As most Taliban begin to hunker down in far-flung villages or pull back to safe havens inside Pakistan, preparing for another brutal Afghan winter, insurgent leaders are thinking further ahead—and their individual takes are strikingly divergent. Just how far apart they are can be seen from two recent insurgent documents obtained by Newsweek. The Taliban’s top ranks are passing around a closely held 3,000-word letter bluntly examining the failings and disastrous excesses of Mullah Mohammad Omar’s defunct regime and recommending major changes. But meanwhile, the de facto head of the lethal Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has published his own take on the future of Afghanistan and the world: a jihadist how-to book urging readers to emulate Al Qaeda’s terrorist tactics against Western targets far from home.
Both documents represent significant departures from the insurgents’ old ways. Although Taliban leaders have always been reluctant even to acknowledge the many glaring errors of their five years in power, the letter seems to reflect a new, more open-minded, and less doctrinaire attitude within the group’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura. The fact is that real peace can never come to Afghanistan without that kind of progress. Unfortunately, that apparent shift is offset by Haqqani’s move in the opposite direction. His men have long been the insurgency’s most ruthlessly effective killers, but they’ve never been directly linked to attacks outside Afghanistan. Now Haqqani’s book leaves no doubt that he’s out to promote worldwide jihad. And in that case, U.S. officials are wasting their time trying to coax him to the negotiating table.
The long, unsigned letter is being circulated via the Taliban’s official yet clandestine courier network. It was composed in secrecy by a small group of former Taliban operatives and ministers who sat down together last month in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Their task was to identify the crucial issues the Taliban must confront before and after the proposed 2014 U.S. troop withdrawal. Although replete with predictable rhetoric about a decisive “military defeat of the Americans in Afghanistan,” the document offers an extraordinarily candid assessment of the group’s past failures and the “huge challenges” it will face if the Taliban regains or shares power in the future. Although the authors were not named, their identities were known to the group’s top leaders. (In fact, one was a longtime Newsweek source who goes by the single name Zabihullah.)
The writers acknowledge a long list of missteps the Taliban made while in power from 1996 to 2001. One particularly apposite criticism is that the regime “closed all doors of negotiations” with the West. It wasn’t all the Taliban’s doing, the letter explains; the West had begun portraying the Taliban as “extreme and radical”—unfairly, the writers say—but the Taliban government failed to stand up for itself, and Afghanistan sank into isolation. The regime was similarly unreceptive to how it was perceived by the Afghans themselves. The regime’s tough law-and-order policies enabled people and goods to move freely around Afghanistan for the first time in years, but the country’s leaders were too often deaf to charges that those police powers were being abused. “No steps were taken to redress the grievances of these people,” the letter says. In the future, its writers urge, “the main duty of the Islamic Emirate will be to provide facilities” for the people to live “comfortable lives.”
Fixing the country’s economy might help. The question is whether the Taliban are capable of doing the job, given the economic incompetence they displayed the last time they were in power. The letter’s writers slam the U.S.-backed government’s own flaws in that area, citing “the millions of dollars in aid taken by corrupt authorities” and the wholesale embezzlement of funds from the country’s banking system. Still, the letter’s suggested cure doesn’t sound like much of an improvement. The solution, the writers say, is a “comprehensive Islamic economic and monetary policy,” to be drawn up by religious scholars. Modern-day economists may roll their eyes to imagine the system the Taliban’s back-country mullahs might create. Still, as the letter’s writers point out, the Western-trained financial wizards in Kabul these days aren’t doing such a great job either.
Still, the writers make no mention of what may have been the Taliban regime’s worst failing: its monstrous human-rights record. And they certainly don’t stint on excuses for the regime’s many other deficiencies. Because the group inherited a “power vacuum” when it seized control in 1996, they contend, it was “forced to form and then implement a system on an emergency basis.” Although the letter argues that Mullah Omar legitimately received the title Amir-ul-Momineen (“Leader of the Faithful”) from a distinguished panel of Islamic scholars, the authors suggest that the ad hoc regime that served under him was less than legitimate, representative, or accountable. They add that the government was undermined by “fighting, riots, and issues.”
Much of that unrest was stirred up by other countries, according to the writers. They blame the United States as well as two countries bordering Afghanistan (unnamed, but clearly Iran and Pakistan) for exacerbating the deep religious divide between Afghanistan’s Sunnis and Shias, and the ethnic splits among the country’s Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. There’s plenty of truth to the letter’s criticism of Pakistan and Iran. Tehran has encouraged and financed the mostly Shiite Hazaras and the largely non-Pashtun Northern Alliance militia that overthrew the Taliban in 2001, while Islamabad has assisted the Pashtuns who form the bulk of the Taliban. “This rivalry between the neighbors provoked ethnic, provincial, and linguistic prejudices, [bringing the country to the] brink of being divided in small states.”
