It was the spring of 2001. I was in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, together with my brother Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban, and Bismullah Khan, who currently serves as Afghanistan's interior minister. One of our commanders, Commandant Momin, wanted us to see 30 Taliban fighters who had been taken hostage after a gun battle. My brother agreed to meet them.
I remember that his first question concerned the centuries-old Buddha statues that were dynamited by the Taliban in March of that year, shortly before our encounter. Two Taliban combatants from Kandahar confidently responded that worshiping anything outside of Islam was unacceptable and that therefore these statues had to be destroyed. My brother looked at them and said, this time in Pashto, "There are still many sun- worshippers in this country. Will you also try to get rid of the sun and drop darkness over the Earth?"
Indeed, the Taliban are prepared to go very far in their jihad. They will spare no human life or piece of their country's history in their attempt to remake Afghanistan in their image. If it were within their powers, they would not even stop with the sun.
I was thinking about this episode recently when, at the July 20 conference in Kabul, international powerbrokers rededicated themselves to seeing the mission in Afghanistan through to the end. "We have no intention of abandoning our long-term mission," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Too many nations … have suffered too many losses to see this country slide backward."
It will be no small feat to match the Taliban's commitment. Over the duration of this nine-year conflict, U.S. and European leaders have discovered that it will take more than the same old methods to fix Afghanistan. Rather, what is needed is a new understanding of the complex dynamics of the current war and of Afghan society as a whole.
NATO members are increasingly showing concern over the lack of progress in the counterinsurgency campaign, which has concentrated on the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. So far, the results have been mixed: Although the 15,000 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops who participated in the military operation in Helmand's Marja district largely managed to clear the area of insurgents, the process of establishing legitimate and trusted institutions and security forces in the region will remain on the agenda for a long time.
The military operation in Kandahar will likely experience similarly inconclusive results if NATO and Afghan forces fail to counter the Taliban strategy in the area. To lay the groundwork for the Kandahar operation, Afghan President Hamid Karzai traveled twice to the province; he was followed by a joint Afghan-U.S. delegation led by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These officials were right to make Kandahar the centerpiece of their efforts to combat the insurgency. Along with Helmand, this area forms the core of the Taliban's stronghold in Afghanistan; it is the source of the group's most ideologically committed fighters and also the home of most of its leadership. Helmand in particular is also an important source of revenue for the Taliban: The province accounts for nearly 50 percent of the world's opium production, and profits from the drug trade are funneled back into the insurgency.