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The Fog of War

Arun Gupta Dec 11, 2009

GROUNDED: Soldiers land in Kabul, Afghanistan. PHOTO: FLICKR.COM/STARTLEDRABBIT III. This photo was published under creative commons licensing.

Edited by Arun Gupta

Anand Gopal has gone where few others reporters have been.

Currently correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Kabul, Afghanistan, Gopal embedded with the Taliban in 2008, giving him unique insight into a force that was swept away by the U.S. invasion after the 9/11 attacks but still rules much of the countryside and has battled Western forces to a stalemate.

In his writings, Gopal explains that while every “suicide attack and kidnapping is usually attributed to ‘the Taliban’ … the insurgency is far from monolithic.” The United States is battling a diverse group of fighters, Gopal says. “There are the shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students; poor, illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists and bandits that fall uneasily into three or four main factions. The factions themselves are made up of competing commanders with differing ideologies and strategies who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners.”

Gopal notes the Taliban are drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group. “They are motivated by joblessness, bad government and U.S. military violence. They have a good deal of support from the locals and they are a different breed of Taliban from the ones that were there in the 1990s.”

This past June, at the Socialism 2009 conference in Chicago, Gopal spoke about what motivates the Taliban to fight, how the U.S. reconstruction effort has failed, why neither side can prevail, the role of Pakistan and what further U. S. escalation portends.

He began by describing a group of Taliban he embedded with while reporting for The Christian Science Monitor. Apart from the commander of the group, who had been “a low level government functionary” during the Taliban regime, there were three “very young Muslims guys, too young to even remember the Soviet experience, who joined the Taliban because they didn’t have any jobs. They had a small plot of land; nothing grew because of the drought. The Taliban pays their fighters up to $200 or $300 a month to fight so they picked up a gun and started fighting against the Americans.”

The following text is adapted from that talk and various articles by, and interviews with, Anand Gopal.

Two Taliban fighters I met directly experienced American military violence, which is why they joined the insurgent movement. One person, he went home one day and found his house split in two and six family members killed and promptly picked up a weapon and joined the insurgents. The other person also had his family members killed.

When I was with the Taliban, we would sit up in the mountains and they would sleep all day and come out at night with their Kalashnikovs and RPGs. They would come down to the roadside and wait for Afghan police or soldiers to drive by, and then they would shoot them with the RPGs and run back up into the mountains. This is what they would do every single day. It’s a typical guerilla strategy.

When the Americans invaded in 2001 most Afghans welcomed the United States with open arms. Even among people who are in the Taliban now, they tell me that when the Americans first came they wanted them there because the Americans made a series of promises.

The Americans promised jobs. This is in a country where after nearly 25 years of war there’s no economy to speak of. They promised development and reconstruction, an accountable and responsible government and security.

The reason the situation has completely deteriorated is that the Americans have utterly failed in meeting every single one of their promises.

Today, more than half the country is unemployed. In many places the actual unemployment rate is much higher. There are villages I’ve gone to where no one has a job.

All the men are sitting outside and passing their time doing nothing. Forty percent of the country earns less than $14 a month and nearly 50 percent is unable to procure enough food to meet their minimum daily requirements.

In the mountains that surround the capital of Kabul live hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom don’t have any jobs. A lot of these people are crippled from the various wars — the Russian war, the current war — and the women are prevented from working.

Usually they’ll send their children down from the mountains into the city to either beg or work some small job. In these streets near the mountains you’ll see hundreds of children hawking trinkets, selling gum or outright begging. Many of these children are three or four years old, and they’re the main breadwinners of the family.

You’ll occasionally see men trying to sell their daughters. In one case there was a large refugee settlement outside of Kabul with a lot of people who are victims of U.S. airstrikes. One day, I saw a father standing there crying his eyes out. With him was a young girl. Some other refugees came up and asked him why are you crying? He said I have to sell my daughter because things have just gotten that desperate.

