Reports from Monday’s New York Times of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) stepping up its ransom-kidnapping campaign are a reminder of one of the reasons we have failed to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and will continue to do so: Most of us believe that we are at war with a paramilitary outfit mainly inspired by a fundamentalist Deobandi interpretation of Islam. We are in fact engaged with a very different kind of entity: an organized-crime syndicate acting out of interests that are largely economic, rather than religious or ideological.
There are, to be sure, terrorist and paramilitary organizations inspired by a sincere commitment to Islam. Al-Qaeda is one. The senior leadership of the Taliban, on the other hand, bears at least as much resemblance to the old Sicilian Mafia — or to the present-day FARC, another misunderstood organization — as it does to martyrdom-minded jihadists in the mold of Osama bin Laden.
It is convenient to speak of “the Taliban,” though there is not one Taliban, but three distinct groups: the Pakistani Taliban and two Afghan Talibans, one a Kandahar-based organization under the command of Mullah Omar and the other a Paktia province–based organization under the less centralized command of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the latter group popularly known as the Haqqani network. Mullah Omar and his partisans claim that he is the undisputed supreme leader of all the Taliban, but many analysts describe the relationship between the groups as more of a loose affiliation, with the Pakistani and Haqqani networks having more diffused, less coherent leadership. The affiliation between the groups is in part religious, to be sure, but it is also strongly ethnic. Pashtunwali, or adherence to traditional Pashtun mores and habits (many of them pre-Islamic), is as much as part of the Taliban mindset as sharia, if not more so. The Pashtuns in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have never entirely accepted the legitimacy of any government in Kabul or Islamabad, and those governments have never given them strong reasons to do so, barely maintaining a presence in many of the tribal areas, entirely unable to provide basic public services or enforce law and order. Real governance of local affairs has long fallen on Pashtun tribal organizations, which provide security and dispense justice according to their own ancient (and lamentable) traditions.
A fiercely independent ethnic group, separated from a weak and distrusted central government by both culture and geography, united by tradition, language, religion, and tribal loyalties, and willing to use violence to have its way: Sounds like 19th-century Sicily.
Sicily was annexed by Italy in 1860 after Garibaldi and his Expedition of the Thousand succeeded in expelling the last of the Bourbons. The Italian government accelerated the process of dissolving the feudal institutions of Sicily, which had begun to break down some decades before. As a result, Sicily went from having about 2,000 landowners in 1812 to more than 20,000 in 1861, with church-owned property and other land being expropriated and redistributed. But Sicily had very little in the way of civic institutions to mediate disputes in the new era of post-feudal property rights, and the mainland Italian government had very little interest in helping Sicily to develop them, packing its courts, political bodies, and, most critical, its police agencies with northern Italians who had no cultural connections and little local knowledge of Sicilian affairs. Contracts went unenforced, fraud ran rampant, and banditry went uncontrolled.
As Oxford scholar Diego Gambetta recounts in his fascinating study The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection, it was this political vacuum that created what we know as the Mafia today. The Mafia began by adjudicating disputes involving contracts and commercial transactions, and soon began providing protective services to important commercial concerns, including Sicily’s lucrative citrus business. In turn, it charged taxes for its services — not unlike the 20 percent zakat the Afghan Taliban charges on opium crops. In Sicily as in Afghanistan, this quickly degenerated into plain protection rackets and other kinds of extortion — though, as anybody who has dealt with police in some of the more exotic parts of the world can attest, the distinction between a crime syndicate and a law-enforcement agency often can be difficult to draw with any precision.