Author's Note: Tim wishes to thank his instructor CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, USN for his edits and for encouraging him to publish this work.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Government.
As head of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammed Omar served as de facto ruler of Afghanistan from roughly 1994 to 2001. Although notoriously reclusive while in power, the West was able to observe how Mullah Omar and the Taliban governed the country. However, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 ousted the Taliban and sent Mullah Omar into hiding in Pakistan. In recent years, Coalition Forces led by the United States have considered engaging with moderate elements of the Taliban to negotiate a power sharing agreement. Moreover, the United States anticipates withdrawing all combat troops by the end of 2014. It is possible the Taliban could topple the weak Afghan government and return to power after the departure of Coalition Forces. Statements allegedly written by Mullah Omar and released each Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha since 2006 offer useful insights into the Taliban’s political thought. These insights could inform negotiations with moderate Taliban or future diplomatic efforts should Mullah Omar return to power.
The Eid statements demonstrate an increasing sophistication in strategic messaging and understanding of international politics. This paper will analyze three reoccurring themes that embody Taliban advances in messaging: the depiction of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan* (IEA) government, proposed cooperation with regional powers, and appeals to the populations of coalition countries.
Attribution of the Origin of the Eid Statements
For the purpose of this paper, the Taliban will be considered the author of the Eid statements. However, it is impossible to be certain that the Taliban or Mullah Omar is the author. In a 2008 letter, the leader of the Haqqani Network calls Mullah Omar “illiterate.” If true, this suggests the statements may have been dictated by Mullah Omar or possibly written on his behalf. Further, Dr. Muhammad Hanif, who Mullah Omar allegedly designated as one of his spokesman, announced at least one Eid statement. However, as this designation also came from a spokesman, it is unknown if Hanif is a legitimate representative.
Notwithstanding their uncertain origins, the Eid statements were likely penned and supported/endorsed by the Taliban, if not by Mullah Omar himself. The 13 Eid statements released between 2006 and 2012 were posted on Taliban affiliated websites. Each statement lists Mullah Omar as the author. The content of the early statements appears to align with known Taliban rhetoric. Since 2006, the annual Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha statements have become a staple of Taliban messaging and act as a de facto “state of the jihad.” During this seven-year period, the Taliban has never issued a statement denouncing their authenticity.
Depiction of IEA Government
From 2006 to 2012, the Eid statements evolve from near absence of a description of IEA governance to a robust political platform. This progression includes the emergence of themes of inclusivity, power sharing, and specificity in government structure and actions. The evolution in these statements may be an attempt to address criticisms of the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan leading up to September 2001.
Early statements from 2006 to 2008 concerning the future governance of the IEA are nonspecific, lacking the detail of more recent releases. In the 2007 Eid al-Fitr statement, the author puts a positive – and undeserved – spin on the Taliban’s first period in power, stating the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan during its rule tried to protect national interest and provided a peaceful life to its countrymen…” This rosy-eyed view of Taliban rule in the 1990s implies the Taliban may return to old habits if restored to power. The author abandons this approach in the following statement in favor of calls for Afghan self-determination: “..all Muslim countries should all help Afghanistan…establish their own government rather then letting foreigners hand pick administrations to rule over them...” Still, the author stops short of specifying the goals and structure of a future Afghan government.
One year later, in the 2008 Eid al-Adha statement, the author begins a theme of inclusivity which continues through the most recent statement. In seeming incongruity with past Taliban actions, the author calls for unity among the ethnicities of Afghanistan. This includes quoting a hadith: “’Whoever fights for the prejudices of tribe and tribalism, is not one of us.’” A year later, the 2009 Eid al-Adha statement includes the first mention of women’s rights and also calls for all “true sons of this land” to participate in the “government-making.” This call for participation continues in the 2010 Eid al-Fitr statement: “all our noble countrymen whether be they…a student of a school or of a religious Madarassa…or a cleric, a professor, or religious scholar hailing from any tribe or ethnicity, will all work together like brothers… on the basis of the aspirations of the people.”  This theme of inclusivity continues through the most recent statement, released on October 26, 2012, which states unequivocally “we should have…a sole central authority free from every kind of discrimination and biases” and “we will guarantee rights of both male and female.”
The theme of power sharing parallels the theme of inclusivity. In the 2010 Eid al-Fitr statement, the author mentions the government of the IEA will include a consultative body to steer the country. This idea of power-sharing is expanded in the 2011 Eid al-Fitr statement, which claims the IEA will not monopolize power and that “all Afghans have right to perform their responsibility in the field of protection and running of the country.” This sentiment is reiterated in the 2012 Eid al-Fitr statement: “The Islamic Emirate does not think of monopolizing power. Since all its citizens have the responsibility for its protection, so they have right to take part in the government...”
