabha-ye Nejat-e Melli-ye Afghanistan (National Salvation Front of Afghanistan), whose leader, 1992 interim President Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, is simultaneously an alim and a Sufi leader, and Jabha-ye Islami-ye Melli-ye Afghanistan (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan), led by another Sufi leader, Pir Sayyid Ahmad Gailani.

The period between 1978 and 1989 During the 1980s, the Islamist Sunni and Shia mujahedin commanders either eliminated or co-opted the old tribal and local elites. This conflict was particularly harsh among the Shia Hazara of central Afghanistan, where the traditional elites (landowners and religious and community leaders, known as the khans) had almost completely liberated the Hazara-settled areas and established a semi-independent administration from 1979 onwards, basing it on a tacit non-aggression pact with the Soviets and the central government. An influx of Khomeinist groups, trained and inspired by Iran's new religious leadership, wiped out this structure between 1982-84, leading to the take-over of Afghanistan's Shia groups by Islamist forces. was characterised by a clear polarisation within the internal forces, with the mujahedin – i.e. fighters motivated by Islam, opposing what they deemed a 'kafir' regime.

In the years surrounding the Soviet troop withdrawal of February 1989, the central government abandoned symbols associated with communism, and renamed the PDPA as Hezb-e Watan (Homeland Party). The regime tried to present its leaders as 'good Muslims', and attempted to appease the Islamic clergy through the use of religious symbols, however unsuccessfully The regime adopted a new constitution and proclaimed a policy of national reconciliation, offering mujahedin leaders government positions at national and subnational levels and participation in a now ostensibly pluralistic political system. Elections were held and seats in parliament kept vacant for what was termed the 'armed opposition'. Finally, whole provinces were vacated by government armed forces in order for the tanzim to establish themselves permanently on Afghan territory. The tanzim leaders and commanders, with few exceptions, did not accept these offers. Nevertheless, this means of reconciliation was later emulated by the Karzai government and its Western allies..

Phases 4 and 5: Religious Narratives in the Current Conflict

The anti-Soviet 'jihad' strengthened Islamic narratives in Afghanistan and the victory over the Soviets led to the dominance of the mujahedin leaders, now known as 'Jihadi leaders', in today's political system and public discourse. As a result, all major parties in the current conflict present themselves in religious terms as 'good Muslims' and as representing and defending 'true Islam'.

The Afghan insurgents are comprised of several organisations. By far the largest and most influential are the Taliban. Other insurgent groups include the Hezb-e Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and localised Salafi groups in the northeast of the country. The so-called Haqqani and Mansur networks in the southeast, and remnants of the Khalis faction of Hezb-e Islami in eastern Afghanistan, are sometimes considered separate organisations in the West but actually operate under the Taliban umbrella, albeit with a large degree of autonomy. There is also a plethora of armed groups that often masquerade as the Taliban, who are remnants of former tanzim that have not been integrated within the post-Taliban political structures. In their case, the boundary between the insurgency and criminal activity is particularly fluid.

As a separate faction, the Taliban The term "taliban" has traditionally been used in Afghanistan for the – often very young – students of local mosques and madrassas, as opposed to students of government-run schools. emerged in the mid-1990s as a reaction to the tanzims' competition and war crimes committed during that period. The population, which had mostly supported the fight against the Soviets, lost trust in the mujahedin's ability to lead the country to peace and stable government. This created the conditions for the Taliban, as a new force, to end the civil war by disarming rival factions, and to implement what the mujahedin had promised: an Islamic state.

It is unclear how much of a religious debate really occurs within the Taliban movement or its associated ulema. In practice the movement is lead by lower-level mullahs and the Taliban's ulema council seems to only play a superficial role, rubber stamping leadership decisions.

