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Taliban is Still a Menace to Afghanistan

President Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan this week to lend personal support to President Hamid Karzai and his country's nascent democracy. The visit comes at a time when Afghanistan is troubled by a stubborn insurgency that has claimed 1,500 lives in the past year, including dozens of U.S. soldiers.

At first glance, Afghanistan has accomplished all of the elements of the Bonn Agreement's series of accords intended to re-create the Afghan state, following the U.S. invasion in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The country now has a constitution, an elected president and parliament, and a new social, political and economic infrastructure is in the making.

Destabilized Provinces

Still, some analysts argue, the potential for political disorder is as severe as it was a decade ago. They point to al-Qaida and Taliban violence, a reminder the insurgency is far from defeated. According to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, a Washington-based research organization, attacks in Afghanistan have increased by 20 percent during the last year and suicide bombings have increased nearly fourfold.

Seth Jones, a RAND specialist for Afghanistan, says there is a low level insurgency that has increasingly destabilized several Afghan provinces.

According to Seth Jones, "The security sector is one area, especially in the south and east of the country, that has gotten worse. The number of attacks, the sophistication of the insurgents and their ability to conduct attacks with improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks has improved. And their ability to sow discord in those areas has also increased. So if their ability to sow discord increases further and they are able to do this in larger parts of the country, I think that would be a really negative development."

Analyst Seth Jones adds that Afghan warlords and regional commanders, not the 83,000-strong government military and security forces, still control most of the country.

According to Jones, "The big lesson is that the warlords remain fairly strong in much of the country, which means that the Afghan government itself is weak in its ability to establish law and order. It does have an Afghan national police; it does have an Afghan national army that gets deployed in various parts of the country. But for the most part, general law and order in much of the country is still established by warlords and tribal shuras."

Taliban Support in Pakistan

The insurgency is diverse -- primarily Taliban fighters and former Mujahedeen, who battled Soviet invaders in the 1980s, al-Qaida members and foreign jihadists, as well as warlords who seek to topple President Hamid Karzai and militias tied to Afghanistan's estimated $ 2.8 billion opium trade.

Al-Qaida's and Taliban's main refuge now is, what many call, Pakistan's "wild west" or the North-West Frontier Province, which is populated by fiercely independent Pashtun tribes. The Pashtun belt stretches nearly 3,200 kilometers along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Barnett Rubin, Director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation and a United Nations consultant on Afghanistan argues that a complex support network in the Pashtun region has been key to the insurgency's survival.

He says, "It's an old haven for Taliban. The Taliban were always a joint Pakistan-Afghan organization with bases in both Afghanistan and in Pakistan. They have lost most of their bases in Afghanistan, but they have retained a lot of them in Pakistan. It's difficult to settle that border area because Afghanistan has never recognized it as an international border and, therefore, is not willing to demarcate or patrol together with Pakistan."

Professor Rubin says international pressure should be put on Pakistan to do more to root out Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents in cooperation with Afghanistan. But according to Mark Schneider, Vice President of the International Crisis Group, or ICG, in Washington, Pakistan's government is willing to go after al-Qaida, but not the Taliban.

He contends, "They have the strategic view that the West is unlikely to maintain its full presence in Afghanistan. And if they leave the way it was done in the 1990s, the Taliban would be resurgent. And they want to have good relations with the Taliban. They also had very strong relations with the Taliban during the fight against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. There are lots of linkages with the Pakistan intelligence service and that kind of linkage has not ceased."

Currently, about 8,000 members of NATO's International Security Assistance Forces are conducting peacekeeping and development operations in Afghanistan. NATO is expected to increase its presence to around 16,000 later this year. At the same time, the United States plans to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan from 19,000 to 16,000 troops.

The International Effort

Many analysts contend that there has been an overemphasis on military solutions to Afghanistan's insurgency rather than focusing on policies that would provide jobs and stability. Analyst Barnett Rubin says steps in that direction were taken at a London conference in January, which fulfilled some of the goals of the Kabul government's five-year development plan -- the Afghan Compact.

Professor Rubin says, "What we just agreed to with the Afghanistan Compact, which is a declaration of Afghanistan and 60 other states and international organizations, is a very comprehensive plan for security, governance and development. You need all of those things. You need investments, you need security and you need some kind of regional agreement on the status of Afghanistan, starting with the bilateral agreement with Pakistan."

Such efforts seem to have the support of most Afghans, who in a recent public opinion poll overwhelmingly rejected al-Qaida and the Taliban. According to the ICG's Mark Schneider, the key to success is long-term Western engagement.

He points out, "The lesson learned from the past is that international partnership is absolutely essential. If they don't have the staying power in these situations where post-conflict institutions remain fragile, they are more likely to deteriorate than strengthen on their own."

Reduced international involvement, say most observers, would put Afghanistan -- one of the poorest nations in the world - back on the path of anarchy and civil war. During this week's visit to Kabul, President Bush said America remains committed in its support of democracy in Afghanistan.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.