JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Rahmatullah Sorkhrodi looks out of his TV repair shop through the few shards of glass left hanging in the window frame. Little more than month ago, a bomb detonated in a music and video store across the street, blowing out windows in his and other surrounding stores.
The Taliban prohibit music and videos, and the shop near Mr. Sorkhrodi is just one of several that have been attacked recently in Jalalabad.
For Sorkhrodi, who can’t afford to fix the window, it’s a reminder of what many people fear is the growing influence of the Taliban here. “Now everyone is scared that it is getting worse. Maybe they will use more suicide attacks.”
While reported talks between the Afghan government and members of the Taliban have grabbed headlines, there are numerous indications throughout Afghanistan that the Taliban are doing anything but hanging up their guns.
Indeed, as the Afghan government suffers under its reputation for corruption, the Taliban appear to be using that to garner increasing support for their movement. Consequently, regions like Nangarhar Province that have traditionally had a limited Taliban presence may be more at risk.
“Generally the current government cannot solve all the problems in Nangarhar, because the problems don’t just belong to this province,” says Muhammad Hassan Haqyar, a political analyst based in Kabul. Because of that, he says, it appears the Taliban are trying to take advantage of that and work to establish themselves as a legitimate governing body.
The Taliban are conducting civil court proceedings in areas outside government control. This October in the restive Wardak Province, for example, Taliban officials publicly executed a man accused of murder. In Kapisa Province, north of Kabul, they’ve recently won favor by putting a cap on dowries men must pay to get married, which can reach up to $20,000, a daunting fee for most Afghans.
It is amid this backdrop that Nangarhar Province has begun to see a spike in Taliban activity. As the owner of one of the few remaining music and video shops in Jalalabad, Watan Pashaie should be opposed to the Taliban for business reasons, but under the right conditions he says he’d support them.
“There is fraud and corruption inside the government. If you don’t pay the police, they won’t protect you,” he says. “We hope that one day the government will be strong enough, but if not, we will join with the Taliban.”
The Taliban have increased their efforts – largely seen by experts as propaganda – to present themselves as an effective alternative to the government and as more open-minded than many Afghans remember.
During the Taliban regime “there were some people who joined the Taliban who did not represent the group’s real Islamic values. We’ve since removed these people from our organization,” says a member of the Taliban in Nangarhar who asked for anonymity. “Now that we’ve purged these bad men, people want us to take control of their areas again.”
Though the former Taliban regime that held power from 1996 until late 2001 was strongly criticized for its treatment of women, he says that they plan to guarantee the rights of women and ensure that they are able to attend schools if they regain control. It was only a shortage of finances and resources that prevented this in the past, says the Taliban member.
The Taliban’s ability to contain crime is a key attraction. “Most people support the Taliban because it is capable of providing security,” says Abdullah, a self-described Taliban supporter who runs a religious school in Nangarhar. “With the current government, if Karzai gives an order, no one will follow it, but if Mullah Omar gives an order, everyone in the Taliban follows it.”
Still, the question remains whether this more robust Taliban foothold and makeover translates into a real strategic gain for the group. With international forces putting pressure on insurgent strongholds, especially in the south, a number of fighters have fled to provinces like Nangarhar, Baghlan, and Kunduz that receive less attention from local and international security forces. “The insurgency will go where there’s the least amount of resistance,” says a senior intelligence official with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Gen. David Petraeus also acknowledged this problem in an interview with ABC on Monday, saying that success by 2014 is not a “sure thing” and pursuing such an elusive enemy will take a “sustained, substantial commitment.”
But both ISAF and Afghan security officials agree that there’s a big difference between burning down a few shops or sending threatening letters and actually taking control.
Afghan Police Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ayub Salangy says he worries about their increased presence. “The police force isn’t structured to fight terrorism and we need more policemen,” he says.
Still, he adds, when the Taliban was in control of the government it was widely unpopular here, so he doubts it will be able to win the support of residents now.