A key episode in the Taliban's self-legitimisation as an Islamic movement was the appointment of leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, in 1996 in Kandahar, as amir-ul-mo'menin (leader of the faithful). The title gives him religious credentials beyond Afghanistan and makes his leadership almost impossible to challenge from inside the movement. His title reflects elements of jihadist theory, namely that jihad against unbelievers is only possible under an independent Muslim ruler in an un-occupied territory. Beyond this and despite occasional jihadist rhetoric in Taliban statements, jihadist ideology has little impact on the Taliban's worldview and modus operandi. The movement strictly follows an Afghanistan-only agenda, making them better described as 'national Islamists' I paraphrase the term 'national communism' used for the Romanian Communist Party with its agenda that sometimes deviated from the Moscow line.. The Afghan Taliban have not participated in violent activity outside Afghanistan and their safe havens in western Pakistan The only exception, between 2004 and 2007, was when the notorious commander Mullah Dadullah imported the method of indiscriminate mass suicide attacks from Iraq. This created strong disagreements within the movement between his followers and the more traditionalist majority of commanders who considered these strikes 'un-Islamic', as they mainly killed Afghans, i.e. fellow Muslims. Dadullah was killed in a coalition airstrike in 2007. Since then, the Taliban have regulated their fighters' behaviour vis-à-vis the civilian population using a layha (code of conduct) that has been through several editions. They even rejected a direct involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks..

Little love was lost between Afghan fighters and Arab jihadists.

As al-Qaeda's 9/11 strikes led to the fall of the Taliban regime, and therefore the loss of what jihadists considered the only independent Muslim territory, this brought the Taliban and al-Qaeda into conflict. Already during the Taliban's rule, little love was lost between the Afghan fighters and the Arab and Pakistani jihadists. Skirmishes were periodic, and the Taliban leadership used the Arab volunteers as cannon fodder on the most dangerous frontlines. Al-Qaeda's fault lines with the Taliban make their return to Afghanistan unlikely even in the case of another Taliban takeover. It was the failure to understand this fault line Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010, London 2012. that contributed to the failed US-led anti-terrorism approach in Afghanistan.

As a consequence of the US-led foreign intervention in 2001, a new insurgency grew from disoriented remnants and a few enclaves in which Taliban elements survived into a country-wide movement In late 2001, a Taliban minister stated "The Taliban system is no more." See: Anand Gopal, No Good Men among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan eyes, New York 2014, p. 121. Then, the insurgency spread by varying degrees in different regions, with the predominant areas being Pashtun. It is often inaccurately described as 'neo-Taliban', negating the continuity in their leadership, ideology, and organisational structure.. The movement, presenting itself as a national anti-occupation force, also continues to feed on the shortcomings of the new regime. These include endemic corruption and, on the subnational level, frequent predatory behaviour and political and tribal exclusivity. Pakistani cross-border involvement, and the high-handedness of the international intervention that has seen years of carelessness towards Afghan civilian casualties, have also fuelled Taliban propaganda and recruitment.

Violence has escalated almost year by year. The "surge" of US troops to crush the Taliban-led insurgency brought international troop levels close to that of the Soviets in the 1980s (130,000), triggering an intensification of the Taliban's asymmetric warfare and an increasing number of civilian casualties According to SIPRI, the Afghan conflict is the fourth most violent worldwide. SIPRI Year Book 2013.. The US strategy did not succeed, and political fatigue, not real success, has led to the decision to withdraw combat forces. As the insurgency continues and attempts for a political settlement are stagnating, many economic and social achievements of the post-2001 period are in danger of being rolled back.

For a number of years, the Taliban have been using their old label the 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan', to point out that they consider themselves the legitimate government, overthrown by an unlawful external intervention. Alongside a fighting force, in which a centralised command oversees a series of local networks, they have also built up parallel government structures. There are a number of quasi-ministerial 'commissions' under a central Leadership Council, often called the 'Quetta shura' Actually, the Quetta shura is one of various regional military councils that are led by the Leadership Council. That it was based in Quetta like the Leadership Council (at least initially, current locations oft he leadership are unclear) has led to confusion., and military and civilian administrations for all 34 provinces, some of which are based locally, with others based in Pakistan, and still others mainly existing on paper. The Taliban are now displaying the same religious motifs and justifications for their struggle that were previously used by the anti-Soviet mujahedin – mainly of the jihad against unbelievers and their local 'lackeys'. They also continue to call their fighters "mujahedin" There are also internal fault lines in the movement, played out in conflicts between Kandahari leaders and non-Kandahari tribal networks, as well as between the competing leadership bodies of the Quetta and the Peshawar shuras..

