Global Journalist: Afghan war no longer about al-Qaida but Taliban

Sunday, June 22, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:42 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Loory: Many in the United States feel the country is fighting a good war in Afghanistan. The original enemy was the terrorist organization al-Qaida, headquartered in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and responsible fo the tragedy of 9/11. The U.S. goal was to seek out Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida’s leader, and wipe out the organization. Sadly, the war is still going on, and a coalition led by the U.S., including troops from other NATO countries, is still involved. The main enemy is no longer al-Qaida but a resurgent Taliban, and the American government is under criticism for not restoring order. The Taliban have mounted attacks against coalition forces around Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city in the southwestern region, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently proclaimed a right to invade neighboring Pakistan to route out Taliban-led forces there. How dangerous is the reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Declan Walsh, Pakistan and Afghanistan correspondent, The Guardian newspaper of London, Kabul, Afghanistan: In Helmand, where British troops are based, and in neighboring Kandahar, things are serious. The British army lost four soldiers in one roadside bomb, which is the highest loss for several years. There was also the spectacular jailbreak in Kandahar city where 1,000 people were sprung free, including 400 militants. That led partially to a buildup of Taliban forces near Kandahar city, which the Afghan government says has dissipated after troops were deployed to the area.

Loory: Could the Taliban reestablish itself as the government in Afghanistan?

Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor, The Times, London: As long as the current level of Western military troops in Afghanistan remains, it’s unlikely the Taliban could return to power. The Taliban have been successful in undermining Karzai’s government in the southern provinces by making them effectively ungovernable, and they will continue to do that. Also, with high-profile instances like the jailbreak and the constant stream of roadside bombs and suicide attacks on Western troops, the Taliban will be hitting the morale of coalition countries.

Loory: Britain has announced it is sending 230 more troops to Afghanistan. How is that going down in the United Kingdom?

Beeston: We’re into the seventh year of this conflict, and Britain has lost nearly 100 military personnel. People suspect we won’t win this conflict, and when they hear officials say this will take 10, 20 or 30 years, they scratch their heads at the cost in lives and money. They wonder whether it’s worth it. If other contributing nations also think that, the NATO operation could unravel. The Taliban figures if it can hold out long enough, other countries won’t have the stomach for the fight.

Loory: Initially, the enemy was al-Qaida, but we don’t hear al-Qaida mentioned as the primary enemy any longer.

Rahimullah Samandar, president, Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association, Kabul, Afghanistan: When we talk to Afghans in different provinces, people complain there is less reconstruction work and there is a low economy. Everyone lists unprofessional police forces, with officers working for different jihadi religious groups. The officers have different ties and they’re highly corrupt. They aren’t taking the responsibility the international forces need them to, and people are concerned. Everyone says war isn’t the solution and the peace process should be started, especially with the Taliban.

Loory: Is Afghan support for the Taliban growing?

Walsh: Support has built in some rural areas, but it’s difficult to know the balance between a genuine stream of support or acquiescence by villages when militants come in and force people to help them. Public confidence in the Karzai government is bottoming out, and the jailbreak demonstrated how this government has failed to provide the most basic security. For ordinary Afghans, there isn’t huge support of the Taliban, but there is a large amount of disgruntlement with the government.

Beeston: If the government isn’t functioning properly, the NATO operation could unravel. That’s why people are fed up with Karzai. They’re saying, you’ve been in power for seven years and you seemed like the right guy, but now we’re wondering if you can deliver.

Loory: Karzai recently said Afghanistan would send troops into Pakistan to deal with the Taliban. Is that a possibility?

Walsh: That would only happen if Karzai had support from his Western allies, which is unlikely. This incident shows how poor relations are between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There has been cross-border sniping for several years. It generally starts with the Afghans blaming the Pakistan state for turning a blind eye to the Taliban insurgents, who use tribal areas in Pakistan as a base of attack. At worst, Afghans feel the Pakistan intelligence agencies are helping the Taliban.

Loory: Are American troops taking action in Pakistan?

Walsh: The Americans, with unspoken permission from the Pakistani government, have been sending unmanned drones across the borders to strike targets. During a recent confrontation with Taliban insurgents, coalition planes bombed the Pakistani border posts, killing 11 soldiers. That heightened an already-strong sense of anti-Americanism in Pakistan.

Loory: Is this creating danger for the Pakistani government?

Beeston: No matter how good military operations and building the governance of the social authority in Afghanistan are, they could be easily undermined by what is happening in Pakistan. The West further complicated this by putting pressure on Pakistan to hold democratic elections. Pakistan now has a democratically elected government, but the result has been a weakening of governmental authority over the tribal areas and a strengthening of militant groups. Those groups operate without problem, except from American intervention in the form of drones assassinating specific targets.

Loory: Have relations between Karzai and the U.S. broken down?

Walsh: Publicly, relations are strong. First lady Laura Bush went to Afghanistan recently and reiterated her husband’s expressions of support for Karzai. Nevertheless, there are under-the-surface grumblings. The U.S. was instrumental in setting up the democratic election that brought Karzai to power, and the U.S. is losing its patience with him.

Loory: Is the Taliban supporting the drug trade, and what are coalition forces doing to control that?

Walsh: The Taliban is back in the drug trade in a big way. Experts are divided as to how important the drug money is to the insurgency, but there is no doubt in the southern provinces it’s there. Also, drug corruption has reached the height of government. One doesn’t have to be in Kabul long to hear rumors about government ministers who are involved. The international response to attacking this has been uncoordinated, and efforts have been largely unsuccessful.

Loory: Can the Karzai government reestablish itself as representative of the people?

Samander: Karzai says he represents the people, but the government is a compromise administration with different parties and jihadi groups. Afghans say there are links with the Taliban inside the government and they’re hopeless about the Karzai administration. They say Karzai wasn’t making straight decisions and he wasn’t removing warlords, just exchanging them from one post to another. The judiciary has also failed. In some provinces near the Taliban, people aren’t going to attorneys’ offices because of too much corruption.

Loory: We have heard today how a so-called good war turned ugly years ago and shows little promise of getting better.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim and Catherine Wolf.

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