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The relatively early resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan and Zabul provinces is linked to a combination of factors, including (1) the historical links of the Taliban movement to the area, which provided a robust and revivable network of fighters and supporters; (2) the behavior of local Karzai-era strongmen who used their links to the government and the U.S.-led war to target and marginalize their rivals; (3) the general backwardness of the area and the near-total lack of attention by the government; and (4) the existence and expansion of cross-border resourcing and militant command-and-control networks in Pakistan.
The Taliban in Uruzgan and Zabul have their roots in the anti-Soviet resistance, in particular the early fronts based on local religious networks. Although the movement fractured early on, more sharply in Uruzgan than in Zabul, it retained a certain cohesion that was strong enough to allow for it to be revived twice: first in response to the chaos under the mujaheddin government of the early 1990s, and second under the Karzai regime when former Taliban fighters and marginalized tribes were targeted and mistreated by the pro-government strongmen and their international allies.
The insurgency in Zabul and Uruzgan is dominated by the “Kandahari Taliban,” roughly spread across two networks in the west and the east. This insurgency is a rather unruly collection of local commander networks that alternatively cooperate with, coexist with, and fight each other. It is directed and monitored from Pakistan by what is known as the Quetta shura, but clearly has a dynamic of its own. The Taliban shadow administration in the two provinces is often dominated by local strongmen, who may or may not have formal positions within the insurgency. The Taliban collect taxes locally, and commanders receive regular payments, although foot soldiers probably do not.
Heavy losses on the Taliban side due to air raids and military confrontations in the early post-2001 years have changed the nature and tactics of the movement; the core of the network retreated from the battlefield, and the remaining fighters increasingly relied on guerrilla tactics. The targeting of mid- and high-level commanders seems to have had a limited impact on the operational capabilities of the movement, although it has affected morale, while night raids and bombings breed resentment and fear, and often exacerbate local tensions.
There is a strong belief among large parts of the Afghan population that the international military alliance is in reality commanding and equipping at least parts of the Taliban insurgency. The change in international military tactics from a heavy reliance on capture-and-kill operations to an approach focused more on tribal balance and inclusion has had some positive results, although there are also examples where this has exposed the local population and made them vulnerable to retribution, as recently happened in Khas Uruzgan and may happen in Gizab.
An analysis of the origin and spread of the insurgency in Zabul and Uruzgan demonstrates certain patterns in terms of where and why the Taliban resurgence has been particularly strong or effective. Important factors include tribal targeting and marginalization; key events involving grave human rights abuses and other forms of oppression; weakness or absence of government; the existence of local conflicts and grievances that can be used and manipulated to the movement’s advantage; tribal and other links to prominent Taliban leaders; local competition over resources; and a history of insurgency in the provinces.
It is clear that the violence in southern Afghanistan cannot be properly understood without taking into account the role and impact of tribal affiliations and feuds. However, there is a tendency among foreign observers to overstate the importance of tribal relations by ignoring the fluidity of conflicts and relations between groups. There is a particular tendency to simplify matters and to present the insurgency in the south as a historical conflict between the Durrani and the Ghilzai and, within the Durrani, between the Zeerak and the Panjpai, with the Zeerak Durrani defending the current government. This, however, is not how many Afghans see the conflict, which they describe in terms of a confrontation between oppressors (zalem) and the oppressed (mazlum). The international intervention, both military and civilian, has provided local leaders with a wide array of opportunities to dominate and to marginalise. Although important lessons have been learned over the last few years, they may well be overridden by the current pervading sense of haste among American political leaders and the desire to return to the military’s previous reliance on counter-terrorism operations and local militias. Such a shift is likely to have disastrous consequences for places like Zabul and Uruzgan.
The southwestern provinces of Zabul and Uruzgan were among the first provinces to be affected by the post-2001 Taliban resurgence. Since then violence and instability have been endemic, and the presence of the Afghan government has been very limited. The situation has not, however, unraveled in the same way as in neighboring Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and much of the violence is highly localized. Zabul and Uruzgan have benefited from the fact that neither the Taliban leadership nor the international military and Afghan government have considered the area a great priority, but this has also left the population largely at the mercy of commander networks.
This paper aims to explore in more detail the roots and resurgence of the Taliban in Zabul and Uruzgan, in an effort to tease out some of the recurring themes. The first section of the paper discusses the area’s main loyalties and fault lines, as well as the evolution of the Taliban movement in the two provinces, from the anti-Soviet resistance to the establishment and fall of the Islamic Emirate. The second section focuses on factors that facilitated the revival of the movement as a potent insurgency. The third section discusses the current nature and structure of the movement in Zabul and Uruzgan. Finally, the fourth section discusses the impact of the international military operations on the situation in the provinces.
The information and analysis in this paper is based on more than 300 in-depth interviews over several years with tribal elders and community leaders, NGO workers, teachers and doctors, local government and security officials, villagers, former and present Taliban commanders, local politicians, and to a lesser extent international analysts. Most conversations took place between November 2005 and July 2010, although some are from an earlier date. The paper builds on an earlier analysis of Taliban networks, Martine van Bijlert, “Unruly Commanders and Violent Power Struggles: Taliban Networks in Uruzgan,” in Decoding the New Taliban, Antonio Giustozzi (ed.), (Hurst, London, 2009).
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Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.