What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Are the Taliban one of the most secretive organisations in the world?

The Taliban and mullah Omar are often described as "secretive." Below, a few examples follow from the discourse, merely to show that I am setting up no strawman here.

As to the Taliban, Al Jazeera thus reported on the Taliban's published laheya, or rulebook, back in the summer of 2009:

"The book, with 13 chapters and 67 articles, lays out what one of the most secretive organisations in the world today, can and cannot do."
Ahmed Rashid also referred to the Taliban as a secret society once, famously, in a chapter of his book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (the chapter about the Taliban's political and military organisation). Of course that was back in the days when the Taliban were fighting their pre-2001 war to become the internationally recognised autocrats of Afghanistan.
"Secretive" also appears to be an "epitheton ornans," or customary decorative adjective figuring before Mullah Omar's name, when it comes up. Again, some examples...

ABC News (title):
"Secretive Taliban Leader Mullah Omar Emerges in Power Struggle"

The Independent (recently):
"The secretive Mullah Omar conveyed all his military and political messages to field commanders in Afghanistan through Baradar."
Bruce Riedel @ the Brookings Institution goes even further:

"The intensely secretive Mullah Omar has never shown much interest in laying out a program for how to govern."

Finally, one more, from the BBC:
"... the first ever pictures of the secretive Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar..."
I could continue this, but everyone gets the point. To have some fun on your own, you may also want to try searching for "shadowy" Taliban and "shadowy" Mullah Omar.

It may be worth giving a second thought to this.

First of all, it can be argued that the Taliban, especially these days, are not really all that secretive (especially considering the circumstances). Here are some arguments to back this up - if it seems counterintuitive.

1. Their name is written in this way, from right to left:


Now, that is a problem in any case, be they secretive or not... quite an obstacle for a Western mind. Even to one that is open to studying and understanding "secrets" of the Taliban... Even when/if those secrets are put down on paper, unfortunately.

2. The rate of illiteracy makes it, well, less likely that you encounter written documents about any subject, from them. That is also a challenge, because political analysts love working with texts. In the Taliban's case, it may be very tricky to come to reliable conclusions on the basis of texts about the Taliban (which are abundant) - but most of which are not by the Taliban of course (and even those that supposedly are, available at times also in Arabic or English, need to be approached with a healthy dose of scepticism; I illustrate here and here why).
3. In fact it is not so extremely difficult to know who a Taliban dilgay meshr in an area possibly is. It is definitely not impossible. You "just" have to be one of the local people. Or know someone well from among them. Or someone who knows someone. Depending on how many circles of trust you want to extract safe answers across, access and reliability may diminish - of course.
4. There are a number of people, former and current members and associates of the Taliban who are talking or writing or responding to the world in a broader sense... Abdul Salaam Zaeef. Wakil Muttawakil. Abdul Salaam Rocketi. Abdul Hakim Munib. And there are also others active fighting today who are ready to talk to the media. But there is a diversity of views in both camps, both within that of former members and associates of the Taliban, who may regard themselves nowadays as just taliban or perhaps as something entirely different (maybe because they never saw themselves as talibs in the first place) - and within the camp of the Taliban-e jangi who wage the war these days. You can know about differences among today's "war Taliban" for example from articles by the occasional correspondent who ventures to their areas and gets back (e.g. Nir Rosen, David Beriain, Sami Yousafzai, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad et al.). Or from those who can even regularly hang out with them (e.g. Syed Saleem Shahzad). Thus it may be tricky to establish what the "Taliban position" is, on this or that - but exactly because you may be familiar with a number of Taliban positions, not necessarily just one.
5. When there is some kind of communication going on, there are/may be attempts at deception to deal with, and that, in a sense, may be interpreted as "secretive-ness." Although often such attempts at deception may come not from the Taliban themselves, but from people looking to shape others' perceptions regarding them, in their own strategic or other interests. A peculiar example of the role of such third parties is when the guerrillas themselves would be relatively open, but then someone comes from further up their chain of command, say straight from Pakistan, and the local commander feels it is necessary to say a quick good bye to a reporter. That is what happened in the end with Najibullah Quraishi, who was allowed to ask a lot of questions freely for his documentary, up to that point when this "boss" type arrived. He could interview anyone with regards to a wide range of subjects (with the exception of Arab foreign fighters who themselves really were a rather secretive bunch of people there).

