In the mid-1990s a fledgling group of Islamic students emerged from Kandahar. So-called Talibs, they lived ascetic lifestyles and promised a crackdown against Afghanistan’s criminal warlords. “They preached for a reborn alliance of Islamic piety and Pashtun might,” writes Steve Coll in Ghost Wars. Interestingly, their brand of Islam was not deemed a threat by Washington, unlike Iran’s Shiite evangelism. But after 1996, when al-Qaeda began to wage global jihad against the “far enemy,” the Taliban harbored terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his ilk.
Fast-forward a decade and the Taliban, ousted by a U.S.-led campaign in October 2001, have replanted themselves from Pakistan to the deserts of the Kandahar region, again vowing to rout out warlordism and fill a power vacuum in the region. They continue to rely on resentment of the central government among locals and sustain themselves with opium profits. These militants also reportedly benefit from the largesse of Pakistan and its intelligence apparatus, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). As a madrassa leader told the New York Times Magazine’s Elizabeth Rubin, “The heart of [the Pakistani] government is with the Taliban. The tongue is not.”
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has launched a series of sweeps against Taliban militants in the region—the most recent of which killed twenty-two—but has failed to quash the insurgency. In a new report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) calls for more troops, more diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, and more political will by Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul. “The desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace is what has brought Afghanistan to the present, increasingly dangerous situation,” says the ICG. Dialogue or deal making with the Taliban will not work, the report concludes, but “meeting the legitimate grievances of the population” will.
A majority of the Afghan population has grown disenchanted with the direction of the country, finds a new poll by the Asia Foundation. Attitudes on government institutions have soured and faith in democracy has shrunk since 2004, when the last Asia Foundation poll was conducted. Lack of security partially explains the negative poll numbers. In 2006 alone, more than 3,100 people have died in fighting between Afghan factions and coalition troops in Afghanistan, a third of them civilians. “We have all been surprised by the intensity of the violence this year,” Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs Richard Boucher told Reuters.
President Karzai, speaking at CFR last September, emphasized targeting terrorist training camps and madrassas, but warned that if local Afghans are targeted, they will throw their support behind the Taliban. “Bombings are not the solution,” he said. “You do not destroy terrorism by destroying villages.” Outside experts point to a lack of resources committed to Afghanistan. “[T]here is a vacuum of authority at the provincial level and even more so at the district level because of the lack of investment in state institutions,” Barnett R. Rubin, director of studies at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, told CFR last month. Rubin authored a Council Special Report on Afghanistan's “uncertain transition” in April.