KABUL â€“ In 2001, when the Taliban was abruptly toppled, there was no armistice.
No surrender was ever signed. No declaration of defeat conceded.
It seemed not to matter that much, then. It matters now.
The Taliban was ostensibly, and in fact, trashed, its command hierarchy skulking off to the frontier regions of northwest Pakistan to lick their wounds. And, with the passage of time, left largely unmolested in their foreign redoubts, to connive, to regroup.
Six years ago, after the capital’s liberation, the routed Taliban held not a single acre of Afghanistan soil.
Today, the roundly accepted estimate â€“ not necessarily accurate but asserted as such by no less than the U.S. director of national intelligence â€“ is that Taliban forces control 10 per cent of the country.
The government led by Western-backed President Hamid Karzai, its authority propped up by NATO and American troops, has purported control over 30 per cent of Afghanistan territory. Warlords, who may or may not align themselves with Kabul â€“ depends on which way the wind is blowing â€“ essentially lay claim to all the rest.
These are rule-of-thumb generalizations, often cited by critics who bemoan Afghanistan’s regression to patchwork fiefdom and lawlessness, the Taliban insurgency resurrected like a phoenix from the ashes of a vanquished, deranged regime.
“Those percentages of what the Taliban hold drive me crazy,” Christopher Alexander counters heatedly. “Because they don’t hold anything, really. There are some places where they hold out, where they’re holed up. And they’re able to do so because there isn’t an active challenge to their presence. None of that means that they’re in control.”
Alexander, a boyish 39, has been on the ground in Afghanistan for 4 years, first as Canada’s ambassador and latterly as deputy special representative of the secretary-general of the United Nations: The No. 2 guy for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
Few outsiders know the Byzantine intricacies of this godforsaken nation better.
At a time of international weariness over any practical resolutions for the chaotic dilemma that Afghanistan remains, Alexander is jarringly optimistic. He might be accused of blue-sky dreaminess, but he’s too well-informed to be dismissed as naÃ¯ve or wilfully blind.
For one thing, he knows the Taliban. Quite a few of its commanders have, if furtively, come to this very office, sat in these comfortable chairs, and broached the subject of an honourable truce, if not necessarily for the entire insurgency, then at least for themselves.
“That doesn’t mean reconciliation is happening. But it does mean the demand for it has grown,” Alexander says.
Such tentative overtures in the past two years â€“ both to UNAMA and the Karzai government â€“ is not being done from a position of strength. If the neo-Taliban were that hardy, none of its members would be seeking reintegration.
“Why are they making these approaches? First and foremost because they’re afraid for their life and limb. The commanders, in particular, feel that the Afghan forces, and ISAF, are zeroing in on them, as the command-and-control of the insurgency, much more successfully. The more they get promoted in the hierarchy, the more likely they are not going to survive.
“Secondly, a lot of these men, even though they’re still fighting, even though they’re still pretty angry with the government, can see that their cause is not leading anywhere.”
For all that the media focuses on ostensible Taliban achievements, they have not, in fact, taken or maintained control of any territory where forces â€“ national and international â€“ have been deployed to push back. Even in Helmand province, the insurgency’s heart, the Taliban are on their back foot with the recent arrival of aggressively on-the-offence U.S. Marines, driving insurgents downwards to the Pakistan border, whence most came.
A keyhole view is often favourable to the Taliban as the shadow-government in this district or that region. They get big splashes with increasing IED attacks and suicide bombings, especially now aimed at Kabul. That ratchets up the terror and discourages foreign investment but has not brought the Taliban any closer to regaining power. That, remember, is their objective â€“ to drive out NATO, usurp or assassinate Karzai, shred the Constitution, dissolve Parliament and reimpose their puritanical dominion.
They are not remotely close to doing so.
If the situation often looks to the world as if Afghanistan is sliding back toward the insurgency’s clutches â€“ it could happen but is hugely unlikely â€“ that’s not a view shared by Taliban realists, who do not believe their own propaganda.
“They know what success looks like,” Alexander reminds.
This is a crucial point often forgotten in fretfulness over Afghanistan.
“Many of them were around the block in ’94, ’95, ’96, when they marched triumphantly to Herat and then to Kabul, when they cruised to victory, in a sense. This is very different. They are challenged from the moment they cross the border, let alone in the environs of Kabul or downtown Kandahar.
“Publicly, the Taliban set all these objectives: In 2006, Kandahar was going to fall. In 2007, Kabul would fall. None of that happened.
“The smarter ones, who are more realistic, see the writing on the wall. And the ideologues, the ones who want to die fighting, are a pretty small minority. They make the videos but they’re not setting foot in Afghanistan because it’s too dangerous for them. They’re back in Peshawar and Quetta.”
What Taliban commanders learned last year â€“ when several key leaders were killed â€“ is that NATO, the Afghan forces, and in particular the National Directorate of Security (the Afghan intelligence agency) has penetrated their communication network, the lifeline of command-and-control, and infiltrated their ranks, just as the Taliban and their sympathizers had successfully co-opted the Ministry of the Interior at a senior level and some vectors of the military.
“Even their high-profile guys can’t trust their own entourages, can’t use a cellphone or any other kind of communication . . . it’s too risky. And they have to communicate.”
From where Alexander sits â€“ a perspective admittedly not shared by many outside the country, and assuredly not by most civilians in the volatile south â€“ the insurgency has plateaued. It’s particularly reckless and a sign of desperation to turn that insurgency on Kabul.
“I’m not saying that this conflict is ending. Nor am I predicting that the going will be easy in Kandahar and Helmand. But within the borders of Afghanistan, the Taliban are losing momentum because they’re being challenged in more places, both politically and militarily.”
Also, crucially, there is just no stomach among the overwhelming majority of Afghans to be plunged back into that dark past.
“People are remarkably un-nostalgic about the Taliban days.”
It’s one of the oldest lessons in the book; one that every small-town boy learns while he’s growing up. Got a problem with a bully? The solution’s simple: start swinging and don’t stop until he cries like a girl. It’s real easy to push others around when they aren’t fighting back, but once you find that you’re going to have to take your lumps every damned time, you start to think twice. And all bullies are essentially cowards at the core.