Taliban remains strong ten years on

The US and NATO war in Afghanistan is in its tenth year, yet many fear the Taliban is poised to return to power.

2 taliban surrender
A moralistic approach to the war has had far-reaching negative effects on Afghan politics and society [GALLO/GETTY]

Afghanistan in 2011 is far cry from the country that the architects of America’s war there had imagined ten years ago. The Taliban movement, which seemed likely to melt away with little resistance in 2001, has survived and now dominates much of rural Afghanistan where insurgents make their presence felt at will.

Since 2009, security incidents – Improvised explosive devices, ambushes, suicide attacks, and assassinations – have frequently numbered more than one thousand per month. A decade after the US-led intervention, the grave humanitarian crisis caused by more than thirty years of war persists.

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More than five million Afghan refugees have returned home since the collapse of the Taliban regime. Yet they have confronted life in a country where, despite the influx of tens of billions of dollars in aid, three quarters of the population still lives below or just slightly above the poverty line.

Only one quarter of residents have access to clean water. According to the UN, 60 per cent of Afghan women face physical and psychological violence. Afghanistan ranks second in the world in maternal mortality and third in infant mortality. So far this year, fighting between insurgents and coalition forces has claimed some 1500 civilian lives and swelled the numbers of internally displaced civilians to several hundred thousand. 

Despite ten years of US and NATO military involvement and state-building directed by the US, many Afghans fear that the Taliban are poised to return to power following the American troop withdrawal scheduled for 2014.

A cause that most Americans supported in 2001 when, in their minds, it was a just war to avenge the damage and loss of 9/11, to vanquish a barbaric foe, and to liberate women – has long since lost its luster in the US. However, there is still little space in American politics for alternative views on the war. 

Fighting the Taliban to get back at Al-Qaeda?

In Washington – as in most American media – the narrative of the Afghan war remains a story of “good versus evil” that leaves little room for moral complexity. In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, official recognition that the perpretrators of the attacks – 15 Saudis, one Egyptian, one Lebanese, and two Emiratis – formed part of a broader transnational conspiracy did little to undermine Washington’s insistence that fighting a war on the territory of Afghanistan was the only way to respond. 

The Taliban’s lengthy record of grotesque misrule and human rights abuses made the rhetorical melding of this movement with Al-Qaeda plausible to the Western public. The fact that these two movements had distinct ideologies and differing ideas about politics and relations with the West was largely ignored. Besides, the Taliban offered readily accessible targets for “smart weapons” in the aseptic warfare that most Americans had come to expect since the Gulf War of 1991.   

The US has consistently rejected dialogue with the Taliban [GALLO/GETTY]

During and after the Cold War, the US had engaged in military interventions convinced that American power was on the side of liberty and progress. However, now the American political elite imagined that its cause, one forged by the horror of 9/11, was of a different moral order. 

It seeemed to face an entirely different kind of enemy who could only be defeated by throwing off the legal constraints meant to humanise war with more civilised foes. Serious analysis of the ideas that animated America’s foes was beyond the pale: a collection of Osama bin Laden’s writings and interviews was not available in English translation in the US until 2005, and a Taliban memoir appeared only in 2010.  Finally, the idea of dialogue or negotiation – something Washington could do with Moscow – was thought to be absurd.

A self-righteous war

It is difficult to overstate the impact that this moralistic framing of the war has had on Afghan politics and society over the past decade. Guantanamo has shone as an enduring monument to this mentality, but we also see its imprint in American-led state-building in Afghanistan.

The founding sins of this project – American domination of the process and tolerance of impunity for war crimes (including those committed by American intelligence officials who committed torture and other abuses) – were more than acts of expediency. They flowed instead from the self-righteous conviction that an aggrieved America, victimised by villains from this mysterious part of the world, had the moral right to shape the post-Taliban order in any manner that US national security experts saw fit. 

Washington understood itself as the good guys wearing the “white hats” – a trope of Hollywood Westerns that has permeated American language, especially that of military personnel who liken Afghanistan (and Iraq) to hostile “Indian country”.

This effect was felt before the end of 2001, when, mistakenly assuming the war was over, the US excluded the Taliban from talks on the future of Afghanistan and began to imprison figures connected to the movement, including a number who had sought integration in the post-Taliban political order. But this was n

ot the only action to stoke the Taliban revival. 

