Editor's note: This is one of a series of stories looking at the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan as its 13-year combat role draws to a close.
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Surrounded by scaffolding, a blue-domed mosque is nearing completion on a site where a cinema once stood.
The Afghan government is funding the project, which the Taliban began after razing the movie theater and closing all the others in town as part of their campaign against anything deemed immoral. Before the Taliban could finish the mosque, the U.S. swept them from power in 2001, beginning a war that few thought would still be raging nearly 13 years later.
Like the mosque, the Taliban are back.
TIMELINE | History of the Taliban
In the twilight of a U.S.-led combat mission that has claimed the lives of more than 3,300 foreign troops and tens of thousands of Afghans, the Taliban’s military position is in many ways as strong as ever. Although the Taliban lack the popular support that swept them into power in the early 1990s, a recent International Crisis Group report found violence levels in Afghanistan are higher than at any time in the war. The Taliban are also inflicting staggering casualties on the Afghan security forces, who have taken over most of the fighting.
Many in Afghanistan worry that the soaring violence shows the Taliban, like the Kandahar mosque, are on the rise again as international military forces rapidly withdraw at a time when an election crisis threatens to undermine the next Afghan government and the country’s first democratic transition of power.
“The Taliban remain very hopeful, they seem upbeat, they have not been defeated,” said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani journalist and Taliban expert who has been studying the group since its inception. “They remain very committed and think they can fight for some years.”
Few see the Taliban taking Kabul again. But only the most optimistic analysts see the Afghan security forces defeating them, something the nearly 50-nation U.S.-led coalition failed to do in more than a decade of fighting.
This was underscored in late June, when Taliban fighters laid siege to Sangin district — an area of Helmand province where hundreds of American and British marines were killed or wounded before turning security over to their Afghan counterparts. Insurgents have killed at least 30 Afghan soldiers and police in the battle and up to 100 civilians have been killed. Even with ISAF air support, Afghan security forces are still struggling to control the area nearly a month after the initial attack.
This year’s Afghanistan presidential election, initially cheered by the international community and now badly marred by allegations of widespread fraud and a nasty dispute between candidates, provides the most alarming sign: the Taliban launched hundreds of attacks during the election while simultaneously engaging in politicking.
Despite the initial reports of a relatively violence-free vote on June 14, insurgents carried out more than 500 attacks on election day, killing dozens of Afghan soldiers, policemen, officials and civilians. More surprisingly, elders in Taliban strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan interviewed by Stars and Stripes said the Taliban pressured villagers to vote for Ashraf Ghani, whom the Taliban prefer to his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who was a member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
“The Taliban are flexing their muscles on two fronts — militarily and politically,” said Graeme Smith, senior Afghanistan analyst for The International Crisis Group. “Politically, they have dramatically shown in the second round that they can swing the results of a presidential election, and, militarily, we’re now hitting incident volumes we haven’t seen since the height of the fighting season in the summer of 2011 when we had 130,000 international forces pretty actively engaged in battle.”
Highwaymen and anarchy
Many forget that the Taliban were widely greeted as saviors by war-weary Afghans when the militants rose to power two decades ago. In the wake of a nine-year war with the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was imploding in the mid-1990s under the weight of a civil war. Warlords ran fiefdoms, setting up checkpoints where thugs would demand tribute and often took more than money. Girls and boys disappeared, rape and murder were rampant, and fear gripped the country.
The highwaymen who ran those checkpoints were known as topakyan, Pashto for gunmen, and were feared and despised. To many Afghans, any alternative seemed better.
“Every village had a king,” said Hajji Rahmatullah, a tribal elder in Kandahar’s Zharay district who was in the province when the Taliban took power. “There was no government, no rules, no constitution — if you had a gun, you had power.”
Under these conditions a ragtag group of religious students (“taliban” means “students” in Pashto), led by a one-eyed former anti-Soviet fighter named Mullah Mohammad Omar, swept to power. The Taliban defeated warlord after warlord, rolling into Kabul to cheering throngs. Even those who have since turned against the movement speak wistfully of the Taliban’s early days.
“(Mullah Omar) was a very strong mujahid, very strong fighter against the Russians,” said one tribal elder from Kandahar’s Taliban-heavy Maiwand district who fought alongside Omar against the Soviets. “He was a very good friend, very honest and a very good Muslim,” the elder said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.
