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    South Asia
     Dec 2, 2006
Deep inside the 'kingdom of heaven'
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

Editor's note: Syed Saleem Shahzad returned to Karachi on Wednesday after being held for six days in the captivity of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Along with fellow journalist Qamar Yousufzai, Shahzad was detained on November 21 after entering the Baghran district of the southern province of Helmand. They were accused of being spies and of not having the Taliban's permission to be in the area. See A 'guest' of the Taliban .

KARACHI - When the Taliban came to power in 1996 they promised to establish a kingdom of heaven, with its center based

in the rugged southwest of Afghanistan. The people were promised showers of blessings from the skies, and the earth would give up unlimited treasures.

The Taliban were welcomed, but in the five years until their ouster by US-led forces in 2001, the land remained barren and the heavens silent. The Taliban did, however, deliver peace - probably the most precious gift of all.

Then came the Americans, and they pledged a paradise on Earth. The dirt-poor tribespeople of the southwest voted unanimously to give this a chance, and they handed the defeated Taliban an ultimatum: "Be good sons of the soil and surrender your guns, or go to the mountains." The Taliban headed for the hills, and their insurgency was born.

Now, once again after a five-year cycle, the wheel has turned and the Taliban have been asked to come down from the mountains and re-establish themselves among the people of the southwest.

This has been a pivotal development, as it gives the Taliban a friendly environment from which to launch the first phase in their ultimate goal of retaking first Kandahar, and then the capital Kabul.

Southwestern Afghanistan is a wasteland. In hard rocky hills and deserted plains, clean water is as much of a dream as roads. This portion of 21st-century Afghanistan is a place where people do not have any means of communication beyond satellite phones. But it is this very remoteness that makes it attractive to the Taliban as a base from which to run their ever-growing insurgency.

The US's missed opportunity
The promised American paradise in the southwest quickly turned into a hell. Tribespeople were drafted into the Afghan National Army on a non-tribal basis along with Tajiks and other non-Pashtuns, which created resentment. What little reconstruction and development work that was undertaken in Afghanistan all but bypassed the southwest. A prolonged drought did not help.

But the killer blow, as far as the tribespeople were concerned, was the decision to ban poppy cultivation, and without adequate compensation.

Poverty and hunger are strong drivers. Mix in humiliation over being treated as second-class citizens and anger at the indiscriminate nature of the draft, and one has a potent mix, which the Taliban exploited - and at least they talked the same language of religion as the tribespeople.

It was time to give the kingdom of heaven another chance.

The Taliban's spring offensive this year has been its best ever, augmented by the widespread use of suicide squads. Popular support has turned noticeably in the Taliban's favor in many regions. However, the invitation by the tribespeople to the Taliban to return to the plains of the southwest was the real surprise of the year and outweighs all the successes of the spring offensive.

A step closer to Kabul
As they have in conflicts over the centuries in Afghanistan, winter snows will bring any meaningful fighting between the Taliban and North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led (NATO) forces to a halt.

This will be the time for planning, and all roads lead to Kabul. Since the 18th century this has meant taking Kandahar first - the Taliban also did so before they took the capital in 1996.

The Taliban have apparently decided that they will follow this tradition, but overpowering US air power and the sophisticated weaponry and technology of the NATO forces rule out any conventional confrontation.

Instead, the Taliban will attempt to isolate Kandahar by cutting off the Kandahar-Herat highway to the west, and the road leading east to Kabul. That is the battle to come.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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Afghanistan strikes back at Pakistan ( 9, '06)

NATO fighting the wrong battle in Afghanistan (Nov 4, '06)


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