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Matthias Hofmann {*}

The Taliban, a Symbol of the Afghan Struggle for Freedom?


Webmaster's own, not authorized translation


From: Dokumentation, Evangelischer Pressedienst, Frankfurt am Main 2010, Nr.27-28. Seite 102-107.

We like it to see the Taliban from the viewpoint of Europeans, but do we thus justice to them at all? Should not we rather see them from the perspective of the Afghans, in order to be able to assess more accurately their standing in the Afghan population?

From the perspective of Europeans, the Taliban have clearly to be defined as an Islamist terrorist group that wants to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan, especially with the support of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. If this should happen, Europe already knows what one has to expect then in Afghanistan, namely a similar political structure as it existed from 1996 to 2001 there. A form of government that will strongly be shaped by religion, and where human rights - by European standards - are not really applied. There would also be the risk that in Afghanistan refuge was given again to terrorist groups, which intend to perpetrate attacks in the rest of the world.

We must nevertheless take the trouble to look at the phenomenon "Taliban" from the perspective of the Afghan population in order to identify them better or more clearly. In a second step measures have to be taken to integrate them into the existing system of the Afghan government, because without the political integration of the Taliban the State, as it is currently constructed, cannot exist in the future.

Are today's Afghan Taliban really terrorists or are they Afghan freedom fighters?

When we ask Afghans about the Taliban, we as Europeans get in most cases the answer that they of course were terrorists. However, these responses must rather be seen critically, because you never know whether this is really their opinion, or whether they answer in this way, because the right to hospitality requires of them that they do not at all annoy the guest?

In order to grasp more clearly the Afghan perspective or definition of freedom fighter, it is necessary to go back a little and into greater detail.

At least since the Soviet occupation - from the end of 1979 - we know the urgent desire for freedom of the Afghan tribes. While rejecting and detesting the dictatorial infidels, who now spread in Kabul as well as in the rest of Afghanistan, a vigorous freedom struggle now developed, which was waged above all by the Mujahedin {1}. The strike power of those larger and smaller "private armies" was greatly influenced by the respective alliance policy of every individual Mujahed. They fought for their personal freedom and that of their families and tribes {2}.

The ideal of freedom was so important for them that they avoided committing themselves for a longer time to a single ally or to an alliance coalition; they rather preferred to change occasionally their loyalty. It is very difficult for us to understand this policy, but in the Afghan cultures it is definitely a popular sociopolitical approach. Thus, in Afghanistan it has happened and happens that someone who is today an arch-enemy of the state can tomorrow be its ally, but the reverse is just as natural {3}.

It is not appropriate for the situation to describe therefore a Mujahed as disloyal, because here, too, the understanding of loyalty from the viewpoint of the Afghans has to be used and not our view. For Afghans, this understanding of loyalty is due to a model of society that is determined by vassalage, which should also show us Europeans that large areas of Afghanistan's cultures are not yet ripe for the idea of a democratic state {4}.

During that time, for the freedom-loving people of Afghanistan the Mujahedin were resistance fighters, who "rightly" wanted to drive away the communist regime in Kabul and the Soviet and anti-Islamic occupiers {5}. For shaking off the hated Soviet occupiers, the Mujahedin gladly used also the support of the United States, although they have not necessarily seen them as the "best" friend, because in their opinion they, too, were infidels. They used nevertheless this "unholy" relationship in order to achieve more quickly their objective of "the liberation of Afghanistan". But the United States, too, knew at that time of the changing loyalties of Afghans and needed therefore a mediator who was acquainted with both the Afghan and American culture if they wanted to avoid the risk that their "support" fell into the wrong hands. The man of the hour was "Harmid Karzai."

The world became probably really aware of the consequences of the usual change of loyalty among the Mujahed when in February 1989 the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, and when only after three years the Mujahedin succeeded in overthrowing the government in Kabul. Now the freedom struggle of the Mujahedin got his first damages, because the ideals of freedom of all the Mujahedin were not compatible with each other, and so they were again obliged to enter into new compromise solutions.

Now that the Mujahedin had captured Kabul in 1992, they took over power in the state. In the wake of the "Rabbani government" - from June 1992 - the differences of the various Mujahedin burst out again, and one started again to quarrel martially about different views on government {6}. Above all the Afghan Pashtuns {7} have not tolerated a member of the Tajik ethnic group {8} as president - as they like to express it - of their Afghanistan. The implementation of the Pashtun idea of freedom therefore involves that the future president of Afghanistan has naturally to be a Pashtun, which was of course quite contrary to the idea of freedom of the Tadjks and of all the other ethnic groups of Afghanistan.

