The Taliban rise again?

The Taliban now control most of Afghanistan – and may soon share power, says robert fox

President Karzai of Afghanistan has announced that six years after the Taliban were driven out of power in Kabul, representatives of the hardline Muslim movement are ‘increasingly’ approaching him for talks.

It has been pretty clear that Karzai and his clan have been talking to Taliban leaders for months, possibly more than a year. What his announcement hints at is that some sort of power-sharing deal is in the wind.

Interestingly, after the first reports of the talks had been transmitted by Reuters last week, there was no immediate follow-up from the BBC and the New York Times, both of whom have resident correspondents in Kabul. It suggests that the Afghan president was told to cool it by Washington and London.

Karzai’s announcement of the contacts with the Taliban is a clear warning. It is no longer a case of confidence among Karzai’s

international sponsors wavering; spectacularly, he has lost trust in them and is seeking his own, very Afghan, way out of the predicament.

Despite the best efforts of the Americans and British forces, supported by the Canadians, Australians and Dutch among others, the chances of Karzai’s government continuing in its present form, let alone extending its authority to beyond the capital, are getting less favourable by the day.

The Senlis Council, a European think-tank, said in a report published last week that 54 per cent of Afghan territory is now under Taliban control. This figure is hard to measure in the shifting sands of tribal, militia and criminal loyalties that cover most of the country, but Senlis’s survey methods are sophisticated.

More to the point is the map produced by Senlis showing the spread of violent incidents and terrorist attacks across Afghanistan and Waziristan. They are now radiating right across the territory with dozens north of the Hindu Kush in non-Pashtun areas. Not surprisingly, the largest number of bombings and killings is around Jalalabad in southeast Afghanistan. This is the main gateway from the tribal areas in Pakistan, which are now dominated by Taliban sympathisers and their al-Qaeda allies.

Taliban recruiting and training has shown a sharp increase since Pervez Musharraf ran into difficulties this summer when he sacked his chief justice and sent in his troops against the militants in Islamabad’s Red Mosque, symbol of extremism.

With the return of the exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to contest the upcoming elections in Pakistan – he received a rapturous welcome at Lahore airport yesterday – it is likely that whatever government succeeds Musharraf’s rule will have a strong Islamist complexion. Sharif stands for Islamic nationalism, and is likely to strike a deal with at least some Taliban elements.

Even if the Pakistan army again tries to annul the elections and brings back emergency rule, it too is likely to play to its Islamist wing (harking back to the Islamist

military dictatorship of General Zia al Huq) and cut a deal with some of the Taliban leadership. This must be behind Karzai’s thinking.

America will try to thwart any accommodation with Taliban elements, nationally or locally, in Afghanistan. Its response to the latest violence is to hint that it will send more special forces units across the border to ‘root out’ Taliban and al Qaeda training camps in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This is risky and far from certain to succeed.

In last week’s report, the Senlis Council warned Nato to double the number of its troops in Afghanistan, or risk Kabul falling to Taliban forces by the spring. But Nato is unwilling or unable to produce a fighting force on this scale, despite repeated appeals from its secretariat and the US leadership for the allies to send more troops. Indeed some, like the Netherlands and Canada, are suggesting they may cut back.

It looks as if the Taliban could be back in Kabul well before the spring.