Afghanistan Five Years Later: The Return of the Taliban

The Senlis Council

"When you first came here we were so glad to see you. Now we have lived with you in our country for five years and we see you tell a lot of lies and make a lot of false promises."
-Former Mujaheedin commander from Kandahar

Five years after their removal from power, the Taliban is back and has strong psychological and de facto military control over half of Afghanistan. Having assumed responsibility for the country in 2001, the United States-led international community has failed to achieve stability and security in Afghanistan. Attacks are perpetrated on a daily basis; several provinces, particularly those of the South, considered safe just weeks ago, are now experiencing regular suicide bombings, murders and ambushes. There were 104 civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the month of July alone.

Two parallel but intertwined crises - the return of the Taliban and hunger - have been identified as the drivers for the state of failure of today's Afghanistan.

The Taliban is Winning
The Taliban's power in southern Afghanistan is rapidly spreading to the rest of the country. Indicators of today's Taliban insurgency, painting itself as a Muslim liberation movement, reveal well-organized and funded groups which are being used in a complex proxy destabilization effort by third-party nations and groups. An insurgency embedded in rural communities using lightweight high-technology such as satellite phones and global positioning system (GPS) give the Taliban a tactical edge over international military troops.

The insurgency frontline, which now cuts through the center of Afghanistan, is moving steadily northwards towards Kabul. Even Taliban attacks which lead to Afghan civilian victims play in favor of the insurgency, creating a strong sense of insecurity for which the US-led international community is held responsible.

Only 23% of Afghanistan’s people have access to safe drinking water. © CARE photo: A. John Wilson

Hunger and Starvation
With camps of internally displaced people, slums and makeshift villages - all of which can be found on the doorstep of new multi-million dollar military camps - starvation is the forgotten crisis of southern Afghanistan. Farmers who have had their poppy crop - their only viable livelihood - eradicated by force now see their children facing starvation.

The food shortage is triggering population displacements and large scale relocation to makeshift, unregistered refugee camps, yet Afghanistan's development community is not given sufficient support from the international military to try to address the most urgent humanitarian needs in the South. "I took my child to the graveyard, my child died of hunger. There are children dying here," said a man in one of these camps in Kandahar Province. The growing hunger crisis is not only proof of the failure of the delivery of primary aid, but it also provides another compelling case for the Taliban to demonstrate to local communities that the US-led international community has deserted them.

Three underlying factors sustain these twin crises:

International Community seen as Invading Force
"We have a saying about you now: Your blood is blood, our blood is just water to you."

-Former Mujaheedin commander from Kandahar

Despite the deployment of extensive military operations over the last five years, the US-led international community has failed to break the vicious circle of violence. Military missions like the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) have prioritized the use of force before cooperation and development efforts. The US and its international partners like the UK and Canada have been pursuing the ghost of Al Qaeda instead of engaging with the realities of Afghanistan.

The confusion between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency has been worsened by the overlaps between the recent NATO-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) deployment and on-going Operation Enduring Freedom activities in southern Afghanistan. As a result, the international military is perceived as essentially a force of invasion, rather than one of stabilization. Little space is left for the credible delivery of development aid by the Karzai government and the international development community.

Forced Poppy Crop Eradication: An Anti-poor Policy

"In the villages, they had their crops destroyed, there is no water, no jobs, nothing to do - isn't it fair that they go and join the Taliban? Wouldn't you do the same thing?"
-A worker in Kandahar City

Southern Afghanistan was the target of extensive opium poppy eradication operations in the first half of 2006, which have resulted in the exacerbation of poverty and insecurity levels. In districts where control shifts daily between insurgents, international troops and the central government, forced eradication intensifies these power struggles. The US-inspired eradication policy has stirred up a hornet's nest in southern Afghanistan: it has turned the people against the NATO-ISAF stabilization effort and pushed them further into the arms of the Taliban.

