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?
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.
A Lack of German Leadership
So, are negotiations with the Taliban unavoidable? Should the West accept an Afghan government that includes extremist murderers and enemies of democracy? President Karzai recently proposed just that, even offering Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar direct negotiations -- an offer that was made just hours after the Taliban had perpetrated the most devastating attack in Kabul in years.
The prompt rejection of the offer was hardly a surprise. The real Taliban, with their shuras (councils) in Quetta, Pakistan, and in the ancestral territory of Waziristan, are not prepared to negotiate. The future likewise holds little promise in that regard. Why should they be content with a third of the pie when they could, in the end, have all of it for themselves?
With their war chest filled to the brim with drug money and with strong groups of supporters in both Afghanistan's neighbor states and in the Gulf states, they can still hold out a long time. It is a dangerous mix that feeds international terrorism.
Hostile to the Foreigners
The Taliban's calculation is a cynical one: Popular disenchantment with the Karzai government and the presence of foreign powers in Afghanistan continues to grow the longer the military conflict continues. The reasons young Pashtuns support the Taliban are many -- ranging from poverty through religious conviction to sheer lack of an alternative. But when a son or brother dies in a Western bomb attack, the entire family becomes immediately hostile to the presence of foreign troops.
Western coalition forces have therefore focused on pursuing the leaders of the "insurrection." And there have been a number of successes. The most powerful field commander -- Mullah Dadullah, a kind of Taliban war minister -- was killed, as was another high-ranking commander, Mullah Osmani.
But while the Taliban leadership has been weakened, there is now a larger number of minor sub-commanders, making the structures much more complicated. And the big names like Mullah Omar or Sirajuddin Haqqani are untouchable; they are all in Pakistan, sources within NATO say.
It has become difficult to say just what promotes peace and what fuels war in Afghanistan. There was a time when US forces with Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) were responsible for the rough work, while troops associated with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) focused more on reconstruction. But those times are long gone. Today, OEF and ISAF cooperate closely. Indeed, most civilian casualties are no longer caused by OEF operations. Shelling in conjunction with ISAF missions has become much more dangerous.
"We're all doing the same thing. OEF and ISAF are doing the same thing. Everyone has the same goal," says ISAF spokesman David Accetta at Bagram Airbase, a US headquarters 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Kabul. Accetta is a calm man in his early forties, of medium height and with thick black hair. He knows how sensitive Europeans are about military operations, but Accetta also says that the Americans no longer want to be the fall guys whenever something goes wrong in Afghanistan. Indeed, the American point of view is that they are the only ones really standing up to terrorism -- and the Europeans are just getting a free ride.
Fighter Jets by the Minute
At night, F-15 fighters and A-10 bombers thunder into the sky above Bagram. The US pilots are constantly answering ISAF requests for air support. Only very few countries have their own combat helicopters and cargo vehicles. Most are like the Germans: entirely dependent on the US military in a country like Afghanistan.
General Dan McNeill, 61, is ISAF's supreme commander. The American four-star general, with his parted blonde hair and prominent cheek bones, has the reputation of being tough. He was a soldier in the Vietnam War and has an earlier tour in Afghanistan under his belt as well. McNeill does not want to lose.
As early as 2002, he complained that too little reconstruction aid was being provided and that the West was leaving Afghanistan in the lurch. Then the war in Iraq moved Afghanistan to the very bottom of the list of priorities -- for three long, and largely wasted, years.
But since the beginning of this year, the Americans have awakened from their slumber. Iraq, many have understood, is a lost cause. Even the British have withdrawn more than 1,000 troops from Basra -- a number equal to those now being sent as reinforcements to Afghanistan. Many are now doing what they can to ensure the mission in Afghanistan becomes a success.
The US, too, is throwing help at Kabul. Most recently, Congress earmarked $2.5 billion to help set up an effective police force in the country. Washington likewise dispatched 2,500 soldiers and hundreds of instructors from the security company DynCorp to work as police instructors. Since spring, they have been training police officers in Kabul and elsewhere -- a tacit admission to a grave failure. The country's weak, corrupt police force is one of the main reasons for Afghans' loss of faith in the Karzai government.
Developing the police force was supposed to be the Germans' job. But despite its "lead nation" status, Germany hasn't been leading. Now the Americans have taken charge.
Germany Fails the United States
Berlin had dispatched only 42 police instructors to Afghanistan. A hundred times that number is needed. Until recently, the Germans trained future police officers only in Kabul. But the Afghan police forces in the provinces have neither the vehicles nor the gasoline to travel to Kabul in order to attend training courses. Most importantly, no police officer can afford to stay away for weeks or even months from the family he must provide for.
Germany -- the so-called "lead nation" -- has spent €12 million ($17 million) a year on the police program and trained 19,000 policemen in five years. The target for next year is 82,000. Now the German government wants to double the budget for the program.
If the mission in Afghanistan is to succeed, then efforts going far beyond what is currently being discussed need to be made. General McNeill recently told his military colleagues at an exclusive meeting at ISAF's headquarters in Kabul that he needs 160,000 troops in order to make the country safe. His colleagues were astonished -- but he was dead serious.
But more than just additional military force is required. Afghanistan needs thousands of engineers, police instructors, economists and agricultural experts. And on the political level, working closely with both Pakistan and India is unavoidable. What is also perhaps needed is recognition that, as unpleasant as that may be, there will be no progress without cooperation with Afghanistan's neighbors: Iran, Russia and also China.