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ISLAMABAD — The empty trailers along the road from the Afghan capital of Kabul to the border with neighboring Pakistan serve as powerful reminders of what Afghanistan’s Islamic rulers — the Taliban — have achieved in the four years since they took control of most of their Central Asian country’s territory.

The trailers once housed troops loyal to different Afghan tribal leaders, who not only fought with each other, but also forced travelers on Afghanistan’s main roads to buy their safe passage — either with cash or valuables — before being allowed to proceed.

Since the Taliban captured almost 90 percent of Afghanistan, they have acted to make the country’s roads safe for travelers. To much of the outside world, they remain a radical lot, forcing women, for example, to eschew professional careers and shutting down girls’ schools. At the same time, though, they have succeeded in improving security, as the safer conditions on the roads illustrate.

Yet restoring law and order is only one achievement among the many that must be tackled in trying to revive a country devastated by a conflict dating back to 1979, when Soviet troops began their 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. That is why Afghan analysts followed with such interest the talks between representatives of the Taliban and their main adversaries, known as the northern alliance, that took place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, earlier this month.

The two sides refused to meet face to face, settling for indirect negotiations conducted by officials of the Organization of Islamic Conference, but in the end, the Taliban and the opposition alliance reached an agreement to release all prisoners taken during their periodic bouts of fighting. That agreement, however, still leaves some unanswered questions about Afghanistan’s ability to begin its long-awaited rehabilitation.

For the past two years, the Taliban have borne the brunt of U.S.-led international pressure over their alleged support for global terrorism. The Taliban continue to reject U.S. demands for the extradition of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi militant who lives in exile in Afghanistan and is wanted by Washington for allegedly ordering the 1998 bombing of two American embassies in East Africa.

Even with a peace agreement that ends internal fighting, Afghanistan is far from overcoming its international isolation, which was intensified last December when the United Nations imposed U.S.-backed sanctions on the country in retaliation for its refusal to cooperate in extraditing bin Laden.

That isolation, however, has put Afghanistan in a bind. Without large inflows of new assistance, it is difficult to imagine how the Taliban regime can ever begin to tackle the pressing problems that brought Afghanistan to center stage internationally in the first place. The Taliban’s predicament is driven by three particular aspects of the Afghan situation:

First, Afghanistan has become a prime source for the production and trafficking of much of the world’s heroin. According to U.N. estimates, Afghanistan last year produced almost 75 percent of the world’s illicit opium, which is used in the manufacture of heroin. The Taliban often lament that while the global community is quick to condemn the Afghan regime for the rise in heroin trafficking, they get little credit for the efforts they have made to combat drug production. From time to time, for example, they have organized widely publicized burnings of large stockpiles of drugs.

Yet none of this does anything to remove one of the most important incentives keeping the drug business flowing. The Afghan farmers who plant the opium, along with many of the beneficiaries of the drug trade such as the low-level traffickers who work for larger gangs, have no other source of income outside the drug trade. This year’s drought in Afghanistan may be nature’s way of reducing the tide of heroin, especially as the opium crop is likely to shrink. But unless the Afghan economy begins to recover, a rise in opium production in the years to come is a very real possibility.

Second, Afghanistan’s economy, devastated after more than two decades of war, requires large inflows of assistance for the reconstruction of its infrastructure before most Afghans can start to find even a basic means of subsistence. The rebuilding of main roads linking different parts of the country, rehabilitation of the power and water supplies and the establishment of a national telecommunications system are just the most essential prerequisites for the growth of trade and other types of economic activities needed to create jobs.

Without the rehabilitation of the Afghan economy, young Afghan men are increasingly vulnerable to recruiting by groups of armed militants such as those run by bin Laden. Ironically, the Catch-22 here is that without a resolution of the standoff between the Afghan regime and the United States over bin Laden, any U.N.-led economic-rehabilitation initiative, other than the continuation of the humanitarian relief effort, is highly unlikely.

Finally, the Taliban’s biggest challenges include not only the improvement of their tarnished image as a regressive force, but also the reversal of controversial policies such as banning education for young girls. Under Islamic law, there is no justification for this policy, provided such education takes place in a segregated rather than a coeducational environment.

At a time when Afghan is badly in need of reconstruction, the Taliban need to initiate imaginative new ideas to stimulate external support, such as approaching some of the richer Islamic countries in the Middle East for assistance in establishing a small number of girls’ schools and colleges. In nearby Pakistan, the towering Faisal mosque and adjoining Islamic University in Islamabad, financed with a grant from the government of Saudi Arabia, offer a vivid demonstration of the rich potential of fundraising efforts in the Islamic bloc.

There are many critics who see the Taliban’s rigidity as proof that the government is untenable. In their view, Afghanistan needs to find a new government before the country can initiate a credible reform process.

However, searching for an alternative to the Taliban — who, after all, control almost nine-tenths of Afghan territory — may be a pipe dream. Despite Afghanistan’s destruction, the limited success of the Taliban in areas such as improving internal security has helped them to consolidate their position in recent years. They may be among the world’s most regressive regimes, but they are nevertheless unlikely to be pushed aside as Afghanistan’s 25 million people await their first chance to see lasting peace after more than 20 years of war.

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