At a time when international forces – especially U.S. decision makers preparing for elections – are anxious to hand over power to Afghans, this merger is not welcome news. This development could allow Mullah Omar to reinforce dwindling numbers of Taliban fighters as well as increase the groups’ capability to launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan from the semi-autonomous tribal regions of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In addition to giving the groups increased operational capability, the consolidation will also serve to put added pressure on the strained relationship between America and Pakistan regarding sovereignty and military incursions.
As many U.S. troops prepare to withdraw and the remainder shift to more supervisory roles, the success of operations will depend on the both the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to win on the battlefield and the capacity for the Afghan government to win the loyalty of its people. Frontline successes in 2011 resulting from President Obama’s surge encouraged insurgents to attack softer targets with higher press cachet, such as the U.S. Embassy and military shuttle bus in Kabul. The attacks worked – majorities in the United States and all NATO countries support the scaling back of international forces in Afghanistan and Obama has announced the intention of drawing down surge troops by the end of this election year.
However, these "softer" attacks have also come at the cost of increased civilian casualties that continue to drive the Afghan population out of the arms of the Taliban. A comprehensive recent opinion survey by the Asia Foundation indicates that the number of Afghans who have no sympathy for insurgents has nearly doubled from 36 percent in 2009 to 64 percent in 2011. ISAF and the government of Afghanistan must capitalize on these changes of "hearts and minds" by proving that the Afghan government and security forces can provide, if not exceed, the state services and (relative) stability of the former Taliban government.
Since this past November Mullah Omar has made it a point to demand the cessation of Taliban abuses against civilians. If a renewed and strengthened Taliban fighting force is coupled with a reversion of public favor towards the Taliban and appeals to traditional nationalism calling to expel foreign occupiers, then the Afghan government could be at risk of losing support in valuable contested areas. The international community and Afghanistan must redouble efforts to prove that it offers a viable, stable, desirable alternative to anything the Taliban has to offer.
Whitney Grespin is a Programs Specialist at New Century U.S., a government contracting firm specializing in intelligence sector reform and capacity building. Prior to working in contingency contracting, Whitney coordinated and facilitated international educational programs and community development seminars on four continents. She received her Master's in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.