Taliban fighters on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak province, west of Kabul. (AFP/Getty)

Taliban fighters on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak province, west of Kabul. (AFP/Getty)

Download this article (PDF)

The warmth of the sun baked wrinkles into Haji Zahir’s leathery face, lined with cracks like the dry valley floor, but he did not care.  He intently supervised the men with long black beards and tattoos of swords and crescent moons that were every bit as rugged as the earth their heavy equipment chewed up.  His tribe was finally receiving the help he spent the previous months chasing.  Every year, the old mujahid watched his villagers die in their homes when they were unable to transport the sick or injured to a medical facility because the crumbling, narrow, uneven road became an icy cascade that sent carloads plummeting down the steep mountainside to the snow-packed farm fields below.  He knew he was no longer the young defender of his tribesmen, but as an elder he owed his village the basic services to support their lives.  Earlier in the year he travelled to the District Sub-Governor (DSG) to submit a request for a road, citing why he needed it and projected the cost.  He thought he did it correctly, but like most Afghans struggling with the bureaucracy built in a western image, he cannot read or write, so he relied on someone that could.  It quickly became irrelevant when Zahir heard that the DSG wanted to spend the annual allotment of funds on a road from his house to Kabul that would allow his Hazara tribesmen and him to by-pass the Pashtun portion of the district.  Flustered with the corruption, he attempted a different avenue.  Every morning for three months, Zahir woke before sunrise and walked down the mountain to the small American outpost to request a status update on his road.  Likewise, every day the Americans would tell him that the funds had been frozen, but they would call when the money was restored.  Zahir knew what was happening.  The Mullah in the mosque and all the shopkeepers in the bazaar were abuzz with the recent announcement that the Americans were pulling out of Afghanistan.  They were no longer an option.  It became a simple choice between the government that is too scared to drive through his area but litter the countryside with checkpoints full of trigger-happy Hazaras that constantly fire blindly into Pashtun villages, or the boys he watched grow into men through the same crucible that forged his own manhood.  They are the neighborhood kids and the children of his brothers.   They are more like him than Karzai’s government ever will be.  They respect him as an elder in the tribe, and they respect him for his sacrifice during the ten years of jihad he fought to free his land of the Soviets.  Above all, they have learned to connect with him, engage his needs, and fulfill them.  Haji Zahir smiled as the sun baked the wrinkles into his face, because when the snow falls in the coming winter, his sick and ailing people will have a safe means to get to the clinic for medical care – thanks to the Taliban.

The Population-Centric Insurgency

The memory of the Taliban’s treatment of the people during the reign of the Afghan Emirate is still relatively fresh.  The draconian laws and their brutal enforcement depict a government far removed from its population.  Possession of a radio would warrant a citizen’s public flogging, and Kabul’s soccer stadium was the scene of gruesome executions and amputations.[1]  As the conditions festered over the years, only madness seemed to bleed out through the country’s porous borders in grainy videos left to be interpreted by a befuddled world.[2]

The violence and abuse can never be explained away, but its origins can be understood by dissecting the genesis of the perpetrators.  The Taliban movement began not as a form of government, but a reaction to a social condition.[3]  The period between the fall of Najibullah’s communist regime and the rise of the Islamic Emirate is depicted in the long lists of the Human Rights Watch, and bitter memories of most Afghans.[4]  Rape, murder and looting were common, and the conservative nation struggled under an anarchic system of warlords.[5]  However, as the movement gained momentum, it swept across the majority of the country in mostly uncontested transitions of established political parties or at the behest of the people.[6]  Most notably, Mawlawi Mohammed Nabi Mohammedi’s party of clerics, Harakat-i-Inqilab, joined the Taliban en masse.[7]  Though the Taliban initially only sought to bring order to two districts in Khandahar, it was with this formation of men and students that they found themselves at the helm of a movement whose collective aim was to bring order to the chaos of civil war and warlordism in all of Afghanistan.[8]  Unfortunately, without an insurgency to weld their affections to the people, the group ruled over the population rather than served, while in major cities, such as Kabul and Herat, they occupied.[9]  However, as NATO stormed into Afghanistan reinforcing the Northern Alliance in late 2001, the Taliban Regime disintegrated, and the remnants were forced underground into what would eventually become a guerilla campaign.

