Time in Afghanistan is on the side of the Taliban. They live there and will be there a long time after the the Americans are gone. They only have to be patient and they will get the country. Or so they would like people to think. In actuality, the clock is also running on the Taliban; it is not in their favor..
The Taliban's challenge rests on at least seven pillars:
- The Taliban is the guardian of true Islam.
- Foreign troops are not welcome in Afghanistan and the Taliban will help drive them out.
- The Taliban provides efficient local government - responsive, open and not corrupt.
- Illicit funding increases the range of options available to the Taliban.
- The Taliban enjoys foreign support, particularly from Pakistan.
- Widespread intimidation discourages active opposition.
- Time is on the Taliban's side.
Unfortunately for the Taliban, all of these pillars are shaky.
The Taliban expounds a medieval view of Islam, which claims all true Muslims must oppose the West. What we see is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash of antiquity versus modernity. They are able to raise doubts in the minds of uneducated peasants and motivate some fanatic followers with their view of an Islam unsullied by crass modernism; and their appeal resonates with many who hold grievances, blaming the West for backwardness and autocracy in the Muslim world. Building on this, the Taliban regularly accuses the United States of waging an anti-Muslim campaign. But increasingly more voices, many appalled by the excesses of radical Islam, espouse a more modern, peaceful, tolerant Islam. Al Qaeda finds itself on the defensive and the Taliban focuses more on the local situation. Even within Afghanistan the majority rejects their medieval Islam and world wide more and more Muslim voices are speaking up for moderation. It is getting harder for the Taliban to maintain extreme positions. They are clearly vulnerable to a systematic confrontation with modern Islam. The West can take part in this peripherally by stressing and visibly practicing toleration, by promoting dialogue, and by aiding the development of the Muslim world in general and Afghanistan in particular. The United States can also encourage groups such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference and moderate countries such as Morocco and Indonesia to directly address the Taliban challenge. At a minimum, the United States can publicize within Afghanistan information on modern Islamic conditions.
Many Afghans are indeed wary of foreigners, particularly armed foreigners. Afghanistan has earned its reputation as the Graveyard of Empires from its long history of active opposition to invaders. But Afghanistan also has long traditions of hospitality. In the 1970's, Afghanistan was known as a peaceful and exotic tourist destination, where foreigners were welcomed and hospitality was in plain view. Today there are mixed views. Some see the Americans as partners and openly embrace a wide range of development efforts. Others see these efforts as marginal, or don't even see them at all. Rather they see the Americans as occupiers. Of course the Taliban does everything it can to reinforce this negative view, widely spreading news of real or fictional civilian casualties, wrongful detentions, and cultural insults. The larger the military footprint, the more such negative occurrences are inevitable. So the Taliban paints Americans as infidel foreign occupiers, but they also have to address the clearly visible gap between vibrantly developing areas under Western control and the stunted, backward areas they control. The more that real development proceeds, the more Westerners will be seen as friends and partners, not occupiers.
Some areas under Taliban control do have well functioning shadow governments which can provide responsive government, settling disputes and maintaining order openly and without corruption. However, the entire country well remembers what an established Taliban government was like, how repressive and stifling it was. Now there is focused international pressure on the Karzai government to improve its standards, reduce corruption and improve governance. What will happen at the national level is uncertain. But at the province and district level, there is a broad variation in leadership. This gives an opportunity for the West to support responsive government by supporting those local governments that really work and encouraging other local government to improve their operation and join in significant development programs. Good governance will not come from the top down, but from the bottom up, supported by transparency and free press. Any growth of responsive government undermines the Taliban claim of providing better government.
Illicit funding has also been an important element of Taliban support. This illicit income has allowed the Taliban to procure weapons and other war materiel, but more importantly to provide income to fighters and supporters. Although the Taliban vehemently denies that payments motivate any of their fighters, it is clear that the Taliban is a very heterogeneous grouping. There is a core of fighters who are indeed dedicated extremists, but that many other fighters and tribal leaders are motivated by payments as well as by a natural desire to end up on the winning side. "Taxes" extracted from farmers, local businesses and even government-supported projects provides much of this illicit income, but the single largest source seems to be from opium production. This entails striking hypocrisy on the part of the Taliban that actively suppressed opium production as contrary to Islam when they were in power and now profit from it out of power. So they have visibly supported peasant farmers in the face of sporadic governments efforts to eradicate opium crops and stifle production. Eradication has alienated farmers and drove many of them to desperate measures, including signing up as fighters. Coalition and government efforts to suppress opium production have been singularly ineffective, though alternative crops have provided some success in areas under government control. Proposals to simply buy the opium (even if it is only burned) or set up legitimate pharmaceutical licensing have been totally rejected by the government. Nevertheless, opium production undermines the Taliban claim of representing unsullied Islam. Successful efforts at alternative crops, potential programs to buy up opium, and concerted efforts to target major drug operations can combine to weaken this source of support for the Taliban. More careful positioning and security of major projects could further decrease illicit income flowing to the Taliban.
