The Taliban is Not the Mujahideen, and It’s Very Dangerous for Us to Confuse the Two

The recent swap of five Guantanamo prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, a US Army soldier who had been held captive by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in Afghanistan since 2009, has unleashed a swirling mess of commentary. One such piece from among the firestorm is this Huffington Post blog by Blake Fleetwood.

In the piece, Fleetwood, apparently a former reporter for the New York Times, pleads with the commentariat to stop engaging in “casually manufactured confusion between al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.”

It is an admirable goal. However, Fleetwood then proceeds to engage in shoddy analysis and trot out his own “casually manufactured confusion.”

The Taliban was, and is, primarily a nationalistic movement and is fundamentally committed to building an Islamist state in Afghanistan. Ironically, in the ’80s, when the Taliban was fighting the Soviet Union, the U.S. supplied the group with stinger anti-aircraft missiles and other military supplies.

Ironically, in the ’80s the Taliban didn’t exist.

For those who haven’t spent the last seven years obsessed with pre-Taliban Afghan history it may come as a shock to you that the Taliban did not exist until the early 1990s. Afghanistan’s homegrown freedom fighters, those who star in Charlie Wilson’s War and accepted shipments of Stingers in the 80s were collectively known as the Mujahideen.

The Mujahideen were not a single monolithic group but a collection of seven main parties (and other smaller groups) united only (mostly) in their opposition to the Soviet occupation and the Communist government at power in Kabul. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the Mujahideen fight focused on the Communist Najibullah government. Around 1991, as the Soviet Union’s faltering became a full crumble, Soviet aid to Afghanistan ended. Shortly after, the Najibullah government was toppled by the Mujahideen.

Then the Mujahideen did what any loose conglomeration does when its binding element disappears. They fragmented. They cannibalized.

As the ensuing civil war reaped more chaos upon broken and bloody Afghanistan, the Taliban movement emerged. Their rise was rapid from 1992 onward, their mission singular, and their ideology simple.

In 1996 the Taliban took control of Kabul and what was left of the Mujadideen fled back into insurgency under the guise of the Northern Alliance.

There is more to be said about the difference between the Taliban, the Mujahideen, and al-Qaida and I have grossly simplified history above in favor of clarity and brevity. While I agree wholeheartedly with Fleetwood’s urging that we cease making baseless historical comparisons, I found it difficult to read past his demonstrated hypocrisy. In making a casual comment drawing out an historical example in the midst of a larger argument he commits the same sin he condemns in others.

The Taliban never fought the Soviets.

Want to know more about Afghanistan? Read these books:

  • Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia – Ahmed Rashid
  • The Wars of Afghanistan:  Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers- Peter Tomsen
  • Afghanistan’s Endless War:  State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban – Larry Goodson
  • Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007 – Antonio Giustozzi
  • Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics – Martin Ewan
  • Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan – Michael Griffin

All but the last are easily available. The Griffin text was originally published in September 2000 and is the last book written primarily about the Taliban (might be the only…) BEFORE 9/11/2001. A 2003 version came out but the original provides a unique view of the group before everything changed.



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