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The rise and re-emergence of the Taliban!

Interesting Article: "How a Taliban Assassin Got Close Enough to Kill a General" by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, 2 November 2018. The New York Times.

An interesting article mentioned that a Taliban operation months in the making succeeded in breaching a high-level meeting, killing a powerful Afghan general and a provincial intelligence chief, wounding an Afghan governor and an American general — and barely missing the commander of United States and NATO forces and other officials standing nearby. The ambush last month also took the life of one the nation’s most important bulwarks against the Taliban: Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar Province. Just two days after the attack, an Afghan soldier was reported to have opened fire on NATO forces after an argument over the killing of General Raziq.

Aside from airstrikes, we largely retreated into a defensive posture in the weeks after the attack. Joint operations were cut back, and interactions between officials were mostly relegated to phone calls and heavily guarded meetings put in place new security protocols. Would you like to know more?

Unfortunately, Taliban governance doesn’t come after the capture of territory, it precedes it. The fact is the Taliban have strengthened their grip in Afghanistan over the past three years. The Afghan government currently controls or influences only 55.5% of the country's districts, marking the lowest level recorded since SIGAR began tracking district control in November 2015. Translated into layman's terms, the report measures "control" -- in which one side runs an area -- and "influence" -- in which one side has the upper hand. In November 2015, the Afghan government controlled 72% of districts in the country, but now controls just 56% of them. Insurgent influence or control has risen to 12.5% of districts from just 7% and approximately a third of Afghanistan is a "contested" area. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANDSF), who are tasked with defending the war-ravaged country from a continuing insurgency, have struggled to maintain personnel. The ANDSF is short of roughly 40,000 personnel -- or 11% -- of its target strength of 352,000 personnel.

In July, envoys opened direct talks with the Taliban in an effort to end conflict in Afghanistan. Talks between envoys and members of a Taliban political commission did take place that same month in Qatar. A Taliban participant in the talks said the discussion included proposals to allow Taliban free movement in two provinces (already rejected by Ghani) and from the US side that it be allowed military bases in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s recent parliamentary elections witnessed unprecedented violence by the Taliban, including the killing General Raziq, delaying voting by a week there.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which was aimed at General Miller. Even then around 4 million Afghans cast their votes despite the risk of violence. More than 400 women are running for seats in parliament, as also a large number of youth, the results of which are to be declared in mid-November. But the Taliban are explicitly clear that they don’t believe in the Afghan constitution; don’t believe in democracy; want all foreign troops out of Afghanistan; and will not lay down arms. Taliban control is on the rise in Afghanistan with support from Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran. The economic mess in Pakistan doesn’t mean it will stop exporting terror. Most Afghans are desperate for better lives, jobs, education and ending the war with the Taliban, but bringing the Taliban around may remain a chimera.

It has been reported that the Afghan government is essentially holding power in Kabul, while the Taliban are slowly building a shadow government in the provinces that could one day become the sole government of Afghanistan. Where the government and aid agencies provide public goods and services, the Taliban coopt and control them. Health and education in Taliban areas are a hybrid of NGO- and state-provided services, operating according to Taliban rules. Service delivery ministries have struck deals with local Taliban; most provincial or district-level government health or education officials interviewed said they were in direct contact with their Taliban counterparts, and some have even signed formal memoranda of understanding with the Taliban, outlining the terms of their cooperation.

Taliban health focal points monitor clinics, checking whether staff show up for work, docking their pay when they do not and inspecting equipment and medicine stocks. They also put pressure on NGOs to expand healthcare access in rural areas and improve the quality of services. In government schools, they regulate the state curriculum, vet teachers and school staff, monitor teacher attendance and observe classes. They regulate utilities and communications, collecting on the bills of the state electricity company in at least eight of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and controlling around a quarter of the country’s mobile phone coverage. Justice provision has also become increasingly far-reaching. Taliban taxes either coopt Islamic finance concepts, such as oshr and zakat, or mimic official state systems. The reach of Taliban governance demonstrates that they do not have to formally occupy territory to control what happens within it. Governance does not come after the capture of territory but precedes it. The Taliban’s influence on services and everyday life extends far beyond areas they can be said to control or contest. That the Taliban set the rules in vast swathes of the country is a reality with which few in the international community are willing to engage. While this research has significant implications for any future peace deal, the most urgent question is what can or should be done now to shape the rules for Afghans living under the Taliban.

