Afghanistan: Taliban Admit Defeat

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September 11, 2007: The Taliban offered to begin negotiating with the government. In Afghan parlance, that's the Taliban way of saying they are defeated and want to discuss peace terms. Over the past few months, Taliban attacks have become increasingly desperate, and bloody. But most of the dead have been Taliban. The only "successful" attacks have been those using suicide bombers, and these kill mostly Afghan civilians.

The Taliban were able to build up a war chest in the last few years, allowing them to hired thousands of unemployed young men. But casualties have been high, with over a third of these hired gunmen getting killed, wounded or captured. In the last two weeks, over 200 Taliban gunmen have been killed in battles with Afghan and foreign troops. But the biggest source of problems has been the stupid things they do. Recently, a Taliban group kidnapped a dozen deminers. This sort of thing is very unpopular with Afghans, as even the Taliban (officially, anyway) recognize the deminers as immune from attack. The millions of mines and explosives still in the ground don't discriminate between Taliban or non-Taliban. The deminers are arguably more important to the Taliban, who often sneak around at night in out-of-the-way places. The Taliban also make themselves unpopular by attacking food relief convoys. One recent attack saw 13 Taliban and two police killed in such an unsuccessful attack. The Taliban want to shut down humanitarian and reconstruction projects, and thus force Afghans to support the Taliban in order to get any help at all. Most Afghans resent this sort of intimidation.

All this failure caused a split in the Taliban high command. Actually, the Taliban movement has always been a coalition, and the Afghan government has already negotiated with several pro-Taliban tribes, and arranged for a change of allegiance. The current Taliban strength is mostly in Pakistan, where the Pushtun tribes there are feuding with the central government over tribal rights. Just across the border in Afghanistan, the Pushtun trines ARE the government. Pushtuns are a small minority (less than five percent of the population) in Pakistan, but are the largest minority (40 percent of the population) in Afghanistan. For centuries, peace usually came to Afghanistan when the Pushtun, and non-Pushtun, tribes agreed on which Pushtun tribal chief would be "king" of the country. The current elected president of Afghanistan is a Pushtun tribal leader.

Negotiations with the Taliban thus involved dealing with warlords from both sides of the border. The drug lords, who have been bankrolling the Taliban, also have to be taken into account. The drug lords, most of whom come from Afghanistan, have been the biggest supporters of the Taliban resurgence. It's in the drug gangs interest for government control to be weak in areas where most drug producing operations take place (like Helmand province, south of the western city of Kandahar). But the Taliban need some relief. They are at war with the Pakistani government and their Pakistani bases are in danger. In Afghanistan, hatred of the Taliban increases with each new suicide bomber attack. Two years ago, there were one or two of these attacks a month. This year, there are ten times as many attacks. Even pro-Taliban Pushtuns have been reporting suspected suicide bomber activity. As a result, dozens of suicide bombers and support staff have been captured. Most of them are Pushtuns from Pakistan, usually teenagers who were fed a pile of lies and convinced to carry out a suicide attack. Some of the kids wised up in time, while others were just reported by locals, and arrested before they could push the button.

As if there were not enough reasons for popular anger against the Taliban, we now have the beginning of the school year. The government announced that about five percent of the nations 8,500 schools would not open because of Taliban violence. All these schools were in the south, and 200,000 children were affected. There are still six million kids going to school, up from about a million when the Taliban ran the country.

The new round of negotiations will, at best, result in more tribal groups switching allegiance from the Taliban to the government. This will make the Taliban smaller, but will not make the Taliban go away. That will not happen for a long time. The Taliban mentality is part of Pushtun culture, and has been around for thousands of years. It isn't going to disappear any time soon.

 

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