The west is losing in Afghanistan in part because it misreads its Taliban opponents. Understanding who they are is the only basis for future negotiationsby Jason Burke / November 23, 2008 / Leave a comment
Maidan Shar, the provincial capital of Wardak province, 30 miles south of Kabul, is now on the frontline in Afghanistan. Physically, it has changed little since the Taliban were in power between 1996 and 2001. A frequent visitor to Afghanistan during that time, I only noticed the town because it was where the tarmac ended on the road to Kandahar, which lies a further 250 miles and 16 hours of ferociously uncomfortable driving to the south. Today the road is too risky for travel.
Until two years ago, the Taliban were restricted to the provinces around Kandahar and some isolated central highland districts. Not any longer. On my last visit in August 2008 I was shocked to find how much the situation had deteriorated. Maidan Shar now lies on the watermark left by the wash of the inexorably rising Taliban tide towards Kabul. A well-informed local judge told me not to spend more than 20 minutes in the town and never to stray beyond its limits. The governor of Wardak then spoke to me at length about how the media was exaggerating the problems. But on leaving his well-guarded office I learned that his counterpart from an adjacent province had been ambushed on the main road, only a few miles away, during the course of our interview.
It is true that the Taliban are unlikely to win much more territory, as they are nearing the limits of the land in the south and east of the country where Pashtun tribes, who make up between 40 and 50 per cent of the total population, are concentrated. (The Taliban are an almost exclusively Pashtun movement, although by no means all Pashtun are Taliban.) Militarily, they will find it impossible to capture a major city while foreign troops remain in the country. But as senior British soldiers and diplomats have recently made clear, the Taliban are also unlikely to be significantly “rolled back” in the near future. This marks a strategic change in Afghanistan. “Victory” as previously defined is now impossible.
Understanding what this means for the future means avoiding two past errors. The first error was thinking that the Taliban are somehow not “Afghan.” Speaking to Prospect in October, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, spoke of the west’s mission to “help the Afghan people defeat the Taliban.” In Berlin in July 2008,…