For all their strategy sessions, policymakers in Washington are still clearly vexed by the Taliban's staying power in Afghanistan. But the reasons behind the Taliban's support may not be complicated at all -- though combating them may require a fundamental change in the West's military and political strategy.
The fact is that the Taliban and other Islamist elements are popular in the region out of which they operate, the Pashtun tribal belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has always been an utterly conservative locale where the local population has generally favored Islamic fundamentalism. Even going back to the 1930s, Waziristan's rallying flag against the British was a simple white calligraphic "Allah-Akbar" (God is Great) on red fabric.
Although the West and its allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been terrified by the specter of a second Islamic republic, there is a way to mitigate the threat: the creation of a semiautonomous region where Islamists can exercise their draconian system of law -- if that is what the people agree to impose upon themselves. Just as the creation of Pakistan involved a migration, or hijrah, the radical elements in both countries who yearn for an Islamic emirate can be allowed to migrate to this hinterland and help build their new political order.
Of course, the terms of such a divorce would have to be very carefully negotiated because radical Islamists like the Taliban have traditionally had expansionary tendencies. They would need to reject international terrorism and give assurances to neighboring states that they would not intervene in those countries' territories. Under those conditions, the new area could maintain its economic relations with the rest of the region, depriving the territory's Islamist rulers of the excuse that they are suffering unfairly from having been made an economic pariah.
Just as Washington has acknowledged that it cannot simply disregard popular support in Egypt for the Muslim Brotherhood, the West must also come to terms with the Taliban's base of support. If a proper referendum were held in Afghanistan -- something that the Taliban says it would support -- it's possible that in some parts of Waziristan and in eastern Afghanistan a majority of the public would favor Taliban rule.
Because of Islamist evangelism and population growth, an increasing number of Pakistanis and Afghans are disposed to favoring an austere version of sharia law as well. In Pakistan's frontier province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Islamists were freely elected into power in one recent election. A poll conducted in Waziristan by the New America Foundation in September 2010 revealed not only that more than 87 percent of the local population opposes the West's military presence, but that parties with Islamist inclinations (Pakistan Tehreek-Insaaf, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e Islam) would gain almost half of the votes in a free and open election.
The United States and NATO shouldn't dismiss out of hand the idea of giving the Taliban and their Islamist sympathizers some measure of political self-rule. There's no denying that the Islamists' brutish and austere vision of justice is foreign to the sensibilities of modern minds in the region and the Western world. Unlike Egypt's Muslim Brothers, the Taliban are not willing to endorse the establishment of a democracy in Afghanistan. Their stated desire is to establish a theocracy where personal piety and religious knowledge would be the most important criteria for attaining public office. Nonetheless, giving the Islamists an autonomous region would force them to prove their political bona fides.