The author begins to describe in earnest the proposed structure and actions of the IEA in the 2009 Eid al-Adha statement. In this release, the author claims to have “distinctive and useful plans for the future of Afghanistan,” which include the “rehabilitation of social and economic infrastructure, advancement and development of the educational sector, industrializations of the country and development of agriculture.” These themes continue in the 2010 Eid al-Fitr statement, which describes the creation of “a system with economic, security, legal, educational and judicial aspects.” The 2012 Eid al-Fitr statement represents the most fully articulated vision for the structure of the IEA. In this statement, the author pledges to share power, fight corruption, establish a meritocracy, provide education, protect women’s rights, bar countries from launching attacks from its soil, develop agriculture, construct roads, bridges, and hospitals, industrialize the country, and respect all international laws. By the release of this statement, the author’s description of IEA objectives has evolved from simplistic references to previous Taliban governance to a political platform espousing principles of inclusivity, power sharing, and proposals for development.
It is probable this evolution is partly due to criticisms of the Taliban while in power in the late 1990s. The themes of unity, removal of ethnic discrimination, and power sharing may be targeted at Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who fought against or were disenfranchised by the Taliban. Ethnic tensions raged during the conflict between the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Northern Alliance and the largely Pashtun Taliban. The Taliban purged the bureaucracy of all senior non-Pashtun officials, replacing them with Pashtuns. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was ruled through a Pashtun-only shura.
A similar motivation may have inspired the author to include passages supporting education and women’s rights. During the 1990s, the Taliban were better known for their lack of governance than their political platform. The statements’ increasingly detailed lists of proposed actions for the IEA government may be intended to address Afghans who remember the years of fear and privation while the Taliban ruled.
Proposed Cooperation with Regional Powers
The evolution in the statements’ call for regional cooperation demonstrates increasing sophistication and understanding of regional power dynamics. The first mention of regional countries occurs in the 2007 Eid al-Fitr statement. In this release, the author calls for Afghanistan’s neighbors to deny support to the Americans and band together with the Afghans to “drive western forces from Afghanistan as they did during the time of the Soviet Union invasion.” The statement also claims the United States is a “threat and danger to the region.” By Eid al Fitr 2009, the tone of the statement changes from warning to promises of stability. This statement also emphasizes the IEA will not harm other countries and will instead operate as a force for peace. The author expands this claim to wider initiatives in the 2010 Eid al-Fitr release, including “all common problems of the region like narcotics, environment pollution, commercial and economic problems.”,
The increasing attunement of these statements to Central Asian Republics’ (CARs’) interests demonstrates an improved understanding of regional politics. Early IEA statements frame the United States as a “danger to the region” and call for banding together to oust U.S. forces from Afghanistan. This reflects Taliban sentiments but is unlikely to resonate with Central Asian governments desperate for U.S. recognition, foreign assistance, and capital investment. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the United States used massive payoffs to the CARs to secure areas to stage military forces. In addition, the CARs perceived that U.S. interest in the region gave legitimacy to their largely isolated, dictatorial regimes.
The more recent statements’ call for stability, peace, and economic cooperation are much more likely to appeal to Central Asian governments. The CARs have a different interpretation of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan than the Taliban. The governments of the CARs are more comfortable with communism than the Islamic extremism that began emerging in their countries during the rise of the Taliban. The CARs are unlikely to support the Taliban’s return to power if they feel it will cause a surge in terrorism within their borders or further destabilize the region. Also, the message of economic and commercial cooperation may be especially key to mitigate consequences of the regional debacle in the late 1990s over construction of a pipeline from Tajikistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan.
In addition to the CARs, the message of regional stability is likely aimed at Pakistan. Pakistan has been a supporter of the Taliban since the group’s inception and continues to provide safe haven in the provinces bordering Afghanistan. These provinces, however, also contain other violent groups, such as Tehrik –i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who wish to remove the Pakistani government. While the Taliban has stated it does not share TTP’s objective, this focus on regional stability may serve to reiterate the Taliban’s nationalist focus and reassure Pakistan.
The emphasis on stability and peace may also be intended to allay the fears of the global community. In multiple Eid statements, the Taliban has made clear it wishes to be seen as a nationalist movement separate from Al Qaida’s global jihad. In 2009, a Taliban spokesman stated “we are one thing and al-Qaeda is another. They are global. We are just in the region.”
Appeals to the Populaces of Coalition Countries
The Eid statements prominently include an appeal to the citizens of Coalition Force countries to pressure their governments to withdraw from Afghanistan. This request for withdraw evolves over time from a simplistic call to a multifaceted and well-pitched argument.
