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17 July 2006

Talking to the Taliban

Who are they? What do they want? All too often, we just label them "Islamists" and leave it at that.

By Kate Clark

The household of the Taliban commander whom I visited recently was one of the most religious I have ever entered. In the morning, three different women asked if I wanted to get up to say the dawn prayer. It was kindly meant. I was in Shah-e-Kot, where the last major battle of the American invasion, Operation Anaconda, was fought in March 2002.

The previous month, this small, mountainous district a day’s walk from the Pakistan border in south-eastern Afghanistan had become headline news. The US command had showed off its latest weapon to the cameras – the thermobaric bomb, which kills people by sucking the air out of their lungs. Spokesmen cheerfully predicted the final rout of the Taliban. Four years on, the Afghan insurgency is bloodier than ever. Yet in 2001 and 2002 the vast majority of Afghans, even in the Taliban heartlands, were happy with the change of regime. How on earth did it all go so badly wrong?

The US military version of events dominates reporting of the insurgency. Press and television are, for the moment, full of reports of Operation Mountain Thrust, the latest US attempt to crush the Taliban. Since this began in mid-May some 550 people, mainly insurgents, have been reported killed. The British army is heavily involved, despite its intention of taking a more sophisticated approach to ending the conflict.

In Shah-e-Kot, the people told me I was the first journalist to arrive in this Taliban heartland since 2002. Nine former Taliban ministers came from a neighbouring district, and just across the Pakistan border are the tribal areas where Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters continue to enjoy sanctuary. Two Taliban commanders climbed with me up to the old mujahedin base where both groups made their last stand against the US invasion. We walked up past fir trees and aromatic bushes to look at the flag-draped graves of those considered martyrs and the wreckage of a US helicopter, shot down in the middle of the 12-day battle.

The shock came when I walked down to the four villages nearby. They had also been flattened in the US air campaign. Local people said 40 civilians had been killed and most of the population had fled to Pakistan. “Our ears bled from the noise of the bombing,” said one man. “I don’t really want to talk about it – I’ve not been right in my head since.”

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Once the battle was over neither the US nor al-Qaeda was interested in the place. Four years on, the villages are still largely in ruins. “We rebuilt our houses after the Soviet assaults,” one newly returned refugee told me, “and we’ll build them again, but really, this life is dreadful – we’re living like animals, not human beings.”

In the late afternoon I sat down with the local elders, Taliban among them, to discuss the situation. The active fighters in the area had been told by their commanders stationed across the border that they could not be interviewed, but others who have just given up the jihad did speak. “We don’t like war,” said Zapto Khan, my host, an imposing middle-ranking commander, “but this is our land. If someone attacks us, we will defeat them, by any means.” And he complained about Washington’s human-rights rhetoric. “Hey, America!” he said. “You brought the enemies of Islam, the warlords, to power. If you want to bring proper peace here, why are you still protecting the killers?”

Many of the men spoke about wrongs they felt they had suffered. They said crops have never grown properly since 2002; they believe the soil was poisoned by US munitions. Others spoke of arrests and of relatives taken to Guantanamo Bay or Bagram airbase, and of the suspected abuses carried out there. “Many people have picked up their guns and gone to the mountains because their houses have been searched without permission,” said Mohammed Hashem. “If there are ten men in a family and one of them has been hurt by the Americans, the rest of the family will of course co-operate with al-Qaeda.”

It was revealing to see these men, who are normally labelled terrorists or evildoers, among their families and neighbours. These were not stereotypical barefoot and illiterate Taliban, but men of the world, well travelled, educated, speaking Urdu and Arabic as well as their native Pashto. The reasons they fought but are no longer fighting are complex, to do with economics as well as politics. Some desire a normal life after years of fighting; some still consider America and Karzai as enemies but do not want to be “tools of Pakistan and its intelligence service”.

The sense of aggrieved nationalism is strong. “Even if you take me to Guantanamo or kill me,” said one man, “I will still say that this is our country. Come here in a polite way and you will be welcome. But come into our homes as you do – taking the men out and keeping the ladies inside – that is against our culture and our religion. The British and the Russians learned the hard way: if anyone comes here by force, they won’t be here for long.”

There is some hope that the new British command in Helmand and at Nato understands, as the US military never really has, that this complex insurgency requires political rather than military solutions. Even so, Nato must deal with a legacy of the ill-conceived policies of the US, the United Nations and President Karzai.

In 2002 Washington sacrificed peacekeeping to the primary task of annihilating the Taliban and al-Qaeda, giving military and political support to Afghan military commanders – even war criminals – to further this aim. Abuses were dismissed as “green on green”, meaning internal Afghan affairs. The UN, too, believed stability was more important than human rights and decided to work with the warlords. And Karzai has repeatedly allied himself with dangerous strongmen who, throughout Afghan istan, have remained unpunished for crimes and abuses of power since 2001.

Helmand, where British troops are now deployed, has suffered one of the worst administrations in the country. Some officials who are in alliance with the US and Karzai are accused of torture, illegal detention and drug trafficking. One man told me about the arrest of his cousin Jalaladin. “He was hung by his feet and beaten,” he told me. “They gave him electric shocks. He went mad from the torture.” When I asked if such maltreatment encouraged people to support the Taliban, he looked at me as if I were stupid. “Of course it does,” he said.

