Monday, September 19, 2005

KNIGHT-RIDDER'S JONATHAN LANDAY has a series of reports about Afghanistan, "America's Forgotten War." Especially illuminating is Landay's piece about the emergence of a new Taliban. In many ways, the Taliban now is nothing like what it was when it controlled the central government of Afghanistan. It's taken on a new form, better suited to the conditions four years after the U.S. invaded. And, unlike before, it gets money and weapons from Al Qaeda.

... [T]oday's Taliban is fighting a guerrilla war with new weapons, including portable anti-aircraft missiles, and equipment bought with cash sent through Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, according to Afghan and Western officials. While it was in power, the Taliban provided safe haven to bin Laden and al-Qaida.

The money is coming from "rogue elements and factional elements living in the Middle East," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak asserted in an interview with Knight Ridder.

"Al-Qaida is channeling money and equipment," said Lt. George Hughbanks, a U.S. Army intelligence officer in Zabul province, one of the worst hit by the Taliban insurgency.

The Taliban is now a disparate assemblage of radical groups estimated to number several thousand, far fewer than when it was in power before November 2001. The fighters operate in small cells that occasionally come together for specific missions. They're unable to hold territory or defeat coalition troops.

It also seems to be true that coalition troops cannot eliminate the Taliban, or keep it from being a force for destabilization and continuing violence in Afghanistan. Oh sure, the Taliban could not keep the elections yesterday from going on as scheduled -- but only because the polling places were bristling with security. What the U.S. cannot do is rein in the Taliban to the point where it doesn't have the ability to launch terrorist attacks and security is not needed. The moment U.S. troops leave, the country falls apart. Just like in Iraq.

It's a war of attrition. And the Taliban has a number of advantages:

  • Its original top leadership, most of whom have eluded capture by U.S. forces.
  • Broad support from ordinary Muslims, many of whom might not have been supportive before but are now, due to anger at the continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan as well as the invasion and two-and-a-half-year occupation of Iraq.
  • Support from Al Qaeda, from whom the Taliban gets cash and weapons.

And, arguably most important:

  • The ability to metamorphose form, structure, and organization to adapt to changed circumstances. Consider: The Taliban in September, 2001, was a powerful political grouping with a centralized structure; it was the government of Afghanistan. In September, 2005, the Taliban is a loose collection of independent cells with no fixed location and no ability to effectively fight a conventional war; but with enormous flexibility, the ability to hit and run, and with the support of a shadowy global network of sympathizers. How is the U.S. going to defeat an operation like that by military means? It's like trying to kill a swarm of flies with a gun.

And as if that were not enough:

Afghan and Western officials alleged that the escalating insurgency is being aided by Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

Islamabad, they charged, seeks a weak government in Kabul that it can influence. It also wants to keep tensions boiling in Pashtun-dominated areas on the frontier to block a settlement of a decades-old border dispute that the new Afghan Parliament is expected to try to end, they said.

"Pakistan is ... fanning the flames," charged Latfullah Maashal, the chief spokesman of the Afghan Interior Ministry. "The Pakistanis ... do not want to see a strong, peaceful and prosperous country (Afghanistan)."

The Taliban is being allowed to maintain arms depots, training camps and sanctuaries in the lawless tribal belt on Pakistan's side of the frontier, he said.

I don't see any end to this in the foreseeable future. Probably not in my lifetime. Does anyone else?

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