In the north, Afghan militias fighting alongside the Americans committed atrocities against Taliban captives and Pashtun communities during initial combat operations. In the south, US forces also teamed up with local strongmen with a past record of violence against civilians.  At the same time, the air campaign killed an unknown number of noncombatants. 

Hamid Karzai has struggled to gain legitimacy thoughout the country [GALLO/GETTY]

The state that emerged out of this violence concentrated nearly all legal authority in the hands of Washington’s favourite, Hamid Karzai, who in turn relied on local powerbrokers – the same figures that civil society groups condemned as “warlords” or even “war criminals” for their actions during and after the anti-Soviet jihad.  

Hopes raised and dashed

It is little wonder then that so many Afghans have felt disenfranchised or neglected by a system in which a small elite, including men of the gun, have privileged access to American and NATO-backing and international aid. 

Anti-poppy campaigns and inequitable distribution of assistance, most recently focused on areas where the insurgents are most active, have deepened resentment in an era in which the international presence raised – and then dashed – hopes for security, development, and democratisation.

Meanwhile, the highly centralised presidential system engineered and sustained by the Americans, with the complicity of the UN, has offered few mechanisms to effect change. The problem, however, lies not solely in Karzai’s own personal failings, which may be considerable, but in Washington’s unwavering commitment to a form of indirect control of Afghanistan through Karzai, a scheme made transparent by exclusive US support for its client throughout his fraudulent electoral campaigns in 2004 and 2009, with the latter standing out only because it was the more brazen of the two fiascos.   

To date, American policy-makers have failed to grasp how their policies have fed insurgency, corruption, and authoritarian rule in post-2001 Afghanistan.

Resort to a “surge” of US forces, the arming of tribal militias, assassinations, night raids, and drone warfare have all been improvisations meant to turn the tide under President Barack Obama. Yet the surge has only dispersed the insurgents to other areas, and many of the militias have terrorised civilians. Raids on suspected militants resulting in the deaths of Muhammad Amin in Takhar, the former Guantanamo inmate Sabar Lal Melma in Jalalabad, and the BBC reporter Ahmed Omed Khpulwak in Oruzgan – to name only the most well-documented cases of recent months – suggest that coalition forces continue to target with alarming regularity figures about whom they know little or nothing.

Despite surges in US troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban is stronger now than it was ten years ago [GALLO/GETTY]


In addition to the American secret prisons in Afghanistan, long-standing complicity with Afghan organs that torture detainees – a fact acknowledged by the US at least as early as 2009 in a cable obtained by Wikileaks and finally prompting a NATO ban on prisoner transfers three days ago – have made farcical international programs begin programs preaching the rule of law in the country. 

Similarly, the irony of the International Monetary Fund’s recent prodding to urge Kabul to collect more tax revenue was not lost on Afghan parliamentarians who pointed to the treaty with the US that exempts American contractors from paying taxes on their vast profits in Afghanistan, thereby depriving the treasury of tens of millions of dollars.

Much of this is glossed as “Afghan corruption” in our media when it is instead a story of collusion inevitably justified by pointing to the greater evils of the enemy.

This same moral certainty has guided Washington in its belated and still largely dismissive approach to a negotiated political settlement to the war. The keywords “reconciliation” and “reintegration” have been little more than invitations for the insurgents to surrender.

A new Taliban? 

Meanwhile, the Taliban have evolved into a force with a cogent nationalist agenda combining an anti-colonial defense of Afghan sovereignty and Islam with promises of economic development, accountable government, and non-aggression on the world stage and have hinted at being open to power-sharing. 

Ideologically hostile to compromise with a movement it scarcely understands, Washington, by contrast, appears bent on military victory – and on an Afghanistan home to plenty of US bases in a strategically critical region. 

Yet with 2014 looming, the latest counterinsurgency tricks look like little more than the rearranging of chairs on the Titanic, with a dysfunctional Afghan political system tailor-made for another decade of civil war.

Robert D. Crews is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Centre for Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Standford University. He is co-editor (with Amin Tarzi) of The Taliban and Politicised the Crisis of Afghanistan and author of For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.