The War of the Weak

Despite the media’s spin, the Taliban is losing the fight in Afghanistan.


Terrorism is the weapon of the weak. The Taliban proved that once again last Monday with its attack on the government quarter in central Kabul. The attack killed 12 people, including seven terrorists, and left 71 people wounded. One of the dead was a five-year old boy that the Taliban fatally shot.

The main target of the latest Taliban assault on Kabul was the central bank, located next to the presidential palace. A suicide bomber tried to enter the bank but was shot by security before he could get inside. Other terrorists seized a shopping mall, ordering all vendors to leave, before taking up positions on the top floor and shooting it out for several hours with Afghan security forces before being killed. But the Taliban showed its particular revolting talent for death and destruction a few blocks away, where another suicide bomber detonated a vehicle disguised as an ambulance in front of the Ministry of Education, setting off a whirlwind of debris.

The purpose of the attack, like most other terrorist operations, was to get the attention of the international media. The Taliban are very media savvy and know that by targeting the well-protected government quarters in a city hosting a lot of foreign journalists, they would achieve their goal of capturing headlines worldwide, at least for a couple of days.

By penetrating Kabul’s defenses and staging such spectacular assaults (this is the third Taliban attack in the capital since last October), the Taliban also hoped to appear more powerful in the eyes of the world press than they really are. As one observer wrote, “The Taliban are using terrorism as a means of communication.”

Some in the media did fall for the Taliban’s propaganda line. The New York Times, for example, headlined its story about Monday’s assault, "Kabul Attack Shows Resilience of Afghan Militants". In reality, it was Kabul’s inhabitants who were the resilient ones. The Times later reported merchants returned to their booths in the shopping mall and were conducting their business the day after the attack.

A Canadian national newspaper, The Globe And Mail, mistakenly saw in the Taliban assault a weakening of the Afghan presidency, titling its report, ‘The War at Karzai’s door: Kabul strike shows a leader losing grip.”

But rather than a show of strength, last Monday’s suicide attack was actually a sign of Taliban weakness. After nearly ten years the Taliban have not made any headway militarily in expelling the foreign troops from Afghanistan, let alone make good on their annual promise to capture Kabul. And due to the professionalism and toughness of NATO and American soldiers, the Taliban rarely stand up to them in battle, relying instead on IEDs and suicide bombers.

While suffering a disproportionate number of casualties of their own, the Taliban have also inflicted only a low rate of casualties on American troops. In Afghanistan, casualties have never been as high as they were in Iraq at the Iraq war’s worst point and are only a third the rate of those of Vietnam and World War Two.

IEDs and Kabul-like suicide attacks will also, like in Iraq, never gain the Taliban a military victory. One military analyst calls Islamic suicide bombers “an overrated tool”, saying they are reminiscent of Japan’s kamikazes that also sought to demoralize an overpowering enemy, but also failed. Unlike the Taliban’s suicide bombers, though, the kamikazes only attacked military targets.

Some Western media analysts stated the Taliban on Monday were also sending “a clear message” to the Afghan people that their government can’t protect them, since it can’t even protect itself from attack.

However, what concerned Kabul’s inhabitants after the Taliban assault, according to a New York Times story yesterday, was not their future security but rather the fact that bribery may have allowed the terrorists to bypass all the security checkpoints leading to their city. Corruption, they believed, is the only explanation for how the terrorists were able to enter the city with all their military equipment. “The government has police, intelligence guards and army soldiers in all the crossroads, so how can these people get in?,” wondered one Kabul resident, quoted in the Times story.

A report released on Tuesday by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), confirms that corruption is not only the main concern among Kabul’s inhabitants, but of all Afghans countrywide. More than security or unemployment, a UNODC survey showed the bribes ordinary Afghans are forced to pay government officials, teachers, doctors and judges are their chief complaint.

The average bribe, according to the report, is about $160; and Afghans on average paid a bribe two out of every five times they dealt with a government employee. In all, Afghans pay an astounding $25 billion annually in bribes, a quarter of their country’s economic output. “Bribery is a crippling tax on people who are already among the poorest the world’s poorest,” said the UNODC’s executive director.

It is here, in the area of corruption, that an analyst for the military news publication Strategy Page says the “real battle” in Afghanistan is being fought. The daily struggle against “poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and corruption” is the “real war.” But this all-important side of the conflict is not being covered by a foreign media distracted by the noise of battle.

It is this aspect of the war, however, that will probably decide the fate of Afghanistan. Such corruption left unchecked will cause Afghans to lose all confidence in their institutions to the point where the United Nations has warned it could topple the government. It is also this corruption and grinding poverty that supplies the Taliban and drug gangs with “a steady stream” of gunmen.

The Obama administration should be put almost unbearable pressure on President Karzai at the upcoming Afghanistan security conference in London next week to tackle the corruption morass. An honest, efficient government is the most important factor in Afghanistan moving forward, both militarily and economically, as well as a guarantee Afghanistan will not return to the terrorist state it once was.