One common theme throughout the statements is an appeal for an end to hostilities on the basis of the immoral acts committed by the Coalition Forces. The 2007 Eid al-Adha statement calls for the people of countries with troops in Afghanistan to stand up to the “tyranny of tyrants.” By Eid al-Fitr 2012, this vague request has been replaced by a visceral call for citizen action: “Your troops mercilessly martyr women and children in our country; destroy villages and houses; desecrate our religious sanctities; vilify our national honors and culture, set fire to our houses and green orchards or bulldoze them until they become leveled with the ground. It is your responsibility to prevent your governments from doing this...”
Another theme demonstrating increasing sophistication is the appeal for citizens of Coalition Forces to end the war due to its economic cost. The 2007 Eid al-Adha passage is simple: “…[do] not let them destroy their own economies…for the interests of American corporate elites.” Just one year later, the statement demonstrates a more nuanced understanding of world affairs and contains a more convincing argument: “Today the world‘s economy is facing a growing meltdown, because of the belligerent and expansionist policies of USA. This has left its negative impact on the whole globe. Therefore, it is the collective duty of all to derail this war-mongering trend.” By Eid al-Fitr 2010, the author further refines their argument, adding specificity and greater attunement to the American zeitgeist at the time of the statement: “They have wasted hundreds of billion of dollars of your tax money in the shape of financial expenditures and your man power in Afghanistan and have still been wasting them. You shall be witness to another economic melt-down.”
Throughout the progression of statements, the author increasingly targets Western audiences. The 2007 Eid al-Adha statement is addressed to “Respected Muslim Sisters, Brothers, and The Peace Loving People of the World.” The specific mention of Muslims as well as “The Peace Loving People” indicates this message is intentionally addressed to non-Muslims in addition to the Ummah. Two years later, in the 2009 Eid al-Adha statement, the author switches from addressing the target audience from the second to the third person perspective, e.g. “This is a farce weapon in the hands of your rulers under the colonialist pretext of fight against terrorism. Thus they want to throw dust into the eyes of people. It is the demand of your conscience and moral duty to raise your voice for the prevention of this savagery.” This implies the author views his messages’ target – the citizenry of coalition countries – as distinct from their governments. It also indicates the author believes these citizens have the power to influence their governments and may be receptive to the Taliban’s message.
The author also demonstrates increasing sophistication by coopting the language of the West. In the 2010 Eid al-Fitr statement, the author argues the United States has undermined the values it claims to espouse. This includes the commission of war crimes, use of internationally banned weapons, suppression of free speech, and operation of illegal prisons. This use of the rhetoric of American demarches demonstrates the author’s increasing understanding of how to tailor communication to appeal to Western audiences. This trend continues in the 2010 Eid al-Adha statement. Playing upon American rhetoric of supporting freedom, the author weaves in multiple references to Afghan freedom, e.g. “It has a prideful history and freedom-loving people…” Even more adroitly, the author asks the Western reader “Think, if your country is invaded by some one else, would you remain indifferent in such circumstances?” In the case of the American reader, who is most likely the target, this statement cleverly stirs strong feelings for the defense of the homeland.
From 2006 to 2012, the Taliban’s Eid statements demonstrate an increasing sophistication and ability to craft messages attuned to their audience. The author’s depiction of the IEA government evolves from a vague mention to the clear articulation of a political platform embracing inclusivity, power sharing, and development. The statements’ discussion of cooperation with regional powers advances from a tone-deaf plea for action against the United States to a well-pitched platform of peace, stability, and economic development. The call for citizen’s of coalition countries to pressure their government to withdraw troops moves from simplistic moral badgering to complex appeals to the West using Western concepts of freedom and international mores.
The analysis of this evolution provides insight into how the Taliban has adapted its rhetoric in an attempt to boost legitimacy. Moreover, it offers the United States a glimpse into how the Taliban might position itself ideologically as it attempts to regain control of Afghanistan. These statements offer some of the clearest indications of Taliban political philosophy since it was removed from power in 2001.
However, there is a distinct gap between rhetoric and reality. The Taliban rose to prominence as incorruptible purists, claiming they would end corrupt warlordism and turn over power. Instead, the Taliban exerted an unprecedented level of power and brutality on the population. The Taliban’s statements must be viewed through these past actions. Taliban claims of the end of discrimination are undermined by the ethnic cleansing of Hazaras in the 1990s. The alleged commitment to economic development stands in the face of the precipitous decline of the Afghan economy under Taliban rule. Power sharing under Mullah Omar’s regime consisted of a shura convened in his bedchambers. Moreover, the West has seen the Taliban’s interpretation of “women’s rights.” As Coalition Forces depart Afghanistan, the Taliban will attempt to resume control and the world will see if this tiger has changed its stripes.
* While in power, the Taliban called Afghanistan the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). The Eid statements consistently refer to the Taliban government in exile as the IEA. The word “Taliban” does not appear in the statements.
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