The poorest and most vulnerable farmers, who are most in need of international aid, fall victim to aggressive drug policies on many different levels. Poor farmers must witness the destruction of their only viable survival strategy; they see their opium debt swell and are obliged to pay bribes in order to buy protection from eradication.

Aggressive drug policies reinforce the perception among the local Afghan communities that the US-led international community and the central government are leading an "anti-poor" policy, providing once again an advantage to the Taliban who portray themselves as the protectors of the farming communities. These failed counter-narcotics policies have undermined the ability of the Afghan government to develop its legitimacy with the rural population, the majority of the population in Afghanistan.

Artificial Reconstruction
"The foreigners came here and said they would help the poor people and improve the economic situation, and they only spend money on their military operations. The poor people are poorer now than when the Taliban were the government. We don't trust them anymore. We would be fools to continue to believe their lies."
-An Afghan commander in Kandahar Province

Reconstruction priorities such as the establishment of democratic institutions are based on a misconceived US agenda, leaving the real needs of Afghanistan unaddressed. Military expenditure outpaces development and reconstruction spending by 900%. Since 2002 $82.5 billion has been spent on military operations in Afghanistan compared to just $7.3 billion on development. To the real Afghanistan - that of displaced farming communities and starving, sick children - this reconstruction agenda has merely achieved a "fantasy Afghanistan."

This artificial reconstruction agenda has not allowed the Afghan government to establish its legitimacy as the main aid and development provider to its people. In turn, successful ventures born through a colossal Afghan nation-building effort, such as the establishment of a democratic government through universal suffrage, are collapsing. The general population's negative perceptions of the reconstruction efforts further undermine the delivery of aid projects, including those with proven positive effects.


Make Emergency Poverty Relief a Top Priority
Poverty is the primary enemy of Afghanistan's reconstruction and must be defeated. As a beneficiary of international aid, Afghanistan receives the lowest amount of reconstruction financing compared to all other post-conflict nations, signifying a failure to recognize that Afghanistan is among the poorest of the poor nations. The US-led reconstruction agenda does not include a clear pro-poor emergency package similar to those implemented in African countries in times of humanitarian disaster.

There is an immediate need to launch humanitarian interventions throughout Afghanistan, with a special emphasis on the most disadvantaged communities, such as those in the poppy growing areas. The response to emergency crises like starvation is not only a humanitarian necessity - it represents an essential part of any stabilization effort.

Overhaul Failed Counter-Narcotics Strategies
Effective counter-narcotics strategies are essential to Afghanistan's recovery and as such must be aligned with fundamental humanitarian development imperatives. All aggressive poppy crop eradication, which attacks the livelihoods of poor, rural communities, must stop. Short-term aggressive strategies such as poppy crop eradication must be replaced by development-based interventions that provide adapted and long-term economic alternatives for rural communities.

To have a long-term effect, alternative development approaches must take advantage of the pre-existing local resources in rural communities. For example, the strong traditional control structures available in Afghan villages and districts can provide the first enforcement level for the cultivation of poppy under a licensing system and a controlled market for morphine and codeine. Such grass-roots drug policy schemes will encourage the establishment of cooperative relationships between farming communities, the central government and its international partners.

Military Strategies Must Take a Back-Seat
The US' focus on highly specialized security problems as illustrated by the 'search and destroy' Operation Enduring Freedom must take a back seat. There is an urgent need to refocus on the broader root cause of instability, by addressing the problem of poverty.

European countries' experience with 'hearts and minds' missions and historic cooperation with Muslim communities uniquely positions them to redirect and lead the stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. Under European guidance, the international military coalitions should concentrate on facilitating the conditions for aid delivery to reach Afghanistan's most remote communities. This would be the first step for rural communities to join the reconstruction effort.

International military operations must collaborate with the Afghan government at the strategic and tactical planning stage. This is essential to avoid any mis-targeting of civilians and to give a greater ownership of security efforts to the Afghan national government.

Excerpted from Five Years Later: The Return of the Taliban, published in September by the Senlis Council, an international policy think tank with offices in Kabul, London, Paris and Brussels (