The neo-Taliban: a year on

About the author
Antonio Giustozzi is a researcher at the Crisis Research Centre at the LSE, and author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Resurgence of the Neo-Taliban in Afghanistan (C Hurst, 2007).

2008 has seen a marked worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan, both in terms of the number of incidents and in terms of the geographical spread of the insurgency. The number of violent incidents has increased by about 50% on previous years (although statistics vary depending on the source); while the government has de facto lost control over two provinces close to the capital Kabul (Wardak and Logar).

Antonio Giustozzi is a researcher at the Crisis Research Centre at the LSE, and author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Resurgence of the Neo-Taliban in Afghanistan (C Hurst, 2007).

Also by Antonio Giustozzi in openDemocracy:

"The resurgence of the neo-Taliban" (14 December 200
In some northern provinces - most notably Kunduz - the insurgency is beginning to represent a serious threat. Indeed, clear signs of insurgent infiltration exist in almost all the northern provinces: only Samangan and Panjshir provinces appear to remain completely free of violent activities. In central Afghanistan, Bamiyan is only marginally affected, with just one district showing sign of the presence of the Taliban. The situation in the other thirty-one provinces of Afghanistan is far more serious; all have insurgents active within their territory. What I described a year ago as the "war difficult to win" has become even more so, and the "unlikely peace" even less imaginable (see "The resurgence of the neo-Taliban", 14 December 2007).

The fuse's spark

It is also clear as 2008 nears its end (though again, estimates vary) that the number of rebels is growing steadily and must now range in the tens of thousands. In part this expansion is due to the growth of the Taliban, but it is also the case that other groups are increasingly mobilising against the Kabul government and the foreign troops. The most influential of these groups is the Hizb-i Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a key player in the jihad against the leftist regime in Kabul and its Soviet army backers in the 1980s.

Perhaps more worryingly, the insurgents show signs of improving their tactical skills. Some of their ambushes and attacks on fixed positions in 2008 have been executed more effectively than ever before, and they have become more operationally flexible (reducing the focus on direct attacks and using more asymmetrical tactics, for example). The casualties they have been inflicting on foreign troops are up 20% this year, while less complete statistics seem to show higher casualties for the Afghan security forces too.

The Taliban in particular are also having some success in infiltrating the Afghan security forces, in particular the police, which is now in deep crisis in several Afghan provinces in the south and west of the country. The Taliban's tactical improvement owes something to successful efforts to integrate Afghan and foreign fighters. In the past, predominantly or exclusively foreign jihadist groups have not operated very successful in Afghanistan, in part because cooperation with Afghan Taliban has proved troublesome. Now at least some foreign jihadists - acting as specialists and supplying skills that are rare among the mostly illiterate Afghan rank-and-file - accept the authority of Afghan commanders. It is likely that a few non-Afghan jihadists are also involved in training the Afghan Taliban, for example in bomb-making skills.

The shoe's grit

The Taliban's campaign is, however, not quite trouble-free. Afghanistan's difficult economic situation - and the large pool of unemployed and disaffected young people that is one of its by-products - favours the Taliban less than might be expected (even though there are allegations of a large mercenary presence in the movement's ranks). Although high unemployment may push some people towards joining the insurgency, the same could be said of the police or the national army.

Moreover, the Taliban might now be experiencing a crisis of growth. Their expansion has made internal communication, and central command-and-control, increasingly difficult. Moreover, the movement's leadership is trying to turn it into a more structured and disciplined entity. This involves a range of measures: insisting that its commanders behave more moderately towards the civilian population, marginalising its more extremist component, establishing a civilian administration, and expanding its judiciary into more and more areas.

In implementing these objectives, the Taliban leadership is facing multiple difficulties; indeed it is by no means assured that it will succeed in achieving them. Not all commanders in the field are keen to follow the leadership's directives; some are not well equipped intellectually and emotionally to correctly interpret them; others still might operate in conditions where implementing them is difficult. In the absence of any effective system of supervision from the centre to the field level, making any administrative structure work well is a daunting task.

Also in openDemocracy, Paul Rogers's weekly column has tracked the Afghan war since October 2001. Among recent articles in the series:

"Afghanistan's Vietnam portent" (17 April 2008)

"Afghanistan in an amorphous war", 19 June 2008)

"Afghanistan: state of siege" (10 July 2008)

"Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge" (28 August 2008)

"Afghanistan: the dynamic and the risk" (9 October 2008)

"Iraq's gift to Afghanistan" (20 November 2008)
Indeed, there are indications that the Taliban's governors in most cases have little power over the commanders and that their effectiveness or lack thereof depends on their personal relations with the various networks of Taliban commanders. Similarly, the Taliban's desire to offer an alternative to the very corrupt state judiciary has outstripped its ability to expand its own sharia-based judiciary, which is still limited to perhaps two dozen districts (out of about 400). Elsewhere, the Taliban are sending people to any Islamic judge willing to hand down sentences; the fact that the group has little control over the outcome dilutes the "quality" of the judicial services it offers.

The purse's hole

Nonetheless, the Taliban strategy remains on the whole quite sound - not least because the other side in the conflict is still unable to piece together a strategy both appropriate and workable. The counter-insurgency debate among western military strategists in Afghanistan is just emerging from a phase of political manoeuvring and has barely entered one of experimenting with any of the new ideas canvassed (a troop surge, the creation of pro-government tribal militias, increased funding, the massive expansion of the size of the national army, a reform of the police).

The latter two components of the counter-insurgency strategy appear the most promising - but even were they to be effectively implemented, they would be certain also to take longer than any other initiatives. The much-debated foreign-troop surge, which should translate to 20,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, would in reality do little more than maintain the trend of previous years into 2009 (for the international contingents have been growing steadily since 2004). But more soldiers are not a panacea; and greater funds might well disappear amid government corruption and incompetence (and "government" here does not mean only Afghan).

The real novelty of the debate among counter-insurgents in the last few months has in a sense been the creation of militias on a large scale. It is also the most controversial element of the future anti-Taliban strategy, on two grounds.

First, it is not clear how much enthusiasm exists in the villages for participating in the creation of tribal militias; if anything the elders seem to have been drifting away from the Kabul government.

Second, there is some conflict over the control of such militias. The Americans, among the chief proponents and surely the main donor-to-be in the initiative, would like to exercise strict supervision over how the money assigned to them is going to be spent. President Hamid Karzai and the cabinet would instead like to retain control over the process, which promises to be a major source of patronage. This will be another source of tension among allies in what promises to be another difficult year in Afghanistan's long war.