Thursday, October 22, 2009

Talking to the Taliban


There was a grainy image of a Taliban fighter on my computer screen last night. His face and head were wrapped in his turban, showing only his dark and intense eyes. He gripped his rifle as he sat cross legged on the ground in a small dingy room. He discussed suicide bombing and whether or not it was good, and then said quietly, "I am willing to do this too."

Creepy, yes. I've been fascinated by the Globe and Mail's interactive feature "Talking to the Taliban" over the past few days. There's a lot of information there, and if you go to the section with the interviews with the Taliban fighters you will see 42 interviews asking all the same questions.

Some of it really surprised me, and some of it shows revealing patterns of how the Taliban think and feel. They definitely showed how entirely uneducated they are, and how little they know of the world. The interviewer asked them if they were familiar with a series of political leaders. They all knew the leader of an Afghani Muslim political party. When asked who Hamid Karzai is (President of Afghanistan), they all angrily said he was either the President or King, and that he was the servant of non-Muslims/foreigners. When asked who Musharraf is (leader of Pakistan) they knew who he was and said he was also the servant of foreigners. When asked who Bush was, only a handful knew, which shocked me. This was much different than the average person I met in the cities in this area - they knew and were angry with Bush. It seems the average fighter is totally uneducated about his enemy.

Those who had heard of the U.S. President often gave responses that revealed more of their parochialism. He was called a "Jew," and "King of America." Sometimes, amid the errors, the Taliban showed their simplistic view of world politics.
"He is the son of George W, [and] he is the son of Clinton W, and he is American, and is a serious enemy of Islam," said one fighter in his description of Mr. Bush.
"Why is he an enemy of Islam?" he was asked.
"The Koran says: 'Jews and Christians will be unhappy until you obey them. When you obey them, they will be satisfied,' " the insurgent replied. "This means if you obey them they are happy, but if you don't accept their commands, they will fight you."
...One of The Globe and Mail's questions offered the Taliban a chance to volunteer any information about Canada: "Do you know about this country? What kind of people are there? Is it a big country or a small country? Poor country, rich country? Cold or warm? Do Muslims live there?" None offered any meaningful responses, and most of them simply declined to answer. One of the few who guessed, a 21-year-old farmer, seemed to think the word "Canada" indicated a faraway city. (from the Globe and Mail)
Another striking this was the response to the question, "What is NATO?". I would imagine many Americans would have no clue about that question, but the fighters mostly answered something like, "A group of 35-40 countries from the West that have banded together to fight Islam". Interesting that they see NATO as against Islam in particular... a total misconception.
Taliban units on patrol in Afghanistan. The resistance movement to US/NATO occupation has issued a "Code of Conduct" manual. Casualties are mounting among both the Afghan people and the imperialist troops.

One super weird thing to me is the discussion of growing poppies (opium). Most of the fighters said yes, they grow poppies (Afghanistan supplies most of the world's opium). Yet when the interviewer asked them what Islam thinks of growing poppies, they answer that it is forbidden but because they have financial needs, they grow it anyways. Wow. Willing to die for your faith but unwilling to stop growing poppies? I think that was my first clue in a steadily realization of just how CULTURAL their extremism is, rather than being motivated directly by Islam. Islam seems to be partly the excuse rather than the fuel.

For instance - the interviewers asks them why they started fighting, and most of the fighters immediately say - "Because non-Muslims/foreigners came to our country, and we want them out." Wow... I would have expected something about a holy Muslim war, but no... for them it is far more nationalistic. Few mention a global jihad, most just want a Muslim Afghanistan without foreign intervention. It's interested - we fueled the beginning of the Taliban by pumping money to the mujahideen that were fighting the presence of Russia in Afghanistan. They see us EXACTLY the same way they saw the Russians - non Muslims that have invaded their country.
Their ferocity usually had a limited focus, however. A few talked about global jihad -- "This is a world war" -- but most of them gave their fight a narrow definition, usually aiming their rage at the foreign troops and their political opponents within the borders of Afghanistan.
"Why are you fighting against this government?" The Globe's researcher asked a 25-year-old former driver. "Because they are with the non-Muslims," he replied. "If there were no non-Muslims, we would not fight with them, because one Muslim does not fight with another Muslim."

They are chilling in their determination. The interviewer mentions that hundreds of foreigners have died, and ask them how many they think will need to die before the foreigners will leave. The fighters all say - it doesn't matter how long it takes or how many lives. If we have to kill them all, we will.

For instance, a third of the fighters had a family member die in aerial bombings. Does that show that many fighters join because of the bombing, or does it show that a lot of the boming is effectively hitting Taliban-related communities?

Every since visiting this general area I have read and researched and wrestled in my mind with what our best approach is. If they just hate foreigners, wouldn't it just be better to get out? And yet, if you leave a totally unstable society divided up into antagonistic tribes then you have exactly what happened when Russia pulled out. An extremist dictatorial government forms and extremist groups like the Al Quaeda have the freedom to grow. So I guess we can't just leave, but we HAVE to understand that the more Westerners are present in the country, the angrier the Afghanis (especially the Pashtuns) will be. We must encourage and identify local leaders and local government. Does NATO have any Muslim members? It'd be awesome if we could get troops from Muslim countries in there, especially given the answer the fighters gave to the question, "Which countries are good for Afghanistan?" They all answer, "All Muslim countries." Of course this is false, many Muslim countries are totally against the sort of Islam in Afghanistan. If only more moderate Muslim countries would be willing to step in and help build a peaceful society!
The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote this in an editorial this week:
The United States was born of our ancestors’ nationalistic resentment of a foreign power whose troops we saw as occupiers, not protectors. The British never fathomed our basic grievance — this was our land, not theirs! — so the more they cracked down, the more they empowered the American insurgency.

Given that history, you’d think we might be more sensitive to nationalism abroad. Yet the most systematic foreign-policy mistake we Americans have made in the post-World War II period has been to underestimate its potency, from Vietnam to Latin America.

We have been similarly oblivious to the strength of nationalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly among the 40 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border there. That’s one reason the additional 21,000 troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year haven’t helped achieve stability, and it’s difficult to see why 40,000 more would help either.....

That’s not to say we should pull out, and it’s a false choice to suggest that we should either abandon Afghanistan or double down. A pullout would be a disastrous signal of American weakness and would destabilize Pakistan.

My suggestion is that we scale back our aims, for Afghanistan is not going to be a shining democracy any time soon. We should keep our existing troops to protect the cities (but not the countryside), while ramping up the training of the Afghan Army — and helping it absorb more Pashtuns to increase its legitimacy in the south. We should negotiate to peel off some Taliban commanders and draw them over to our side, while following the old Afghan tradition of “leasing” those tribal leaders whose loyalties are for rent. More aid projects, with local tribal protection, would help, as would job creation by cutting tariffs on Pakistani and Afghan exports.

1 comment:

Togenberg said...

Wow, shocked they didn't know who Bush was!

Really sucks about that view of NATO.

Not surprised about the cultural mix with religion. Seems very human, and almost inescapable, even for a Christian with the best intent and discipline (eg, patriotism? capitalism? use of violence? drink alcohol? wear pants? ....). Maybe we have to come from somewhere, a place and time, and then by the goG we rise above or at least higher.