Afghanistan’s parliamentary and provincial elections, scheduled for September 18, are unlikely to alleviate the country’s worsening problems. In a sign that the elections might in fact worsen the growing Taliban insurgency, a bomb attack on a police bus in Kandahar, on the first day of election campaigning, killed one and wounded 11.
The Taliban are still suffering far greater casualties than coalition forces, but it is crucial that the U.S. and its allies acknowledge that the war is continuing and increasing in intensity—notwithstanding the fact that Donald Rumsfeld said, in May 2003, that major combat activities in Afghanistan were over. In fact, in 2005 the U.S. has experienced its worst year in the country since the invasion four years ago, with nearly 60 combat deaths so far. It has also been a bloody year for the Taliban, with more than 600 suspected insurgents killed. That Australia is planning to return 150 Special Forces to Afghanistan in September is a sign that further serious fighting is expected in the aftermath of the elections.
The high level of Taliban casualties is mainly due to the fact that they changed tactics and have started to engage coalition forces in conventional battles instead of sticking to traditional hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. This is resulting in serious Taliban casualties, but on the other hand it speaks volumes about their growing confidence and their ability to recruit new fighters, particularly from Pakistan. Indeed, coupled with a growth in suicide bombings (especially the suicide bombing in Kandahar on June 1), the new Taliban tactics are progressively elevating the insurgency to higher and more intense levels.
Far From Finished
The large-scale battles this spring and early summer clearly suggest that the Taliban are not in decline, contrary to what Coalition spokesmen had claimed earlier. Although they seem to get slaughtered on a large scale, the fact that the Taliban are able to conduct larger, conventional battles is something of a surprise. Earlier, it was thought they couldn’t organize such battles because anti-Taliban operations made it too difficult for high-ranking commanders to meet for necessary planning. 
Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that the insurgency is not limited to the Taliban, sympathizers from Pakistani madrasas (where thousands of new Taliban are still produced every year) and probably some mercenary allies, who are all engaged in fighting the Karzai government and the Western forces which prop it up. Resistance is also coming from local people who feel marginalized by the new government, such as those from Zabul province, which is fast becoming the heartland of the Afghan insurgency. 
Since March, the Taliban seem to have largely abandoned classic guerrilla tactics where a small group of fighters disappears into the mountains or among urban populations after a short battle. Instead, they try to hold on to strategic positions with a larger group of fighters. As a result, scores of insurgents have been killed by laser-guided bombs. Experts believe the Taliban might have changed tactics because U.S. anti-guerrilla techniques had become too effective. 
It is not only the south which poses a security threat. The downing of an American CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Kunar, in the northeast of the country on June 28, which killed all 16 aboard—making it the largest U.S. combat losses ever in a single engagement in Afghanistan—adds to Coalition troubles in the country. Was it just a lucky shot, or have the Taliban now the capability to down helicopters on a regular basis? The latter would certainly constitute a nightmare scenario. And the area where it happened shows that not only the south, but also the northeast, namely Kunar and Nuristan, remains a dangerous region. The Taliban also claim to have shot down a Spanish Puma helicopter, killing 17, on August 16 near Herat. But this seems to be characteristic bravado as the crash was most likely an accident.
A Mixed Bag
Who are these effective Taliban? In the south—Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul—they are local inhabitants. The Pashtun nationalism and social conservatism of the Taliban finds much support there. Another major reason for people in that region to support the movement is that they feel disenfranchised by the new regime. This is especially true for Zabul, a marginal backwater, but the heartland of the Gilzai Pashtuns who were influential in the Taliban regime. Zabul’s return to the political fringes under the Karzai administration is not to its inhabitants’ liking, thus making them willing to fight the new authorities.
This type of insurgency can probably best be eliminated through political concessions, for example by making Afghanistan much more federal than it is now. If provincial assemblies would be given more authority, and provinces could elect their own governors, people who now feel marginalized and ignored would develop an interest in the new Afghanistan, making them less likely to fight it. First, however, it must be impressed on them that pursuing a military option is simply not viable. Therefore, the Coalition and NATO should step up their efforts, and not immediately pull out the reinforcements flown in to facilitate the parliamentary elections, as happened in last year’s presidential elections.
