Longing for the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Stephen DeAngelis

October 2, 2008

Barack Obama has focused his presidential campaign’s security strategy on getting U.S. troops out of Iraq and strengthening the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. His calls for more troops has now been echoed by Army General David McKiernan, the new commander of forces there [“Commander in Afghanistan Wants More Troops,” by Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, 2 October 2008]. Both men note that things are not going as well as we would like in Afghanistan and, as a result, the Taliban seem to be gaining the upper hand. It’s hard to imagine, but some people in Afghanistan actually reflect longingly on the days of Taliban rule [“As Crime Increases in Kabul, So Does Nostalgia for Taliban,” by Pamela Constable, Washington Post, 25 September 2008]. As I have written time and again, security is one of the fundamental desires of all people. Fear is a terrible thing. The fact that some people long for the relative security of a brutal Taliban government over the current instability in Afghanistan speaks volumes about the situation there and the important role that security plays in development efforts. Constable begins her article with the story of a wealthy Kabul trader.

“Mirza Kunduzai, 58, a slight man with a short white goatee, had almost reached his house after a day of trading in the capital’s open-air currency market when his taxi was forced to stop by six heavily armed men dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms. For the next week, Kunduzai recounted, he endured one horror after another — beaten unconscious, hooded and handcuffed, strung up by his wrists and ankles, dumped in a filthy latrine — while his family frantically tried to raise the kidnappers’ astronomical ransom demand of $2 million. ‘I was 95 percent sure I was a dead man,’ Kunduzai said. … ‘They said if my family went to the police, they would chop off my fingers and send them to my wife. I begged them to be reasonable. I offered them my house and my farmland back home. Finally, they agreed to settle for $500,000 and released me. I am poor again, but I am thankful to be alive.'”

Constable points out that not all of the violence in Afghanistan can be attributed to the Taliban insurgents. The security issue faced more often by common citizens is violent crime.

“While Taliban insurgents stage increasing attacks in the Afghan countryside, equally fast-expanding violent crime — kidnappings, carjackings, drug-related killings and highway robberies — is plaguing the capital of 5 million and the vital truck and bus routes that connect the country’s major cities. It is making some Afghans nostalgic for the low-crime days before 2001, when the Taliban sternly ruled most of the country.”

To demonstrate how desperate these people are, let me remind you of living conditions under the Taliban. Television, videos, music, dancing, hanging pictures in homes, and clapping during sports events were banned. Possession of anything depicting living things, including photographs, stuffed animals, and dolls was prohibited. People, especially women, were forced to adapt to the Taliban dress code and way of life. Rules were issued by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice (PVSV) and enforced by its so-called religious police. These religious police beat offenders with long sticks — especially men who shaved and women who were not wearing their burqa properly. Theft was punished by the amputation of a hand, rape and murder by public execution. Married adulterers were stoned to death. In Kabul, punishments were carried out in front of crowds in the city’s former soccer stadium. Women, of course, were particular targets of Taliban restrictions. Women were prohibited from: working; taking a taxi without a close male relative; washing clothes in streams; or having their measurements taken by tailors. Employment for women was restricted to the medical sector, since male medical personnel were not allowed to examine women. But many female healthworkers found working conditions so heinous that they quit (many fled the country). This meant that women had little or no healthcare. Girls stops receiving public education and the loss of female teachers meant that primary schools were closed, affecting not only girls but boys. The most visible requirement, of course, was the fact that women were made to wear the burqa, a traditional dress covering the entire body except for a small screen to see out of. Homeowners were ordered to blacken their windows, so women would not be visible from the outside. And then there were many reports of women being beaten by the Taliban for violating the Sharia laws. Yet, these are days to which many Afghanis long to return because crime rates were lower. Constable continues:

“Today’s problem, which experts say is intertwined with widespread official corruption, opium trafficking and the get-rich-quick boom of postwar aid and reconstruction, is threatening to destroy public confidence in the government of President Hamid Karzai and drive away what little investment the desperately poor country is attracting. Police and soldiers are everywhere in Kabul — patrolling traffic circles and markets, cruising in open pickup trucks. Armed private guards stand outside newly built glass offices and wedding salons. Every week, more streets are blocked by massive concrete barricades to shelter embassies, official buildings and compounds used by U.S. and NATO forces.”

