Essential Reading on Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 2/11/2011 · 6 comments

CJ Chivers has been on a tear lately about Afghanistan, writing excellent reports of the fighting and the U.S. military’s efforts to triumph over it. On Sunday, he ran a lengthy article about the Taliban’s shadow government in Ghazni.

On one level, the Taliban has firmly re-established its hold over civilian life in rural Ghazni. Even with an American battalion patrolling Andar and the neighboring Deh Yak District each day, the Taliban runs 28 known schools; circulates public statements by leaflets at night; adjudicates land, water-rights and property disputes through religious courts; levies taxes on residents; and punishes Afghans labeled as collaborators…

American officers said the Taliban’s influence grew in a vacuum: there had been an almost complete absence of government-provided services here since the Taliban were unseated in the American-led invasion of 2001…

On another level, the Taliban fights. Task force analysts estimate that the Taliban can field roughly 400 fighters in Andar and Deh Yak, which have a combined population of perhaps 150,000 people.

The fighters harass Afghan and American forces and pursue a campaign of intimidation against residents who cooperate with, or even acknowledge, the central government. Dressing as civilians, they battle Western forces with a familiar script: using small ambushes and makeshift bombs with minimal risk and conducting the occasional rocket or mortar attack.

Really, it defies easy excerpting, and is worth reading in full. This is one of the most complete portraits of the Taliban’s system of rule I’ve read in public. It’s also very surprising that the unit Chivers was embedded with would reveal this much about their intelligence capabilities (but that’s perhaps a different story). Basically, the Taliban in Ghazni have been able to accomplish what the government in Kabul has not: a network of functioning public schools, a rules-based judicial system that even addresses water rights, and an effective system of taxation.

This does not come cheaply, as the Taliban also behave brutishly toward those who do not buy into this system. But it is there, and it is difficult to ignore what the Americans in Ghazni are, in effect doing: they are destroying the functional, if brutal government and replacing it with a non-functional one. Afghan governments at the local level usually only function so long as they have a large and well-funded American presence breathing down their necks; once they leave, or once the money stops, so too does governance. We haven’t figured out how to connect the dots yet, definitely not as well as the Taliban have. This is deeply worrying when we consider what that means for the “appeal” of a chaotic Kabul as opposed to the appeal of the violent but predictable Taliban rule.

Chivers follows up with a heartbreaking story of a young Afghan boy who, for reasons unknown, dashed into a firefight to steal an assault rifle and was killed by U.S. troops. “He was a legally justifiable target,” Chivers explains. “But was he really a fighter?” We can’t know—and his family will (and apparently has) offered a variety of explanations for why he was out there. I don’t see a great moral outrage in the incident; but Chivers’ framing of it is interesting: he assumes, at least at the very end, that this kid was sent by the Taliban, and wonders what it says about “the movement.” I’d be curious: which movement? He’s right to wonder just what it means, especially when we think about how many 14-year old boys are “apprenticing” for the Afghan policy and army.

Accompanying these dispatches is a haunting photo essay by Tyler Hicks. The photos themselves are beautiful, but looking at them I’m struck by something: if these are, indeed, indicative of the war… then the war is mostly scared-looking Afghans huddling underneath camouflaged Americans carrying guns. I’m not sure that’s the impression Hicks wanted to leave, or the U.S. military for that matter, but that’s what shines through these images.

MEANWHILE, further south, Abubakar Siddique has also been filing excellent articles from Kandahar. He wrote a lengthy feature article about a controversial topic in this space: the civilian victims of the fighting in Kandahar and the pace at which reconstruction can repair their lives.

But the relief Wahid felt after a much-publicized offensive conducted by NATO and Afghan government troops pushed the Taliban from Kandahar last year is tempered by the toll the joint effort took on his livelihood. Part of Wahid’s orchard was flattened by heavy military vehicles, destroying hundreds of fruit trees. Two of the water pumps he depends on to irrigate his soil were destroyed during chaotic fighting.

In the hope of garnering enough compensation to restore their lives, Wahid and fellow villagers have spent days wading through bureaucracy at various government offices in Kandahar. But while “our losses run into hundreds of thousands of [Afghanis],” Wahid says, “they are offering us [only] thousands.”

