The problem with the politics of the border is the disconnect between what Americans believe and what the reality is. Although social media and the news media feeds the disconnect, it is American’s lack of historical lessons that allows disinformation to dominate the narratives. Ironic in that today many Americans are decrying the plight of Afghan women’s lack of access to education because of the Taliban. Americans have access to education and yet learn nothing about the history that made America. For example, the myth that American exceptionalism was made by hardworking Americans when the reality is that it was the slaves that gave America the edge over the rest of the world. Or, that the Texas rebellion was about an oppressive government when, in fact, it was about slaves. So, to, is the historical amnesia that drives today’s Afghanistan narratives devoid of factual context that explains what got America here today. The missing context, the most important one, is how and where the Taliban came from and who empowered them both with weapons, money and more importantly how to wage unconventional warfare.
Spoiler alert: The Taliban’s ideology originated in India, not the Middle East; was empowered by America to help fight America’s foe, the Soviet Union while America continues to ignore its most powerful Middle East antagonist: Saudi Arabia, while continuously feeding Americans’ appetite for war with smaller foes like Iran and Iraq.
The Taliban did not originate in the Middle East as most Americans would argue today. To understand the origins of the Taliban it is important to explain two Muslim theologies at war with each other. There are several Muslim creeds with Sunni and Shia the dominant ones. The largest are the Sunni. The Sunnis are followed by the Shia. The difference between the two theologies is that the Shia believe that the prophet Muhammed appointed Ali ibn Talib his successor, whereas the Sunni argue that the prophet did not appoint anyone and instead believe Abu Bakr was appointed the next spiritual leader by clerics. The Shia, like Catholics, believe that Ali ibn Talib was divinely appointed and thus infallible. The Sunni derive their governance from the Quran and other Muslim historical theological documents. Sunni laws are based on interpreting the historical writings. The Shia, on the other hand, derive their laws from the infallibility of their leadership.
What complicates matters is that within the primary theologies are sects like Wahhabism. Wahhabism is practiced in Saudi Arabia and is part of the Sunni theology. The Shia are primarily based in Iran.
The Shia – Sunni fracture is more political than ideological. It is about who controls the religion. After the Shah of Iran was overthrown by religious fanatics in 1979, the Saudi government feared the Shia (Iran) would come to dominate Muslims and thus they embarked upon undermining them by empowering Sunni-minorities along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Before continuing with the Saudi trying to control the Muslim world, we need to take a step back a few hundred years and understand where the Taliban came from.
The Taliban’s Founding
Although Muslim, the Taliban’s belief system was not formed in the Middle East. Rather it came to be from the Darul Uloom Deoband seminary founded outside of New Delhi in India about ten years after the British took control over India. The Indian Muslims formed together to resist British rule by teaching that the way to rid India of British rule was by using the fundamental principles of Islam. Deobandi Islam, as it is known today, expanded to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border where the Taliban learned to resist the Russian and American invaders through oppressive religious doctrines.
The religious birth of the Taliban came from India, not from the Middle East as most believe. But the influence from India was not the theology, but rather, the use of the Muslim religion to control the hearts and minds of the people.
The Hearts and Minds
There is a basic tenet of guerilla warfare called winning the “hearts and minds” of the people to quell an insurgency. Sun Tzu proposed the use of guerilla warfare, or unconventional war to thwart a superior army in his book: The Art of War. Although guerilla warfare was used and understood from that moment on, most notably by the English and Spanish against the Native Americans in the New World resisting the Europeans invaders, it wasn’t until the American Revolution that guerilla warfare added the “hearts and minds” of the people to warfare.
The American rebels used propaganda (psychological warfare) to demoralize the British people thus weakening the British government’s resolve to end the American rebellion. It is from the American Revolution that the Vietcong and the Taliban learned that to win a war against an overwhelming army it had to control the “hearts and minds” to weaken the superior army through attrition by demoralizing the government’s will to use their superior firepower to destroy the rebels. Simply put, Americans lost the will to fight as soon as the coffins started to arrive, and the civilian dead bodies showed up on television screens.