Between 2002 and 2005, little seemed to occur in the way of insurgency.[10]  It was as if everyone was waiting to see what this new government the West assembled in the first Bonn Conference would look like.  It was comprised of exiles, feminists, and leaders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and backed by western values and dollars.[11]  In 2005, just when it seemed like Afghanistan would be destined for more of the same, the Taliban began its reconstitution.[12]  A plethora of factors tend to form the necessary bedrock for a solid insurgency, but none so important as the acquiescence of the people. As the rebellion grows stronger, the acquiescence becomes a mutual dependency – without popular support, the insurgency will be doomed, just as Che Guevara discovered in Bolivia.[13]

Nearly a decade has passed since the reconstitution, and 641 billion dollars from the U.S. alone has poured into the reconstruction,[14] and only a corrupt government has prospered – untrusted, and often unwanted, by its population.[15]   This strand of corruption only serves to further destabilize its own system like a parasite.  These officials have no qualms in killing their host – a fact that is not lost on the people who frequently return to the rigid hospitality of the Emirate.[16]  Western governments, particularly those donor nations, thought the equation was simple: purchase western values for Afghanistan, and the nation will eventually westernize constituting a human terrain unsuitable for religious fanaticism.[17]  If this were the remedy, then the current state of Afghanistan would not have villages beyond eyeshot of major cities turning to the Taliban to resolve issues ranging from administration, adjudication, infrastructure development, and security.

The West not only attempted to purchase a resolution for Afghanistan – but went so far as to barter rights for women, futures for children, and organization to the Afghan way of life with a state-of-the-art government built by experts and enforced by exiles.[18]  Unfortunately, it was a bad design.  Despite the billions of dollars the Coalition Forces have spent in their failed attempt to Westernize Afghanistan, they have produced an inverse reaction that may have positive ramifications for the troubled nation.  They have successfully modernized the ousted Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan into an effective form of governance that could potentially stabilize the region.

Of Governments and Governance

There exists a delicate balance between Islam, Tribe, and State which the Karzai administration has sought to offset from the beginning.  If these three pillars are seen as a pyramid, then the base would be the State expanding so widely that the pitch formed by Islam and Tribe hovers just above ground level with the whole structure threatening to collapse on the Afghan people trapped inside.  While Karzai plays the dubious contractor – not a difficult image since Mr. Karzai has appointed at least six family members to positions that collect contracts from the United States – he lines his pockets with money meant for materials to brace and strengthen the structure.[19]  With such blatant disregard for an unstable creation, the Taliban stand to make huge gains with the Afghan people by merely shoring up the sides while the Karzai government loots the fixtures for their precious metals.

It is not that the Islamic Emirate has created an entire shadow government mirroring Karzai’s government for every department; rather they have created a functioning command node that can capitalize on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s (GIRoA) ineffectiveness in a way understood by tribal Afghans – because its success is dependent upon the tribal functions.

Meanwhile, Karzai’s government is failing on nearly every front.  Since the first Bonn Conference outlined the responsibilities and responsible parties in 2001,[20] only thirty percent of the nation’s capital had potable water by mid 2011 – though that figure was expected to increase to fifty percent over two years with tremendous investment from Germany.[21]  Hundreds of billions of dollars invested so far,[22] and not even the most basic services have been restored by a behemoth bureaucracy that costs billions of dollars annually over what the poverty-stricken nation could ever afford on its meager GDP.[23]  With a GDP ranking of less than twenty billion dollars in official exchange warranting almost one hundred billion dollars of pledged donations from the international community, Afghanistan cannot sustain the amount of government it has.[24]  It would be like giving an unemployed vagrant a mansion in Beverly Hills, and responding with shock that he cannot afford the property tax or even the light bill – particularly if no one ever asked him if he wanted to live there in the first place.

This is often the case in Afghanistan with the ever expanding government.  The Afghan Local Police program is just one example of a controversial bureaucratic arm funded entirely by the international community – despite protest from the Afghan people and government alike.[25]  Though it is often billed as an “Afghan solution to an Afghan problem,”[26] Afghans themselves despise the program.  Karzai initially protested its organization until General David Petraeus was able to procure his silence, but was unable to silence Afghan Generals or Talibs on the subject.[27]  Both cited what a disaster the program would be.  Major General Esmatullah Dawlatzai claimed it would merely be renaming mafia and warlordism,[28] while Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef claimed reinstating state-sponsored militias would only create more conflict.[29]  Though the program began in 2009, by the three year mark it was already under probe by the Human Rights Watch commission for allegations of rape, murder, land theft, and arbitrary detention.[30]  Disregarding the concerns of the Human Rights Watch and Afghan population, General McAllen, then senior military commander in Afghanistan, sought to expand the force from 16,000 men to 30,000 men.[31]  Though this is merely one example, it serves as a microcosm for the bulwark of international issues in Afghanistan.  Rather than healing an Afghanistan in Afghans’ collective image, the West is merely forcing medication down the ailing nation’s throat with blatant disregard to every warning on the label.