The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan has told UK Channel 4 he expects the military campaign there to last another three to five years. British Lieutenant-General David Richards took command of the 8,000-strong NATO force last month and is talking up NATO’s role in the troubled country. However he refused to speculate on whether British troops would remain in Afghanistan for the duration of the campaign.
Richards’ pessimistic outlook comes almost five years after the US launched what they called “Operation Enduring Freedom” to oust the Taliban government. That operation was a direct result of the 9/11 attacks. A shell-shocked America needed to respond quickly. Afghan based Al-Qaeda was identified as the culprits and American troops were deployed to countries surrounding Afghanistan within days of the attacks. President Bush outlined their objective “the destruction of terrorist training camps and infrastructure within Afghanistan, the capture of al Qaeda leaders, and the cessation of terrorist activities’. Britain also called for the same ends but added “the removal of Mullah Omar and the Taliban Regime”. By late October the US-led Coalition had destroyed virtually all Taliban air defences and raided the residence of Mullah Omar in the Taliban stronghold, Kandahar. The Taliban fled from the capital Kabul in November that year ending their five year rule.
In the 90s, many people were astonished by the rapid success of the Taliban. Taliban is the Persian word for “students”. These students were Afghan refugees and former mujahadeen studying Shari’ah law in the madaris (religious colleges) of Pakistan. They took on and beat the Northern Alliance. Their conquest began in October 1994, when 200 Taliban seized the Afghan border post of Spin Baldak. Less than a month later the Taliban attacked Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Within 48 hours, the city was theirs. They maintained momentum and ruled all of Afghanistan from 1996 to 9/11. The Taliban banned all forms of television, imagery, music and sports. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended Afghanistan from the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Men had to wear beards at a specified length while women were obliged to wear the burqa in public. In March 2001, the Taliban attracted the ire of UNESCO when they ordered the demolition of two statues of Buddha carved into cliff sides at Bamiyan one 1800 years old and the other a mere 1500.
However not all of the Taliban’s impact was negative. Afghanistan is the world’s leading supplier of opium and produces more of the stuff than all other countries combined. Almost one third of its GDP is from the opium crop. In 2001 U.N. drug control officers said the Taliban religious militia had almost completely wiped out opium production in since banning poppy cultivation in 2000. That year Afghanistan produced nearly 4,000 tons of opium, about 75 percent of the world's supply. Opium is the milky substance drained from the poppy plant and is then is converted into heroin and sold in Europe and North America. But the fall of the Taliban allowed the old warlords to make enormous profits in the poppy crop. Opium production has now risen to pre-Taliban levels.
But just like Afghan heroin, the Taliban itself is now making a comeback. In May, over 200 people were killed in fierce fighting in southern Afghanistan. It was the worst bout of violence since the defeat of the Taliban and the opening shots in a promised Taliban Summer offensive to deter the promised additional NATO troops from deploying in southern Afghanistan. The additional troops are required because the US is withdrawing 3,000 troops before the November congressional elections. The Hamed Karzai government in Kabul is angry with Washington, and also frustrated at the US attitude toward Pakistan. Senior Nato officials believe that Pakistan’s military regime is turning a blind eye to Taliban recruitment and control taking place in Baluchistan province. Pakistan is insisting it is doing what it can to reign in the Taliban but is concerned that the US and Afghanistan are allowing traditional enemy India to launch insurgencies to destabilise Pakistan. Although this sounds far-fetched, Pakistani President Musharraf will use this excuse to forge alliances with pro-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and some of the lawless areas of his own country such as Baluchistan and Waziristan. With the US distracted by events in Iraq and Iran, and a European Nato unwilling or unable to deploy sufficient forces to address the issues, it is likely that the Taliban will regain de facto control of southern Afghanistan and probably regain Kabul sometime in the next ten years.