The good feelings did not last, though. In their five years in power and with Omar at the helm, the Taliban instituted harsh Islamic laws, banning most semblances of modernity as well as most girls’ education and meting out harsh justice to anyone who fell afoul of the rules. Resentment ran high and when the Americans arrived in 2001, they too were welcomed.
'They can fight for 50 years'
Black rimmed glasses give him a bookish look, and his quiet demeanor belies his violent past. But “Mullah Cable” knows first-hand how the Taliban operate. As a Taliban commander, he was widely known and feared in Wardak province, gaining his nickname for his penchant for whipping villagers with cables to enforce Taliban rules. According to Anand Gopal’s recent book, “No Good Men Among the Living,” Mullah Cable eventually commanded 85 fighters on one of the war’s biggest battlegrounds. He admits killing many Americans as well as Afghans thought to have been infiltrators, and his exploits gained him notoriety among the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s exiled leadership in Pakistan.
Recently released from prison at Bagram Air Field after four years, Mullah Cable, whose real name was withheld over concern for his safety, now says he has disavowed the Taliban, believing they alienated too many Afghans to ever again take power. But he points out, the Taliban don’t need to take power to undermine the shaky Kabul government — they just need to keep the war going.
“They can fight for 50 years,” he said.
This is not the outcome President Barack Obama envisioned when he sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2009 for a military surge to “break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity.” For two years, troops flooded the country, especially in the south, fighting pitched battles against militants. There were some gains — security in Kandahar city, once riven by daily attacks, has greatly improved.
But as in Iraq, which is imploding seven years after an even bigger U.S. surge, any gains from the Afghan surge appear to have been fleeting.
Far from crushing the Taliban, the U.S. and its allies are now set to declare an end to combat operations just as the war enters its most violent chapter to date, according to U.N. casualty statistics.
“I don’t think the Taliban’s strength was degraded to the extent that was anticipated,” said Yousafzai, the Pakistani researcher and journalist. “Obama was hoping the surge would weaken the Taliban and force them to negotiate — it didn’t really happen.”
Although U.S. and NATO officials have traditionally been tight-lipped about the guerrilla’s numerical strength, a defense attaché from a country with troops in Afghanistan said intelligence estimates put the number of active fighters and auxiliaries at about 30,000 — about the same as before the 2009 surge.
While the Taliban do not appear to have widespread popular support, their ability to draw new recruits despite heavy losses indicates they still have localized strongholds in Afghanistan, not to mention continued sanctuary in much of Pakistan’s border region. With tight-knit communities in the rural villages around the border, it would be impossible for the Taliban to operate without local support, Smith said.
“If the conflict is reaching peak levels, which it is, it’s fair to assume that discontent in certain communities in the South and East is also pretty high,” Smith said.
Without a peace deal, most experts agree that the fighting in Afghanistan could last for years. There was a glimmer of hope for negotiations in June 2013, when the Taliban opened a political office in Qatar, a key requirement of the U.S. to start talks. Almost immediately, though, it turned into a debacle. The Taliban raised their flag at the opening ceremony, sending Kabul into a rage and scuttling any talks before they could start.
Before anyone tries to resuscitate the peace process, they’ll need to figure out whom to talk to. While the Quetta Shura — the Pakistan-based leadership under Mullah Omar — is considered the Taliban’s central decision-making body, the group is so splintered that it’s unclear how much command and control any one faction has, according to Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Taliban expert who spent years in Afghanistan.
“It’s increasingly less useful to refer to the Taliban as the Taliban anymore,” he said.
Ironically, what originally seemed like an American military success may have compounded this problem. The kill-capture campaign, during which U.S. forces eliminated and detained many mid- and high-level Taliban leaders over the course of several years, had a major unintended consequence, Strick van Linschoten said.
The Taliban have been “relatively successful in replacing these people, but the more they replace them, the younger these (commanders) get and the looser the ties with the central organization these guys have,” he said. “They have less of a grasp of boundaries of warfare and codes of conduct.”
A bigger obstacle to peace, though, may simply be battlefield success, reflected in the insurgents’ triumphal propaganda.
“Indubitably the Americans have been badly defeated in the military field inside Afghanistan and they will inevitably have to evacuate their forces from this land of pious and freedom loving people,” the Taliban declared in the introduction to a 7,000-word analysis of the war posted on their English language website in May.
A nationwide campaign to reintegrate former fighters by offering amnesty and financial help has had mixed results. Poverty-stricken villagers have claimed to be guerrilla fighters just to get assistance. Foot soldiers have claimed to be commanders to get a better deal.
