Afghanistan: Who To Fight, Who To Befriend The U.S. military is fighting the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan, but what are the major factions they're up against? And why is it hard to convince the local population that this time, the Marines are here to stay?
NPR logo

Afghanistan: Who To Fight, Who To Befriend

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Afghanistan: Who To Fight, Who To Befriend

Afghanistan: Who To Fight, Who To Befriend

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We're joined now by Christine Fair, a senior political scientist at RAND Corporation, who recently traveled to Afghanistan. Thanks for being with us.

Ms. CHRISTINE FAIR (Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: Jackie Northam just mentioned the U.S. military is fighting the Taliban and other insurgents. Specifically, what are the major factions they're up against?

Ms. FAIR: Well, in this part, in the southern part of Afghanistan, in Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan, this is the major part of Afghanistan where the majority of the poppy is grown, so not only do you have various Taliban factions, but you also have the narcotics traffickers and you also have a lot of cross-border movement from Pakistan, both by fighters, wanting to help out local Taliban, but also wanting to participate in the narcotic trafficking.

And on top of that, you've got government officials, both from the Afghan government and the Pakistan government who are also involved in the narcotics trafficking. So you've got quite a mix of bad guys in this part of Afghanistan.

HANSEN: Jackie also mentioned that addition to the actual fighting, the Marines are also battling to convince people that they're in it for the long haul. Why is that so important?

Ms. FAIR: Well, what they're trying to do is move from a conventional war-fighting strategy towards one that is of a counterinsurgency approach. And counterinsurgency approach is really not about killing the bad guys as much as it is about securing the population. So not only do they have to defeat the Taliban, they also have to reassure the population that the international forces and the Afghan forces are going to be there to take care of them. This is critical, because if you don't have confidence in the international forces or in the Afghan forces, why would you cooperate? We know the Taliban may come right back through and hold anyone accountable for cooperating with the international and Afghan forces.

HANSEN: Besides the threat of violence, why do you think local populations have continued to back the Taliban and other insurgents?

Ms. FAIR: Well, it's not fair to say that they're backing the Taliban. The Taliban have a much lower threshold for success than the Afghan and international forces. The Taliban really only need to provide very basic things. You often hear about the Taliban providing justice. We're not talking about settling intellectual property disputes, what we're really talking about is settling disputes over land, which in an agrarian society, can be a life or death situation. So the Taliban adjudicate these disputes over land, family feuds, perhaps over marriage. And a Taliban decision is binding. No one's going to basically violate a Taliban verdict.

The other thing the Taliban are really good at doing is basically punishing, in many cases, lethally, anyone that cooperates. So they have a combination of force that they can execute and, you know, until very recently - and we'll have to see how these infusion of soldiers actually pans out - but until recently, the Afghan and international forces would win every battle, but then they would leave the area and then the Taliban would basically conduct reprisals against anyone that cooperated.

So the Taliban essentially have a couple things on their side. They've got numbers, whereas the Afghan and international forces have not had enough to clear, hold and build, the Taliban can come right back in after a confrontation. They have the power of coercion over the local population and of course they provide basic services. And in this part of Afghanistan, they basically have a jobs program and that's called poppy.

HANSEN: Can you tell just briefly a bit more about Mullah Omar's fighters, which you described as kind of not a coherent force?

Ms. FAIR: Well, there, now remember, the Taliban has changed quite a bit. So the Taliban of today is not the Taliban that existed in 2001. But you have - Mullah Omar has a number of commanders that are loosely coordinated. You don't really find them engaging in high level strategic planning, although they are getting better at this.

But the Taliban basically works through a network of local commanders and their leadership pretty much tracks, tribal alliances and family alliances. But as you look across the Afghan theater, the Taliban are not the only enemy. And you move north along the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders and you move into the tribal areas of Pakistan, that's where you find, for example, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Jalaluddin Haqqani. They're largely fighting in the Paktika, Khost, Paktia provinces.

And as you go further up, and so you're looking at the Bajaur area in Pakistan right across from Khunar in Afghanistan, that's where you actually start to find al-Qaida fighters, as well as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. So people talk about one insurgency, but in fact when you think about the drug smugglers, the gem smugglers, the wood smugglers, as well as with these different clusters of fighters, what you see is we actually have multiple insurgencies.

HANSEN: Thank you. Christine Fair is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Thank you.

Ms. FAIR: Well, thank you for having me. Have a wonderful day.

HANSEN: Thank you.

Ms. FAIR: Bye, bye.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.