HASAN SARBAKHSHIAN/AP (LEFT); MOHAMMED RIAZ/AP
A longer version of this article is available at Tomdispatch.com.
If there is an exact location marking the West’s failures in Afghanistan, it is the modest police checkpoint that sits on the main highway twenty minutes south of Kabul. The post signals the edge of the capital, a city of spectacular tension, of blast walls and standstill traffic. Beyond this point, Kabul’s gritty, low-slung buildings and narrow streets give way to a vast plain of serene farmland, hemmed in by sandy mountains. In this valley in Logar province, the American-backed government of Afghanistan no longer exists.
Instead of government officials, men in muddied black turbans with assault rifles slung over their shoulders patrol the highway, checking for thieves and “spies.” The charred carcass of a tanker, meant to deliver fuel to international forces farther south, sits belly-up on the roadside. The police say they don’t dare enter these districts, especially at night, when the guerrillas rule the roads. In some parts of the country’s south and east, these insurgents have even set up their own government, which they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name of the former Taliban government. They mete out justice in makeshift Sharia courts. They settle land disputes between villagers. They dictate the curriculum in schools.
Just three years ago, the central government still controlled the provinces near Kabul. But years of mismanagement, rampant criminality and mounting civilian casualties inflicted by Western forces have led to a spectacular resurgence of the Taliban and related groups. According to Acbar, an umbrella organization representing more than 100 aid agencies, insurgent attacks have increased by 50 percent over the past year. Foreign soldiers are now dying at a higher rate here than in Iraq.
The worsening disaster is prompting the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and international players to speak openly of negotiations with sections of the insurgency. But who exactly are the Afghan insurgents? Every suicide attack and kidnapping is usually attributed to “the Taliban.” In reality, however, the insurgency is far from monolithic. There are the shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, veteran anti-Soviet commanders and poor, illiterate farmers. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists and bandits that fall uneasily into three or four main factions and many subfactions. The factions have competing commanders with differing ideologies and strategies, who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners.
It wasn’t always this way. When US-led forces toppled the Taliban government in November 2001, Afghans celebrated the downfall of a reviled and discredited regime. “We felt like dancing in the streets,” one Kabuli told me. As US-backed forces marched into Kabul, remnants of the old Taliban regime split into three groups. The first, including many Kabul-based bureaucrats and functionaries, simply surrendered to the Americans; some even joined the Karzai government. The second, comprising the movement’s senior leadership, including “Commander of the Faithful” Mullah Omar, fled across the border into Pakistan, where they remain to this day. The third and largest group–foot soldiers, local commanders and provincial officials–quietly melted into the landscape, returning to their villages to wait and see which way the wind would blow.