Afghanistan: How the Taliban won over northern ethnic minorities

Afghanistan: How the Taliban won over northern ethnic minorities

Abdullah Sahil/AP

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, Aug. 9, 2021. Taliban recruiters have built a network of fighters in the north among ethnic minorities that had opposed the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban in the 1990s.

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August 20, 2021

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The Taliban’s path to victory in Kabul ran through northern Afghanistan, where they seized provincial capitals in quick procession. That was a surprise to analysts who still saw the Taliban as a militant movement rooted in the Pashtun ethnic majority in southern Afghanistan. By contrast, the ethnic makeup of northern Afghanistan reflects its Central Asian geography: Turkmens, Uzbeks, and Tajiks.

But the Taliban have worked steadily for years to build support among ethnic minorities that had previously rejected their legitimacy as rulers of Afghanistan. Their strategy relied on pan-Islamic unity against foreign invaders – and on religious and military training across the border in Pakistan. It also took advantage of the unpopularity of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. 

Hanzaleh, an ethnic Turkmen, was sent by the Taliban to Pakistan to study for two years. He went home as part of a network of Taliban recruits that was primed for this summer’s offensive across the north. “Why were we able to control more territory? Because we know the area and had information about the geography,” he says.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban were able to turn many ethnic minorities against the U.S.-backed government, showing an adaptation by the militants. Part 2 of two.

Kabul, Afghanistan; and Seattle

When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, they faced stiff resistance across the country’s north from ethnic-based paramilitaries that resented the southern Pashtun militants. That resistance would prove decisive in 2001 when the same ethnic minorities, backed by U.S. air power, ousted the Taliban regime in Kabul.

This time around, the Taliban had a new strategy: Enlist minorities in the north and turn a Pashtun-based insurgency into a pan-Islamic fighting force against foreign infidels.

Taliban commanders and fighters describe a decadelong effort to recruit among ethnic minorities, setting the stage for a lightning-fast victory over Afghan security forces in city after city, until Kabul capitulated on Sunday.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban were able to turn many ethnic minorities against the U.S.-backed government, showing an adaptation by the militants. Part 2 of two.

With victory now in hand, the Taliban say they have returned to power stronger than they were in the 1990s, not only armed with the captured U.S.-supplied military hardware of the Afghan army, but now with a nationwide network of loyalist fighters to use it.

“It is very easy to win the whole country right now,” says Mullah Aleem, a bearded ethnic Uzbek who commands Taliban forces in Faryab province in northwest Afghanistan.

Mr. Aleem, who wears a brown silk turban favored by Uzbeks, says the Taliban created a cadre of local leaders who were routinely sent to Pakistan for religious and military training.

“After 2008, the recruitment of young men from villages began in religious schools, which led the Taliban to have a mobile force among the people … at a very low cost. It grew deep roots inside the indigenous people,” he told The Christian Science Monitor a week ago, before the Taliban took Kabul.


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Mr. Aleem says he made three trips to Pakistan where, in addition to a religious curriculum, he studied battlefield tactics such as how to build roadside bombs. “Those who were educated in Pakistan played a key role in advancing the Taliban’s attacks.”  

The Taliban’s recruitment of ethnic Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik Afghans under a broader pan-Islamic banner was sweetened with promises of all-expenses-paid religious education in Pakistan – and a chance of martyrdom. Along with Islamic jurisprudence, these northern recruits learned guerrilla war tactics and skills, before returning home to serve as local Taliban leaders.

A northern sweep

The result has been spectacular, and it was a surprise to Western and Afghan analysts alike that the Taliban began their offensive to capture provincial capitals earlier this month by sweeping first across the north.

“Taking control of the north was very important, especially in the last days,” says an ethnic Turkmen Taliban fighter from Faryab who goes by the name Hanzaleh, about the Taliban’s military momentum in the north.

A decade ago, Mr. Hanzaleh began studying in a local madrassa at the age of 12. He was later sent by the Taliban to Pakistan to study for two years.

Mr. Hanzaleh may be ethnic Turkmen, but the Taliban’s rallying cry of defending Islam, reinforced repeatedly by Taliban-approved preachers and teachers in Pakistan, resonated with him. They “always spoke about the virtue of jihad, and said that whoever is martyred in the way of God, his whole family will go to heaven,” he says.  

On graduation day in Pakistan, he recalls that the religious scholars asked who was ready for jihad. Half of his classmates yelled affirmatively.

Ten days later, they were on a bus back to Afghanistan; at the border they received weapons. After three months of military training, the recruits went home with their commanders, as part of a Taliban network that was primed to advance when the call finally came this summer.

“Our commanders gave us the target, and all mujahideen groups were able to take control of the [north],” Mr. Hanzaleh says. “Why were we able to control more territory? Because we know the area and had information about the geography.”

“Deeply alienated”

The Taliban’s unlikely path to victory through the north reflects a deep understanding of local grievances, analysts say.

Not only did the militants tap into a growing Islamic and political radicalization, but they also took full advantage of deepening complaints over corruption, incompetence, and unpopular leadership appointments by the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul.

“The ethnic minorities were deeply alienated. … I can’t stress enough the effect this had on the north,” says Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied Afghan governance.

This provided fertile ground for indoctrination of minority youth via Taliban-controlled madrassas in the north and in Pakistan.

“You need something to fight for, not just fight against. And there was no vision from the central government that they could believe in,” says Ms. Murtazashvili. The Taliban provided a pan-Islamic banner for the north that could transcend its Pashtun roots.    

That was precisely the allure for Mr. Aleem, the Uzbek Taliban commander. He says he was among the first students from his madrassa to be chosen to travel to Pakistan.

“In the mosques they encouraged young people to study in religious schools,” he recalls. “The propaganda spread and made good progress in most of the villages in northern provinces, where after a couple years two or three young people from each household registered for religious schools.”

Along with other Afghans, Mr. Aleem – whose trimmed mustache curves down to the corners of his mouth, like the symmetrical tail fins of a great white shark – crossed the border to Pakistan and began his religious studies. He was instructed that his country was occupied and Islam was in danger.

Each time he returned from Pakistan, Mr. Aleem was given a higher rank. First, he led a group of 10 Taliban fighters in his home district of Almar. The second time back, he was appointed military chief in several districts for two years. After a third stint in Pakistan, his title was elevated from commander to teacher in a Taliban madrassa, where he keeps making recruits among northern Afghans.  

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We “joined the ranks of the mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan for the sake of holy jihad and defense of Islam. I know hundreds of others who have joined our ranks from our villages,” he says.

A researcher in Kabul contributed to this report.

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