Moving Forward?: The Future of the Taliban
As the first democratic election in the history of Afghanistan comes to a close, with little violence occurring, one question is being asked by outside observers and governments around the world: “Where is the Taliban?” Despite the threats and political jousting to derail the election process and scare voters from the polls, very little action has materialized other than big talk. While it still remains an organized force in eastern Afghanistan, this failure to follow through may be evidence of the group’s decline and gradual loss of influence in Afghan politics. In short, it may not be the big boogie man it used to be.
The decline could also be explained by the gradual and diminishing influence of Al Qaeda and international Islamic jihadism. Though Islamic networks, like the Haqqani Network, continue to fund groups like the Taliban, the group has gradually faded into the broader landscape of local groups that have long carried out violent conflicts against other. The tribal lands of Pakistan are a case and point, as are areas of Afghanistan where rivalries between ethnic groups show tough obstacles ahead for forging a national Afghan identity.
Where has the Power Gone?
The structure of the terrorist network has long been a guerrilla organization that has been funded by networks of international Islamist organizations. The major example of Al Qaeda speaks to the first time a guerrilla organization has been totally funded by private individuals and groups rather than governments. Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network not only helped fuel the Taliban insurgency, but continue funding Islamist based extremists in conflict zones. From West Africa to Malaysia, to Chechnya and India, their influence is reflected in the trade of illegitimate money, drugs and small arms trading. Furthermore, these activities, including recruitment of young jihadists, are set up in a system of churches (madrassas), schools and training camps, with participants coming from wealthy Persian Gulf families to refugee camps in Pakistan. Reporter Steve Coll’s account of Al Qaeda and Haqqani’s formation in Ghost Wars demonstrates the first true globalization, that of international terrorism through private means.
That was the 1970s throughout the remainder of the century. The Taliban have used this network to wage war against the US-supported Karzai government . Through links with Pakistani Intelligence (ISI), they have used Pakistan and the US-Pakistani alliance to largely shield themselves from the brunt of US-NATO forces based in Afghanistan. However, the politics of South Asia is fundamentally shifting. There are three reasons why:
- The war on terror is coming to an end (whether Washington is willing to admit it or not), as the United States has more pressing priorities in Eastern Europe and the Far East.
- Due to the war in Afghanistan, US-Pakistani relations have deteriorated over support of the Taliban, leading to stronger partnerships between the United States and India.
- Pakistan is becoming increasingly unstable due to the insurgency, especially as Afghanistan becomes increasingly stable (though not really growing) due to US and European economic and military support.
The Taliban now finds itself in a predicament: to continue their violent struggle is to alienate both governments that now have reason to pacify the Taliban and their benefactors, or destroy them at all costs.
Furthermore, evidence has shown that the U.S. drone and special forces campaign in Pakistan’s borderlands has indeed fractured the Taliban’s leadership. The death of senior leaders has created power struggles in the leadership. If an opportunity to reconcile the Taliban with the new Afghan government, now would be the time. Such action would bring closure to the war and truly mark an impressive transition to peace for the war torn country. However, if the benefactors have turned their eyes to other extremist groups, then a sustained effort may destroy the group while Afghanistan reconstitutes itself and economic growth returns.
Is there a place for the Taliban?
What if the Taliban can reconcile? What will it look like as a peaceful player in Afghan politics? The living memory of the Taliban in the lives of ordinary Afghans is still fresh and painful. However, many similar post-conflict attitudes have been solved through successful reconciliation processes. Rwanda and Sierra Leone are both strong case studies for such conflicts. Again, successful reconciliation brings closure to a country that needs to move forward, stronger and more confident.
An event like this can only be possible if the United States and the Afghans continue the strong anti-guerrilla war campaign against the Taliban extremists, and, more importantly, the Haqqani Group and other international backers. A 201o report on Haqqani by the American Institute of War concluded that the organization has been resilient in the face of overwhelming strikes by U.S. drones and other tools of counterterrorism. We agree that drone attacks, strengthening the confidence of Southern Afghanistan in the Kabul-based government and continued unilateral intervention in the tribal lands is the best way to finish Haqqani and the remnants of al Qaeda.
Is it in the best interest of the United States? Absolutely! However, its also in the best interests of Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries, where religious-based terrorism is still a fear among leaders and the ruling elite. Successful conciliation is an objective worth striving for. It should not come at the expense of eliminating the Taliban if they continue to play ball with Al Qaeda and Haqqani. The current elections in Afghanistan, along with the changing commitments of US foreign policy provide an opening that should not be passed up.
What do you think? Join the conversation!
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