The Taliban Creep Back

The New York Times, USA,,
January 20, 2004


Afghanistan has a fine new Constitution, but for most of its people, security remains the foremost concern. Debates about the intricacies of civil versus Islamic law or the division of powers between the central and provincial governments seem secondary when people are afraid to sow their fields or move their crops to market.

Setting the stage for something like normal life in Afghanistan will require sustained military help and training from U.S. and NATO military forces. It will also require stronger efforts by Pakistan to support Afghanistan's government and to prevent Taliban forces from crossing the border.

Despite the presence of more than 10,000 American troops and nearly 6,000 international peacekeepers in Afghanistan, warlord armies, criminal bandits, drug traffickers and a resurgent Taliban make travel perilous and threaten people in their homes and villages. The danger is greatest in the provinces along the border with Pakistan. On the Pakistani side of that border, local inhabitants and governments sympathetic to the Taliban, and some sympathetic military officers as well, have permitted the virtually unchecked recruitment of Taliban fighters and their infiltration into Afghanistan.

The Taliban virtually began as a creation of Pakistan's military intelligence services and have long benefited from support among the Pashtun ethnic group, which spans each side of the border. In response to pleas from Washington after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan cut off all official ties with Taliban leaders and aided U.S. efforts to oust them from power in Kabul. That rupture was courageous and welcome. But it should have been more complete. Local governments along the Afghan border continue to provide the Taliban with valuable sanctuaries.

Pakistan's ambiguous relationship with the Taliban is in keeping with the larger pattern that Musharraf has followed during most of the past two years, on issues from Afghanistan to Kashmir to domestic Islamic extremism. Rather than following through on his promises to break cleanly with all forms of violent Islamic radicalism, he has moved selectively and equivocally, hoping to keep his opposition off balance. Instead, the various Islamist radical groups have coalesced into the greatest threat to his regime and his life.

In response, Musharraf has begun to stiffen his denunciations of all forms of Islamic terrorism. He now acknowledges the security problem in the border areas. Although he minimizes the involvement of local political and military authorities, he promises an imminent crackdown.

And last week, he sent his prime minister to meet with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai - the highest-level Pakistani visit to Kabul since the Taliban government fell. By following up this visit with strong and effective measures against the Taliban, Musharraf can contribute to a more secure future not just for Afghanistan, but for Pakistan as well.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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