Sixteen years after their fall from power, the Taliban have established a sophisticated system of parallel governance across Afghanistan. Few would have foreseen the sophistication and geographic reach of Taliban governance today, but even in 2011 they were attempting to broaden their influence through nascent attempts at governance. The Taliban leadership began to regroup in 2002 and 2003. Taliban sources consistently claimed that, by 2003, governing commissions had been established responsible for military affairs, culture, finance and political matters in exile in Pakistan.2 Military affairs and finance focused on fighting and financing the fight. The cultural affairs commission focused on media and communications: messaging, responding to press requests and running Taliban magazines and websites. Interviews in Afghanistan cast doubt that this level of planning and organization was in place so early. If these commissions existed prior to 2006 it was likely in name only, and the imposition of order and control over the organization of the insurgency was initially haphazard and took time. As the military side became more cohesive, attention turned to civilian aspects of the insurgency.

The first evidence of the Taliban shadow government inside Afghanistan was the presence of provincial military commanders and shadow provincial governors (alongside military and, later, civilian commissions, who provided advice and counsel to these positions, and later similar district structures). Some early military positions were slowly civilianized or became a hybrid military– civilian role. Judges were the first functional component of the Taliban’s insurgent service delivery, appearing around 2006. By 2010, there were 500 judges in circulation. Media and finance officials emerged around the same time, followed by health, education and other roles. It took time for these roles to function as intended. Early advances were set back by the US-led military surge that began in late 2010, and the US assassination campaign against mid- and high-level commanders. By 2012, most governors could not stay in their province of assignment for fear of being killed, so the degree to which they could ‘govern’ was limited. By the time of the research that was no longer the case, and Taliban shadow governors could take up residence in the great majority of provinces. The Taliban’s posture gradually changed as they gained more territory and internal control. Attacks on aid workers, schools and clinics attracted negative media coverage and made the Taliban appear disorganized and volatile.

The first edition of the layha, the Taliban code of conduct released in 2006, sought to counter this impression and demonstrate that the Taliban could impose order on their fighters. It set out a concise list of 30 rules designed to instill discipline and military coherence. However, as the Taliban evolved from a scrappy insurgency into an armed political movement with substantial influence across swathes of the south and east, later editions of the layha in 2009 and 2010 elaborated governance structures, including the roles of provincial and district governors and commissions. Provisions recommending attacks on teachers, schools and NGOs were replaced by stipulations compelling adherence to the ‘policies’ of the Islamic Emirate, including in education. Attitudes towards aid agencies and service providers also appear to have shifted.

In August 2007, Taliban leaders gave the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and their implementing partners permission to conduct polio campaigns; a letter issued in Mullah Omar’s name, and similar letters or directives for subsequent campaigns, instructed fighters to allow vaccinations and urged parents to have their children vaccinated. Polio vaccinations helped demonstrate the benefits of engaging with the international community on humanitarian issues. By 2011, the Taliban leadership had signed agreements with at least 26 aid organizations and elaborated a clear central policy for negotiating with NGOs. This was understood by most fighters on the ground, though adherence by local Taliban was uneven and aid agency access was clearly subordinate to military concerns. This included cutting off access or attacking aid workers over suspicions that aid agencies might be spying or otherwise acting against the Taliban.  In March 2017, the Taliban published its own estimate claiming that the Taliban controlled nearly 10% of the country’s districts, contested control in 48% and had significant influence in 15% (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, 2017).

