With US leaving, Taliban tales of ‘victory’ and jihad lure youth

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters/File
Newly freed Taliban prisoners greet each other at Pul-i-Charkhi prison, in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 26, 2020.

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Promising to overthrow the “infidel” government of President Ashraf Ghani and reestablish their Islamic Emirate, the Taliban have been launching a fresh drive to recruit young men. As the United States speeds up its withdrawal from Afghanistan, that drive is leveraging the Taliban narrative of “victory” over a superpower in war, coupled with praise for the glories of jihad and martyrdom.

And despite grim memories of the Taliban’s severe rule and a history of atrocities during their yearslong fight against American forces and the Kabul government, the insurgents are succeeding at boosting their numbers.

Why We Wrote This

Despite the insurgent Taliban’s atrocities and their grim past rule, why do they still exert a real gravitational pull? A window into Afghanistan’s Wardak province, and the story of one jihadi.

Noori, a government employee in Kabul, traveled throughout Wardak province last week and says he was surprised by what he found. “The Taliban warlords campaigned hard for recruits during Ramadan,” he says. “Unlike in the past ... I saw that half of the village youth and teenagers had joined the ranks of the Taliban.

“I asked some of those youth who freshly joined the Taliban, ‘Why are you doing this?’” recalls Noori. “They said with great pride that the insurgency of the Taliban was able to defeat the infidels, and we are honored to be martyred in this way, to establish an Islamic system in Afghanistan.”

In life, Saheel was a young, improbable Taliban commander who launched multiple attacks against Afghan National Army bases.

But in death, Saheel – who detonated a car bomb May 8 that killed 12 Afghan troops in the Saydabad district of Wardak province, only to be killed himself by a surviving Afghan soldier – has become another tool in a fresh Taliban drive to recruit young men to their jihadi cause.

He is just one of a new crop of young men riding Taliban promises of overthrowing the “infidel” Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and reestablishing their Islamic Emirate.

Why We Wrote This

Despite the insurgent Taliban’s atrocities and their grim past rule, why do they still exert a real gravitational pull? A window into Afghanistan’s Wardak province, and the story of one jihadi.

As the United States speeds up its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, that Taliban drive is leveraging their narrative of “victory” over a superpower in war, coupled with praise for the glories of jihad and martyrdom at local mosques.

“It is not possible to forget this handsome man … may God accept His martyrs who follow the path of God,” reads one memorial to Saheel posted on Facebook that aims to encourage fellow jihadis. It shows the fresh-faced, 19-year-old Taliban captain, with long hair and a thin mustache, sitting at ease in a field of grass, holding a set of prayer beads.

The examples of Saheel and his native Wardak province west of Kabul, where the Taliban largely hold sway, provide a window into how the gravitational pull of the Afghan insurgents has grown, especially among would-be recruits. And how that pull prevails, despite grim memories of the Taliban’s severe rule in the 1990s and their subsequent atrocities against civilians while fighting American forces and the U.S.-backed Kabul government.

This rare window shows how the Taliban are succeeding at boosting their numbers, able to convince even those like Saheel, who family members say despised the Taliban – until he joined them 2 ½ years ago.

A Ramadan campaign

Noori, who is from Wardak and works in a government office in Kabul, spent the three-day Eid cease-fire last week traveling throughout the province and says he was surprised by what he found. The cease-fire was called for by the Taliban and reciprocated by Afghan forces.

“The Taliban warlords campaigned hard for recruits during Ramadan,” says Noori, who asked that only one name be used for his safety. “Unlike in the past, during this Ramadan, when I went to the village, I saw that half of the village youth and teenagers had joined the ranks of the Taliban.

“I asked some of those youth who freshly joined the Taliban, ‘Why are you doing this?’” recalls Noori. “They said with great pride that the insurgency of the Taliban was able to defeat the infidels, and we are honored to be martyred in this way, to establish an Islamic system in Afghanistan.”

Noori says he took part in prayer sessions where speeches of religious leaders and local Taliban figures were “about the virtues of jihad and martyrdom … and they were told it was [the Taliban] that defeated the great power of the world, the United States.”

Rahmat Gul/AP/File
Young boys hug each other after Eid al-Fitr prayers outside a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 24, 2020. The Taliban and Afghan forces observed a three-day cease-fire for the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and did so again this year.

Local men were aroused further by claims that President Ghani’s government “targets and kills mullahs and religious scholars” and had “no clerics left,” which was enough to convince one 14-year-old boy to want to join the fight, says Noori. The Taliban promised no payment – just the “highest degree of martyrdom … as heirs of the Prophets on the Day of Judgment.” He says he saw some young Afghans buy weapons with their own money.

