Briefing: Who are the Taliban?

The umbrella organization includes many different groups fighting the Afghan government and Western forces.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As the Obama administration ramps up focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, insurgents from both countries have teamed up to confront the rising US troop presence. While the insurgents often get labeled as the "Taliban," in reality there are several groups fighting the Afghan government and Western forces, and they often act independently of one another and have distinct command structures, ideologies, and strategies. Here, the Monitor maps out the diversity of the insurgency.

Who are the Afghan insurgents?

The most established group is the Taliban, led by Mullah Omar and others who held top positions in the Afghan government in the 1990s. The Taliban is strongest in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south, where it has deep roots. US officials believe that senior leaders are based in Pakistan, possibly Quetta.

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• Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami

A prominent ally under the Taliban umbrella is Hizb-e-Islami, a group formed by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the 1970s to fight the Soviet-backed government and later the Soviet invasion. Throughout the 1980s, Hizb-e-Islami was an ally of Pakistan and the United States.

After the US invasion in 2001, a faction of Hizb-e-Islami led by Hekmatyar joined the insurgency. It is strongest in the northern regions of the country, says Antonio Giustozzi, an Afghanistan expert at the London School of Economics. With its long history, Hizb-e-Islami may have extensive contacts in the government and police.

While many Taliban fighters are poor and uneducated, Hizb-e-Islami members have usually gone to school, even college. Perhaps as a result, they tend to have a more lenient interpretation of Islam than other insurgent groups do – for example, they often allow music and parties.

• The Haqqani network

Western officials say the Haqqani network may be the most dangerous insurgent group. It is centered around Jalaluddin Haqqani, another former US ally, whose son Sirajuddin has in recent years assumed leadership. The group usually operates independently of – though sometimes in concert with – the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami. It is behind many of the boldest attacks in recent memory, including a raid on government ministries in February and an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai last year.

Analysts say that, of all the insurgent groups, the Haqqani network has the closest ties to Al Qaeda. "Al Qaeda shares a symbiotic relationship with the Haqqani network," says Matthew DuPee, a researcher on Afghan affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

The Haqqani network leadership is based in North Waziristan, in the tribal areas of Pakistan. It has a presence in eastern Afghanistan.

• Other 'Taliban'

Many criminals and warlords call themselves the Taliban, possibly to try to boost their legitimacy.

Some local groups also operate independently of the Taliban leadership: for example, Hizb-e-Islami Khalis in Nangarhar Province and others in Kunar Province, both of which are in the east.

Who are the Pakistani militants?

Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan are home to various groups that call themselves the Taliban. They emerged after 9/11, when Pakistan allied with the US and began launching raids in the tribal areas, which it had rarely entered before. Some groups evolved from ones that had been fighting India in Kashmir, but most were tribesmen who previously had not been active.

In late 2007, as many as 27 groups merged to form an umbrella Taliban movement, the Tehreek-e-Taliban, under guerrilla leader Baitullah Mehsud. But, over time, they became divided over whether to fight both the Pakistani and Afghan government or to focus solely on Afghanistan. Some groups even fought one another.

Recently, though, three of the most powerful, once-feuding commanders – Mr. Mehsud and Maulavi Nazeer of South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Behadur of North Waziristan – formed an alliance in response to US airstrikes.

Dozens of non-Taliban groups espouse similarly radical ideologies and fight in Afghan­istan. "The majority of militant groups in Pakistan are in fact not Taliban groups," says Christine Fair, South Asia specialist with the RAND Corp.

While some of these groups are based in the tribal areas, others are also in the so-called "settled regions," such as the North West Frontier Province. A leading example is Lashkar-e-Taiba. It was banned after being accused of the attacks in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) last November, but is still active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to US military officials. Many of these groups predate the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban and tend to remain independent of either group.

Where do insurgents get money?

Funding comes from many sources: governments, donors, Afghan poppy farmers, in exchange for protection for their fields.

"A large majority ... is thought to derive from wealthy individuals living in Arab Gulf states," says Mr. DuPee. Insurgents may also use the hajj – the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca – as a time to raise funds, he adds. These ties to Gulf-based militants may account for Al Qaeda's influence over some groups.

Pakistan is also widely believed to provide covert funding to the Afghan insurgents.

What do insurgents want?

Al Qaeda and groups linked to it call for global jihad – attacks on Western cities and on US forces worldwide. But Mullah Omar's Taliban has adopted the rhetoric of a national liberation struggle, to oust foreign forces and restore Islamic rule. According to Waliullah Rahmani of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, the Taliban is trying to rebrand itself by referring to its fighters as the mujahideen, conjuring images of the struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s.

"Such differences cause natural tensions between the Taliban and Al Qaeda," says one intelligence officer with NATO. "Al Qaeda has not been able to hijack the insurgency the way it did in Iraq."

Do Afghans back the insurgency?

Support for insurgents is heavily tied to ethnicity.

The insurgents are predominantly Pashtun and enjoy more support in areas where Pashtuns live, namely, the south and east. They find little favor with other ethnic groups. Some rural Pashtuns view the insurgents – especially the Taliban – as a lesser of two evils compared with the Afghan government.

"One of the most important things to an Afghan, especially in the context of the last 30 years of open warfare, is personal security," says DuPee. "The central government and to a degree NATO/Coalition forces have failed in this regard. The Taliban, in the view of ordinary Pashtuns, is the only entity able to impose law and order."

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