The underlining reality of guerilla warfare is that it cannot be won if one influential rebellious voice remains controlling the “hearts and minds” of the combatants both of the superior army, its government and the people in the battlefields.
This brings us back to the Taliban.
The mujahideen fight on behalf of the Muslim faith. The mujahideen we now commonly know today are the guerilla army who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. They were primarily funded by the U.S. government via the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Saudi Arabia, although Pakistan and even China contributed their own political reasons. The Americans were trying to neutralize the Soviet expansion while the Saudis were trying to stay dominant in the Muslim religion. It was at this time that the Taliban crafted their guerilla warfare tactics including controlling the “hearts and minds” of Afghanis through religion.
It is overly simplistic to say that the mujahideen is a cohesive group under one leader working towards one goal but for the purposes of understanding Afghanistan today we will focus on the Afghan mujahideen resisting the Soviets. However, it is important to point out that the Taliban are an ideological disjointed guerilla army trying to form a government in Afghanistan today. However, the one uniting thing for the mujahideen is the resistance to invading armies.
The Taliban came to be after the Soviets were expelled in 1992, when in 1994 the Muslims along the Pakistani border, indoctrinated by the Indian version of resistance through the Muslim religion and funded by Pakistan defeated the other mujahideen and took control of Afghanistan. It is the common goal of defeating invaders that makes guerilla warfare so effective. The mujahideen proved this when many ideological factions came together to defeat the Soviets. The same thing happened with America.
Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian citizen, joined the mujahideen in Pakistan in 1979 to fight the Soviets. He masterminded the September 11 attacks. It is why George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia’ Part Is Missing In The Debate
Missing in the narratives about Afghanistan today, the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks and the geopolitics of the Middle East is the part that Saudi Arabia plays. Most Americans have no problem arguing for the invasion of Iraq, Iran and before the most recent debacle, Afghanistan. But most do not think of Saudi Arabia as the source of the Muslim conflicts that have targeted Americans.
Not only was Osama bin Laden a Saudi citizen but 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were also Saudi citizens. Saudi Arabia’s attempt to control Muslims by controlling the rising influence of the Shia sect is part of the geopolitics of Afghanistan and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Through the Saudi turmoil one thing has remained a constant, the American government has stood aside as Saudi Arabia controls the Middle East even when America is threatened by the actions of the Saudis.
Hearts and Minds
The one thing that the Taliban has over America, not to mention Russia is how well they have adapted the “hearts and minds” of the people into guerilla warfare. Both America and Russia, as overwhelming as their military is, have not been able to conquer Afghanistan. Why?
Because the Taliban, as disjointed as they are, understand one thing. It is that to defeat a superior army one must control the “hearts and minds” of the people. They must also be willing to put aside ideological difference to come together against an overwhelming force to defeat it.
Americans may have put “hearts and minds” on the battlefield, but they forgot how to use it effectively in war.
Americans today blame American imperialism, or the Biden administration, some even the Trump administration and a smaller group recognizes the part played by the Bush and Reagan administrations but for most Americans the historical context of the Taliban remains unknown to them. It is this missing context that leaves Americans wondering why the most powerful army in the world is defeated by irregular armies like the Taliban and the Vietcong.
Just like Americans today lack the underlining understanding of the geopolitics around them with the Taliban they also lack it in the migrant debate today. Most migrants aren’t seeking America for freedom or for the American ideal as argued. Most migrants seek America out of necessity. A necessity born out of desperation. Understanding this would solve the migrant “crisis”. But Americans lack the historical knowledge to understand because American schools teach a revisionist history of American exceptionalism devoid of the facts of America’s role in creating the “crisis” driving migrants to America today and throughout history. To understand, look no further than Afghanis settling in America today as you read this.