Understanding the Taliban insurgency: interview with Dr Antonio Giustozzi
by Ian Sinclair
In the introduction of his new book Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field, Dr Antonio Giustozzi argues the public debate surrounding Afghanistan has been “dominated by superficial or plainly wrong assumptions.”
In an attempt to gain a better understanding of those violently resisting British and NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, I recently spoke with Giustozzi at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he works as a research fellow in the Crisis States Research Centre.
Since 2003 the 43-year old Italian academic has visited Afghanistan about three times a year every year, including twelve months working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. This extensive fieldwork informed his 2007 book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan and his new study – two academic volumes that have made him the foremost expert on the Taliban working in the UK today.
Giustozzi uses the term “neo-Taliban” or “new-Taliban” to refer to the Taliban who has been operating in Afghanistan since the US/NATO invasion and occupation in October 2001. “It has the same leadership”, he notes, but it is now “an insurgent force – essentially an underground operation.”
In southern Afghanistan, an area dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban and the insurgency are essentially synonymous, he says. From 2001 to 2006, he explains the Taliban largely consisted of small groups of young, hardcore fighters based in remote, rural areas. “By and large there was a certain correspondence between clerical influence and the spread of the Taliban, for the obvious reason that during the Taliban government they were in power”, he says. “The judiciary was totally clericalised. Education was largely clerical. All the governors and ministers were Mullahs.” In areas where state education has been traditionally weak, such as the south, Giustozzi notes “the Taliban and clergy have been proportionally stronger.”
He estimates that between 10-15 percent of Afghans are linked to the clergy directly. “On top of this there are the people who are not Mullahs themselves but are very religious and likely to be influenced by the clergy”, he adds.
From this core base, the Taliban were able to gain additional support from marginalised people dissatisfied with or opposed to the Government presence in their community, and through a gradual process of Talibanisation. “If the Taliban had been in a community a long time, the Taliban fighters would marry local girls, and the Taliban themselves would actively eliminate elders they didn’t trust”.
However, Giustozzi sees the large-scale NATO deployment to the south in 2006 (the British to Helmand, the Canadians to Kandahar and the Dutch and Australians to Oruzgan) as “a turning point” in the conflict.
“Up to 2006 Helmand was not a stronghold of the Taliban”, he notes. “They were not able to fight openly. Then from 2006 there was a major upsurge in resistance against the British.” This resistance “was crushed” by the British forces, with thousands of Taliban fighters dying. However, Giustozzi says if you look at the fighting from the Taliban’s perspective “it gave an impression, not only in Helmand but throughout the country, of popular mobilisation, a people’s war against the British. Whole communities rising up.” In addition the large number of Taliban casualties meant whole “communities got disrupted and destroyed and people – particularly young men – were on the loose. These people become recruitable by the Taliban as core fighters.”
Similarly Giustozzi believes what has become known as The Battle of Pashmul was another example of what he calls the ‘Tet Offensive effect’ – when a superior military force is successful on the battlefield, but loses the propaganda war. Engaging a large Taliban force in the vineyards just outside Kandahar in summer 2006, the newly-arrived Canadian troops inflicted a heavy defeat on the Taliban. But, as Giustozzi explains, “in terms of perceptions it showed the Taliban were able to fight against NATO with all its power on open ground near Kandahar, and showed they were no longer a marginal movement but a big force to be reckoned with.” Just like the British experience in Helmand, this propaganda success “started to have a big effect in terms of recruitment, and opened new constituencies to Taliban influence”, he says.
Regarding President Obama ordering of an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, Giustozzi argues the “numbers don’t mean much.”
“It depends how they use the troops”, he says. “If the troops stay in the barracks it won’t have any effect.” However, if the US soldiers engage the Taliban – and the fighting is “indecisive, protracted and creates destruction” – he contends this is likely to have “a destabilising impact, certainly at the beginning. Also it produces extremists.”
Giustozzi’s description of growing support for the Taliban and his belief that between 60,000 and 70,000 Afghans are now actively involved in the insurgency jars uneasily with the dominant narrative in the West of the Taliban being very unpopular. In particular I ask him about the 2009 BBC/ABC opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan that puts support for the Taliban at around 9 percent and support for the Government at 65 percent.
“The 9 percent is an underestimate”, he replies. Having studied the methodology of previous BBC/ABC polls, he explains it is very unlikely the polling staff travelled to the rural areas in the south (“where the Taliban are”), instead focusing on the cities and provincial centres. “The sampling is very, very biased.. there are very few unemployed people, whereas even the Government says unemployment is 40 percent. In the poll 5 percent were police and army, whereas in Afghanistan the actual percentage of the population in the army and police is 0.2 percent. 14 percent were managers and directors. There were no Mullahs.” If the sampling was balanced, he estimates the Taliban would get around 15 percent support nationwide, and between 30-40 percent support in the south.
Interestingly, Giustozzi mentions that he has seen polls conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which use different methodologies and get very different results – much higher support for the Taliban and much lower support for the Government. “In ISAF polls in early 2009 support for [Afghan President] Karzai was 4 percent”, he reports. “They don’t release them, of course, because they show a completely different picture.”
After spending more than an hour speaking to Giustozzi, I certainly learned a lot, but couldn’t tell you what he personally thinks about the war in Afghanistan. Such is the nature of academic analysis, with its emphasis on objective and detached thinking, I suppose. Throughout the interview he continually highlights the contradictory nature of Afghanistan and the current war, and rarely provides blanket answers. Instead he chooses to highlight the importance of local factors, such as power struggles and individual self-interest, and bureaucratic explanations. Moreover, I am happy to concede this article has significantly simplified and shortened his often complex arguments.
However, there is no doubt Giustozzi’s careful and considered analysis – best encountered in his two academic books – is an essential stop for those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the continuing British involvement in Afghanistan.
Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field is published by C Hurst & Co, priced £16.99.