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At the end of the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal this weekend, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban issued a statement characterizing the alliance’s adoption of a loose timeline for a 2014 end to combat operations as “good news” for Afghans and “a sign of failure for the American government.” At the summit, President Barack Obama said that 2011 will begin “a transition to full Afghan lead” in security operations, while the Taliban declared: “In the past nine years, the invaders could not establish any system of governance in Kabul and they will never be able to do so in future.”
While Obama claimed that the US and its allies are “breaking the Taliban’s momentum,” the reality on the ground tells a different story. Despite increased Special Operations Forces raids and, under Gen. David Petraeus, a return to regular US-led airstrikes, the insurgency in Afghanistan is spreading and growing stronger. “By killing Taliban leaders the war will not come to an end,” said the Taliban’s former foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, in an interview at his home in Kabul. “On the contrary, things get worse which will give birth to more leaders.”
Former and current Taliban leaders say that they have seen a swelling in the Taliban ranks since 9-11. In part, they say, this can be attributed to a widely held perception that the Karzai government is corrupt and illegitimate and that Afghans—primarily ethnic Pashtuns—want foreign occupation forces out. “We are only fighting to make foreigners leave Afghanistan,” a new Taliban commander in Kunduz told me during my recent trip to the country. “We don’t want to fight after the withdrawal of foreigners, but as long as there are foreigners, we won’t talk to Karzai.”
“The Americans have very sophisticated technology, but the problem here in Afghanistan is they are confronting ideology. I think ideology is stronger than technology,” says Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior member of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s government. “If I am a Taliban and I’m killed, I’m martyred, then I’m successful. There are no regrets for the Taliban. It’s very difficult to defeat this kind of idea.”
But it is not simply a matter of ideology versus technology. The Taliban is not one unified body. The Afghan insurgency is fueled by fighters with a wide variety of motivations. Some are the dedicated jihadists of which Zaeef speaks, but others are fighting to defend their land or are seeking revenge for the killing of family members by NATO or Afghan forces. While al Qaeda has been almost entirely expelled from Afghanistan, the insurgency still counts a small number of non-Afghans among its ranks. Bolstering the Taliban’s recruitment efforts is the perception in Afghanistan that the Taliban pays better than NATO or the Afghan army or police.
The hard reality US officials don’t want to discuss is this: the cultural and religious values of much of the Pashtun population–which comprises 25-40 percent of the country–more closely align with those of the Taliban than they do with Afghan government or US/NATO forces. The Taliban operate a shadow government in large swaths of the Pashtun areas of the country, complete with governors and a court system. In rural areas, land and property disputes are resolved through the Taliban system rather than the Afghan government, which is widely distrusted. “The objectives and goal of the American troops in Afghanistan are not clear to the people and therefore Afghans call the Americans ‘invaders,'” says Muttawakil. “Democracy is a very new phenomenon in Afghanistan and most people don’t know the meaning of democracy. And now corruption, thieves and fakes have defamed democracy. Democracy can’t be imposed because people will never adopt any value by force.”