Ackerman links to an interesting piece from Antonio Giustozzi (direct here); one of the things that comes over strongly is the degree to which the expansion of the Taliban hasn’t been driven by the acquisition of public support, still less by conquest, but rather by branding, co-option, and freelancing by significant leaders in Afghan society. Arguably, the picture he draws is one in which deciding that your followers are now the Taliban is an option in politics, rather like deciding to block a road, to accept or resist a particular district chief, to tax, molest, or ignore one or the other heroin smuggler.
As a result, their specialness as a movement is being eroded even as they survive as a power. Their opposition to education and to the education of girls is being dropped as unpopular (and presumably, not supported by new recruits to the federal network); similarly, their opposition to tribal and customary law is going the same way.
Interestingly, the chief selling-point of Taliban government, rather than just tactical arrangements, seems to be that they offer basic justice and dispute resolution; this rather reinforces the view that for much of Afghanistan, they are more of an intermediary institution than a revolutionary movement. Of course, the Pakistan-based leadership may not see it that way, and may well not welcome this development. It’s also interesting that Taliban judges are accepted, but aren’t particularly popular – it’s the absence of alternatives that makes them an attractive option.
Another very important point is the primacy of personality – it really is an environment where specific individual leaders deliver their followers to one allegiance or the other.
This interrelates, of course, with the regional politics; rather like a miniature version of Europe in the 1600s, the war is being fought over whether particular princes accept one of several particular versions of Islamic law or some hybrid of the old Afghan civil code and customary law, all of which are supported by major powers for their own political ends. David Ignatius has a sensible take on this:
The recent Washington debate over Af-Pak strategy has had it backward: This war is less about trying to defeat the Taliban militarily in Afghanistan than it is about reaching an understanding with Pakistan that closes Taliban havens there and allows a political reconciliation among the warring Afghan parties. It’s a Pak-Af problem, not the other way around
Which, of course, makes it a Pak-Af-Ind-Iran-Russian problem. There’s also an interesting piece on the various regional actors’ plans for railways in Afghanistan.
Now, what can we say about this? The story is from Gizab, which is one of the places Giustozzi describes as having accepted a Taliban judge. The people are now dissatisfied with him and have taken the shortest way, as they would have said in the English civil war. Of course, the Americans are delighted and are dreaming of Anbar. And this is good news – it demonstrates the thinness of Taliban control, and their dependence on local affiliates of doubtful loyalty. But without attention to the wider politics – a second Geneva Accords, this time with feeling – it won’t change anything.