A defence lawyer from the Afghanistan Human Rights Organisation, Mawlawi Ibrahim Sahdat, says there are thousands of Helmand people in jail, “but fewer than a hundred are actually criminals”. Local UN officials said they had spent the past four years trying to persuade Karzai to get rid of the most corrupt holders of power. The provincial governor was finally removed this year, as a precondition to British deployment.

Helmand now has a decent governor and one of the best police chiefs in the country, Nabi Khan Mulakhail. This is the first crucial step towards stabilisation, but the next move, cleaning up the deeply corrupt district managers and security forces – or what one diplomat referred to as the “pro-Karzai militia” – will take time, canniness and good fortune.

Unfortunately, the old provincial governors of Helmand and neighbouring Uruzgan (removed as a condition of Dutch deployment) have already resurfaced in a new role as the heads of “tribal militias” under a Karzai project to fight the insurgents. Many Afghans predict disaster. “This is what desperate leaders do,” one intellectual told me. “It’s what the communists did before they were defeated and everything fell apart for everyone: arm one tribe against another in a last, hopeless attempt to stay in power.”

Nato has to win over communities deeply alienated by the misrule of the past four years. Many in the south who, unlike northerners, never suffered Taliban abuse – the beheadings of teachers and Afghan aid workers, the burning of schools, extortion of money and suicide bombings – look back to the time of Taliban rule as a golden age. “There was no crime or killing, and security was good,” an elder from Helmand told me. “Many people now support the Taliban, not because they’re religious, but because of all the problems.” Some elders in Helmand still try to steer a course between the Taliban and the government, but for other communities the old option has become the more attractive of the two.

In places such as Helmand and Uruzgan, anger about abuses committed along tribal lines by the provincial administration is probably the most important motivation for fighting. Elsewhere, the historical fuel of Afghan civil war – external financial support – is crucial. Among the Taliban to whom I spoke was one soldier who admitted fighting solely for pay. He was from one of the poorest provinces in the country, Zabul, and had the stringy look of someone malnourished as a child. During Taliban rule, he had fled to Pakistan to avoid conscription. This time, however, the remuneration was excellent – a rifle, motorbike, new clothes and shoes, and the equivalent of £75 a month. He cheerfully admitted to extorting food from poor villagers, telling them that they had to support the jihad. “I’m not trying to take over the country. I just want to earn my salary,” he said. The leader of one local NGO reckoned that between 60 and 70 per cent of the Taliban in Zabul were similarly fighting for money.

It may be that the new deployment of western troops has come too late: Afghanistan may have passed the tipping point beyond which outside intervention can only deepen the conflict.

Kate Clark is a freelance journalist. She has been reporting in Afghanistan most recently for More4 News

Years when bloody turmoil became normal

1973 After 40 years of stability the country’s modern troubles begin when Mohamed Daud overthrows King Zahir Shah and declares a republic.

1978 Daud is murdered in a coup by the Marxist People’s Democratic Party, but disputes soon break out between factions, while in the country Islamic militias begin a revolt.

1979 On 24 December Soviet forces invade Afghanistan to prop up the PDP regime, installing Babrak Karmal as president. This outrages the west, prompting the US to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

1980 onward Soviet forces are resisted by a coalition of tribal and other groups, known as the mujahedin, that received funding and training from the US, Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and others. Osama Bin Laden and other hardline Saudis join the war.

1985-86 Turning point as US provides the mujahedin with missiles that can bring down Soviet helicopters. The new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev begins looking for a way out. Babrak Karmal is replaced as president by former spy chief Muhammad Najibullah.

1988-89 After a war that cost 15,000 Soviet lives and also drove millions of Afghans into exile, the last Soviet forces leave. Najibullah remains in charge in Kabul but factional civil war sweeps the country.

1992 Najibullah steps down after a long rearguard action. Chaos worsens and the Taliban, the most puritanical Islamist heirs of the mujahedin, slowly gain ascendancy.

1996 The Taliban take Kabul and impose Islamic law. Stonings and amputations begin and television, sport and music are banned. So is the growing of poppies.

1998 United States forces fire missiles at suspected bases in Afghanistan of Bin Laden, who is accused of bombing US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

2001 When Taliban refuse to hand over Bin Laden after the 11 September attacks, the US and Britain attack. With outside support, Northern Alliance topples the Taliban; Hamid Karzai becomes interim head of government.

2002 The International Security Assistance Force arrives as US and UK forces hunt for rebel leaders. Nato later takes command of ISAF, its first mission outside Europe.

2004 New constitution adopted. Karzai wins presidential poll. Foreign donors, led by the US, pledge $8.2bn in aid, but the new mood is marred by corruption and factionalism.

2005 Parliamentary and provincial elections held – the first in 30 years. Allegations of prisoner abuse by US soldiers at detention centres.

2006 Britain sends a force of 5,700 to Helmand to take on the resurgent Taliban and curb the opium trade. Reinforcements follow.

Daniel Trilling

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