Resurgent Taliban

Print edition : March 23, 2007

Mohammed Shah of Spirwan village in Afghanistan lost his wife, two daughters and three sons on February 24, all killed by errant NATO bombs. Shah said that he was not with the Taliban before the tragedy. "But, now I am Talib," he said.-ALLAUDDIN KHAN/AP

Another bloody phase seems to have opened in Afghanistan with a regrouped Taliban and a population disenchanted with the occupiers.

THE dramatic attack on the highly fortified Bagram military base in the last week of February and the increase, as the winter snows start melting, in military activity by the Taliban signal the opening of another bloody chapter in the history of Afghanistan.

The attack on the Bagram base, the most important United States base in the country, occurred when U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney was on an "unannounced" visit to the country. The visit, evidently, did not come as a surprise for the insurgents. A suicide truck bomber attacked the entrance of the high-security base while Cheney was inside.

The high-profile Taliban military commander, Mullah Dadullah, told a Western news agency in late February that 2007 would "prove to be the bloodiest" year so far for the foreign troops in Afghanistan. He said that 20,000 fighters were being mobilised for a "spring offensive" against the occupation forces. Days after the warning, there was a suicide attack in Jalalabad, targeting a U.S. military convoy. In the mayhem that followed, two U.S. soldiers and 18 Afghan civilians were killed.

Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, mainly as a result of aerial U.S. bombing. These deaths have been a major reason for the U.S.' failure to win many hearts in Afghanistan. The incident in Jalalabad, where U.S. soldiers went berserk after the suicide attack, is bound to widen the chasm between the occupation forces and ordinary Afghans. In a society where tribal bonds are strong and the desire for revenge is a major motivating factor, the rising number of civilian casualties is bound to give a fillip to the Taliban's resistance.

The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Mark Boucher, said in the last week of January that he expected a "strong offensive" from the Taliban and a "dangerous and bloody spring" in Afghanistan. More than 4,000 people were killed in the fighting last year and the number of suicide attacks has quadrupled since 2005. The Taliban seems to have surprised Western soldiers with its fighting capabilities. No longer content with hit-and-run guerilla attacks, the Taliban has since last year shown a determination to fight like a conventional army. In February, the Taliban briefly seized and held the town of Musa Qala in the restive Helmand province.

During his brief stay in Islamabad on the way to Kabul, Cheney told Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements holed up in his country. Democratic Congressmen want President George Bush to withhold military aid to Pakistan if the government cannot certify that Islamabad is cooperating fully to stop the Taliban and Al Qaeda activities in that country.

Senior Bush administration officials and leading Congressmen have been saying that the Pakistani government is not doing enough to curb Taliban military activity along the border with Afghanistan. U.S. officials say militants routinely cross back into Pakistani territory after staging attacks inside Afghanistan. They also say that cross-border attacks have increased substantially since the Pakistan government struck a deal with the tribal leaders of Wazirstan last September. In exchange for more autonomy, the tribal leaders pledged to purge the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters from their mountainous territory.

The new U.S. intelligence chief, Michael McConnell, recently told a congressional hearing that the Taliban and Al Qaeda maintain "critical sanctuaries" inside Pakistan. McConnell, while acknowledging that Pakistan was "our partner" in the "war against terror", said it was also a "major source of Islamic extremism".

A senior U.S. military officer told the Senate Armed Services Committee that American forces routinely pursued the Taliban fighters across the border into Pakistan and hinted at an understanding with the Pakistani government on the issue. The officer told the Senators that the U.S. Army has "all the authorities we need to pursue, either with artillery fire or on the ground, across the border". But he said that the Pakistani military was more aggressive against Al Qaeda than it was against the Taliban.

Pakistan insists it is doing its utmost to stop the Taliban and Al Qaeda on its territory, pointing out that there are over 80,000 troops stationed along the border with Afghanistan. More than 800 Pakistani soldiers have already lost their lives in skirmishes with militants along the border. On March 1, Pakistan announced that its security forces had captured the third most senior member of the Taliban leadership council, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund. Akhund was the Defence Minister in the Taliban government.

Pakistani officials say the failure to curb Taliban and Al Qaeda activities should be attributed mainly to the Afghan government and the U.S. military; they also emphasise that they are in the process of fencing most of the border with Afghanistan. However, senior Iranian clerics accuse Pakistan of having become a "terrorist sanctuary". The accusations came after 13 Iranian Revolutionary Guards were killed in a roadside bombing in the Iranian town of Zahedan, near the border with Pakistan. "Pakistan has become a sanctuary for terrorists," said Hojatoleslam Ahamad Khatami in Teheran on March 2. The cleric cautioned Pakistan against falling into the "American trap".

The Taliban resurgence is, to a large extent, owing to the lack of an effective force to combat it. The new Afghan army, trained and armed by the West, has not turned out to be an effective fighting force. It was supposed to have been an 80,000-strong force by 2007. But, with a high rate of desertion and low morale, its strength today stands at 20,000.

For the foreseeable future, it seems destined to play a subservient role to the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) occupation forces. Warlords still hold sway over much of the country, with the tacit connivance of the Americans.

Afghanistan under occupation has become the world's biggest producer and exporter of opium. The drug running is also indirectly helping the Taliban and Al Qaeda to finance their military operations. The U.S. State Department, in its annual "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report", has acknowledged that drug profits support the Taliban and fund attacks on U.S. and NATO forces.

Getting their hands on weapons was never a big problem for the Taliban and their allies. Most of the weapons they are using against the U.S. and NATO troops were, anyway, supplied to the Afghan mujahideen by the West during their fight against the pro-Soviet secular government in Kabul in the 1980s. In that decade, the CIA is said to have spent $800 million to train and fund the "Arab-Afghan" fighters. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban retreated into the shadows and hid their weapons, many of them in mint condition, which they had captured from the Northern Alliance in the late 1990s. Western military analysts admit that the Taliban have public support in the Pashtun heartland.

Washington has not been successful in persuading its NATO allies to chip in substantially with military forces. Most NATO members are against the organisation playing an overtly military role in Afghanistan. They want the 33,000 NATO troops currently stationed in the country to be a "stability provider", rendering humanitarian assistance and helping in institution-building in the war-ravaged country. An extra 11,000 U.S. troops, operating outside NATO command, are engaged in special operations or in the training of Afghan troops.

During the conflict in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, NATO deployed 60,000 troops, equivalent to one soldier for every 66 Bosnian citizens. In Afghanistan, the ratio is 1:1,000. Major NATO countries like France and Germany are against their soldiers being deployed in combat activities. Both these countries have been stonewalling U.S. requests for additional troops.

Countries like Italy and Canada, which have sent troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, are facing harsh domestic criticism. Afghanistan was one of the major reasons why the left-of-centre government of Romano Prodi lost a vote of confidence in February.

The Left parties want the Italian military contingent in Afghanistan to be withdrawn. They, in fact, would like the Taliban to be invited to talks for restoring peace in Afghanistan. The minority government in Canada faced a lot of criticism when it decided to increase the number of Canadian soldiers to be deployed for active military duty in Afghanistan.

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