As the Taliban gained influence the capacity to govern became a necessity in order to secure the population. Mansur prepared the Taliban structurally and ideologically to adapt to these new dynamics. The Taliban’s agility and ability to adapt have been remarkable. In talking with current and former members, it is clear that the Taliban did not have a ‘grand plan’ for governance. What began with a gradual recognition that unbridled violence would ultimately hurt their quest for popular support grew into more sophisticated planning, policy and structures. Members of the leadership and provincial officials at the time describe policy formation as iterative and ‘step by step’.

As well as reviving and restarting parts of their government, such as justice, the Taliban had to invent other systems through trial and error. Much of the process appears to be bottom-up and demand-led and influenced by local experience. The Taliban have also sought to correct many of the flaws and shortcomings that undermined their rule in the 1990s. The ban on women and girls attending school has been removed, though most Taliban officials insist no ban existed in the first place, and the Taliban have publicly stated that all women should have access to education. The ban on opium, which was disastrous during their time in government, is clearly no longer in place, but the Taliban are not keen to publicize this and downplay any opium connection publicly. There are more subtle differences too, such as their stated respect for other ethnic groups and their embrace of technology, limited though it may be.

In the spring of 2017 the Taliban orchestrated a coordinated pressure campaign on aid agencies and the Afghan government to improve healthcare across at least 14 provinces. The strategic nature of this push indicates surprisingly sophisticated coordination, planning and coherence. The Taliban also demonstrated comprehensive knowledge of the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS), the national healthcare programme led by the government and implemented by NGOs. Part of the problem with health access is that most major facilities, as per BPHS planning, are located in cities and district centers.

This makes sense to the extent that this is where the most people live, but these areas are also generally controlled by the government. The Taliban’s argument was that government areas had better access and better-quality healthcare than Taliban areas. Taliban demands included more staff, new equipment and the establishment of hospitals or sub-centers in areas with inferior facilities. In some cases, health facilities closed down during negotiations to come to new terms. In Kunduz a settlement was quickly and quietly reached, while in Laghman health clinics were closed for 45 days and in Uruzgan for three months.

Was the push for better healthcare about battlefield concerns or about services to civilians? The answer is probably a little of both. Better treatment for fighters and their families improves battlefield resilience, morale and recruitment, and the Taliban have certainly got better in this regard. In the past fighters were transported to Pakistan, but this was dangerous and insufficient to address critical trauma. Now each of the Taliban’s ten military command zones has medical treatment corridors and mechanisms with dedicated focal points to manage transport and treatment.

There has been clear pressure on NGO health providers to provide trauma care, and doctors and nurses are routinely called in from nearby cities to treat fighters in remote areas.57 Another common practice is compelling nurses or clinic staff to perform minor surgeries beyond their qualifications or the capacities of the facility.

For the Taliban, control of people – rather than control of territory or popular support – is the priority. They seek to control the population, mainly to prevent people from informing upon them or acting against them. They use governance to keep the population at least marginally satisfied, and this, in combination with their coercive power, helps secure the population in areas under their influence or control.

As such, the provision of public goods and strict regulations on personal behavior are driven by ideology but are also designed to control the population. The Taliban use outright violence against those they perceive as a threat, which in turn sends a message to the rest of the civilian population about what happens to those who might act against them.

The fact is the Taliban have also simply got better and savvier about managing external perceptions. As one ex-Taliban official commented, ‘they know the rules now. They want their people to be educated because they see the advantage, and they know how to manipulate the media’. They are more sophisticated and their packaging more professional: glossy publications, spokesmen who respond rapidly to enquiries via WhatsApp, Twitter accounts, videos with slick production and a website in several languages. Certainly, what they say on their website often differs from the accounts given by Afghans living under Taliban control. What any change in Taliban policy means for Afghans and the future of Afghanistan requires looking beyond what the Taliban say, or even what they did in the past, and critically examining what they do on the ground now.

The challenge for us now is to figure out how to engage with the Taliban in a politically feasible and strategic way. One that involves the limiting of their movements, targeted damage of their leaders and the general counter approaches available to sow discord among their ranks.



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