A timely reminder of the complexity of the conflict in Afghanistan comes from a western official there reported in the Guardian yesterday. The name "Taliban" may be misleading, he explained - as certainly is the assumption that its insurgency is a simple black and white struggle of foreigners versus fundamentalists. "This is about narcotics, corruption, tribal tensions, warlordism, illegal armed groups, Arabs, Iranians, Chechens - and all of these factors are interrelated. You never know who you are dealing with. You probably have some guys working for good and bad at the same time."
This warning should be borne in mind as more British combat troops are about to be sent to Afghanistan to join its existing 3,300 strong force. A Nato force is preparing to take over command of 8,000 troops fighting Taliban insurgents in the south of the vast country of 25 million people, in one of the most remote, yet strategic, parts of the world. There has been a pronounced increase in the tempo of the fighting during the current campaign launched by the United States, which is intended to displace Taliban forces. There is now the prospect of prolonged military engagement and much higher casualties.
Inevitably this provokes increasing questioning of the western role in Afghanistan. The present intervention began after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It rapidly toppled the Taliban regime, leading to the installation of Hamid Karzai as interim and then elected president. But his government's political and administrative reach is severely restricted to the region around Kabul. Most other regions are ruled by warlords, while the US force of some 18,000 troops has vainly pursued the elusive Osama bin Laden.
Intimately tied up with this pattern of rule is Afghanistan's role as the world's largest supplier of opium. The United Nations estimates that 87 per cent of the world production originates there, and that an even higher proportion of its derivative heroin comes to Europe from there via Pakistan and the Netherlands. It expanded enormously after 2001 and has been only marginally reduced after a steady effort to reduce it by eradication and substitution programmes.
Adding corruption, tribal tensions and illegal armed groups to this mixture helps to explain the intensity and passion with which the insurgency has been conducted and the daunting task facing Nato and US troops. Tensions in the wider region, including Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Chechnya all bear in on Afghanistan. This confirms in the 21st century the country's role as a cockpit of conflict for which it was known in the 19th as host of the "Great Game" between rival imperialisms.