“Taliban on the battlefield do not believe in peace,” adds Noori. “They think they have defeated the United States, and their efforts are toward war.”

The victory narrative

The Taliban vowed a “reaction” when the U.S. ignored an initial May 1 pullout deadline, signed by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban in February 2020. President Joe Biden stated that several thousand remaining American troops will instead depart by Sept. 11 – the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. that first brought American forces to Afghanistan.

Analysts say then-President Donald Trump’s race for the exit meant the Taliban gave up little in the February 2020 deal, in exchange for a concrete U.S. pullout timetable. Direct negotiations with Washington also provided unprecedented legitimacy to the group.

“By bending over backwards to the Taliban, [Ambassador Khalilzad] gave them an opportunity to develop this victory narrative, and they are great on getting leverage from it,” says Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and former European Union adviser in Kabul, now at Queen’s University Belfast.

Many Afghans suggest “it was the Americans that revived the Taliban,” not the Taliban themselves, he says. And that has given the Taliban more ammunition to pursue defections, for example, by pressuring tribal elders to approach local Afghan security force bases, promise guarantees of safety, then chide the young men to abandon their posts.

“That’s actually been a very simple, quite effective tactic for the Taliban,” says Mr. Semple, who just returned from a three-week research trip to Afghanistan. “A lot of the ground they are making is without a shot fired.”

Taliban propaganda also highlights these defections, to encourage more. Nearly every day its Voice of Jihad website lists details and photographs of “enemy personnel” who “join the Mujahideen” – sometimes in large batches. These servants of the “puppet” administration are noted to have “realized their mistakes.”

Giving the impression of a well-oiled war machine, the Taliban also produce slick videos of their fighting prowess. And a recent photo essay, titled “Hundreds graduate from military camps,” appears to show legions of fully equipped commandos.

Maintaining strength

It’s an impressive show for jihadis the U.S. military says suffer thousands killed in battle every year. Yet estimates of Taliban strength, which range from 50,000 to 100,000 fighters, have not dipped, says Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“What does that say about Taliban recruiting?” asks Mr. Watkins. “If nothing else, they’re replenishing their losses in the deadliest conflict on the planet. That’s staggering, especially when you think about the struggles the Afghan security forces have in recruiting.”

Rahmat Gul/AP/File
U.S. troops gather in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, Dec. 25, 2013.

The time-consuming effort to list details “of all the people, who may have abandoned this or that position,” may appear to be “boring PR” to outsiders, but has recruitment benefits, says Mr. Watkins.

“It’s not necessarily a sign of Taliban strength,” he says. “It could be of insecurity and a need to be perceived as attracting people to the winning side.”

While that is how Saheel’s death is being used by the Taliban today, it is not the reason he joined. In fact, his family says, his story begins with a lifelong desire to be a soldier in the Afghan National Army. But the day the top student was filling out the forms, his father forbade him from joining – insisting instead he become a doctor.

Angry and frustrated, Saheel left home that day, family members say. He fell under the influence of Taliban cousins. Another cousin had previously been killed in fighting.

“My son was always against the Taliban. He never wanted to be with this group,” says Saheel’s mother, who, like all family members interviewed, asked not to be named. The cousins took Saheel to mosques “where the Taliban talked about jihad and extremism. … They brainwashed Saheel and changed his opinion,” she says.

“I want to be martyred”

In contrast, Saheel’s older brother, a university student, says he prays “every day for peace,” and mourns the death toll.

“I have lost my brother, but I do not want to lose other young people anymore,” says the brother. Lack of peace means “all youths will be sacrificed on both sides,” and the winner will “rule over cemeteries.”

Recruiting for that win is easier today for the Taliban, with rampant youth unemployment and hopelessness – and the Taliban tale of battlefield momentum.

“The Taliban are exploiting the feelings of the new generation and teenagers who are at a vulnerable age,” says Saheel’s uncle. Saheel called him last month, asking for money to buy a bicycle. The uncle brought a bicycle to their meeting, and tried to convince Saheel to leave the Taliban.

“Saheel said, ‘No, I want to continue the jihad until America leaves our homeland, and I want to be martyred in the way of God – this is my only wish,’” the uncle recalls.

That is no surprise to Saheel’s mother, who twice tried to convince her son to leave the Taliban – most recently during Ramadan, when he called. She told him peace might be coming.

“But Saheel said to me, ‘I pray to God that I will be martyred before peace comes,’” the mother recalls. “That was the last time I talked to Saheel.”

A correspondent in Kabul contributed reporting.

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