The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, has floated the idea of setting up a trust fund to buy the “reconcilable Taliban”. While a few individuals may go for this, expectations that this fund might make a significant difference are idealistic.
Miliband told MPs he hoped the London conference would agree to what he called a "reintegration programme" to help the Kabul government offer a way out of violence for Afghans who had joined the Taliban but were not committed to its ideology and could be encouraged to return to civilian life. "It [the Taliban] relies heavily on the support or acquiescence of ordinary citizens, most of whom despise the Taliban but fear reprisal attacks were they to resist,” said David Miliband.
Still, it is equally important to recognize that a much larger number of people actually turn to the Taliban because they provide practical solutions to the locals’ day to day problems. Officials acknowledge that The Taliban are setting up courts and other local-government institutions across southern Afghanistan, challenging the central government of Kabul and the international forces. The insurgents exploit local disputes that the government has failed to solve, enabling them to gain footholds in new areas, sometimes irrespective of ethnic divides. The local people believe that if they complain to the government, it will take years before the dispute is resolved.
To this should be added the corruption and incompetence in Karzai’s government, particularly at the local level. This has left no other option for a growing number of people but to turn to the Taliban. Their strict interpretation of Islamic law is often preferable to the lengthy and costly government alternative.
This shadow government exists in 33 of 34 provinces of Afghanitan, as admited by the NATO officials.
Nor is the remit they have set themselves limited to issues of justice. In the last week of December 2009, a senior Nato intelligence official warned that the Taliban “has a government-in-waiting, with ministers chosen,” ready to take over the moment the current administration failed. “Time is running out. Taliban influence is expanding”, he said.
A ‘united’ Taliban
"The insurgency is not a monolith,” reiterated Miliband, “it comprises many different groups which have to a greater or lesser extent co-opted foreign fighters, local tribes, those who are involved in the drug trade and mercenary fighters paid as little as $10 a day," he said. It is true that different groups actually created the Taliban back in 1994. But this group has proved, both before and after the US led war in Afghanistan, that they are good at managing this diversity and even at using it to promote their causes. The Mujahedeen also comprised many different groups, yet this led to a civil war from 1992 to 1996 in Kabul, killing tens of thousands of people.
Furthermore, $10 a day might not sound much to someone living a Western lifestyle. But in Afghanistan it is at least as much as the salary of a prestigious government officer. The pay for Afghan soldiers and policemen, which is said recently to have increased to $200 from $150 per month still cannot compare with what the Taliban pay their fighters. This difference in pay obviously increases the chances of the Taliban recruiting more fighters. It also explains why the foreign and Afghan military officials admit that only 3% of their recruits for the Afghan armed forces come from the Pashto Speakers of Southern Provinces of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are most active.
The phenomena of the Taliban
I know, as do many Afghans who tasted life under Taliban rule, that it was quite common during the Taliban regime to see a senior Taliban official walking along the pavement with his hands clasped behind his back, with no guards, just like anyone else. They may have been strict in implementing their laws, but they also remained approachable.
They certainly were not (and are not) concerned about democracy, protecting human rights or freedom of speech. But for most Afghans living in remote rural areas these concepts are not yet a priority, either.
The Taliban in Afghanistan is a rural religious group and their fight against the international forces stems from their interpretation of Jihad, one of the pillars of their worldview. They strongly believe they are fighting infidel forces which have occupied their land. For them, anyone who is not with them, is with the infidels.
It is therefore extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, to bribe the Taliban. For, like millions of Afghans, they sincerely believe that not even a leaf falls off the tree without a Hekmat, a divine reason, let alone their martyrdom or the death of a civilian in the next village as a result of their action. It must have been His will, they say, and continue fighting.
Many Afghans who have had the experience of living in Afghanistan at the time of the Taliban would agree that Taliban are neither bureaucrats nor democrats, but pragmatists. They see the problems and solve them in their way.
Who can forget that ten years ago, in 2000, opium production plummeted from more than four metric tones to virtually zero in the next harvesting season. This was simply the result of a decree from Mullah Omar who denounced the product as Haram and forbidden. This achievement now sounds like a dream, rather than reality.
The key to their success is that they understand micro-politics, unlike the international forces and the government of Afghanistan. And they know what the needs of the local people are.
The real danger
Despite all that, many Afghans believe that the real achievement, that will pave the way for a sustainable peace, is to convince the Taliban, one way or another, to lay down their arms.
Winning a war against a group of people who genuinely believe that what is 'Written' will happen anyway is not possible through military actions alone. Apart from setting up a fund to pay any Taliban who choose to join the current political process in Afghanistan, perhaps the government of Afghanistan and the international powers should pay a lot more attention to the problems that directly or indirectly contribute to the Taliban’s influence.
First of all, the government and its allies need to arrive at a broad, clear consensus as to what it is they want to achieve in Afghanistan. They need to be able to answer the question: what would ‘victory’ look like?
Experience tells us that the war in Afghanistan and the consequent geographical shift of the Taliban has contributed greatly to the radicalization of more Islamist groups within the region. Prolonging the war in Afghanistan will only generate more and more of such groups.
Even that is not the gravest danger, though. For, in spite of many similarities in structures and ideology and tactics, the Afghan Taliban is none the less different from the Pakistani Taliban and both are different to other Islamist groups. Most of the Taliban are not yet Islamists with an international political agenda, as is the case with groups such as Al Qaeda.
Prolonging the war in Afghanistan will give these Islamist groups the opportunity to resolve their differences and unite behind a common cause, and that is where the real danger lies.