6. Finally, the Taliban may be hard to know from their words, for the above mentioned reasons (different characters, illiteracy) for an ordinary Western analyst. But at least their deeds speak for them all the time (from the past as well!). To capitalise on that, building up knowledge from this source, of course some careful analysis is required, avoiding simplifications and lazy acceptance of myths, accumulating a profound knowledge of history, reading a lot of books, even talking to any non-ordinary analyst out there etc. Say, inviting some of those Afghanistan experts to conferences where otherwise it seems much more trendy to have the all-weather, all-issue, popular talking heads entertain the peoples regardless of the actual area expertise they demonstrate.

With these considerations in mind, I think one should realise that journalists, politicians and even academics and others mean something else by "secretive" when they say it - they do not mean what is described in the word's most common definition as "inclined to secrecy." Actually implied meanings include the following, depending on context and the speaker of the "speech-act" - summed up here with a touch of sarcasm.

- "As a journalist, one cannot easily talk to these guys without being treated as a potential spy who has to be tried before he/she may be allowed to continue working - if actually found innocent of charges of espionage, which these folks tend to punish by summary execution. That's kind of scary."

- "These guys are not inclined to put information in the open source that could lead to their prompt liquidation in an air strike. How shy. A pity."

- "They are not inclined to use the internets for sharing stuff and fun with us... They are not tweeting, they are not on Facebook, hell, that's boring..."

- "Right, so actually they DO have websites and other publications, but instead of giving information that can lead to their prompt liquidation in an air strike, they mostly share only their propaganda messages with us. Uninteresting."

- "This is a group working, to varying degrees, in cooperation with other truly secretive actors, in a relationship that is difficult to fathom. That's a challenge."

- "We don't have photos of theirs. How the hell do I illustrate for my magazine that Mullah Baradar was recently captured when the best pic a Google image search gives me is this low-quality photo of some dude sitting somewhere killing time that just may be the guy himself. That's lame.... Really, these people should have always had mobile phones with cameras, even back in those 1990s. They really should have tuned into that globalisation thing more."

- "An organisation that has just published stuff, as I am reporting to you - and I want to present this as sensational news that I AM bringing to you, so I am telling you that this is ++awesome because, believe me, they DON'T publish stuff... And they just did! So this is sensational!"

Finishing off, we can also safely conclude that the question posed in the title is not an accurately formulated one in the first place. The Taliban certainly may be more secretive than the United Nations or a student organisation at a university (although it is safe to assume that those organisations will all have their own secrets as well). But then this is really no wonder, as they are involved in subversive covert action most of the time. They are insurgents. The question that would make more sense if asked is whether they are more secretive than other insurgent organisations? Even better would be to ask if they are less open than other insurgent organisations to talk to the media? Or less accessible to the media? Or ideologically predisposed to less easily accept the notion of "neutral actors" in their conflicts? And so on.


mr.friedmann said...

Talking about secrecy and linguistic barriers, this might provide an interesting parallel:
"Paul Hubbard’s piece investigating Chinese concessional loans (pp. 217–29). Hubbard seeks to probe the claim that Chinese aid is deliberately secretive. He ventures where too few Western scholars can or will go, to the consultation of Chinese language sources. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he finds a considerable amount of data and concludes that the ‘apparent lack of transparency in China’s aid programme is not driven by a deliberate policy of secrecy’ (p. 226). Many would perhaps disagree with such a statement; the Chinese ministries in question have yet to adopt international standards on foreign aid and other such measures that would make their Western counterparts more comfortable. Nevertheless, his findings are perhaps a warning to those who blame Chinese obfuscation when the data they seek is not available in English."
This is from Lucy Corkin's review of Rotberg's (ed.) China into Africa

Péter MARTON said...

Yeah - that nails it. How secretive someone is seen to be can be direct function of how much one is (or is perceived to be) the strategic adversary "Other." That the Taliban are called secretive is chiefly/simply because they are not interested in constant friendly chat, and are strategising with mostly hostile intent. In China's case the latter assumption (of their strategising with hostile intent) is at least partly, if not fully, only perception; whereas in the Taliban's case there is an ongoing armed conflict... for an empirical manifestation of hostility so to say.