AFGHANISTAN: Taliban Fighters Can't Be Bought Off >

Representatives from nearly 70 countries showed up in London on Jan. 28 for a one-day conference on how to save Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai was there, gamely offering "peace and reconciliation" to all Afghans, "especially" those "who are not a part of Al Qaeda or other terrorist networks." He didn't mention why the Taliban would accept such an offer while they believe they're winning the war. Others at the conference had what they evidently considered more realistic solutions—such as paying Taliban fighters to quit the insurgency. Participants reportedly pledged some $500 million to support that aim. "You don't make peace with your friends," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. True enough. But what if your enemies don't want peace?

My NEWSWEEK colleague Sami Yousafzai laughs at the notion that the Taliban can be bought or bribed. Few journalists, officials, or analysts know the Taliban the way he does. If the leadership, commanders, and subcommanders wanted comfortable lives, he says, they would have made their deals long ago. Instead they stayed committed to their cause even when they were on the run, with barely a hope of survival. Now they're back in action across much of the south, east, and west, the provinces surrounding Kabul, and chunks of the north. They used to hope they might reach this point in 15 or 20 years. They've done it in eight. Many of them see this as proof that God is indeed on their side. The mujahedin warlords who regained power in the 2001 U.S. invasion have grown fabulously wealthy since then. The senior Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani could have done the same. Now he and his fellow Taliban are gunning for those opportunists.

Only a few relatively low-level Taliban commanders and fighters have defected, and they rue the day they did. Most of them now live hand-to-mouth in Kabul, exiled from their home villages. Sami has introduced me to some of them. They only wish they could return to the embrace of Haqqani or Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's No. 2 leader after Mullah Mohammed Omar, but they know they'd be killed if they were foolish enough to try. The Taliban don't give second chances. Even if Karzai and his U.S.-NATO allies offer great gobs of money to defecting Taliban, where could they go with it? They couldn't go home for fear of being put to death by their former comrades in arms. They wouldn't want to live in expensive Kabul, where people on the streets would make fun of their country ways, huge black turbans, and kohl eyeliner. They hate everything that Kabul represents: a sinful place of coed schools, dancing, drinking, music, movies, prostitution, and the accumulation of wealth. "Falcons fly with falcons, not with other birds," the Taliban say. In other words, you can't negotiate and live with secular people.

Karzai and his regime have practically no credibility anyway. No one trusts his promises, and they regard his government as an evil thing, a heretical, apostate regime. More than that, however, Taliban tend to take offense at the very idea of a buyout. As one fighter told Sami indignantly, "You can't buy my ideology, my religion. It's an insult." In terms of defection, the closest thing to a "success" story is the former Taliban commander Mullah Salam. He quit the insurgency two years ago, was allowed to keep most of his men and weapons, and was given the governorship of his home district of Musa Qala, in Helmand province. Nevertheless he lives under constant threat of assassination, and Musa Qala remains a very insecure place.

Most Taliban feel comfortable only in the backcountry villages, where their world view is essentially shared by locals. There's a huge and growing disconnect—social, economic, and perhaps even spiritual—between the cities and the countryside. In villages where the Taliban have a strong presence, there is little or no conflict between Taliban virtues and local customs, from the wearing of long beards to heeding the call for prayer, keeping the sexes separate in public, adhering to Islamic law, and not tolerating crime. Especially in the countryside, most ordinary Pashtuns regard themselves as the big losers in the past eight years of Karzai's rule and foreign military presence. As they see it, accurately or not, their ethnic rivals—the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara—have received the spoils of the Taliban's defeat, while Pashtun villages have suffered from official abuse, corruption, neglect, and war.

That's one reason the Taliban aren't as unpopular in the villages as Western-funded polls appear to indicate. Unlike the Karzai government, they have proved their ability to deliver swift Islamic justice and keep their villages free from crime. The respected Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid often says there has been no pro-Taliban uprising because most Afghans dislike the movement. On the other hand, though, few Pashtun villagers have mobilized against the insurgents. Perhaps most important, the Taliban's leadership is confident of the movement's cohesiveness. Although the insurgency lacks a single, unified command, its leaders all fight in the name of Mullah Omar and his defunct Islamic Emirate. "No one," they say, "can fly just on his own wings." The Quetta Shura, its Peshawar offshoot, the Haqqani network in the east, and individual commanders in the north—all different command structures led by different personalities—all derive their spiritual authority and political clout from the "commander of the faithful." If their ranks remained unbroken through years of being hunted, jailed, killed, outgunned, outmanned, and outspent, they feel confident now that their leaders and lieutenants can't be bought, as senior Taliban commander Mullah Nasir recently observed to Sami.

Most Taliban seem genuinely convinced that they are carrying out the will of God. One sign of that faith is the apparently endless supply of suicide bombers. The Americans still seem not to have grasped the full import of this. The Taliban are not fighting for a share of power; they want to restore Islamic law throughout the country, with no talk of compromise. They despise their nominal ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has said that suicide bombings are not justified under Islam and who talks of possible power-sharing deals with Karzai. A "son of dollars," they call him: someone who cannot be trusted, someone who does not share their goal of reimposing Sharia over all of Afghanistan.

Karzai is hopeless. He reads from a script he knows will please his Western patrons: new drives for good governance, transparency, narcotics suppression, the building of the Afghan security forces, economic development, etc. Nevertheless, for the past eight years he and his appointees have been incapable of delivering a fraction of what he has promised, and there's no reason to think the next year or two will be any different. He's a nice guy, is not corrupt, and doubtless means well. But he is not a leader or a judge of men, and he has no vision. He promises everything to everyone, as he did in the last election, but nothing comes of it. No one in his administration gets fired or jailed for egregious behavior. The harshest punishment for malfeasance is transfer to a perhaps less lucrative position.

The London conference was a futile exercise. Once again Washington and its allies are looking for solutions that don't exist: a new Karzai, bribing the Taliban, negotiating with the Taliban. No Taliban leader of any stature seems to have entered into negotiations thus far. U.N. special envoy Kai Eide reportedly met in Dubai on Jan. 6 with Afghans who claimed to represent the Taliban and said they could pass messages to the Quetta Shura, but it's unlikely that their mission was actually sanctioned by anyone in the senior leadership. The United Nations has made a big deal of removing the names of five supposed Taliban from its blacklist, but the Taliban couldn't care less. They're not itching to travel to Geneva or New York or open bank accounts. They've got a war to fight at home.

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