To avoid such problems in the future, the writers urge that Taliban leaders and Islamic scholars begin talking now about what form of government will best suit the Afghan people’s needs within the constraints of Islamic law. They go so far as to raise the idea of letting Afghans vote for candidates to represent them, whether in Parliament or in a traditional Afghan loya jirga (grand council). That’s a thorny topic for Afghan insurgents: in the past, Taliban leaders have often dismissed elections and democracy as Western ideas that have no place in a staunchly Islamic country. But it’s essential “to bring an environment of fraternity among all nations of Afghans,” the writers say. That even goes for the nation’s schoolgirls. “We should eliminate the label that the Taliban is anti-education,” says Zabihullah. “Our challenge is to define the proper system for both boys’ and girls’ education.”
Haqqani’s book is an entirely different matter: a call not to reflection but to violent action. In the past month, 10,000 copies of the 144-page book are said to have been printed for distribution in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Printed on high-quality paper, with black-and-white photos and solidly bound, the manual for guerrillas and terrorists opens with directions for how to set up a jihadi cell, how to obtain financing, how to recruit members, and how to train them. It suggests that training camps be situated far from villages, either in high mountains or the jungle, and that they be designed with multiple, hidden access routes. It recommends assigning two qualified instructors to each class of 10 to 15 students. Each student should have his own code name, the book says, and the trainers should remain anonymous.
The qualifications for jihadi recruits are laid out, together with the rules they should follow. Young men need not ask their parents’ permission to join the jihad if the war is being waged in their homeland, the book says. They should know the Holy Quran, believe fervently in the jihad, and pay off their debts before signing up, in case they are killed in action. They should love their weapons, be ready to fight to the death against their enemies, and refrain from grieving when their comrades in arms are injured or killed. Actually, the book’s standards for recruits can be tougher than those for the men who lead them. It explicitly states that men of immoral character may serve as commanders in the jihad as long as they’re committed to the war against the West.
The use of suicide bombers is not prohibited by Islam, the book contends. In fact, it claims, there are many verses in the Islamic scriptures that justify suicide bombings. That dubious interpretation is useful for both the Haqqanis and the mainstream Taliban, who have come to rely on suicide bombs as their weapons of choice. The book asserts that volunteering to become a suicide bomber demonstrates “good character,” and anyone who does so “is favored by Almighty Allah.” The beheading of infidels, traitors, and spies is also approved in Islam, the book says: “The easy way to kill infidels and their spies is beheading. The human breath is quickly discharged from the body, and [beheading] has a psychologically terrifying affect on our enemies.”
The book gives special praise to Al Qaeda as a small Muslim group that “terrifies” its enemies. Aspiring jihadists should emulate the group’s ability to “stay and live among people who are against our faith and ideology, like those militants operating in Europe and the U.S.,” the book urges: “Blend in, shave, wear Western dress, be patient.” Terrorists are advised to travel on tourist, student, or business visas, and to avert suspicion by not appearing devout—leave home your Islamic CDs, Qurans, and military instruction manuals, the book says. As for targets, it advises, “You should attack the enemy’s weaker points, such as economic targets like the World Trade Center and diplomatic targets like the U.S. embassies in Africa.”
It remains to be seen how many international jihadists will find the book useful. Its audience is effectively limited to readers from the Taliban’s home territories, since it’s written entirely in the Pashto language. But it’s likely to be a big success among aspiring insurgents in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Much of the book is devoted to the best methods for killing people and destroying targets. It describes all sorts of deadly weapons—Russian-made Makarov pistols, Kalashnikov and M16 automatic rifles, the Dragunov sniper rifle, the PK machine gun, the DShK antiaircraft gun, and Chinese hand grenades, among other weapons. And it ends with a detailed treatise on making and using explosive devices. It discusses military-grade dynamite, C-4, TNT, RDX, and ammonium nitrate fertilizer, explains the fine points of blowing up cellphone towers and electrical pylons, gives detailed instructions of sabotaging railroad tracks, bridges, and even large buildings, and offers safety tips for remote-controlled IEDs.
The back page names the book’s publisher—Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqani—and gives a warning: “The selling and displaying of this book in public is prohibited.” But clearly it’s meant to be distributed as widely as possible. And unlike the Quetta Shura’s letter on rethinking the Taliban’s mistakes, it’s likely to be put to use many times before the last U.S. troops go home.