The struggle in Afghanistan has turned into a clash of cultures different from what had generally been expected. Both the NATO effort and the Taliban opposition have changed significantly in the course of the last nine years, resulting in a much changed situation.
NATO forces moved into Afghanistan to crush the Taliban and oust al Qaeda from its strongholds and training camps. These forces quickly took control of the country, but strongly rejected any suggestion of "nation building," though NATO was instrumental in setting up democratic political institutions. But the results were a big disappointment to the Afghan population, to the Muslim World, and, indeed, to the NATO governments. NATO effectively empowered a corrupt, ineffective government that was widely despised by the population and served as a focal point for a resurgent Taliban. NATO has come to realize that Afghan stability does in fact demand nation building, or at least something like it. The threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan has long ago faded into insignificance. The task has shifted into an effort to bring Afghanistan into the modern world, setting an example of Western support for Muslim development.
The Taliban have also changed significantly. Initially they were a medieval theocracy, reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, ruthless and uncompromising defenders of ascetic, medieval religious tenets. The widespread disappointment with the NATO transformation provided an opening for their resurgence. In the process, the Taliban have shifted from a claim of authority based on religious purity to authority based on force and intimidation. They live off opium production which they once sternly suppressed. They extensively employ suicide tactics alien to mainstream Muslim beliefs and to Afghan traditions. They have carried out widespread killings of respected community leaders and often innocent bystanders. They have turned into religious thugs opposing the movement of society into the modern world. Their reliance on terror tactics provides a vivid demonstration that their religious tenets have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Afghans.
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