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On the Taliban’s Strategic Offensive Against Civilian Targets

On the Taliban's Strategic Offensive Against Civilian Targets

The report of the deadly twinned attack against the British Council in Kabul this morning serve to confirm the hypothesis that militants associated with the Taliban are ramping up their strategy to target civilians as well as military assets. The Taliban have claimed direct responsibility for the attack in which at least 8 people, nearly all Afghans civilians, were killed.

This attack and many others like it, seemingly directed at civilians, looks more like a an armed social offensive, an “us against them” insurgency”, heavily branded with the hallmarks of a nationalist movement that propagandizes spilling the blood of individuals and groups deemed colonizers and occupiers and those deemed their local lackies. (There is more than a tinge of ritual sacrifice here.)

In a strikingly horrific set of moves over the past year the Taliban seem ready to declare that the colonizers include not only those who are not indigenous born, but also all those who might work with foreign governments and aid groups. It’s not a stretch then to think that the Taliban are ready to redefine the term “indigenous”– and therefore, “valued”– to be coextensive with their self-professed identity: to be Afghan is to be Taliban. And therefore, to push the argument, to be Taliban simply is to be Afghan-nothing more or less.

This strategic turn is a formidable one; one that bears ill-tidings for Afghanistan. Consider a recent report in the New York Times: “On [this past] Thursday morning, two mines planted on a road in western Herat Province exploded, destroying a minibus and a truck and killing 23 civilians and wounding eight, according to Afghan officials.” Moreover “the attacks had occurred in an area frequented by the Taliban but with no coalition forces present, and apparently had been deliberately aimed at civilians.”

This development implies that either the Taliban have made the calculation that all bets are off–that all civilians can be legitimate targets; they’ll argue for and against the merits of the death of innocent Afghan nationals on a case by case basis. (The Taliban might expect that Afghans will view the murder of diplomats and aid workers as just as legitimate as they might view the killing of ISAF soldiers, though there seems little direct evidence of that view). Or, there is no argument at all here: Afghanistan is simply in a state of nature, a state of perpetual war. According to this view, the caricature of the Hobbesian argument for might as right wins out; let the consequences be whatever they might be.

And why is this? Why might the Taliban have taken the latter view? Because they are convinced that when NATO and its allies depart from Afghanistan in 2014 and leave behind whatever small intelligence and strike capabilities as seems fit, the Taliban will snatch effective power from Kabul. For NATO’s recently changed and ongoing counter-terrorism strategy cannot protect and sustain the central government in Kabul for an indefinite period of time. And indeed, the Taliban can afford to see out NATO and have muscularly asserted just such a strategy. For they know they have time on their hands.

And they know that more than their enemies, Kabul, the Northern Alliance, and other smaller nationalist groups, they stand united in their one goal: total domination of every square mile of Afghanistan-this, in spirit if not in the number of flags planted on the ground. They have placed in their rifle sights the ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks and other groups who make up the Northern Alliance. The Taliban mean to once again make Afghanistan a country fit only for themselves.

The fact that the Taliban are responsible for most of the civilians killed in Afghanistan seems beside the point. The Taliban certainly seem as if they do not expect, nor are they bothered by, any strong social backlash against them. This, because there isn’t any. Though the United Nations estimates that 80% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been caused by anti-government elements, the Taliban have yet to suffer public shame and broad denouncements for it. Part of the blame is simply, again, a caricature of a Hobbesian story: in a seemingly lawless land the people of Afghanistan would rather have a Leviathan impose order, even if that order represses some people all of the time. The Taliban have successfully branded themselves as that Leviathan. For they claim to be less expropriative than the central government in Kabul. Indeed, this is a winning argument against the central government in Kabul.

There have been far too many cases of government officials who have demanded outrageously large bribes and, indeed, tracts of land in exchange for the most insignificant bit of contract coordination and fulfillment. The average Afghan, who in the past seldom interacted with representatives from Kabul or their local operatives, has had little need to secure protection against his neighbors. The structure of clan politics typically sufficed to establish both norms of conduct and shame that have sustained contract exchange over time. Kabul’s interference into local politics has disrupted that social and economic exchange for people in far flung parts of the country. Indeed, the people affected by the call for bribes have sought protection from the Taliban–often the local young charismatic leader who has seen fit to hitch up with the loosely associated nationalist movements that have provided the local support and fire for the Taliban insurgency.

The Taliban seem to have determined that it can take the propaganda hits in Kabul and Kandahar that might be ginned against them. Kabul is enemy territory for the Taliban and Kandahar remains the site of the most vicious dug-in-fights in Afghanistan. Heads will roll and as they do the Taliban will notch up their possession of tracts of real estate, village by village if need be. Or so they might think. Or so, certainly their moves tends to reveal. As long as they can maintain control in the farther reaches of Afghanistan, they can afford to ransack the larger, more centrally located, cities. One day they will fall, the Taliban might strategize. And it is enough to strike fear amongst the population that that day will come on the backs of those Afghans who stand against them.



Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link:

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