The Taliban is now divided between those considering a political solution to avoid further bloodshed and those wishing to continue the war, betting on a military takeover when NATO forces leave at the end of 2014. These divisions, however, do not represent a split into formal factions. The outcome of this debate is difficult to predict, as the Taliban have made territorial gains, which include the symbolic takeover of abandoned NATO forward bases and temporary take-overs of district centres, but have also suffered setbacks at the hands of government and allied irregular forces. In mid-May 2014, they began a new spring offensive that continues to test the capabilities of the government forces. This pushes realistic prospects for peace talks further into the future.

The Central Government Coalition

The current central government in Kabul is a loose coalition of political networks in an uneasy alliance between some former tanzim and elements of the anti-PDPA diaspora. It emerged as a result of the international conference held in Bonn in late 2001 to determine a political roadmap for post-Taliban Afghanistan. The followers of the assassinated Massud, the Panjshiri core of Jamiat-e Islami, successfully established their hegemony over the new political set-up of the country in Bonn. The group was given control over the most important ministerial positions Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, the intelligence services, the Presidential office and Presidential Guard., with the concession that a Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, would be President.

To bolster their position further, they campaigned to delegitimise the diaspora Afghans that had joined the new government for not having participated in the jihad, using derogatory terms with religious undertones like 'sag-shuyi' (dog washers). Secular and leftist figures were labelled 'un-Islamic' and largely excluded from the new interim administration One exception, Sima Samar, initially a deputy head of government and women's affairs minister, now acts as head of the influential Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She was publicly labelled an 'Afghan Salman Rushdie' in indirect calls for her assassination during the 2001 Loya Jirga by mujahedin forces..

To legitimise their claims to power, the former mujahedin have styled themselves as the embodiment of the anti-Soviet jihad and the resistance against the Taliban, with the "martyr Ahmad Shah Massud" their most powerful symbol Massud was the most prominent commander of the anti-Soviet mujahedin. He was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives on 9 September 2001 and declared a "national hero" by the Karzai government. Many Pashtuns see Ahmad Shah Massud as a symbol of non-Pashtun ethnic rule, but this does not prevent his legacy becoming a political tool for particular groups.. This narrative played a central role in the 2014 electoral campaign.

Many members of the clergy oppose elections as 'contrary to Islam'.

President Hamid Karzai's allies do in fact claim a part in the same tradition. Although many did not participate directly in the armed struggle, key leaders, including Karzai, were members of the tanzim Karzai belonged to Mojaddidi's Jabha-ye Nejat-e Melli-ye Afghanistan organisation but was instrumental in raising resources for different tanzim while in exile in Pakistan.. To bolster his religious credentials having been made President, Karzai sought support and legitimacy through constant consultation with the increasingly powerful The political power of the jihadi leaders is increasingly grounded in economic power. The financial support received during the anti-Soviet jihad and the 2001 war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as income from the drug trade, helped them accumulate substantial wealth and assume significant power over the legal economy. Economic interests often transcend boundaries between ethnic and political camps and today, most control networks of enterprises and extensive real estate. These include prominent companies with export and import monopolies in the mining, banking, security and logistics sectors. Some companies are based abroad and headed by younger family members with dual citizenships. They also run private higher education institutions, TV and radio stations, and print media often-labelled 'independent'. Their real estate holdings include whole streets and bazaars in urban centres, rural government land privatised during the lawless periods of factional war, as well as properties in Iran, Pakistan, and increasingly in the UAE, Turkey, Europe and North America. In Afghanistan, housing is erected on privatised land, forming so-called shahrak (townships), which are distributed to leaders' political or ethnic clienteles. Political protection for the drug economy, through influence in the security apparatus, is also part of these diversified economic empires. 'jihadi leaders' These considerations made the small circle of 'jihadi leaders' who joined the post-Taliban administration (Sayyaf, Rabbani, Mojaddedi, Gailani and the sons of Khalis and Muhammadi) dominant in what is known as 'the Palace', the Kabul power-centre that hosts numerous official and unofficial advisors. The jihadi leaders became essential to the group's core and used their position to establish countrywide influence. Outside the immediate 'palace', this included key positions in the judiciary, parliament, the province-level administrations, and the armed forces, as well as the political parties of tanzim origins that constitute individual power bases., attempting to sway religious arguments against the Taliban, for example, by labelling asymmetric warfare tactics like suicide bombings 'un-Islamic'. The competition of 'who can be more Islamic' has led to pressure on media rights, restricting freedom of expression, suppressing non-Islamist political groups and the every-day freedoms of most Afghans This is characterised by debates that often appear odd from a western perspective, regarding for example female TV presenters, participation in song contest or the broadcasting of Indian or Turkish soap operas, all of which are deemed too liberal by conservatives..

