Monday, April 04, 2005

The Decline of the Taliban

On Saturday, April 2, the US military in Afghanistan announced that the "number and severity of attacks against Afghan and coalition forces have increased compared to the winter":

An increase in discoveries of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan shows “that some in the Taliban or other anti-government insurgents will continue to try to destabilize Afghanistan through violent acts," Navy Lt. Cindy Moore, of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, told reporters during a press briefing today.

Does this news reflect a Taliban resurgence? Probably not. As of early March, attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan had declined by at least half compared to a year ago. Even though the rate of attacks has risen since then, this is almost certainly due to the end of winter more than anything else. In fact, as an excellent article from the April 4th Asian edition of Time Magazine explains, the Taliban movement is very much in decline.

Six months ago, Afghans around Kandahar were either too loyal to the Taliban, or too scared of them, to have tipped off U.S. soldiers. Sure, bin Laden is still at large, probably hiding somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and the trail for him has gone cold. But U.S. military officers, Afghan officials and even several ex-Taliban commanders say that the Taliban itself is on the run. "The Taliban is a force in decline," says Major General Eric Olson, who conducted the U.S. military's counter-insurgency battle in Afghanistan until last month.

The article notes the decisive impact of last October's presidential election, in particular the Taliban's abject failure to make good on their threats against those who voted:

Now the Taliban is a busted flush. For nearly a year, Olson says, they have "failed to mount a coordinated offensive." In 2004, according to the U.S. military, villagers turned over more than 100 Taliban arms caches— compared with only 13 in 2003 —leaving the rebels weaponless when they arrive from Pakistan. Most of their rocket attacks and attempted bombings are amateurish. "We've had Taliban trying to make [a bomb], and it's gone off in their hands, so they come to our hospitals for treatment," says Major David Flynn, a Bostonian from the 25th Infantry Division, whose men have yet to fire a single shot at the Taliban during their year-long duty in Kandahar. Proof of the Taliban's decline comes from those who were once in its own ranks, too. A former Taliban governor, Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi is trying to persuade his former comrades to give up their guns. "Many Taliban want to come back in," says Rocketi. But he cautions: "The Taliban have their backs to the wall, and they're still dangerous."

The article notes that the Taliban are running short of both recruits and funds. Even the Taliban's Pakistani safe havens aren't quite as safe as they used to be:

Last month, 18 middle-ranked Taliban commanders were arrested in Quetta and Karachi, including Akbar Agha, leader of a Taliban splinter group named Jaish-al Muslimeen, which kidnapped three foreign aid workers in Kabul last October.

As recently as last fall, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace breathlessly proclaimed that "We Are Losing the War in Afghanistan". Instead, it has become clear that the Taliban are all but finished as a major threat. While Afghanistan still faces many serious problems, its days on the frontlines of the War on Islamist Terror may soon be over.


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