In the ensuing months, the Mujahedin of Afghanistan's various ethnic groups were no longer fighting for the idea of freedom as such but for enforcing their respective ethnic rights. In many places, the social life was now determined by the permanently changing loyalties of the different Mujahedin. During that time, the territories of the various Mujahedin included usually only a few villages. The villagers were now admittedly free in a very direct way, but this very individual freedom of the individual usually ended already at the respective village boundaries. This fact in turn brought public life almost to a halt, because already the attempt to visit the neighbouring village could end in the killing of the "visitor", if he came from a village with which or with its Mujahedin / Warlord one was at enmity. In the West, but also in the East of the world {9}, the proud and freedom-loving Mujahedin became by and by "warlords" who in their turn began to place their personal freedom above anything else and superior to all other people. The State of Afghanistan as such had become no more than a supernumerary in a very different game or existed actually no longer.

On the other side of the Afghan border, the Pakistani Pashtuns in the social form of the Taliban (talib = student) {10} were now in turn spurred by this chaos in Afghanistan to intervene from 1994 on for the benefit of their Pashtun brothers in Afghanistan {11}.

These Taliban "of the first hour" had probably various supporters from near and far, who not only financially and materially supported their projects in Afghanistan, but who also conceded them their strict religiousness as a unifying and tautly structured concept. Apart from the U.S. also the Saudis and the former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf {12} were involved in establishing, by means of the Taliban who were supported by them, a new leadership elite in Afghanistan, which was to put soon an end to the power struggles of the Mujahedin / Warlords, in favour of a tautly and religiously led regime.

The Mujahedin of the past had meanwhile lost their heroic face of the resistance movement against the Soviet occupiers and were seen by most Afghans no longer as freedom fighters but as mere criminals.

The Taliban finished their mission well. They were not only able to resist the rival warlords, but were also welcomed as Afghanistan's "helper in the hour of need" by the Afghan population. The Afghan tribes had their new freedom fighters who liberated them from the yoke of the Mujahedin rulers.

In the years up to 1996, the Taliban ended the rule of the various Mujahedin in large parts of the country. Due to the changing loyalties also a considerable number of former "freethinking" Mujahedin joined the new Taliban movement, which was injected from Pakistan.

It may be asked here in which areas the Taliban essentially differed from the Mujahedin.
Mujahedin, as well as Taliban saw their legitimacy in an initiative originating in Islam. The Mujahedin had once fought against the "godless" Communists, and the Taliban saw themselves as students of a particular interpretation of the Koran. However, the Mujahedin fought primarily for themselves (and their family / clan) and their respective culture, whereas the Taliban were a collective with a strong religious element.
In the "collective" Taliban, the Mujahedin who in the course of the fighting had joined the Taliban relinquished their respective own freedom in favour of the greater whole.

After the conquest of Kabul in late September 1996, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Immediately after coming to power, they declared the state to be the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan {13}. Due to their arrogance, they asserted that they alone would correctly interpret the Quran, the Taliban regime was diplomatically recognized only by three Islamic countries (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates) {14}.

And so Afghanistan, which had disintegrated into different territories, had again become a more or less coherent territory; only the north and north-east of the country still resisted. The plan of the initiators of the Taliban had admittedly worked - but at what price. For the Talib now announced very directly and consequently their vision of an Islamic state. Before they came to power, a civilian life had no longer been possible due to the rival Mujahedin, but now the personal freedoms of individuals - and especially of women - were heavily restricted. This led particularly to a massive deterioration in the relationship with the United States, which even closed the Afghan Embassy in Washington after the Taliban's seizure of power {15}.

The goal of the former freedom struggle of the Taliban proved to be a "reign of terror" under religious diktat. As a result, the Taliban lost very rapidly their former general consent within the Afghan population, because many Afghans had certainly imagined freedom as something else than what was offered to them by the Taliban. Thus, the virtually divided Mujahedin and their parties in the north and north-east of the country could now act as Afghan freedom fighters under their new name "Northern Alliance" {16}. The Northern Alliance even succeeded in maintaining a more or less stable alliance for several years (1997-2001).

