The Undying Taliban: Can Afghanistan Be Saved?

By in Bagram

The West has been battling the Taliban for years in Afghanistan. Progress, though, has been difficult to discern. The country may be too fragmented to pacify, but leadership has been lacking as well.

Who are the Taliban? The common image is that of a horde of bearded religious wackos swarming through Afghanistan ready to cut down any infidels who might cross their path. A movement that is gaining adherents by the day. And a movement that is making the Western efforts to pacify the country look Sisyphean in the face of rising extremist violence.

But the truth looks quite a bit different. The truth is that the Taliban -- at least as a broad popular movement -- doesn't exist at all.

The extremist leadership under Mullah Omar consists of a small circle of a few dozen men hardly anyone ever sees. Their trusted supporters are a few thousand indoctrinated religious fanatics, ever-ready to provide their services as foot soldiers as needed.

The rest of the so-called Taliban have little to do with the religiously indoctrinated Koran students of the Taliban. Former mujahedeen, local militia leaders and field commanders who lend their services to the holy warriors make up the group's fighting force. And religion is little more than a pretext. Not only does it help to motivate impoverished villagers to take up arms, but it also hides their true desires for power and influence -- and for a share of the customs duties that are one of the main sources of revenue in Afghanistan.

It is a motivation that carries with it the key to pacifying the country. All one has to do, it would seem, is ensure that the warriors get their share of power as a precursor to reaping some benefits from a future economic recovery. That, though, as the past few years have amply demonstrated, is much more easily said than done.

Afghanistan is a country with myriad players all competing for their slice of power. Moreover, a man from the Durrani dynasty -- Hamid Karzai -- has reserved the presidency for himself. The ancient Durrani dynasty has reigned supreme for more than two centuries -- but the rival Ghilzai tribe, which has long competed with the Durranis, is now fighting to regain the power it has lost in the south of the country. Mullah Omar is one of the Ghilzais, as are many of his followers. In other words, much of the insurrection is really a tribal feud.

A Bloody Turf War

Karzai's younger brother Ahmed Wali is doing little to quell the bloody quarrel. Holder of a key position in southern Afghanistan, Wali has been largely excluding Ghilzais from potentially lucrative government contracts and privileges.

Still, there is more to the struggle than just economic interests, as regional politics plays a vital role. The Taliban, after all, could never have made such a quick comeback after their 2001 drubbing were they not able to count on influential backers.

Take Pakistan, for example. While Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf pays lip service to helping the United States and the West, the Taliban -- the recipient of vital support from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) -- has always been able to count on his country as a safe haven. Even today, the connection between the Taliban and their neighbor to the east is still maintained. Pakistan has no intention of losing its hard-won influence among the Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Access to the economy, smuggling deals and disputed borders are at issue. Moreover, Pakistan fears a strongly pro-American Afghanistan, which could eventually form a hostile alliance with Pakistan's arch-rival India.

Iran 's New Strategy

Meanwhile, the Taliban may be getting support from Afghanistan's western neighbor as well. Shiite Iranians have traditionally been enemies of the Sunni Taliban and have supported the Karzai government until now. But the geopolitical present is slowly trumping the Sunni-versus-Shiite past in the region with the presence of US troops in Afghanistan becoming an increasingly painful thorn in Iran's side -- especially given the bellicose rumblings coming out of Washington these days.

Certain Iranian groups are now said to be systematically providing the Taliban with high-tech weapons. Terrorist godfather Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- a former mujahedeen leader in Afghanistan who once lived in exile in Iran and has been blamed for numerous suicide attacks -- is reputed to have new and close contacts in Iran. The Russians, too, disapprove of the heavy Western presence on their southern border and are providing massive support to northern Afghans interested in a regime change.

Indeed, the hidden players directed by Afghanistan's neighbors are at work everywhere. They can be found on the battlefield but also in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), the lower house of the bicameral National Assembly of Afghanistan, where they operate as well-instructed -- and well-paid -- parliamentarians. Many in Kabul even suspect them of being at work within the cabinet of President Karzai. Which raises the question: Is the Taliban so difficult to defeat militarily because they are actually fighting as proxies for others?

Cannon Fodder

In the summer of 2006, the British security briefings estimated that there were 1,000 Taliban fighters in the southern Helmand province. Since April 2006, at least 600 fighters have been killed according to estimates by soldiers deployed in the area -- but the enemy front has still not collapsed. The reservoir of religiously inspired cannon fodder in the region seems inexhaustible.

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