Questions over the Taliban Threat

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 10

The latest series of attacks in Afghanistan makes predicting the progress in the stabilization of the country a difficult call. The failure by the Taliban to disrupt the presidential elections on October 9 led to prognoses from both the Afghan government and the U.S. military that the Taliban were by now a spent force, and that the fundamentalist movement was internally unraveling as Mullah Mohammed Omar’s authority wanes. Subsequent warnings by the Taliban leadership council of violence at the December 7 inauguration of Karzai as President caused enough anxiety to ask for VIPs attending the celebrations to supply their blood groups, but in the end the threats proved as illusory as those for the elections. The U.S. military has also suggested that demoralization is also affecting the ranks of renegade Afghan leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s smaller but more fanatical Hizb-i-Islami group. Reports of impending defections to the government side have appeared in the press.

But at the same time levels of violence have been increasing over the recent period. On November 24 an Afghan district official and two of his bodyguards were killed in Uruzgan province. Three days later three German soldiers were injured by a roadside bomb in Kunduz, and on November 28 up to 30 Taliban fighters attacked the compound of an Afghan aid agency in Delaram southwest of Kabul, killing three guards and prompting the agency to mull evacuation from the region. On December 5 Taliban guerrillas launched a rocket attack on Khost airport, the third time in a week, and this was followed a day later by a rocket and cannon assault by hundreds of Taliban on a military checkpoint. According to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn [] four troops were killed during the attack for the loss of six Mujahideen, while Taliban sources quoted in an Islamist web magazine put the figure at ‘tens of [government] troops killed’ [].

Nevertheless, it is a measure of the overall weakening military position of the Taliban that Kabul feels strong enough to attempt political pressure on the movement. At the beginning of December U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced an arms-for-amnesty deal. The amnesty would apply to ‘non-criminal’ Taliban and exclude those considered as ‘international terrorists’. The exclusion list is to be drawn up by Karzai and passed on to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf for endorsement.

The Taliban reaction to the amnesty was itself interesting in that it appeared to give some substance to the belief of dissent and division. Taliban spokesman Abd Al-Latif Hakimi dismissed Khalilzad’s proposals as “a plot on the part of the Americans, who are attempting to split the Taliban ranks” and that “all Taliban are fully aware of their plots” []. At a December 8 press briefing U.S. military spokesman, Major Mark McCann, indicated this further with reports coming in of contacts from individual Taliban members responding to the amnesty offer, splitting the movement into “hardline Islamic militants” and “a vast majority … who have a desire to become part of a peaceful process.”

If these reports are statistically significant, there remains the problem of a lack of a detailed framework for reconciliation with the Taliban who accept the amnesty, and a reconciliation between these and the ethnic minorities who suffered under the period when they were dominant. To associate with the Taliban cause as such is to subscribe to a hybrid of radical Islam and rural Pashtun values, which will also continue to be a source of friction with Karzai’s modernization program. Even with the success of the significant symbols of the election and the inauguration ceremony behind them, the parliamentary, provincial and district elections now scheduled for April 2005 will be considerably more complicated and politically vulnerable. If the preparations for the winter military campaign ‘Lightening Freedom’ successfully staves off the Taliban’s spring offensive and protects the process, there is also the possibility that the nature of the insurgent campaign will change, rather than fade. According to a December 1 Reuters report, U.S. intelligence has issued warnings that Pakistani militants are aiming to infiltrate Western companies and non-governmental groups in Afghanistan in a plot to kidnap foreigners. This will initiate a wholly different type of conflict, one that will test the fledging democratic administration to the limit.