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.
It is important to note that what happened in Sicily, and what has happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is not exactly the result of armed thugs’ imposing their will on a victimized population by brute force. What emerged in Sicily is what the Anglo-American tradition calls “the social contract,” although it was a defective one. The Sicilian Mafia became, in the estimate of Italian scholar Santi Romano, an alternative legal order. As Oriana Bandiera of the London School of Economics put it in her 2001 study, “Private States and the Enforcement of Property Rights: Theory and Evidence on the Origins of the Sicilian Mafia,” landowners knowingly chose the Mafia over the Italian government as a guarantor of security:
Historical records show that, after the abrogation of feudalism, large landowners willingly started paying the mafia to protect their properties from predatory attacks. The records suggest that landowners voluntarily passed on the monopoly over violence to the mafia, in line with the contractual view. That a conflict between the mafia and the landowners never took place provides further evidence in favour of this view. Indeed since at the time the class of large landowners retained most of its feudal power, the mafia could not have imposed its rule against their will without a fight. The fact that such a conflict never occurred and that, on the contrary, landowners often protected mafiosi from the police, then suggest that the monopoly over violence was voluntarily transferred from the landowners to the mafia, rather than being usurped by the latter.
According to Taliban lore, Mullah Omar began his movement in 1994 with 30 men and 16 rifles, after a local warlord picked the wrong rape victims (two girls in one version of the story, two boys in another). By the end of the year he controlled Kandahar Province, which has more than 900,000 residents. He did not achieve that without the goodwill of the locals, any more than the Mafia came to power without the consent of Sicilians. Religious fundamentalism alone does not explain this. The Anglo-American tradition calls it the “consent of the governed.”
The Taliban is an Islamic organization in much the same way that the Sicilian Mafia was a Catholic organization. Catholic Church authorities in 19th-century Sicily were at best ambivalent about the new unified Italian government, and for good reason: Its main activity in Sicily was expropriating church lands. In contrast, church authorities in Sicily had a relatively high level of trust and confidence in local institutions. By 1877, Gambetta reports, church-state relations were so strained that Pope Pius IX declared the Italian government illegitimate and forbade any Catholic from running for national office or voting in national elections, which had the effect of further elevating the importance of local political institutions, many if not most of of which were Mafia-controlled or Mafia-affiliated. The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Sicilian Mafia has long been a staple of bigoted anti-Catholic invective, but it is not without some factual basis. The two were bound by deep bonds of tribal loyalty, local tradition, and distrust of the remote central government — rather like today’s Taliban.
It is possible to make too much of the parallels: Christianity is not Islam; Palermo is not Quetta; 2012 is not 1877. But understanding the Taliban(s) as a mafia helps to give us a fuller understanding of the prevailing situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though their power has diminished, it is not uncommon today to see the very same mafiosi who profit from drugs, prostitution, gambling, and other crime acting as a kind of Sicilian mutaween, enforcing a very traditionalist brand of public morality on adulterers, public drunks, and the like. Gambetta again:
The mafia at times polices its territory as if it were responsible for public safety. Young thugs are recruited just to keep them off the street, and Latin lovers who harass women are not permitted an easy or indeed a long life. The presence of Mafiosi and their enforcement of moral values may be responsible for the popular impression that Sicilian women are less frequently the target of macho attentions than women in other parts of Italy.
He lists “sexual perversion,” alcoholism, and crime (meaning crime not sanctioned by the Mafia) as among the organization’s concerns. Understanding the Taliban as a mafia makes it less perplexing that the same organization that enforces the strictest kind of sharia-Pashtunwalion its unfortunate subjects is also a narcotics cartel, operating in an OPEC-like fashion to intervene in the world opium markets to support prices. That is not moral hypocrisy; that is what statesmanship looks like through Pashtun eyes. (Here one might note for comparison that the same U.S. government that spent $518 million to discourage tobacco use in 2010 spent $194 million subsidizing tobacco in the same year; it has not yet taken to publicly flogging its citizens for vice, but Mayor Bloomberg’s term has not yet expired.)
Understanding the Taliban as a mafia also sheds some light on the Taliban’s ongoing association with the Bombay-based crime syndicate that is called D-Company and led by Dawood Ibrahim. Ibrahim sometimes styles himself “sheikh,” but there is very little pretense that D-Company, the interests of which touch on everything from drug smuggling to Bollywood to real estate to India’s informal hawala banking system, is anything other than a purely economic concern. But never underestimate economic interests: D-Company is believed to have been behind the 1993 Bombay bombings that killed some 250 people, and some intelligence analysts believe it had a hand in the 2008 attacks in the same city.
In acting as a de facto local government, a crime syndicate, and an insurgent army simultaneously, the Taliban resembles another more contemporary organization, Colombia’s FARC. FARC’s commitment to revolutionary Marxism is in many ways similar to the Taliban’s commitment to revolutionary Islam, a mishmash of genuine belief, complex loyalties, common enemies, and pure self-interest. And both FARC and the Taliban (and other mujahideen remnants) are reminders to would-be nation-builders and great-gamers everywhere that once an apparatus of organized violence has been created, it has a tendency to far outlive its putative political or ideological purpose. Deprived of its original rationale, it will discover a new one. There is not going to be a Marxist takeover of South America, but FARC will continue its narcotics-trafficking operations (like the Taliban, it imposes a “tax” on illegal-drug production), its ransom-kidnapping operations, and its other purely economic activities. There isn’t going to be a worldwide Islamic caliphate, either, but the Taliban, like the Sicilian Mafia before it, will continue to engage in terrorism, political assassinations, and similar activities to support goals that are decreasingly political and increasingly economic (to the extent that a distinction can be made between the two).
The main alternative to the Afghan Taliban is the administration of Hamid Karzai, who runs the most successful mafia in Afghanistan, and whose reluctant godfather is us.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.