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What's the status of the Taliban?

Don't Panic: Your War Questions Answered

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Like it still is for pimps, it used to be hard out there for a Taliban.

After the United States' Operation Enduring Freedom drove them from power in Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban appeared to be a spent force. Much of their leadership was killed or captured, while most of the rest were forced into hiding. Within a few weeks, the Taliban had gone from rulers of a country that's bigger than Iraq to rulers of some rocks barely bigger than a ruler.

In December 2001, Afghan leaders meeting in Germany signed the Bonn Agreement, a loose framework via which Afghanistan's long-warring ethnic and tribal groups agreed to work with the international community to transform Afghanistan into a constitutional democracy. The Taliban were not a party to agreement.

By 2002, the US was describing its military work in Afghanistan against the Taliban as mere mopping up actions. Although the Taliban's nominal leader, Mullah Omar, had not been captured, the Taliban were nevertheless weak. Depending on the reports, the number of men that the Taliban could put into battle at any given time was somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred. The Taliban weren't dead, but they were close.

Now, fast-forward to 2006.

During the spring, the Taliban mounted their largest military offensive since they were booted from power. The group can now field between 6,000 and 12,000 fighters, and can apparently recruit with ease. British Defence Minister Des Browne has just described the Taliban as energized. Ahmed Rashid, the brilliant Pakistani journalist whose book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia warned the world about the danger of the Taliban a full year-and-a-half before 9/11, recently wrote that the Taliban were a revived movement "that has made a third of the country [Afghanistan] ungovernable."

What happened to allow the Taliban to arise from the almost-dead?

Nothing happened.

That's the problem -- nothing happened.

The same Afghan leaders and international community members who promised to hold Afghanistan's hand and help it rebuild never actually did what they said they would do.

Barnett R. Rubin's March 2006 report for the Council on Foreign Relations titled "Afghanistan's Uncertain Transition from Turmoil to Normalcy" explains what hasn't happened:

• The United States has failed to commit military forces adequate for rebuilding and stabilizing Afghanistan. Afghanistan's weak central government has also failed. The result: The Taliban movement was able to re-incubate in the same parts of southern Afghanistan from which it originally emerged.

• The international community has failed to halt Afghanistan's opium production. Opium now accounts for roughly half of Afghanistan's GDP. Money from the opium trade not only funds Taliban fighters, but it has fueled high-level corruption in Afghanistan's government.

Efforts to eradicate opium production by interdiction or destroying crops in the fields have only inspired more dislike for Afghanistan's government and Western forces. In much of rural Afghanistan, growing opium is the only way people can make a living. Taking away their living without giving them anything in return pisses them off and drives them into the arms of the Taliban.

• Iraq. Iraq drew away some of, if not most of, the US's counterinsurgency capability from Afghanistan. Iraq also has become a training ground for Taliban. Al-Qaeda has helped connect Taliban fighters with veterans of Iraq's insurgency.

Their evil synergy has expressed itself most forcefully in the form of suicide bombings. There have been 40 suicide bombings in Afghanistan in the past four months. There were five in the preceding five years. Overall, insurgent attacks have quadrupled since 2002.

• Afghanistan's government is weak and corrupt. While many in the new government have conspicuously enriched themselves, life for everyday Afghans hasn't much improved. Five years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is still, by objective, internationally accepted measurements, among the most miserable places on Earth to live.

The Taliban are resurgent, in large part, because as awful as they are, for many they'd be an improvement.

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