Due to the Islamist dominance of Afghan political discourse, the former mujahedin's parties also dominate the current party system in which most have registered. Only one non-Islamist tanzim The National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (known as Jombesh-e Melli Islami), a former militia that fought on the Soviet side led by Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. and one non-tanzim political party The Rights and Justice Party (Hezb-e Haq wa Edalat). have managed to join the political system as significant forces. There are almost 100 other parties across the political spectrum, which have effectively been side-lined and even deprived of their right to present party-based lists of candidates during parliamentary elections While the Law on Political Parties establishes this right, the Electoral Law overrules it, by imposing a non-party-based election system, the Single Non-Transferable Vote.

A particularly important institution for the forces of political Islam in Afghanistan A relatively new trend is also the appearance of neo-fundamentalist groups in Kabul and several other provinces, particularly among students and Afghanistan's youth. The strongest groups are the pan-Islamic Hezb-e Tahrir, and Jamiat-e Islah, an indigenous Afghan group that rejects "old" Muslim Brotherhood-related mujahedin as deviants and presents itself as the heir and true representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in Afghanistan. These groups are overwhelmingly Sunni, and often anti-Shia, although they denounce violence. They are also 'internationalist' in the sense of being more conscious of events in the wider Muslim world than both the older-generation of mujahedin and even the Taliban (The military coup against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has galvanised cooperation between some of these groups, even including older-generation tanzim activists). is the High Council of Ulema. This nation-wide body is made up of 3,000 members, one quarter of them Shia The Shia additionally have their own council of ulema., with 34 provincial branches across the country. Despite the fact it was set-up by the government in 2002 and that all of its members receive government salaries, it presents itself as 'non-governmental'. Its major role is directed by the Afghan executive, in order to bolster its religious legitimacy against the Taliban's 'religious' opposition.

Since its establishment, the Council has been led by followers of the jihadi leader Sayyaf, a close Karzai ally. It almost always publically backs the government and it has significant influence on the president's decisions.

However in the provinces, members often preach an alternative message and attack the administration and its Western backers. Recently, many members of the Afghan clergy opposed the elections as 'contrary to Islam'. 

Islam is more than an instrument to obtain and maintain power.

There is no doubt that Afghanistan's current political leaders are devout Muslims and Islam is more than an instrument to obtain and maintain power. Many Afghans, however, see the religious arguments they use as tainted by their war crimes and systematic human rights violations, exacerbated by the prevailing culture of impunity. This is epitomised by the so-called amnesty law passed by parliament in 2010, jointly supported by former mujahedin, communists and even Taliban MPs.

President Karzai and his allies have opposed the publication of reports by both the UN and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), which map these crimes throughout all phases of Afghanistan's conflicts  In summer 2013, Karzai replaced some of the most independent members of the AIHRC who had been a driving force behind the report and had been pushing for accountability..

The dominance of the jihadi leaders-cum-ulema in key positions of post-Taliban Afghanistan comes close to a monopoly of power. This results in their ability to style themselves as the only legitimate embodiment of Islam in Afghanistan, puts them above the law and suppresses most opposition. This is arguably the highest hurdle on Afghanistan's path toward a more open, pluralistic society.

The author is a founder, co-director and senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent non-profit think tank based in Kabul and Berlin.

Last updated 16 June 2014.