Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Taliban Atrocities and Afghanistan’s Future

by Isobel Coleman
August 29, 2012

Afghan police and locals gather at the site of a bomb blast in Kandahar province on August 28, 2012 (Ahmad Nadeem/Courtesy Reuters). Afghan police and locals gather at the site of a bomb blast in Kandahar province on August 28, 2012 (Ahmad Nadeem/Courtesy Reuters).


This has been a particularly grisly week in Afghanistan. On Sunday night, Taliban insurgents in the conservative southern province of Helmand beheaded seventeen people—fifteen men and two women—who were attending a party that involved music and mixed-gender dancing. The killings were so gruesome that the central Taliban leadership is denying its involvement in the atrocity, claiming local leaders in the area knew nothing about the attack.

This official denial could be a sign that the group is trying to soften its image as the possibility of peace negotiations continues; or it could be simply another indication of lack of discipline on the part of Taliban foot soldiers. Just a few weeks ago, Mullah Omar, the reclusive one-eyed leader of the Taliban, issued a Ramadan missive telling his followers that it’s a religious obligation to “employ tactics that do not cause harm to life and property of the common countrymen.” Omar’s inspiration for this “kinder, gentler” approach to civilians was no doubt sparked by growing anger across the country against Taliban brutality. In one high profile incident in June, Taliban members in a town near Kabul publicly executed a woman accused of adultery, shooting her at close range in front of some 150 men and videotaping her death. The videotape went viral, fanning outrage across the country.  By any measure, brutally killing and beheading 17 young people seems to be a violation of Omar’s order.

The fact is that the Taliban are a violent, radical group that will not refrain from heinous violence to impose their extremism on the country. With the ongoing drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan, they are stepping up attacks on Afghan troops and civilians alike in a show of force. Hours after the beheadings, Taliban fighters overran an Afghan army post, also in Helmand, killing 10 Afghan troops. Such attacks are likely to escalate in coming months as more American troops depart the country.

Sadly, after more than thirty years of war, it is unlikely that Afghanistan is going to get a negotiated peace. While some Taliban fighters are no doubt weary of fighting, for others it is all they know, and they think they will be able to capture the whole country once the foreign troops leave. Even if a peace can be negotiated, it is unlikely that the treacherous Taliban will adhere to it. Just about a year ago, a Taliban member visited the home of Burhanuddin Rabanni, a former Afghan president and the leader of the country’s High Peace Council, under the pretext of peace negotiations. He exploded a bomb hidden in his turban, assassinating  Rabbani and yet again derailing peace talks. These are not people who can be trusted as good-faith negotiators.

Still, this is the Afghans’ war. America has lost 2,000 troops there over the past decade, and sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into the country, with too little to show for it.  Our nation-building efforts have been nothing short of a fool’s errand. But walking away at this stage would also be a terrible mistake. The Afghan government will need continued U.S. military assistance to prevent the Taliban from once again overrunning the country. Leaving a small contingent there for training and intelligence will be imperative, as will continued economic assistance.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Nikos Retsos

    The Taliban atrocities didn’t happen before we occupied Afghanistan. Let’s be fair and say that the U.S. invasions to establish U.S. military bases and puppet regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and squeeze Iran in the middle into submission has failed miserably. Upon realization of this failure, we speeded up our extrication from Iraq, but Obama couldn’t afford losing his re-election bid with a quick non-face-saving withdrawal from Afghanistan. That would have become an albatross on his neck now, and Romney would have sailed to the white house easily!

    Grisly atrocities in Afghanistan cut both ways, but let’s be fair and state the obvious. Afghans enlist in the Afghan army for the salary, because the U.S. occupation has turned their tribal, bazaar, and pastoral way of living up-side down. Then, the U.S. army put them in front of military operations with orders to kill the Taliban, while the U.S. forces are behind them as back up. The Afghans do not want to kill their own countrymen for a salary, but if they don’t the Americans in the back may execute them as traitors or Taliban infiltrators into the Afghan army. Many Afghan recruits fight unwillingly, while others crack and turn their guns on their foreign enforcers. After all, all Afghans are pious Muslims, and they hate to be under “hunt and kill Taliban” orders by “infidels” foreign enforcers.

    History repeats itself in Afghanistan because our political establishment has learned “nothing” from the the disastrous Soviet invasion there in 1979. Nikos Retsos, retired professor

  • Posted by Barack Obama

    how and what do you know about the state of afghan before US “occupation”? and what exactly are you saying now? US should hunting taliban? they killed 17 innocent people for god sake!! afghan recruits are fighting against taliban, they are fighting for their country, they are fighting so that no innocent people will die like these 17 dead people.

  • Posted by Crazy Horse

    Your assertion that the Taliban didn’t commit atrocities before 2001 doesn’t comport with history. The Taliban fought their way into power and used brutal tactics (nominally sanctioned by Islam)to consolidate and hold it. Perhaps your threshold for what constitutes an “atrocity” is far higher than mine.
    The Afghan’s “tribal, bazaar, and pastoral way of life” was turned upside down by thirty-plus years of war. In fact, the Taliban – by killing local tribal and municipal leadership and coopting or killing the local mullahs – contributed greatly to this decline.

  • Posted by Matt

    But Omar issued a decree when we issued our new ROE in 09 the battle for hearts and minds began. However the atrocities continued on the ground on the Taliban side. That was part of our strategy we knew at that time we did not have the force structure to protect the civilian population.

    So we were reliant on the Talib to turn the population our way, it was modeled on the IRA, which had to stop some mass casualty attacks, and targeted killings of civilians. Due to the fact they lost support of the population. So the objective is as we use our ROE, support turns to us, the Talib are in a catch 22, they need to use violence to prevent the civilians population turning our way via the WHAM and COIN. which further pushes them to our side. So the shadow governors and local commanders could not enforce Omar’s decree and to retain control they had to use violence. Same as the VC during Nam pencils in ears, inoculated arms cut off, killings etc.

    Due to the lack force structure you could see the insurgency move into other provinces, so it would not be until 2012 that the 160,000 ISAF and 400,000 ANSF, plus the LDI’s 560,000 plus could fan out and saturate the provinces taking the oxygen out of the insurgency, a 12 month surge. Forcing the insurgents to the table to negotiate a political solution.

    The statistics should a decrease in killings of civilians and a spike by the Taliban once we put the ROE into place. Making the coalition more popular, decreasing support for the shadow government structure.

    As with the IRA which had a shadow government in place for many years a key to getting one side to the negotiating table is to deconstruct the shadow government.

    One it decreases the enemies ability to generate money, taxes fighters, safe havens, intelligence, resources. Which leads to the collapse of the shadow government. As long as the insurgents have a alternate governance system in operation they will not negotiate with the legitimate alternate government.

    The first point to bring them to negotiate is to force them to acknowledge that the system is legitimate and the only system of governance. As long as they have a viable alternate shadow government they will not compromise and the war will go on.

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