Five years ago today, the United States opened a bombing campaign against Afghanistan intended to eliminate it as an Al Qaeda safe haven, and brought down the Taliban government with astonishing speed. Afghanistan has since served as the war on terror's poster child, a good example of what decisive military action, coupled with a firm takeover by local rulers, could accomplish. A parliamentary government headed by Hamid Karzai was installed, a new Afghan army outfitted, and reforms of the Taliban's despotic ruling edicts put into effect.
Recent announcements of the Taliban's resurgence across Afghanistan, including several lethal suicide bombings in the last month, may therefore come as not only disheartening but also puzzling news.
It shouldn't. The current upsurge in Taliban violence is far from spontaneous and actually reflects the fact that the Taliban never left.The U.S. military knew from the outset that truly ousting the Taliban would be difficult work. Seven months after the first American bombs were dropped, U.S. General John M. Keane, Vice Chief of the staff of the U.S. Army warned that: "It is going to be tough. This is a tough environment and these guys are not going to give up easy."
A year later, in May 2003, the Christian Science Monitor reported even more ominous signs:
Across the southern portions of Afghanistan, where the Taliban found strong support among the rural conservative Pashtun populations, there are definite signs that the Taliban are making a comeback. Some Taliban leaders, such as Salam and Taliban commander Mullah Muhammad Hasan Rehmani, are giving interviews once again. Others are dropping leaflets, calling for a jihad against US forces and against the new Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Still others are increasingly willing to discuss the secret hierarchy that is directing this jihad and the sources of funding that keep it running.
It's this confidence that undercuts recent assertions by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that major combat operations in Afghanistan are over, and that the focus will now be on reconstruction. "The general idea that was being put forward by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld last week, is that the Afghan military, backed by US forces, is engaged in mopping up some remnants of the past - that is not true," says Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University. "They [the Taliban] are now organizing for a new offensive, and they are still getting some support from Pakistan. Even if Pakistan is not cooperating directly, it is not cooperating in efforts to end the support that is coming from Pakistani territory."
Statements by President Karzai and U.S. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that the Taliban threat had been pacified in the winter of 2003-2004 were punctuated by several Taliban suicide bombings that killed Afghan aid workers and U.S. military personnel.In their wake, foreign policy analyst Mark Sedra observed that: "Far from marking the defeat of the Taliban, recent events have signaled a new phase in the antigovernment insurgency .... There is no established history of martyrdom operations in Afghanistan, but just as counter-terrorism tactics and strategies have assumed a transnational character, shared by states around the globe, so, too, have those of terrorist and insurgent groups. Further suicide attacks, which are unpredictable and virtually impossible to prevent, could deliver a severe blow to the state-building process."
The severity of the blow remains to be seen, but it is now indubitable that it has been struck.