Who does and does not support the Taliban in Afghanistan?
The Taliban victory would not have been possible without (some degree of) popular support. No neighbouring country can sustain an insurgency for 20 years, especially against the U.S. and its NATO allies, unless the insurgents have a support base inside their own country. That being said, like every politico-military group, the Taliban too have their opponents. Below, this writing will look at who supports and who does not support the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Shared ethnicity as a source of the Taliban’s support
To begin with, we must look at two things, ethnicity and ideology, to find out who supports the Taliban. First, from an ethnic point of view, the Taliban are a predominantly ethnic Pashtun group; from its leadership down to its fighters, the group is dominated by the Pashtuns. Among the Pashtuns, the Durrani tribes of southern and southwestern Afghanistan dominate the Taliban rank and file, and thus the Taliban have more support within the Durrani tribes, with the exception of the Achakzais, than outside of them.
Additionally, after the veteran Mujahedin fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani (from the Zadran tribe) cast his lot with the Taliban, some Zadrans of south eastern Afghanistan have also become Taliban supporters. However, since the Pashtuns are divided into tribes, sub-tribes, and clans, and oftentimes there are fierce rivalries and competition between Pashtun tribes and clans, it would be an overstatement to say the Taliban represent all the Pashtuns.
In recent years, the Taliban have also made inroads among non-Pashtun ethnic groups. Capitalising on grievances—including against the Afghan government, drug trafficking, and local rivalries, the Taliban have brought many non-Pashtun local commanders in northern Afghanistan under their umbrella. That being said, the Pashtuns continue to form the bulk of the Taliban rank and file, and, as an ethnic group, seem to have more sympathy with the Taliban than non-Pashtun ethnic groups, especially the Shia Hazaras of central Afghanistan.
Shared ideology as a source of the Taliban’s support
From the point of view of ideology, much of Afghanistan is a fertile ground for the Taliban’s extremist and misogynist ideology to bloom. It is on the basis of ideology that the Taliban have more popular support across Afghanistan (and across ethnic and linguistic groups) than on any other basis. Since the 1978 communist coup in Kabul, Afghans have received a steady dose of religious extremist literature, which makes it easier for them to accept and embrace the Taliban.
For instance, when topics such as suicide bombings came up in my conversations with Afghans from various walks of life (including fellow students from Kabul University), many either indirectly supported these tactics or looked the other way as long as only foreigners were targeted. If you had no other option against well-armed invaders, you could resort to suicide bombings as a last resort provided no innocent Afghans were killed, was the final verdict of such conversations.
Similarly, many Afghans who regularly indulged in corruption did so thinking and proclaiming that they were squandering the infidels’ money. Taking verses from the Qur'an out of context, it was regularly taught in schools and universities, including at Kabul University’s School of Law and Political Science where I studied, that Christians and Jews could never be our friends. Ironically, the U.S. and World Bank assisted with paying the salaries of Afghan school teachers and university professors, who in turn propagated hatred towards Christians and Jews.
Moreover, one could categorise the Afghan society as misogynist, including by Islamic standards. Discrimination against girls starts before their birth—a practice strictly prohibited by Islam. When a woman is pregnant, the family prefers the future baby to be a boy. Mothers who give birth to girls are frowned upon, and are sometimes subjected to verbal abuse and physical violence. Under pressure, it is not uncommon for Afghan women to keep conceiving until a boy is born. Women who have one son make multiple attempts at pregnancy to have at least two. When girls are born, families treat such occasions with either sadness or indifference.
As children, girls are expected to do chores and boys are discouraged (directly or indirectly) from doing so. A sister is supposed to cook, wash, and clean the house for her brother and other family members, while the brother may not even bother rinsing his tea cup. In most rural areas and partly in cities as well, girls are discouraged to study beyond grade four or five, as they are expected to get married once they hit puberty.
It is a common practice in many parts of Afghanistan that when a man and a woman, especially a husband and a wife, step outside the house “together,” the man walks a meter or so ahead of the woman, who is usually in chadari (the garment that covers women from head to toe), so that he is not seen by the public walking with a woman. Furthermore, we as Muslims know the names of our Prophet’s mother, daughters, wives, and other relatives. However, in Afghanistan it is a social taboo to make mention of one’s female family member’s name. Many Afghan men refer to their wives as their “baggage.”
The Afghan society’s overall perception of the status of girls and women is not too different from that of the Taliban. As such, if the Taliban were to make wearing the chadari compulsory again, few (who primarily live in cities and in some cases have either come from abroad or have gone abroad) would object to it. The majority of Afghans would accept the ruling without any major fuss.
The Taliban’s Afghan opponents
Those who oppose the Taliban are the urban and western-oriented Afghans, who are mainly based in cities such as Kabul, Herat, and Mazar. The anti-Taliban urban Afghans, however, are vastly outnumbered by the conservative rural Afghans, who form the Taliban's support base. In a country, such as Afghanistan, where the majority of the population lives in rural areas, it should be clear which side holds the advantage.
It was in urban Afghans, who mostly resided in the “Kabul Bubble,” that the U.S. made a fragile investment over the last 20 years. Ironically, some of these urbanites, who actually had come from abroad and did not even know Afghanistan's official languages, would declare themselves as "representatives of modern Afghanistan.” Most members of the so-called Kabul Bubble did not dare visit rural Afghanistan, which they falsely purported to represent. Even inside the Kabul Bubble, many had their own mini bubbles, where they rarely interacted with those outside their bubbles, and were escorted everywhere by a security detail.
Thus, the anti-Taliban, western-oriented Afghans' perception of facts on the ground could not have been more clouded; they lived in their own separate world. When things started to unravel in July and early to mid-August, at first they were surprised and could not believe what was unfolding before their eyes. Once a bit of the truth sank in, thousands—making a nonsense of their being modern Afghanistan's representatives—started rushing to the Kabul airport to catch the first available plane to the safety of western world. This is precisely why many urban-based Afghan singers, artists, and self-styled women’s rights activists are accusing the U.S. of abandoning them, and throwing them to the wolves.
That being said, there were certainly also well-meaning anti-Taliban urban Afghans (including a considerable number of ethnic Pashtuns) who had not come from abroad. They did not live in security bubbles, and did want Afghanistan to progress genuinely. Additionally, rural Hazaras and other non-Sunni Muslims across Afghanistan did not support the Taliban either. Yet, these Afghans, too, were a progressive minority within a largely conservative, and at times reactionary, society.
One could also employ the 14th century Muslim sociologist Ibn Khaldun’s theory on desert civilisation (rural) vs. sedentary (settled) civilisation to explain the current Afghan rural-urban divide, which favours the Taliban. I will leave that arena to anthropologists to explore further. In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that claims such as the Taliban do not represent Afghanistan could not be further from the truth. The Taliban do represent much of Afghanistan the way it is, without putting a façade on it to make appealing to western audiences.
If the Taliban, unlike the well-educated and well-learned scholars of Islam at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, hold extremist and misogynistic views it is because they are a direct product of the semi-literate, rural Afghan society, which holds the same views. The Afghans’ (and by extension as well as the Taliban’s) outlook on life is more influenced by their culture than by Islam.