The problem may be that the Afghan Taliban were never really defeated. They just picked up and moved. Ahmed Rashid, arguably the world’s foremost authority on the Taliban, describes the exodus of Taliban fighters from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the fall of 2001: “They arrived in droves, by bus, taxi, and tractor, on camels and horses, and on foot,” he writes in Descent Into Chaos. “For many, it was not an escape but a return home—back to the refugee camps in Balochistan, where they had been brought up [during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan] and where their families still lived.”
Rashid said officials with Pakistan’s largest spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, stood with customs officials at the border crossing and waved the fighters in. They’d nurtured the Taliban for years. “For Pakistan they still represented the future of Afghanistan and had to be hidden away until their time came.”
The United States didn’t bother Pakistan about the returning fighters—despite requests to do so by the new Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his then foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. Karzai sent Abdullah to Washington in January 2002 to ask the Americans to get Pakistan to stop allowing the Taliban to regroup. He was rebuffed. The U.S. was interested in the al-Qaeda terrorists who brought down the twin towers, not the Taliban who sheltered them. As Abdullah put it: “The CIA wanted Arabs, not Afghans.”
And so the Taliban survived, licked their wounds, raised funds, drew recruits, and plotted a comeback. They began moving weapons into Afghanistan in late 2002, and launched a guerrilla campaign just as America was focusing all its military and intelligence resources on Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was a “disaster” for Afghanistan, Rashid said in an interview with Maclean’s. It sucked up money and personnel that might have gone toward rebuilding Afghanistan. NATO stepped in to provide security, but with far too few troops. The Taliban fed on the resulting instability and won support from Afghans who concluded the foreign armies in their country simply weren’t serious. By the spring of 2006, when Canadian troops deployed to Kandahar, a full-scale insurgency was raging.
Counter-insurgencies are won or lost in the hearts and minds of the local population. And the international forces in Afghanistan were losing hearts and minds because of an overreliance on air strikes, which resulted in the collateral damage of dead civilians; because they backed Karzai, whose government is increasingly seen as corrupt; because they couldn’t provide jobs; and because they couldn’t provide security. The Taliban’s comeback gathered strength.
“It’s not because the public was anxious to have the Taliban return,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. “It’s a direct function of the failure of the Kabul government and the international forces to protect the local population.”
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force is now led by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has refocused international efforts on protecting civilians, rather than killing insurgents. He’s also asked U.S. President Barack Obama to deploy another 40,000 American troops to the country.
It’s the right strategy, says Weinbaum, but it may be too late. “If this had all been done earlier on, I don’t think there’s any question we would be looking at a very different situation.”
Can things be turned around? “With difficulty,” he says. “Nobody’s very optimistic. We’ve dug ourselves such a hole.”