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Taliban fighters train with their weapons in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan – File photo by Reuters
Taliban fighters train with their weapons in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan – File photo by Reuters

KABUL: The insurgency undeniably exists but is weaker than often portrayed; the Taliban will not sweep through Afghanistan after 2014; and the Bonn-era political framework is not on the verge of collapsing into a bitter civil war --- the line taken by the Afghan government and western military forces is well-known enough.

Less well known, and in contradiction to the dominant narrative on Afghanistan, is that many Afghans --- in government and outside, Pashtun and non-Pashtun, Taliban sympathisers and opponents --- also share much of that view.

Hope and optimism in Afghanistan are always heavily qualified and caveated. Much will depend on the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 being reasonably representative. The post-2014 commitment of the international community to Afghanistan’s security and economic well being is seen as crucial.

But in the country’s north at least, there is a sense that while the Taliban insurgency may never be militarily defeated, neither will the present dispensation collapse under Taliban pressure.

Syed Daud Agha, a former parliamentarian from Kabul, typified the dual thinking about the Taliban in his analysis of the insurgency.

“Government control is restricted to the provincial headquarters only. The majority of the districts are with the Taliban, particularly in the east, south and west,” Agha said.

He added: “In the north, the Taliban are everywhere, while Hizb-i-Islami is active in urban areas. The Taliban are operating even in Tajik-dominated areas.”

But Agha argued that the Taliban are in no position to overthrow the Afghan government. “The police and military are capable of defending the provincial centres everywhere,” Agha said.

The official narrative

At the heavily guarded Isaf headquarters in Kabul, Brig Gen Günter Katz, the Isaf spokesperson, drew a picture of improving security across much of Afghanistan.

“The overall security situation is improving. The violence is mostly in places where there are less than a 100 people living. Eighty per cent of the fighting takes place where 20 per cent of the population lives,” Gen Katz said, rattling off a number of statistics that purported to show violence was on the decline in Afghanistan.

Raw numbers and statistics in Afghanistan can be misleading, however. With insurgent attacks --- enemy-initiated attacks in Isaf parlance --- hovering between 2,500 and 3,000 a month across Afghanistan, the number is still higher than the pre-American-surge figures of 2009.

But even that comparison can be misleading because there are now more Afghan forces responsible for the security of more of Afghanistan --- two-thirds of the country and 75 per cent of the population, according to Isaf --- and so more targets for the Taliban to attack.

Ameer Khan, chairman of the finance and budget committee of parliament, explained why, violence notwithstanding, he believed a Taliban takeover is not likely. “The Taliban’s influence is increasing in most areas, but that doesn’t mean they are capable of taking over the regime.

“The situation has changed now. Government forces and police are capable of defending much of the country,” Khan said.

For Khan, though, the key to holding the Taliban at bay is the financial support of the international community. “Afghans can fight themselves, but they do need financial support. The government’s own resources are not enough to maintain a 350,000-strong army and police,” Khan said.

He added: “It would be a blunder if Afghanistan is once again abandoned by the world powers. If the financial commitments made at different forums are materialised, there is no fear of the Afghan government falling.”

Taliban takeover unlikely

If a parliamentarian’s narrative of containing the Taliban with western money and Afghan forces can appear self-serving, Ameer Khan’s view is also shared by Shahid Safi, a Kabul-based businessman.

“The insurgency has grown stronger, but the government forces are giving the Taliban a tough fight. I don’t believe the Taliban will succeed in taking over again,” Safi said.

The businessman continued, “It’s not the Nineties, the situation has changed. Many people have invested their money and have large businesses in the country. They will definitely stand with the government for peace and stability.”

Faheem Gul Wardak, a small-business owner and social activist in Kabul, argued that the focus on the number of Taliban attacks --- mostly involving improvised explosive devices in roadside attacks --- obscured a more complex reality of the insurgency.

“Yes, the Taliban are active in the countryside everywhere, but it’s not very organised and there’s little coordination across villages and districts. That kind of activity is hard to eliminate but neither is it consolidated enough to overrun the country,” Wardak said.

“Let’s say after 2014, the Taliban do try and overrun the country. They’d have to mass somewhere and then they’d be vulnerable from the skies, even if Western ground troops depart. There’s just too much firepower now for the Taliban to win,” Wardak argued.