    Link zum Wikipedia Artikel 'Nationale Islamische Vereinigte Front zur Rettung Afghanistans' (

The charismatic Akhmad Shah Massoud, the current national hero of Afghanistan who was also called "Lion of the Panshir Valley" became their leader. But this new fight for freedom was initially ill-fated, because the Taliban were able to push back the pocket of resistance in the north to the section of the province Badakhshan (north-east). The stronger the Taliban fought against the Northern Alliance, the greater became their reputation as a freedom fighters in and for Afghanistan.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001, the U.S. felt again compelled to intervene actively in the conflict in Afghanistan, this time on the side of the Northern Alliance or of the Mujahedin. From October 2001 they fought now together against the Taliban, and already on 12 November 2001 the troops - cheered by the urban population - marched in Kabul, which before had been abandoned by the Taliban {17}.

    Link zum Wikipedia Artikel: Nationale Islamische Vereinigte Front zur Rettung Afghanistans (

But now it turned out again that the former freedom fighters of the Northern Alliance were, as before, soon quarreling again. Only under the massive pressure of the Enduring Freedom operation and the ISAF, the Mujahedin were and are more or less willing to "celebrate" their mutual rivalries not in large-scale battles but to decide them only by means of smaller but nevertheless trend-setting "skirmishes".

The international community, which had set out to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, was not able to realize its request as it had imagined it in the run-up to the deployment. Both on the side of the international community and of the new representatives of the Afghan government, too many different interests are hampering a common approach. Consequently, the former liberators of Afghans (here only the international forces are meant) are now seen once again as a burden for the State. Due to their ignorance of the Afghan culture, they are doomed to watch more or less helplessly the current internal political processes {18}.

Many Afghans who had once cheered when the Taliban fled, and when Afghanistan became the field of interest of the international community are now more than disappointed, because the promised aid, if it is noticeable at all, becomes only visible in Kabul. Far from the capital, in the provinces and individual districts you can feel very little of the new era. But one recognizes that the international community does seemingly not intend upgrading and building up Afghanistan in a short time as a modern country, of course, by taking into account all culture-specific aspects. It can be seen that the former Mujahedin / Warlords are still or are back again in the decisive political positions, whether as politicians in Kabul or as a warlord in the provinces, and one does not "feel" the promised new State. People experience only disappointments and empty political promises in many areas of everyday life {19}.

In such a mood that is shaped by disappointment, it is only natural that the number of Taliban now again increases (change of loyalty). They have once admittedly spread terror in the country, but they nevertheless stand once more for the freedom of the Afghans.

Above all, we must recognize that there are two different groups of today's Taliban in Afghanistan:

  • On the one hand, there are still the Pakistani Pashtuns. Due to their "foreigner status", however, they can hope only for little support from the ranks of the Afghan population, and that's why they usually act alone. Their stay in Afghanistan is therefore limited to the time of their respective operation, afterwards - if they have survived - they will return to Pakistan.
  • On the other hand, there are the so-called neo-Taliban. They include most of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan, apart from the Hazara ethnic group {20}. They can in many cases rely on the full loyalty of the Afghan people, because they are regarded as part of it.
    Taliban expand their influence almost across entire Afghanistan (11.09.2009); Link to Spiegel online;

People see above all that the neo-Taliban reject the Western Allies and want to remove them from their country. In addition, they also see that they refuse to support the Pakistani Taliban. The idea that is motivating them is certainly to establish again a theocracy, but also to expel all foreign uninvited "guests" who have brought Afghanistan nothing but an already well-known political chaos. The foreigners have to go. For this conviction the neo-Taliban is also ready to take up the unequal battle, which may mean in many cases his death.

The neo-Taliban stands up "unprotected" for his ideals - to create a free and uninfluenced state - even in the face of death. By contrast, the international military forces are barricading themselves behind high walls. And when they leave the camp then only in armoured vehicles, as the Soviet Union once did. The question that is certainly asked by many Afghans reads, "Are the members of the international community still friends or are they already occupying forces?

The Afghans also know that the international community will leave the country in the near future, and what's next? A renewed civil war between the various Mujahedin? Would not it be better to have, although a Muslim, but a stable government?

The ideas of the neo-Taliban how a perfect State should look like in their view, are not compatible with the European considerations about Afghanistan, but they are probably more familiar to many Afghans than the European-democratic system.