These other Afghans, who have no money, found whatever money they could and gave it to him and said don’t sell your daughter. But most people aren’t that lucky. Young girls are often sold as a way either to meet debts or just to earn money in any way.

NO DEVELOPMENT, BUT PLENTY OF CORRUPTION

To bring jobs, of course, you need development. The United States is spending $100 million a day in Afghanistan but 95 percent goes toward the military. Only 5 percent is earmarked for aid or development. Even that would be a reasonable amount, 5 percent of $100 million for aid.

But the problem is, of the 5 percent, 86 cents out of every dollar that the U.S. spends on aid comes back into the United States through contracts to U.S. corporations, through salaries to contractors and so on.

With all that money, the United Nations ranks Afghanistan as the fifth-least developed country in the world, and that’s a drop from 2004. If you move even 10 miles outside of Kabul, moving south, you enter a time warp. There’s no paved roads, no electricity, no running water. Some of the villages are so disconnected that people are living like they’ve lived for hundreds of years with very little change.

When I was with the U.S. troops earlier this year, we entered a village and the villagers thought that we were the Russians. They didn’t even know that the Russians have left.

The Americans promised to bring in democracy and an accountable government. In reality you have one of the most corrupt governments in the world. The minister of counternarcotics is reputed to be one of the biggest drug traffickers in the country.

On top of that the Americans are killing lots of people, many of them civilians. I was out with the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y., in the spring of 2009. At one point we were caught in a firefight. On one side were the troops, and on the other side the Taliban were there, firing back and forth. In the middle of that a car sped away, so the soldiers turned and started firing at the car and sprayed it full of bullets. And the car sat there mangled. All of a sudden the door swung open and an old man came out holding a baby and the baby had been killed.

This wasn’t reported; this is a daily occurrence. It’s important not to underestimate the effect these killings have in eroding support for the United States and building support for the Taliban.

THE STORY OF A SUICIDE BOMBER

I want to tell you about one child, probably around 15 years old. I’ll call him Zubair.

One day about three years ago, Zubair was walking home from school. As he approached his house he saw just shards of concrete and mangled wires. A U.S. airstrike had hit the house a couple of hours before. His home was completely destroyed and he panicked and he started sifting through the rubble, looking for family members.

He came across his mother’s severed head in the rubble. At the time he was maybe 11 or 12. He didn’t scream. Instead, the sight induced a sort of catatonia; he picked up the head, cradled it in his arms, and started walking aimlessly. He carried on like this for days, until tribal elders pried the head from his hands and convinced him to deal with his loss more constructively. He decided he would get revenge by becoming a suicide bomber and inflicting a loss on some American family as painful as the one he had just suffered.

He joined the Taliban. He was an ideal subject for a suicide bombing because he’s young, he’s in a distraught mental state and he feels like he has nothing left to live for.

He trained in the suicide camp for a couple of months and finally they dispatched him to Kabul. One morning, he made his way, as directed, toward an office building where American advisors were training their Afghan counterparts, but before he could detonate his vest, a pair of sharp-eyed intelligence officers spotted him and wrestled him to the ground.

Today Zubair is living in an Afghan prison with Al Qaeda members and all sorts of other people. His story is not unique. If you visit the prisons you can see that many people have the same sort of experience.

A WORSE LIFE FOR WOMEN

For the majority of Afghan women, life is either exactly the same as it was under the Taliban, or it’s worse. If you travel outside of Kabul you’ll see only men and boys outside, there are no women or girls anywhere to be seen. In these areas women are not allowed to leave the house and they are not allowed to find work and most women cannot go to school after puberty, if at all.

The statistics are bleak. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women complain of domestic violence; 60 to 80 percent of all marriages are forced; 57 percent of brides are under the age of 16. Afghan women have the lowest literacy rate and the highest suicide rate of any country in the world. The average life expectancy of an Afghan woman is about 42 or 43 years old.

