The Taliban were back by 2004, though in small numbers.
In the beginning, the Taliban were rural and educated in Deobandi madrasas preaching a rigorous and puritanical vision of Islam that had been encouraged during General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship in Pakistan in the 1970s. As Pashtuns, they were embraced by the population, especially in the Pashtun area in the south. Their legitimacy was supported by restored security and stemmed from sharia law. This was perfectly suited to the rural world.
The state that the Taliban had set up since 1996 allowed them to control more than eighty percent of a country that in the absence of economic growth relied on a subsistence economy, hence on the countryside. The Taliban state was mostly confined to a sterile and formal moralism and allowed itself to be drawn by al-Qaeda into global jihadism, where it had nothing to gain. The price was paid shortly after September 11. Military defeat came quickly and, contrary to Mullah Omar’s expectations, his troops were not given the opportunity of a face-off with US infantrymen.
In addition, the Taliban’s allies were accomplices of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former leader of the Hezb-e-Islami movement, which had been the greatest beneficiary of US aid (the group was directly responsible for the Uzbin Valley ambush, which had resulted in ten French casualties). Lastly, the Haqqani network (which had originated in Paktia) was well established in both Paktika and in Paktia.
Reorganized by Pakistan, the Taliban quickly made their presence felt in the south and the east of the country, and attacks resumed. Sporadic in 2004, they were suicide bombings aimed at killing police and Afghan army soldiers. At the time, they were attributed to foreign terrorists, because suicide bombings, it was claimed, were not part of the Pashtun culture. Nor had they been part of the Tamil culture before the Tamil Tigers began to use them systematically. These latter were modern-day pioneers in this area. By resorting to suicide bombings, their goal was to obtain the greatest effectiveness with the smallest investment. And using female terrorists allowed them to double the contingent of a minority amounting to only fifteen percent of the population in Sri Lanka.
Suicide bombings were no more a part of the Chechen culture and even less so with female perpetrators. But modi operandi were changing, and insurrectionary movements were happy to copy one another when an effective innovation materialized. Irregular warfare makes it mandatory to be on watch, a difficult practice both for bureaucrats and for a regular army convinced of its superiority and contemptuous of an obviously less powerful adversary.
There was constant talk for about fifteen years about eradicating poppy farming, but it did not happen. In 2005, according to US sources, it was estimated that Afghanistan provided nine-tenths of world poppy production. Ten years later, this share had virtually not budged. The populations of the provinces involved made a modest living off poppy cultivation; the Taliban and the administration derived substantial benefits from it, with the state taking its cut before the crops left the country toward Iran.
In 2005, the coalition forces officially established that some fifteen thousand “infiltrators” had been eliminated. It was announced in the provinces of Kandahar, Urōzgān, and Kabul that the adversary’s offensive capacity had been significantly curbed. Field investigations showed that neither in Kandahar nor in Urōzgān was there any security, and that living in Afghanistan was made of illusions that had been deliberately spread. There were sporadic terrorist activities. Kabul was essentially secure (particularly compared in the same period with Baghdad, which had been changed into a bunker for foreigners and was otherwise in the midst of a civil war). The Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen regions in the north of the country were calm. The Hazara area even more so.
The Minister of Defense complained, rightly so, that he had only thirty-five thousand men. The United States had decreed that seventy thousand would be needed, while the ministry estimated that at least twice that many were needed. But obviously the United States did not seem to have the capacity to wage two wars at once. As for the police force, badly paid and corrupt, many a time reorganized, it added to the mayhem instead of contributing to reduce it. After suffering one hundred ninety-one casualties in 2006, NATO troops had to face the brutal facts: the return of the Taliban, discreet in 2003, had become a threat stretching over the entire southernmost part of the conflict.
Under the shelter of Pakistani sanctuary, the Taliban had not just reorganized, as could be seen in the combatants’ qualitative improvement. For those who had known the Mujahedeen in the very early 1980s, the contrast was striking. The lessons of the Iraqi insurrection had obviously been learned: suicide bombings were escalated in the cities in order to establish continuous presence; and propaganda for outside consumption was in Arabic and in English. The most singular paradox cutting across the entire war was US aid to Pakistan, part of which was transferred to the Taliban to kill US troops and foil their goals.
Equipped with a sanctuary, receiving logistic assistance, and having, in Pakistan, an inexhaustible pool of recruits, the Taliban could not be crushed. For the Pakistani services, the Taliban served their purpose, which was to establish Afghanistan as an allied state in view of countering India.
An ambiguous ally to say the least, throughout the war Pakistan will have behaved as de facto protector of the enemy of the international coalition.