Antonio Giustozzi, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is one of the internationally recognized specialists on the Taliban. Author of Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan (Columbia University Press, 2008) among other books, this academic divides his time between London and Afghanistan. Talking to Le Monde in Kabul, he sketched a portrait of the new generation of Islamist rebels.
In what respect are these “Neo-Taliban” different?
The primary difference is that these “Neo-Taliban” are waging a real guerrilla war. This was not the case with their elders. Before conquering Kabul in the autumn of 1996, the first generation was a simple, ill-organized militia. Then, after taking power, it attempted to build an army. There never was a real guerrilla experience in that period. The situation changed after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. The new, armed opposition started with limited means. But it kept raising the level of tactical expertise as well as that of strategic thinking.
The Taliban seem to be taking the diplomatic dimension into account more than before. . . .
The Taliban of the 1990s neglected diplomacy. They were not very good at understanding the international environment. They then paid dearly for that by losing power. The new generation is more sophisticated. It is fully taking the regional dimension of its struggle into account. The Neo-Taliban have managed to open channels of communication with the United Nations, the Iranians, and the Russians. That’s a big difference.
Have the relations with Al Qaeda and foreign jihadists who have come to Afghanistan to fight, so-called “Arabs,” changed?
In 1998, the Taliban were on the verge of expelling the “Arabs” from Afghanistan. But around 2000-2001, their relations became closer. What happened? This radicalization can be explained by the failure of their attempt to open up to the world. The Taliban had made gestures. They had, for example, prohibited the cultivation of opium. They believed that the restoration of stability of Afghanistan under their aegis, in addition to the prohibition of opium, would make them acceptable in the eyes of the Americans. They were wrong. They overlooked a fundamental point: the rights of women. They never imagined that the West would make a big issue of it, justifying sanctions. This failure discredited the moderates and bolstered the radicals. Bin Laden really benefited from this failed attempt at overture.
The Neo-Taliban maintain ambiguous relations with Al Qaeda. Of course, they can cooperate, accept its money, its support. At the same time, they do not wish to be fully integrated with Al Qaeda or aligned with its ideology.
Is this new generation interested in technology?
There is more pragmatism regarding technology. The first generation was very conservative. It banned photos and television. That is no longer the case. The Neo-Taliban are quick to resort to video and the Internet, for propaganda purposes.
How far does this pragmatism go?
They don’t want to antagonize the populations under their control. For example, the prohibition of music has been suspended in some areas, because the Taliban commanders on the ground know that people do not appreciate this kind of prohibition. You see the same attitude in some districts regarding education. State institutions are allowed to operate, under supervision of the Taliban of course.
As far as the structure is concerned, the tendency is to formalize more, depersonalizing the movement once strongly identified with Mullah Omar. This is a consequence of going underground. The chain of command being more complicated, it becomes necessary to strengthen the institutions. It is also the manifestation of a crisis of growth. New structures are required to accommodate the newcomers. It is a beginning of institutionalization.
The original article “Les nouveaux talibans afghans mènent une vraie guerre de guérilla” appears in the 7 May 2009 issue of Le Monde. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).