If the ultimate objective of the months-long offensive in Kandahar was to win over the hearts and minds of locals, then their continued skepticism and anticipation of a Taliban return points to failure.

This is a dramatic departure from the war boosterism Tom Ricks continues to run at his blog. Siddique then ran a piece on the Alex & Felix NYU article on the Taliban, and finds a surprising (to me, at least) analysis:

Kabul-based Afghan analyst Waheed Mozhdah once served with the Afghan Foreign Ministry under the Taliban regime a decade ago… Mozhdah says that, unlike Iraqi insurgents, the Afghan Taliban did not allow Al-Qaeda to engage in large-scale destruction or foment a civil war among the Sunni and Shi’a sects, a development that wreaked havoc in Iraq. But their alliance has a strong religious flavor that needs to be addressed further.

“For the Taliban, Islam has always been central, while ethnicity and nationalism are secondary. This is their ideology. That is why the foreigners who were ideologically closer to them were preferred in comparison to the Afghans who were not educated in the madrasahs and didn’t meet their ideological worldview,” Mozdah said.

That latter part is actually something I’ve argued before (say, in reaction to the erroneous assertion that the war in Afghanistan is ethnic or driven by Pashtun nationalism). But the former part, about the Taliban reigning in al Qaeda and preventing them from trying to trigger a full-on civil war the way they did in Iraq is brand new to me. I should be more precise and say I’ve heard random people gossip that that was so, but never someone who might actually know. If true, that introduces a new understanding to the relationship between the two groups—and, I think, makes it more likely, rather than less likely, that a deal with the Taliban could cut out al Qaeda from the area… and thus satisfy one of our primary criteria for “success” in the war.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Tintin February 11, 2011 at 12:02 pm

That was a very open and helpful battalion and I’m sorry to see them go.

Burk February 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Wouldn’t one conclude that, rather than hand the country over to the Taliban, we need to replace the Karzai regime? The Afghan people are desperate for good governance, which national government version 1.0 has not provided.

The last thing we (or the Afghans) need is another theocracy, however native. Just how chastened and moderate would the Taliban be if they chased the US out of the country?

Joshua Foust February 11, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I think that would be the best solution, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever argued for “handing the country over to the Taliban,” but I do think it’s important to understand what attacking their shadow governments actually entails. If you stop viewing it as “defeating rebels” and instead see it as one competitive government displacing another, you have a whole different set of actions and preferences that will make more sense than throwing a bunch of troops at something.

That’s really what I’m getting at.

Oliver February 11, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Excellent and intelligent coverage. As I read it, I began wondering if a possible solution is negotiating a series of “separate peaces” at the local level, in lieu of a comprehensive national solution. The Karzai government is too flawed and mistrusted to be the answer.

Why not cut a series of local deals with Taliban? My understanding is that there are varying stripes of Taliban, not all of which are violent. Can we work with the moderates to establish pacified zones within Afghanistan?

I don’t understand the realities on the ground well enough to know if this is a realistic option and would be curious to hear others’ comments on the viability of this approach.

Joe Dixon February 13, 2011 at 7:25 am

This sounds like a great idea. Reading the NYT piece that Joshua cited first, this seems like a great opportunity to use classical counterinsurgency tactics (building a rapport with the locals, supplying better government than the Taliban can offer, etc.)

I think the difficulty with the Karzai government, the way I see it, is that it was installed nine or so years ago, reinstated by means of a questionable election, and utterly incapable of fulfilling the task of supplying any of the services that a ‘state’ might provide.

The security situation remains too dangerous for anything like civil society to operate. It seems that ISAF (led by the US) is trying to ‘fast-track’ the counterinsurgency efforts, at the cost of not achieving long-term stability.

Perhaps separate peaces would enable to government to start bringing some groups ‘in from the cold’ and to make up for the Haqqani debacle of 2006 (See Harpviken, 2010 pg 23 [pdf]).

I too would be interested to hear comments.

Great post, Joshua!

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