In any case, disgruntled provincials such as the Zabulis aren’t the only component of the Taliban movement. Many of its members–both Afghan refugees and Pakistanis–are trained in Pakistani madrasas, where anti-American feelings run much higher than in Afghanistan itself. Not surprisingly, several Pakistani militants were among the insurgents killed or captured in Afghanistan this year. According to Afghan officials, high-ranking Taliban continue to find refuge in Pakistan, an accusation that is supported by journalists and observers, but one which Pakistan vehemently denies. 
These madrasa-educated militants most probably are fervent adherents of Taliban ideology who hate the United States with unrivalled ferocity and are determined to reverse the losses sustained in late 2001. But another component, namely foreign mercenaries, constitutes the third plank of the Taliban movement today. Although there is not solid evidence to support the claims, it seems that apart from Arabs, Chechens are also occasionally killed in U.S. counter-insurgency operations. 
If such trainers are getting paid for their services, the money might be coming from the drug trade. The Taliban still seem to be involved in the drug trade, but they are no exception in Afghanistan, where warlords and officials also appear to profit from drug growing and smuggling. Indeed, protecting small poppy growers from both government eradicators–as they allegedly did in April this year–and from rapacious warlords might restore some legitimacy to the Taliban. Currently however, Afghanistan is nowhere near Colombia: no one dominates the drug trade and there are no cartels.
However, there could be a move in that direction in the future, since the drug economy could sustain the Taliban in the face of enormous challenges. But even if the Taliban insurgency is successfully contained, the movement can still be effective in blocking the reconstruction of Afghanistan. For instance, if it manages to kill one foreigner, whole provinces as a rule get abandoned by aid organizations.  And suicide attacks also have a devastating impact. But such actions could, at the same time, rob the Taliban of sympathy, which is perhaps why they denied responsibility for the attack on the Kandahari mosque.
The Taliban denial of responsibility for the 1 June suicide bomb attack in Kandahar is not, however, completely devoid of plausibility. Some observers believe that this attack bore the hallmark of al-Qaeda (which is cooperating with the Taliban and other groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami). If this is true, then al-Qaeda is making a come back in Afghanistan. Until quite recently, it was widely believed that al-Qaeda and other sponsors of Islamic terrorism were mainly focusing on other countries, especially Iraq.  The appearance in Afghanistan, last year, of high-quality DVDs and other propaganda material calling for global jihad, which were clearly produced outside the country, suggests however that Afghanistan was never completely off the radar screens of international Islamic terrorists.
It is highly unlikely that the parliamentary elections on their own will have any positive impact on the growing Taliban insurgency and the creeping al-Qaeda presence in the country. What are likely to have a lasting impact, however, are sustained military operations to progressively undermine the insurgency and consolidate stability in the country. Only following this will discontented Afghans in places like Zabul be more inclined to accept broad autonomy within the new state, which the government in Kabul would be wise to offer.
Daan van der Schriek worked as freelance journalist in Afghanistan from August 2004 until May 2005. He is currently an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Central Asia. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
1. Interview with Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert Rahimullah Yousafzai, Peshawar, November 24, 2004.
2. Interview with Western official, Kandahar, April 28, 2005
3. See RFE/RL, Battle linked to elections, new Taliban tactics, June 22, 2005
4. See RFE/RL, Kabul tells Pakistan to do more as battle with Taliban rages near border, June 23, 2005. RFE reported a retired Pakistani general as saying Afghanistan uses Pakistan as a scapegoat for internal problems. Mr. Yousafzai likewise claimed Afghanistan accuses Pakistan because it can’t solve its own problems.
5. Chechens have perhaps more often than is fair been accused of involvement in Afghanistan. But the Western source in Kandahar, who has been working in southern Afghanistan close to two years, assured the author that some Chechens are indeed active on the side of the Taliban, although “there is not a lot of evidence pointing to Arab, al-Qaeda or Chechen involvement in south Afghanistan.”
6. Interview with Nick Downie, head of the Afghanistan NGO security office, April 9, 2005; the official in Kandahar agrees.
7. Interview with Abdur Rashid Ghazi, a Pakistani cleric believed to be close to the Taliban, Islamabad, November 21, 2004. Rahimullah Yousafzai believed the same – as did the Western official in Kandahar (see note 5).