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Afghanistan: What Explains Taliban Staying Power?

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The U.S. war in Afghanistan is one of three U.S. wars against low-income countries (Vietnam war and Iraq war) which posed no security threat to the U.S. All parties sustained enormous damages in blood and wealth. In retrospect, the projection of U.S power and influence was superfluous and had no purpose.

Nevertheless, it will be instructive to understand the staying power of the "rag-tag" Afghan Taliban against the awesome military might of the most powerful superpower the world has ever known -- the U.S. military. Ostensibly, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is finally winding down after the longest American war in U.S. history. The decision to wind down American engagement in Afghanistan was announced by U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon E. Panetta, in a surprise announcement early this month that the U.S. plans to wind down its combat role in Afghanistan a year earlier and turn it over to Afghan forces.

Moreover, the U.S. has encouraged the Taliban to peace talks in Qatar both to end the war and ostensibly formulate a coalition government that would end tribal and ethnic violence in the country. The U.S. move is indeed a wise one to stop the bleeding wound (over 2000 U.S. soldiers dead and some 20,000 injured) and loss of direct wealth of approximately $264 billion ($2 billion per month for 132 months). It is an opportunity for the U.S. to declare victory over the Taliban, take its losses, quit and end this unwinnable war.

The Taliban sustained enormous losses over the last 10+ years of resistance including 396,000 dead, 792,000 inured and 65,000 civilian casualties plus destruction of some 12,000 villages.
In light of this destruction, why did the Taliban not bend? Following are a number of socio-cultural and ethnic traits that shed some light on the issue.

  1. The Taliban are of Pashtun tribe residing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pashtun tribe is the largest single tribe in the world (approximately 27 million). They conquered India seven times and were invaded by Alexander the Great, the Mongols. Great Britain (four times), the Soviet Union, and the United States. It is the graveyard of empires. It is axiomatic that the way a nation/people perceives its history is a strong influence of whether its society can resist foreign domination. Taliban belief that history is on their side is an invaluable moral asset in resisting a desperate war against an "invader" possessing massive advantage in mobility, fire power, wealth and political cohesion.
  2. The U.S. reached the same conclusion as Great Britain did during the 1980s -- that the volatility of Afghan politics and the costs of maintaining large armies in a remote and difficult countryside (twice the size of Texas) is prohibitive. The Soviet soldiers (1979-89) occupied every one of the 36,000 villages and the minute they withdrew they lost the village. Afghans in general despises foreign occupation causing regular army soldiers not to shoot at Taliban and to make secret accommodations. As a result the Taliban shadow government in many provinces of Afghanistan is ruling.
  3. Whenever there is a vast difference in the fire power of invaders and local resistance, the Afghans have adhered to guerrilla warfare of hit and run as they did against the Soviet forces and as they are doing now against the U.S. forces. The stoic acceptance of death against superior firepower explains the courage and physical toughness of the Taliban. These qualities were attested to by their British opponent during the Anglo-Afghan wars.
  4. Family is the most important unit of social organization and it is impermeable and self-contained unit, extending to clan and tribe. The system is egalitarian and democratic and individualistic. Despite varied ethnic and linguistic groups, their value system is congruent in matters affecting their freedom, dignity, and religion. Any system that attacks the integrity and honor of the Afghan family-clan- tribe is bound to face severe retaliation. Those members of the family/clan/tribe who get killed in resistance are viewed as martyrs and the living members are expected to pursue resistance to the end.
  5. The Taliban are not fanatical about ideologies or political causes. They are traditional Moslems and have a strong belief in the concept of fairness. They reject invasion by foreign forces as unfair and will resist at any cost. The most prized values in Afghan culture are bravery in combat. However, they do have a propensity to settle difference with enemies if it is fair. At times, however, they are stubborn, inflexible and superb bargainers; they will adhere to a position, even if unreasonable. To the bitter end.

It follows that the prospective peace negotiation with the Taliban in Qatar could suffer from communication and structural dissonance if the cultural imperatives are not appropriately considered. For a successful outcome, the negotiators shall be treated with dignity and respect keeping in mind that the political culture of Afghans rejects external authority and emphasizes freedom and independence. The culture is impermeable to the imposition of alien rule. It is doubtful to get Taliban acquiescence to a coalition government with Karzai, if they have any role in government, the current malaise of corruption, drug production, warlords, and drug lords will be eliminated.