Even by the Afghan government’s own estimate, only 260 Taliban fighters have been reintegrated in the past three years in all of Kandahar province, one of the group’s strongholds.
To put that in perspective, more than 100 militants are estimated to have been killed in the recent series of battles in adjacent Helmand province that began in late June. Those losses don’t appear to have put a dent in the ranks of the insurgents, who still control part of the area nearly a month after their initial assault.
It’s a far cry from the early days of the war, when leaders from a routed Taliban turned themselves in in droves to make deals with the Americans. But the U.S. was in no mood to negotiate, and many Taliban commanders were either rebuffed or tricked and arrested, some sent to Guantanamo.
In the intervening years, the Taliban regrouped — surviving the troop surge and continuing to stage spectacular attacks in Kabul at the heart of the U.S.-backed government. Those successes may be driving recruitment and boosting morale at a critical juncture in the war.
“I think the concern would be that unless the military stalls for them that it will be difficult for the political track to pick up meaningful steam, because as long as the Taliban are physically taking ground, it’s going to be very difficult for moderates in the Taliban leadership to make a convincing argument that you should abandon the military operations in favor of political talks,” said Smith, the International Crisis Group analyst.
Fear in the south
ISAF officials declined to comment for this report. They have worked hard to steer journalists toward the narrative that Afghan security forces are in control and that NATO is doing little in Afghanistan — despite the continued presence of 50,000 foreign troops who are providing crucial NATO close air support and intelligence assets.
But ISAF troops are still on the ground and still dying while backing up Afghan forces. And as much as Afghan military leaders speak confidently about their 350,000-strong force, they often cast a nervous eye to the end of the year, when the last ISAF combat troops are scheduled to depart.
“We don’t have any fear about the near future, but we hope all those commitments that the international community made to Afghanistan for the future, whether it’s equipment or support, are fulfilled,” said Afghan army spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi. “After this year, the ANA still needs support when it comes to air support, heavy weapons, and training — specifically in counter-IED and intelligence — and we hope they remain committed to financial support agreed on at the Chicago conference.”
The Chicago conference commitment refers to the pledge of roughly $4 billion in military aid that donor nations pledged in 2012. But that amount anticipated cutting the Afghan security forces by one third after 2015, based on the incorrect prediction that the Taliban would be significantly weakened by the end of this year.
“Commitments need to be increased from $3.6 billion to probably a few billion more than that,” Graeme said. “But then that money needs to not be stolen and to trickle down to the salaries and the bullets and the diesel that need to reach the front lines.”
No one agrees with that more than the very Afghans who have thrown in their lot with foreign forces.
Tellingly, nearly all of the tribal elders interviewed for this story — powerful, wealthy men, with great sway in their communities — asked that their names not be used for fear they could be killed. Insurgents are still active in many rural areas, but perhaps more powerful is the sense of uncertainty about the near future that pervades much of Afghanistan. Afghans are especially wary of being caught on the losing side after seeing what happened after the Mujahedeen defeated the Soviet army in 1989 and the U.S. promptly lost interest in the country.
As money dried up, both from America and the collapsing Soviet Union, the country descended into chaos. Those who worked for the Soviet-backed regime were especially vulnerable. The image of former President Mohammad Najibullah’s bloody, castrated corpse hanging from a traffic light in Kabul after the Taliban took the capital is still etched in the consciousness of the nation.
Now many worry the Americans are abandoning them at a crucial moment. They point to the situation in Iraq, where former American allies have been targeted by insurgents as the country falls apart.
Sitting on a carpet in his half-built Kandahar city home, drinking green tea, the Maiwand tribal elder and former friend of Mullah Omar, mused on the current state of the Afghan security forces.
“Maybe they will keep the Taliban away for a while, but not forever,” he said. “They don’t have enough weapons, bullets, or helicopters. Limited help from the Americans will not be enough.”
Recent trends in the war seem to reinforce that view. According to the International Crisis Group report, the insurgents for the first time inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan security forces last year as they suffered themselves. Accounts of some battles in remote districts suggest the two sides were nearly matched in strength.
Asked what would happen if the Taliban were to regain power, the Maiwand elder leaned back against the wall, and snuck a furtive glance at the front door.
“If the Taliban takes power again, it’s the same as me drinking a cup of poison.”
Zubair Babakarkhail in Kabul, Slobodan Lekic in Germany, and a special correspondent in Kandahar, whose name was withheld for his safety, contributed to this report.