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A Kinder, Gentler, Taliban?
Posted by on February 22nd, 2010

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By Steve Hynd

“No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

The rationale of Obama’s strategy, what there is of it, is that the Afghan Taliban are inextricably allied with Al Qaeda and are butchering thugs who are bad for Afghans – so we can’t just leave no matter how for Afghans’ own good, much Karzai might like to do a deal with Mullah Omar to end the fighting. The very heart of McChrystal’s counter-insurgency plan in Afghanistan is that, if the US and its allies can just oust Taliban fighters from key areas and install Kabul’s security forces and “government in a box” in their place, everything will be alright.

The Afghan Taliban seem to be busy deliberately undermining both those rationales. Firstly, they’re no longer as close to Al Qaeda as they used to be.

Richard Barrett, the chief of the United Nations al-Qaida-Taliban Monitoring Team, says that while ties between the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida are still quite strong, the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida has withered.

“I think it is pretty weak between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida.  I do not think that it has been strong for some time.  You do not see many al-Qaida people in Afghanistan at all now.  And really their base, their future, is all linked up with the Pakistan Taliban, I think looking much more to that side of the border than the Afghan side of the border.  And I think that Mullah Baradar and other Taliban leaders actually recognize that a close linkage with al-Qaida was not in their interest,” he said.

Mullah Baradar, also known as Abdul Ghani, was the Afghan Taliban’s top operational commander who was captured recently in a joint raid by U.S. and Pakistani forces in the city of Karachi.

Barrett and like-minded analysts say the Afghan Taliban is looking to some kind of political role in a future Afghanistan, even though it denies any interest in negotiations at this point, and that ties with al-Qaida will damage those prospects

Secondly, they’re apparently learning that honey catches more flies than vinegar.

Taliban militants ruling Marjah softened their brutal tactics over the last few years and seem less intent on tightly controlling every aspect of people’s lives, the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan has concluded.

The Taliban’s change of tactics may reflect a practical recognition that Marjah residents wouldn’t put up with such a repressive rule, said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a top coalition spokesman in Afghanistan.

… During their several years of controlling Marjah, the Taliban did not provide basic services to its residents. But it did institute a rule of law that was used for dispute resolution, such as quarrels over water rights or land. “People understood what the rules were,” Smith said.

Those types of land and water disputes are common in Afghanistan, where the livelihoods of most people are tied to the land and the government’s reach is limited.

The Taliban in Marjah, however, did not try to extend their control into the minutiae of people’s lives, such as dictating marriages, Smith said. They did keep tight control over education and attempted to cut off the population from the outside world by denying cell service and through other means, the coalition said.

Smith went on to say that in 25 shuras held before the US-led offensive, tribal elders still said they wanted the Taliban out – but it’s unlikely that those shuras were held actually in Marjah, anymore than US military polls of Afghan opinions were. In fact, accounts by some Marjah residents who have talked to Western reporters match Smith’s characterization of a kinder, gentler Taliban exactly.

“The Taliban didn’t create any problems for people. Every Thursday there was a court session, and if someone had a problem, he would go in front of the Taliban mullah who was the judge,” said Samad Khan, a 55-year-old poppy farmer in the village of Saipo on the outskirts of Marjah. The Islamist militant group levied a 10 percent yearly tax on his poppy crop, and let him be.

Now, Khan says, he’s worried that the assault, which began Saturday, is putting his family in danger.

“I’m afraid for my children, for my village, because the fighting is increasing,” he said.

…Sharecropper Mohammad Khan said the Taliban didn’t use draconian methods such as public executions and limb amputations to impose their reign in Marjah as they did in Kabul and other parts of the country when they ruled most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

“Honestly, they didn’t bother us. They mostly just came and went,” the rough-faced 55-year-old with a long beard said as Marines searched his neighborhood of northern Marjah.

“They weren’t very organized,” said Khan, who wore a white turban. Khan said most town matters were handled by a council of local elders, who worked to smooth relations between villagers and insurgents.

He said the Taliban’s rule over the town was “mostly peaceful.”

Those villagers are left wondering why they needed liberating at all – especially when they’re being killed by their liberators despite a multitude of promises.

A NATO airstrike killed at least 27 Afghan civilians, officials said Monday, in the third coalition strike this month to kill noncombatants and draw a sharp rebuke from Afghanistan’s government about endangering civilians.

And despite the publicity airstrikes get, it’s ground fire that does the real killing still.

All of which leaves McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan in a tough place. Mullah Omar and the Taliban appear to have gotten successfully “inside his loop”. They’re providing successful but non-interfering government without going overboard in ways that previously alienated the population and have divorced themselves from their own “foreigners” while implicitly challenging Karzai to do likewise. Over at, “Dafydd” writes:

That is why the Mullah Omar offer of terms with President Karzai ‘when the foreigners have left’ can be seen as some sort of admission of a weak spot, The local Pashtuns seem not much more keen on Arabs/Punjabis (foreigners) than Westerners (other foreigners). Omar didn’t call (in this instance) Karzai a puppet, nor just announce that all infidels would be defeated by the hand of The Almighty. Instead he acquiesced in some sort of role for the current elected government in the future, thus showing some flexibility in not initially insisting on imposition of Islamism. That the vast majority of people inside and outside Afghanistan are sceptical of how genuine the offer is does not change the fact that Omar saw an advantage in making it.

If we cannot outlast the Talibs (and I don’t for a second think that is at all possible), rendering what is left of a Taliban insurgency so small as to be irrelevant on our departure is just about the only option. The constituency which Mullah Omar aimed his offer at must be the ‘floating voter’ in this campaign. I would like to think he made his offer in desperation, but I don’t. I expect he was being very politically clever.

And his co-blogger, the ever-excellent Josua Foust continues:

After spending a reasonable amount of time getting to know the Pashtuns and the issues that are of greatest concern to them, I have come to believe that until we crack down on corruption at all levels, REALLY crack down, then we are all wasting our time here.  The reporting about the head of Kabul Bank in the WaPo yesterday is only one strong example of the sorts of things that undermine all popular support for what is a kleptocratic government.

A tribal elder once told me, “we had security when the Taliban were in charge, but we had nothing else.  That is not enough, we need development, schools, clinics, and a functioning economy.  So their rule was a dead end for Afghanistan“. Reasoning along the same lines I would say that if we focus on security, but allow corruption to flourish, we lose.

Reasoning likewise, we could say that if the Afghan Taliban work out how to provide security and non-oppressive, uncorrupt government then they’ve won.

They seem to be getting there faster than McChrystal and Karzai. Today, news broke that the Afghan President has done an end-run around his parliament while it was in recess and appropriated to himself the power to appoint the entire membership of the panel which oversees elections. With America’s colaition shattered and looking for any plausible exit and Karzai determined to end the bloodshed even if he has to become the junior partner to Mullah Omar in a post-peace talks government, I see nothing to contradict the impression that the next six months are simply papering over the cracks enough that some kind of success can be claimed before heading for the exits. And I don’t see that end result as a bad thing, even if the six months of fighting that’s “needed” to give it political cover for domestic consumption (and saving a general’s career) is deplorable.

Rich Gibson []
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