Adventures in Afghanistan
The resurgence of the Taliban has been predicted each year since the fall of the Taliban in the winter of 2002. The fact that over 1,600 Afghanis were killed during combat is often touted as evidence for the Taliban’s resurgence, however obscured in this number is the fact that the vast majority of those killed were Taliban fighters. Over the spring and summer, of 2005, the Taliban attempted to engage Coalition forces in mass formations, and were repeatedly destroyed en masse. The Taliban’s only success worth mentioning was the downing of a U.S. Special Operations helicopter in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. When elections were held in September of 2005, the Taliban mounted no meaningful operations to prevent the Afghani people’s exercising of their democratic right to vote.
But the Taliban’s failure to disrupt the election and their losses in open combat does not spell an overall defeat for the movement. al-Qaeda has shifted resources to the region, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda still maintain bases of operations across the border in Pakistan, and the Pakistani government has been largely ineffective in removing them from the tribal regions.
The southeastern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan remain troubled regions of Afghanistan, and bases of operations for the Pashtun-supported Taliban. The Times Online states the Taliban is laying in wait for the British contingent readying to deploy into Helmand province, and quotes a “western intelligence source” with a negative view on the situation in the region; “The Taliban are not just regrouping in the south; they are winning… Two years ago they were wintering in Pakistan. Last year they stayed in Helmand all year but wintered in remote hills. This year they have remained in the villages.” The Taliban have recently burned down three schools in the region in an attempt to intimidate the residents and prevent the schooling of children.
The province of Kandahar has been the scene of increased activity of late. Two bombs were defused close to the U.S. Embassy, and a suicide bomber was detained in a “a minibus packed with explosives and gas canisters close to a U.S. base.” Nine suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were arrested in Kandahar, seven of whom were Afghanis and two Pakistanis. The Pakistanis were “preparing to become suicide bombers.”
A fight between residents of the town of Spin Boldak and the Taliban left two Taliban and one resident dead. The Post reports the residents of Spin Boldak, which sits on the border with Pakistan, instigated the fight after the Taliban attempted to enforce its strict brand of Sharia law; “the villagers attacked the Taliban rebels who had blockaded a road and were confiscating music cassettes from passing cars. After seizing and breaking the cassettes, the insurgents informed travellers that music was forbidden by Islam.” Spin Boldak is the location of a Taliban suicide bombing that killed twenty residents during a religious festival, and sparked protests from the locals, who chanted “death to Pakistan, death to al-Qaeda and death to the Taliban.”
The Washington Post reports on problems in the province of Uruzgan, the home of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. Lt. Gen Karl W. Eikenberry, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, describes the security situation as being “certainly… toward the bottom.” The hesitation of the Dutch, who are slated to take over in the province, is viewed as a weakness by the Taliban and there are fears this debate will be exploited to cause divisions within NATO.
The Dutch continue to debate their deployment commitment, but Radio Netherlands reports “the largest opposition party, Labour (PvdA) gave its blessing to the new mission,” paving the way for the Dutch to fulfill their obligation. Australia has stated it is willing to send 200 additional troops to assist the Dutch in Uruzgan.
While the Coalition works to stabilize the security situation in southeastern Afghanistan, an international conference is discussing aid and security commitments to the nation. The United States has pledged $1.1 Billion in economic aid over the next year, and Russia has agreed to relieve Afghanistan of its $10 Billion in debt. Reuters states economic growth is expected is expected to be substantial over the next year; “The IMF forecast economic growth of 14 percent in 2005/06, slowing to 10 percent by the end of the year, with activity buoyant in the construction and services sectors.”
But Afghanistan’s poppy problem continues to remain a major problem for stability. The poppy/opium trade accounts for just over half of Afghanistan’s GDP, and efforts to reduce farming and production have produced marginal results. Warlords, the Taliban and al-Qaeda use the poppy trade to fund their enterprises, creating additional security problems for the nascent government. The Counterterrorism Blog’s Robert Charles states “CENTCOM and NATO’s Operational Commander have just declared narcotics to be ‘the number one threat’ to Afghanistan’s democracy and freedom.”
The challenges in Afghanistan are great, and the importance of the narcotics trade in Afghan society adds an increased level of complexity to the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet al-Qaeda and the Taliban arguably have a better support system across the border in Pakistan than the insurgents possess outside Iraq, and years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan to build upon, and can only muster a fraction of the violence that is seen in Iraq. Both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have boasted in their most recent statements that the U.S. has been defeated in Afghanistan, yet secretly al-Qaeda must be concerned that four years after the fall of the Taliban, it has been unable to mount a significant resistance in what was once the model state for the Islamic Caliphate.