Many of the modern state ideologies that were brought to Afghanistan by very different movements were able to spread and take root only in and around Kabul and some other few places in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans are still "trapped" in the demarcations of their respective tribal thinking, which on the other hand could only be broken by a general education system {21}. However, until now nobody has succeeded in introducing this thinking via a modern democracy.

The term "freedom fighter", I think, is in the Afghan cultures not nearly as narrow as in Europe. With regard to the Afghan cultures, it is impossible to give a clear definition of who or what should be a freedom fighter or who is allowed to be it. It seems rather to describe anyone who exerts himself to disturb or at best even to replace the respective hated government in Kabul - regardless of who exercises the power there (King, Dictator, Mujahedin or Taliban). Only when the former "freedom fighter" has taken the government in Kabul, and has thus at least in theory seized power, and when this has again not brought the statehood hoped-for by the population, he will lose the prestige and the "glory" of a "freedom fighter" of the Afghans; and he will sooner or later be combated by a new generation of Mujahedin, Taliban or whoever in a renewed struggle for freedom.

Thus we come to the conclusion that today's neo-Taliban - from Afghan perspective - are in large parts "temporary" freedom fighters. By contrast, the Pakistani Taliban are often really seen as terrorists, because they want to exert another foreign influence - the Pakistani.



{1} Arab: Those who wage a "holy war".

{2} See Schetter, Conrad, Kleine Geschichte Afghanistans, München 2004. p. 102 f.

{3} Here it is helpful to take a closer look at the person of the Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his change of loyalty during the last three decades. This is also shown clearly by the attempts of the Afghan President Harmid Karsai to win over Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hizbe-i-Islami also enemy of the state number one as minister for his cabinet, or to pardon him in accordance with the "national reconciliation" (2005, 2009, 2010).

{4} A change of thinking regarding this can actually be achieved only by a nationwide school system with a uniform curriculum.

{5} The Soviet Union was on the one hand an occupier, but on the other hand it enabled many Afghans to acquaint themselves by means of a secular school system that was introduced - sometimes with brute force and military force - of new societal modules. For the Soviets above all tried to push Islam with all its diktats and norms into the role of an outsider, because this religion shaped society. See (25.05.2010)

{6} See Chiari, Bernhard (editor), Afghanistan, Paderborn, München, Wien, Zürich, 2006. p. 69 ff.

{7} The Pashtuns are with 38 to 43 per cent the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

{8} The Tadjks are with 25 to 29 per cent the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan

{9} The East-West conflict had meanwhile been settled.

{10} The Taliban was founded in the late 80s from the ranks of the Pashtun Pakistani. They gathered in the madrassas of the country and established a politico-religious organization with a military character.

{11} See Chiari, Bernhard (editor), Afghanistan, Paderborn, München, Wien, Zürich, 2006. p. 74 f.

{12} Taleban in Texas for talks on gas pipline; BBC News, 04.12.1997;

{13} See Schetter, Conrad, Kleine Geschichte Afghanistans, München 2004. p. 131 f.

{14} See Chiari, Bernhard (editor), Afghanistan, Paderborn, München, Wien, Zürich, 2006. Seite 75f.

{15} See Schetter, Conrad, Kleine Geschichte Afghanistans, München 2004. p. 126 f.

{16} Actually, National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, but in the Western media generally called Northern Alliance. See Schetter, Conrad, Kleine Geschichte Afghanistans, München 2004. p. 127.

{17} See Schetter, Conrad, Kleine Geschichte Afghanistans, München 2004. p. 136.

{18} Engel, Joachim, Afghanistan und wir einige kulturelle Aspekte; in: Afghanistan Land ohne Hoffnung?, edited by H. Schuh / S. Schwan, Brühl 2007. p. 103.

{19} Hofmann, Matthias, Afghanistan Aufbruch am Hindukusch?; in: Stimmen der Zeit, Freiburg i. Br., 2009. volume 11, p. 730.

{20} In contrast to almost all other ethnic groups living in Afghanistan, the Hazara are Shiite by their Islamic orientation. Therefore, they have been and are persecuted and massacred at every possible opportunity by the Sunni tribes of Afghanistan.

{21} According to the Afghan Constitution (Article 17, section 1, paragraph 17, Article 43, Section 2, Paragraph 22, Article 45, Article 46, section 2, paragraph 24), the government has to introduce a general school system.


    {*} Matthias Hofmann, MA (born in 1969) has studied history and orientalism in Stuttgart and Tubingen, freelance.


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