It was supposed to be a peaceful summer in Afghanistan, perhaps the least violent one in years. The Taliban was expected to lie low and wait until the last American combat troops left in December, then declare all-out war against the Afghan army beginning next year.
It didn’t turn out that way. Earlier this summer, Pakistan launched a crackdown inside North Waziristan, a stronghold of the anti-government militants known as the Pakistani Taliban. This led hundreds of battle-hardened Pakistani jihadists to flood across the border and join the Afghan Taliban—a separate organization that shares its name and hatred of the West.
“It was a bonanza for the Afghan Taliban,” says a former Afghan Taliban intelligence officer. “The added strength prompted them to go on the attack.”
It’s impossible to say how badly the combined Taliban forces have battered the Afghan army. The U.S. drawdown is in full swing, and the remaining Americans steer clear of most of the fighting out of deference to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s repeated complaints about civilian casualties. But even in the absence of hard numbers, battle reports from around the country indicate the war isn’t going the way the government would like.
The militant push began in southern Helmand province, the heart of Afghanistan’s poppy-farming region. And at first the fighting seemed to center around one narrowly defined objective: Secure the region’s drug smuggling routes. The crime bosses in charge of Afghanistan’s opium and heroin—an estimated 90 percent of the world’s supply—were apparently trying to move as much of the harvest out of the country as possible. Once the Americans left, they feared, warlords and bandits could take over the country’s highways and impose their own taxes on any shipments.
Strapped for cash, the insurgency’s leaders were apparently eager to supply the necessary muscle. Indeed, according to disaffected former members of the Afghan Taliban, the drug traffickers paid the group’s ruling council top dollar to ensure safe passage. “They’re sacrificing the blood of their fighters just to run interference for the drug dealers—and to get $20 million,” says Qari Hamza, chief spokesman for Fedai Mahaz (Suicide Bombers Front), a hard-line Taliban splinter group that vehemently opposes any peace deal with the Afghan government.
Taliban loyalists staunchly deny any such deal and note that their critics routinely accuse them of corruption. “The Taliban are jihadists, not drug traffickers,” says Younas Agha, commander of an insurgent force in Helmand.