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Taliban revival raises fear of failure for Western powers

Published on 05/10/2009

Kabul — Foreign forces ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, but eight years on a growing insurgency and widespread discontent among locals are raising fears of failure among Western countries.

The United States launched the first military operations against the hardline Islamist regime on October 7, 2001, accusing it of harbouring Al-Qaeda which organised the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

But after being nearly wiped out at the start of 2002, the Taliban now has a "permanent presence" in most of the country, including the previously calm north and west, the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) said.

Political uncertainty has only worsened the situation, the London-based ICOS said in a recent report, as the final results are awaited of the August 20 presidential elections, marred by widespread fraud allegations.

With civilian and military losses at record levels, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, US General Stanley McChrystal, has asked for reinforcements and warned the conflict "will not remain winnable indefinitely."

"The Taliban are in a strong position. They want to show that they are everywhere," said Mariam Abou Zahab, from the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI) in Paris.

Afghan lawmaker Arsalan Rahmani, who has been trying to negotiate with the Taliban, said "traditional Islamic nationalist" Taliban in southern Afghanistan were led by the grand council of tribal chiefs, led by Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Zahab added: "In the south, the Taliban don’t need to recruit. The population supports them. They provide what neither the government nor the foreign troops can — security and justice.

"Most of the traditional Taliban in the south are not paid. They’re motivated by what the Taliban represent: Muslims and Afghans who sacrifice their lives for the liberty of Afghanistan," she said.

"In the south, the insurgency is purely local. It’s a resistance against the presence of foreign troops."

Elsewhere, money can be a factor in recruiting the average Afghan. Afghanistan is the fifth poorest country in the world. Former finance minister Ashraf Ghani has said a Talib is a "young, unemployed man."

According to Western military sources, the Taliban pay between eight and 12 dollars a day to insurgents, much more than the average Afghan salary.

Anger towards foreign forces, who have often killed civilians in their operations, or endemic institutional corruption also play a part in recruitment.

The Taliban now have access to new technology, distributing press releases by email, creating websites and reacting to international news as it suits them.

The militants recently threatened Germany with attack just before its general election.

Zahab said that another Pashtun warlord and anti-American former Afghan prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was weighing in on the conflict with his radical movement, the Hizb-i-Islami.

But "the Americans seem to want to reintegrate him into the political arena, and some Hizb-i-Islami members are already in the government" of President Hamid Karzai, Zahab added.

Al-Qaeda — whose destruction was the stated aim for the US intervention, has been weakened but it still has a base in the Pakistani border regions from where sympathisers launch attacks.

They include the powerful, Al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, named after the warlord and mujahedeen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was a resistance hero during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.

So-called "foreign combatants" linked to the movement, often Chechens but also increasingly "diverse Turkish-speaking militants (Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Turks)" are dotted sporadically across the country, bringing money, weapons and advice to other insurgents, Zahab added.

"What is clear for the Afghans is that the presence of foreign troops is feeding the insurgency and that there is a virtual consensus that they should leave," she said.

But while the Taliban rule out peace talks before any foreign withdrawal, Western powers demand agreements with the rebels first.