More than five years after they were routed by allied forces, Afghanistan?s Taleban are reestablishing their power in parts of the country.
Last year's Taleban comeback, which claimed more than four-thousand lives, was the bloodiest in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces ousted the ruling Taleban government in 2001.
Most analysts say the Islamist insurgents have been quietly rebuilding their forces and expanding their presence for several years. In doing so, they have benefited from a variety of factors.
Barnett Rubin, Director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, says two factors in particular have aided the Taleban resurgence - - a favorable environment in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and the Taleban's ability to mobilize resources across the border in Pakistan.
"The reason that Afghanistan has become more hospitable to them is the failure to invest adequately in governance in Afghanistan and placing in power various militias that engage in discriminatory tribal politics in southern Afghanistan." He goes on to say, "This means that the Taleban rely for their support on local tribal groups that feel excluded from power and have not seen any benefit from the new government. Now that would not be enough to create a base for an insurgency. It would be a base for opposition to the government. But that kind of discontent is transformed into an insurgency only because there are bases across the border in Pakistan. The Taleban have reconstituted their leadership there."
Local and Cross-Border Support
While most experts agree that the Taleban get recruits and supplies across the border in Pakistan, they stress that the insurgents enjoy support within Afghanistan.
Thomas Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Contemporary Conflict in California says the resurgence of the Taleban has been most felt in areas where Afghanis are disillusioned with post-war reconstruction efforts.
"In Kandahar province, the Taleban actually have shadow governments in three districts. They've reopened Shari'a courts. They're opened up roadblocks. There is some popular support in certain areas for the Taleban and this relates to the fact that, south of the Helmand River, there's been no meaningful reconstruction," says Johnson.. "A counter-insurgency is 90 percent non-kinetic [e.g., political and developmental] and maybe ten percent military. And the areas where the insurgency has gained strength and seems to be succeeding to a certain degree - - at least in the eyes of the Taleban - - are exactly those areas where there has been no reconstruction."
But Johnson says the Taleban have also capitalized on tribal culture and old rivalries that are often misunderstood in the West. "While everybody understands that they [i.e., the Taleban] are Pashtun, I think that many have missed the fact that the majority of the leadership is Ghilzai [one of the two largest Pashtun groups in Afghanistan. The other is the Durani.] Some of that is changing now," says Johnson.. "But if you take a look at the early insurgent actions, you'll find that many of those actions were directly in the areas of traditional Ghilzai homelands. And then they went after their 300 year old foes, the Duranis. Then they started to consolidate their actions into the Helmand and in the Kandahar areas, which are traditionally Durani homelands."
Capitalizing on the Illegal Drugs
The Helmand province, in particular, is a leading center for opium poppy production. And some experts say that in order to finance their insurgency, the Taleban have allied themselves with drug traffickers in the region. Opium poppy farmers often look to the Taleban to protect their crops from government drug eradication programs. Other farmers, some experts argue, pay corrupt officials to exclude their farms from eradication efforts.
According to the U.S. State Department, Afghanistan increased its opium poppy cultivation by 59 percent last year and produced more than 90 percent of the world's opium supply.
But New York University?s Barnett Rubin says the Taleban are not the only ones benefiting from the drug trade.
"Most of the money from drug trafficking actually goes to corrupt officials in the Afghan government, not to the Taleban. But in some areas, they [i.e., the Taleban] also profit from it," says Rubin. "In Afghanistan, anything that's financed is financed either by foreign aid or by drug trafficking because those are the only two sources of funding. So it finances the insurgency, but it also finances corrupt officials and the government allied with us [i.e., the United States.]?
Most observers say corruption and lack of resources are the biggest obstacles to development and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
But retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor says the Afghan government, which is seen by the Taleban as weak and ineffective, is doing all it can to run the country.
"They're doing the best they can in putting a national army into the troubled areas. And they're trying their best to develop the economic infrastructure to wean some of the uncommitted Afghanis away from the attraction of the Taleban," says Trainor. "But it's a very difficult job and I don't think that it will ever be completely done. This [i.e., regions of Afghanistan sympathetic to Taleban insurgents and which are not under government control] will always be kind of the wild, wild West of Afghanistan and it's never going to be completely subdued."
A recent public opinion poll by the Senlis Council, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization, shows support for the Taleban in southern and eastern Afghanistan has grown to nearly 27 percent. The group warns that this percentage could increase if development issues are not addressed.
But whatever their gains, the Taleban's struggle will not be easy, says Jeremy Binnie, an analyst with Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London.
"If the conflict continues on along its current trajectory with the growing alienation with the government in Kabul, then it's looking quite good for the Taleban in that respect," says Binnie. "But I think they're always going to struggle to expand their support base beyond the Pashtun-dominated southern regions. And there's always going to be resistance from a Kabul government, even if effectively that breaks down into a civil war along ethnic grounds."
Most observers agree that the Taleban can make only slow, piecemeal advances, especially in areas where they are being engaged by NATO forces. Whether they can hold on to their gains, many experts say, may depend on a much-anticipated escalation in Taleban violence.
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