Unfortunately, those charged with preventing crime and protecting the population, asserts Constable, are in denial.

“‘The security situation is normal. Our police are honest and patriotic, and they are getting stronger day by day,’ Gen. Ali Shah Paktiawol, chief of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, said. … He dismissed concerns about growing urban insecurity as ‘enemy propaganda’ and said many so-called kidnappings turn out to be romantic elopements. [The day after making his remarks], Paktiawol narrowly escaped assassination when a remote-controlled bomb exploded under his vehicle on the outskirts of Kabul, where he had gone to investigate the late-night shooting of three policemen. The general escaped with minor injuries, but his three bodyguards were killed. Officials blamed the Taliban.”

Law enforcement, even in a developed country, is a difficult and challenging profession. The challenges in a place like Afghanistan are immense. Honest and courageous law enforcement personnel are often in the minority since the opportunities to be corrupted are everywhere. Unfortunately, when those charged with serving and protecting citizens are part of the problem development suffers. That is what is happening in Kabul.

“In the streets and shops of this sprawling city, many residents say they have virtually stopped going out at night. Wealthy families and traders such as Kunduzai have reported dozens of kidnappings for ransom this year — often by gangs they believe to be members of the security forces. The burgeoning drug trade, by which Afghan opium reaches international markets and provides more than 75 percent of the world’s heroin, has brought ever-more weapons and wealth into the criminal orbit, corrupting cooperative officials and eliminating scrupulous ones. … [In early September 2008], Alim Hanif, the chief judge of the country’s Central Narcotics Tribunal and a man known for rare honesty in a graft-ridden system, was assassinated in Kabul. Officials said he had received numerous phone and text messages warning him to acquit a suspected drug dealer or face death.”

If Taliban insurgents and criminal organizations were no
t enough to keep Afghani security forces busy, there are also traditional tribal militias to deal with.

“Another problem is the continued sway of militia bosses who fought Soviet troops in the 1980s and still command groups of armed loyalists in the capital and other cities. According to diplomatic reports, some of these groups are involved in private security forces that extort money from wealthy businesspeople; others are police or other public security officers who use their uniforms and weapons to abet a variety of crimes.”

Constable reports that crime and instability are high because the central government is weak. This is what Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart call the “sovereignty gap.” [See my post More on Dealing with Failed States]

“‘The government is weak, and it has an enormously high level of tolerance for crime, abuse and corruption,’ said Nader Nadery, an official of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. ‘If you have power and money, you don’t have to account for your actions. Instead of the rule of law, there is a state of impunity, which is one of the factors contributing to the growth of the Taliban.’ Although Taliban fighters routinely hang and behead people in rural areas, the growth of crime and the lack of justice are the reasons most frequently cited by Afghans who support the reconstituted Islamist militia. More and more, people here look back to the era of harsh Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, describing it as a time of security and peace.”

There are no easy answers for the situation in Afghanistan — historically there never have been. This a point made strongly by General McKiernan. As Tyson reports:

“McKiernan described Afghanistan as ‘a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq.’ The country’s mountainous terrain, rural population, poverty, illiteracy, 400 major tribal networks and history of civil war all make for unique challenges, he said.”

He also doesn’t characterize his request for more troops as a “surge.”

“‘The word I don’t use for Afghanistan is “surge,”‘ McKiernan stressed, saying that what is required is a ‘sustained commitment’ to a counterinsurgency effort that could last many years and would ultimately require a political, not military, solution.”

Increasing troop strength should help, but as McKiernan points out, without strengthening the central government, getting the cooperation of neighboring states, and, most importantly, garnering the support of Afghani citizens, getting the security situation under control will be difficult. Doing so, however, is essential if Afghanistan is going to development in a sustainable way.