Regional support, especially from Pakistan, has been a significant element in Taliban success, particularly the ability to operate from safe havens across the border. Taliban success in Afghanistan and hesitant Pakistani government actions against the Taliban provided strong encouragement to extremists within Pakistan who overplayed their hand by expanding flagrantly to control areas close to Islamabad. The reaction by the Pakistani army and government to reverse this sudden expansion of extremist influence has led to bitter fighting in the borderlands. Most recently, Pakistani extremist groups have directly attacked the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), long accused of providing covert support to radical Islamic elements. Extremist responses within Pakistan, including bombings that have killed several hundred in recent months, have also convinced many Pakistanis that fighting the Taliban and other extremists is not just something done in response to requests from the United States, but also pose a threat to the Pakistan state itself. So, for example, one recent religious gathering of 400,000 Muslims at Raiwind directly addressed the challenge of the Taliban; speaking of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, one participant bemoaned that, "Her killers still roam around scot-free.....No religion, including Islam, allows the killing of humans. We need to hold gatherings like this one and inculcate in our people a true spirit of Islam, which is a code of life for all of us and not the kind of Islam that Taliban want to introduce." A renewed US interest in supporting Pakistani development may further complicate the extremist agenda. What the outcome of all this will be is unclear, but Pakistani disenchantment with the Taliban can greatly complicating Afghan Taliban use of safe areas.
Intimidation has been the single most important pillar supporting the Taliban resurgence. Actions have been brutal, but not too brutal. Hundreds of opposition figures and supporters of the government have lost their lives. But many others have lost fingers (with purple tips showing they had participated in elections) rather than hands or heads. Intimidation is effective when it instills fear, but becomes directly counterproductive when it elicits anger or revenge, provokes outrage and drives people into active opposition. And in any case, fear provides at best a temporary acquiescence but undermines commitment. Brutality against other Muslims also undermines Taliban claims to represent a pure form of Islam. Active opposition may be slow to develop in areas the Taliban controls, but brutal actions can harden opposition in other areas. The prime example is the Northern Alliance which actively resisted Taliban control in the 1990s. Even today, non-Pashtun areas, particularly in the north, can be decidedly hostile to the Taliban. Local militias have formed to resist Taliban incursions. Such militias need to be incorporated into government security forces - they know they cannot succeed long term on their own - but are a visible aspect of areas determined to reject Taliban expansion. Areas inhospitable to the Taliban depend on a local network of people determined to protect their own families, property, and lives. Building support for these efforts, visibly blocking Taliban progress, can not only encourage further opposition to the Taliban, but also disabuse current Taliban supporters from the notion that intimidation will ensure their success. This requires better organization of local protection forces, police, and Army elements. The Taliban motivates with a combination of ideology and money. Protecting one's own life, family and property can motivate more widely and deeply. Local security forces with supporting intelligence networks incorporating a wide range of local individuals are the key to inoculating areas against the Taliban.
Time is the bottom line. Intimidation campaigns are greatly aided by perceptions of ultimate Taliban victory. But the Taliban are in a race with time, a race to seize control before modernization will sweep them away, before the Afghan people develop a vision of what a new life could be and of how the Taliban's medieval tenets are a distortion of Islam. The Taliban is not the Wave of the Future, but a Relic of the Past; its philosophy has been rejected by the world in general and mainstream Muslims in particular.
Time is also the bottom line of the US effort. It is most important that the effort be seen as a long-term dedication to supporting freedom and promoting real development to undermine the appeal of radical Islam. Struggling in Afghanistan only makes sense as part of a global effort to address radical Islam, and it has become a central area of struggle in that confrontation. We cannot defeat al Qaeda without demonstrating the hollowness of radical Islam. What we need in Afghanistan is not an exit, but a transformation. Afghanistan represents both the necessity and the opportunity to reinvigorate US relations with the Muslim world. In the short term, the struggle is denying al Qaeda and radical jihadists a base of operations against the West. But Afghanistan has become a crucial battlefield in the larger struggle to integrate the Muslim world into a global development effort. The focus has to be on areas with the biggest potential for the most improvement, for areas currently with reasonable security and reasonable governance. Clear-Hold-Build remains a core strategy, but we cannot Clear and Hold more than we are capable of providing Build assets for. We need to stay where they want us, support local governments and local development, and build up the legitimacy of the central government province by province.