Wednesday, 13 August 2003

TALIBAN ATTACKS INTENSIFY IN AFGHANISTAN

Published in Analytical Articles

By Rahimullah Yusufzai (8/13/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: By retreating from major cities instead of putting up a last stand in late 2001, the Taliban were able to save most of their fighters and hide away some of their weapons –a wise move, since the Taliban could have faced decimation at the hands of the superior fighting machines of the U.S..
BACKGROUND: By retreating from major cities instead of putting up a last stand in late 2001, the Taliban were able to save most of their fighters and hide away some of their weapons –a wise move, since the Taliban could have faced decimation at the hands of the superior fighting machines of the U.S.. With the US now pre-occupied with growing resistance in Iraq and the Afghans getting restless over the slow pace of reconstruction of their war-ravaged country, the Taliban and other opposition groups are finding it relatively easy to find recruits for their anti-U.S. cause and strengthen the resistance. There have been daring assaults in recent months, such as the ambush in Gereshk in Helmand province in which suspected Taliban fighters killed three Afghan and two American soldiers and wounded several others, the murder of an expatriate engineer working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Urozgan province, the killing of four German soldiers who were part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in an apparent suicide bombing in Kabul, and the death of several Afghan soldiers, policemen and aid workers in Taliban guerilla attacks in small towns and outposts. Religious scholars supporting President Hamid Karzai\'s government have also been targetted. Missiles fired on coalition bases, hit and run attacks on their patrols and remote-controlled bombs targetting their vehicles have also continued. Though the ISAF and the U.S. military headquartered north of Kabul at Bagram airbase had maintained all along that they didn\'t expect the war in Iraq to cause a deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan, the importance of the US-led attack on Iraq and the space it created for the anti-U.S. forces wasn’t lost on the Taliban. One of their top military commanders, Mulla Dadullah Akhund, used the opportunity to claim responsibility for some of the attacks on the coalition troops and threaten further assaults. Referring to the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq, he argued that it was part of the Crusades against Muslims and urged the Afghans to join the “jehad” to evict “all foreigners, all Crusaders” from Afghanistan. It was the first time since losing power that a top Taliban leader had agreed to be interviewed, a move that explained their growing confidence after remaining underground for more than a year.

IMPLICATIONS: The increased attacks against coalition forces in parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the areas inhabited by the ethnic Pashtun majority, show that some Afghans were heeding the Taliban appeal. As Dadullah Akhund claimed, the Taliban have regrouped under 10 military commanders appointed by their supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar, forged new alliances and waged a guerilla campaign in the Pashtun-inhabited provinces bordering Pakistan. By declaring that the guerilla-style attacks would henceforth be executed in the non-Pashtun majority northern provinces, where the Taliban have traditionally enjoyed little or no support, their military commanders were hoping to exploit the frustration which ordinary Afghans feel towards pro-U.S. warlords who continue to abuse human rights and indulge in corruption. Likeminded former mujahideen leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar has also declared “jehad” against the foreign forces in Afghanistan and tried to deride President Karzai by terming him a puppet of the U.S.. Though both Hekmatyar and Taliban have denied forming an alliance to fight the foreign troops and Karzai government, it is likely that their fighters are cooperating at the local level while confronting the common enemy. With his party\'s organizational and propaganda skills, Hekmatyar would be able to bolster the strength of the Taliban, who retain a reservoir of fighters but lack resources and are inept at handling the media. The Karzai government’s public support for the US invasion of Iraq didn\'t go down well with most Afghans and the perception that their president was an American creation became stronger. The fact that President Karzai still needed American bodyguards for his protection further damaged his reputation. His efforts to rein in the warlords and make the slowly emerging but Tajik-dominated Afghan National Army ethnically balanced is turning members of his coalition into enemies. With presidential elections next June in sight, the former mujahideen as well as the pro-West royalists and liberals are coalescing into rival alliances to stake claim for power. In the process, the uneasy, Karzai-led coalition cobbled together as a result of the UN-sponsored Bonn conference in December 2001 is threatened with split. The apparent disarray in the ranks of the Afghan government is causing disaffection among its supporters and providing a window of opportunity to the Taliban and other opposition groups. The increased Taliban guerilla activity has also fuelled tensions on Afghanistan\'s border with Pakistan due to Kabul\'s allegations that the attackers have their hideouts in Pakistani territory. U.S. military officials had to intervene recently to prevent an escalation in hostilities when the Pakistan embassy in Kabul was attacked by a mob protesting alleged encroachments by Pakistani military on Afghan territory. The resultant instability in the area has benefited the resurgent Taliban.

CONCLUSION: The Taliban and their allies, however, would have to overcome a number of challenges before they can revive their credibility and inspire the war-weary Afghan people. First, majority of Afghans are fed up of war and their preference is for peace and reconstruction of their war-ravaged country instead of another round of fighting. Second, the six-year Taliban rule was not a particularly happy period for many Afghans and most of them would refuse to back their return to power. Third, the Afghans are aware that Afghanistan would again become isolated and foreign economic assistance would stop in case the Taliban regained power. Fourth, most non-Pashtuns kept their distance from the Taliban in the past and would do so again. Fifth, the Taliban lack resources that are required to sustain an armed struggle and there is no indication that any outside country or organization is ready to finance their campaign. Sixth, past rivalries and ideological and personal disputes would continue to haunt efforts to forge an effective alliance between the Taliban, Hekmatyar and other anti-U.S. groups. In such a situation, the Taliban at this stage are capable of rendering parts of Afghanistan insecure but are unlikely to bring down the Karzai government or force the U.S.-led foreign troops to pullout from Afghanistan.

AUTHOR\'S BIO: Rahimullah Yusufzai is an executive editor of The News International, an English daily published from Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also a correspondent of the BBC, ABC News and Time magazine. He has published research papers on Afghanistan and travelled widely in that country since the communist revolution of April 1978.

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