The U.S. Says the Afghanistan War Is Over. The Taliban Aren't So Sure

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Rumsfeld and Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul

The U.S. has ended "major combat activity" in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced last week, adding "we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities." But "stability" is a relative term, and the accompanying announcement that the U.S. would like to withdraw its forces by the end of summer next year may have been received with a measure of anxiety by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That's because the security situation in Afghanistan today may be worse than it was a year ago — and the Taliban appear to be making something of a comeback.

Rumsfeld's declaration reflects a shift in the orientation of U.S. operations away from large-scale sweeps — such as Operation Valiant Strike, which saw some 1,000 U.S. soldiers trawl through southeastern Afghanistan in March — that are designed to root out Taliban and al-Qaeda diehards. Such operations haven't proved particularly effective in eliminating the small, mobile enemy formations that continue to operate throughout eastern and southern Afghanistan, across the border in Pakistan's tribal areas (where the local elected leadership is openly pro-Taliban) and in the Taliban's Pashtun heartland.

Only days before Rumsfeld spoke in Kabul, two U.S. soldiers were killed in a daylight attack by a group of Taliban fighters in southeastern Afghanistan, while U.S. outposts come under (mostly inaccurate) fire on an almost daily basis. Spring has seen an escalation in both the number and intensity of operations by the Taliban and its allies — although there may now be less direct involvement by al-Qaeda personnel, the new guerrilla war appears to involve a coordinated command structure combining Taliban fighters, loyalists of the fiercely anti-American warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other former Mujahedeen commanders alienated from the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

The long border with Pakistan is considered particularly vulnerable, because insurgents are taking shelter in the tribal areas where the Pakistani government is either unable, or unwilling to clamp down. Taliban recruitment and training occurs relatively openly across the border, reminding journalists of the movement's emergence a decade ago in the madressas of Pakistan. The country is nominally on friendly terms with President Karzai, but it is also well aware that his writ doesn't extend much beyond the palace gate — and also that the Northern Alliance which dominates the government all around Karzai is closely allied to India, whose influence has grown considerably at Pakistan's expense in the post-Taliban Afghanistan.

But it's not only across the border that the jihadis are finding shelter and succor. The relative ease with which small Taliban units operate in its old stomping grounds these days is a reminder that the new government in Kabul has not managed to wean away some of the Taliban's core supporters — a point underscored by the fact that Mullah Omar and most of the movement's senior leadership have never been captured. Unlike the sophisticated Arab operatives of al-Qaeda for whom Afghanistan was simply another stopover in a globalized jihad, the one-eyed peasant mystic mullah is still believed to be at large somewhere on home turf. (The Pashtun heartland spans the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.) And the fact that he hasn't been found suggests a measure of support among the local population.

Taliban commanders have begun giving interviews with media organizations confidently describing a new offensive, and the audacity of the resurgent radicalism was highlighted Tuesday by the first anti-American demonstration in Kabul since the Taliban's demise — it drew some 300 students and government employees, complaining of a lack of security but also demanding that the U.S. leave and Islamic rule be restored.

But the Taliban and its allies are only one part of President Karzai's security problem. The Afghan president has no real army of his own to speak of: U.S. troops are currently training the nucleus of an Afghan national army, and expect to have trained some 9,000 troops by the middle of next year. But right now security even in the capital itself relies on the 4,400 mostly NATO troops deployed in Kabul in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and the 8,000 U.S. troops deployed primarily to hunt down remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and to conduct some rudimentary reconstruction.

That leaves most of the country outside of the capital under the de facto control of a patchwork of often feuding warlords whose links to Kabul are often tenuous and many of whom have reverted to extortion, drug production and other illicit revenue streams. Even in Kabul itself, Karzai finds himself a virtual prisoner in the palace, guarded by U.S. personnel because the Northern Alliance troops of his defense minister, General Mohammed Fahim, may not be sufficiently trusted with Karzai's life. Fahim, of course, is quite happy for the affable Pashtun president in the coat of many colors to be the international face of a government dominated by his mostly Tajik Northern Alliance, although he's not exactly happy at the prospect of a truly national army eroding his power base. That's a concern he likely shares with warlords all over the country, and a plague of defections and other problems leaves a measure of uncertainty over whether the army bequeathed Karzai by the Americans will be in a position to enforce order.

The government is hurting for cash, too, with much of the aid money promised by donor nations in the wake of the Taliban's ouster having failed to materialize. Rumsfeld's announcement was designed in part to persuade donors that the war is over and it's now time to send reconstruction aid. (The Bush administration wasn't exactly leading by example when it simply forgot to include aid for Afghanistan in the initial version of the budget it sent to Congress in February.) Most of the $1.8b that arrived in the first year after the war was spent on caring for refugees and other emergency needs, although the $2 billion promised at a new donor's conference in March has been earmarked by Karzai's government for rebuilding infrastructure and paying the salaries of those expected to run and secure it. Another hint of brightness on the horizon is the announcement by NATO last week that the alliance would take over leadership of ISAF — it remains unclear, though, whether NATO is willing to more than quadruple ISAF's troop strength in order to extend the stabilization mission beyond the capital.

Afghanistan may be no safer now than it was a year ago; the best hope right now is that the security situation doesn't become appreciably worse. Such deterioration is precisely what the resurgent Taliban will try to achieve in the coming months, and moves to hold national elections in June next year — which could threaten the hold of the warlords — may raise the trouble quotient nationally. The resurgent Taliban is unlikely to muster a serious bid for power any time soon, but its revival is a sharp reminder that Afghanistan could be plagued with instability for years.