Taliban return seen unlikely threat in reshaped Afghanistan

Published: February 2, 2012

A decade of war with Nato has, however, not dented the ambitions of the Taliban rank. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

KABUL: Among the snippets in a secret Nato report detailing the hopes of jailed Taliban to retake Afghanistan was news the movement had set up telephone hotlines for Afghans to report anonymously on failures of its shadow government.

Clearly a decade of war with Nato has not dented the ambitions of the Taliban rank and file, or those of their leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, to again govern the country they ruled for about five years before being swept from power by US-led forces in 2001.

But reclaiming Afghanistan, however persistent the insurgency has proved for Nato on the battlefield, would be no easy task for the Taliban after 10 years in which the expectations of many Afghans have undergone a seismic shift.

While Afghans routinely bemoan the state of their country, its endemic corruption, lack of security and crippled development, Kabul’s potholed roads are now choked with cars, high-rise developments dot the city and people crowd a small but growing number of internet cafes to connect to the world.

The Taliban sprang to power in the wake of a vicious civil war that itself erupted in the Soviet rush to get out of the country, leaving behind a power vacuum in Kabul.

In the fighting that set former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Ahmad Shah Masood against the forces of rival anti-Soviet warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, two thirds of Kabul was razed and about 50,000 civilians died. Thousands of women and children were raped and tortured.

The Taliban, with their system of justice and punishment including hangings, oppression of women and amputating the limbs of thieves swept away the chaos of warlord rule with a brutally effective brand of law and order.

President Hamid Karzai, whose government has been tarnished by accusations of corruption, incompetence and autocratic rule, has repeatedly said the key to preventing a Taliban re-emergence is creating jobs and opportunities for the poor.

And while Afghans largely feel they have seen little improvement, gross domestic product growth exceeded 12 percent in 2007 before slipping to 3.4 percent in 2008, and roaring to 22.5 percent in 2009 and 8.2 percent in 2010, albeit off a low base.

Still, unemployment and underemployment remain stubbornly high at about 35 percent, and corruption, worries over security and a lack of skilled workers crimp opportunity, giving strength to Taliban promises of more accountability.

A manifesto published by the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar pledged a more conciliatory Taliban rule under which “all ethnicities will have participation in the regime” and promising a right to protection and “running of the country”.

Big government force

While clearly aware of the need to win over the people, as illustrated by the telephone hotlines, the Taliban have not commented on the state of women, whose rights were notoriously suppressed and were banned from education and most work during Taliban rule.

“The Taliban’s stand is easily discernible by most illiterate, conservative Muslim Afghan population: defence of Islam, country and honour,” said Amin Saikal, an expert on Afghanistan based at the Australian National University.

But the vast majority of Afghans outside small and conservative villages in the Pashtun-dominated south, from where the Taliban draw most support, do not want to see a return of the Taliban, even though they have some sympathy for their promise to curb corruption.

“Their point of view is very different, a very ancient, tribal view which has no place in Islam and today’s Afghan culture,” said Sawar Akbari, who works at a Kabul radio station in a media sector which has mushroomed since the Taliban were ousted.

Saikal said much of the blame for whatever remnant popularity the Taliban had in Afghanistan lay with the mercurial Karzai, whose government had proved largely ineffective, while Karzai himself had proved erratic, to the frustration of his Western backers.

“The Karzai government has remained extremely weak, dysfunctional, corrupt and untrustworthy. Most Afghans do not know what it precisely stands for,” said Saikal, who has written several books on the country.

“Is it a perverted form of a politically pluralist Afghanistan with an Islamic face, with which most of Afghans cannot identify, or a kind of tribalised authoritarian Muslim Afghanistan, with some distorted democratic trappings?”

This week’s Nato report, based on interviews with thousands of Taliban detainees, painted a “realistic picture” of the threat the Taliban posed ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops after 2014, Saikal said.

But while clashes might go on for some time, Western diplomats privately dismiss the possibility of a Taliban return to power and say not only are Afghans unwilling to see a return, but also that post 2014, there will be a new Afghan army and police numbering about 350,000 strong.

A United Nations report this week found eight in 10 Afghans did not believe their police were ready to take charge of law and order, but most thought they would be by the time of transition to full Afghan security in three years’ time.

“Sure there are problems in that force, but it is a work in progress, just like the government,” said one envoy who declined to be identified because of diplomatic sensitivities.

“Afghans may not be completely satisfied with the police and government they have, but nobody outside a tiny fraction wants to turn the clock back now to Taliban days.”

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