AGAINST THE WALL: While life has improved for some women, such as these schoolgirls in Kabul, for most women their situation has deteriorated since the U.S.-led invasion began. Just like under the Taliban, women remain prisoners in their homes, but now they suffer the brunt of the war. PHOTO: FLICKR.COM/MICHAEL FOLEY. This photo was published under creative commons licensing.The hospitals are full of cases of the latest epidemic, which is self-immolation. I’ll tell you the story of one young woman, Fatima. She was in her home one day when her uncle broke in and raped her. She told her parents, who said, “Well, this is horrible. We need to regain our family’s honor in some way.” They decided that the best course of action would be for her to light herself on fire.

The mother poured gasoline on her and then Fatima lit a match and set herself on fire. Today she’s sitting in a hospital ward and she looks like a slice of pizza with bandages.

I go to the hospitals in rural areas and ask the women, would you prefer living back under the Taliban or do you prefer the American occupation? Almost across the board they say they preferred the Taliban.

THE PAKISTANI TALIBAN

There is an indigenous insurgency in Pakistan that is distinct from and independent of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is a society where there are landlords who have had immense wealth for generations and large numbers of dispossessed and disenchanted people. It’s also a society in which the Pakistani state has failed to meet the needs of its citizens.

There’s a generation of Pakistanis, especially Pashtuns in the tribal areas, who have grown up with a radicalized interpretation of Islam, thanks to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the CIA and Saudi Arabia, which promoted this in their war against the Soviet Union.

Afghanistan is not marked by the extreme class inequalities that you see in Pakistan, not to the same degree. In Afghanistan, everybody is poor, even the landlords are poor.

The Pakistani Taliban plays on the class anger. In many cases they’ll attack landlords and break up their holdings. Many people view them as Robin Hood figures. In Afghanistan, the Taliban ally with the landlords and with the tribal chiefs.

The goals of the two movements are different. The Afghan Taliban’s aim for the most part is to kick out the foreigners from their country. The Pakistani Taliban’s aims are a lot more complex.

The Pakistani Taliban is at war with the state of Pakistan. When I first started going to the Pashtun areas in Pakistan a couple of years ago, everybody loved the Taliban. They were viewed as a moral force to get rid of the corrupt government and redistribute wealth. Everybody hated the Americans and loved the Taliban.

Since this spring, there has been a perceptible shift. The Pakistani Taliban were close to the height of their power, but they seem to have overplayed their hand. First, their rather brutal regime induced a popular backlash — many ordinary Pashtuns in these areas who initially supported the Taliban started to turn against them. Second, they moved close to the province of Punjab, which is the heart of Pakistan and the seat of the ruling establishment.

This induced a backlash by the state, which dealt a swift defeat to Taliban forces in Bajaur agency and later moved into Swat and removed Taliban rule there. The setbacks for the Pakistani Taliban have continued. Last summer, their leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a U.S. drone strike, and he was the glue holding together a very fractured movement.

THE END GAME

Every time the Americans come into an area the bombing increases. After Obama sent 21,000 troops earlier this year, there was a 60 percent increase in violence over last year, which was already at record levels.

Despite the fact that every time the troops go into an area the violence increases and Pashtuns don’t want the Americans there, Obama is still putting more troops into the situation.

What’s the end game in all of this if they just keep throwing troops into it and the Pashtuns keep fighting back?

The Taliban will not be able to just keep spreading and getting larger every single year until one day they eventually take over the country. The Taliban in Afghanistan have support only in the Pashtun areas. They lack the roots and the support to move beyond the Pashtuns to other groups.

Neither will the Taliban march into Kabul. They lack the ability to take over an urban area. They’re a rural guerrilla force and Kabul is not a Pashtun city.

At the same time, the United States is not going to be able to go into the Pashtun areas and dislodge the Taliban. The experience of the last eight years of war and occupation is not going to be erased very easily. The Taliban have real support.

We’re faced with a war of attrition where you’re going to see every year more and more Afghan civilians killed and more and more U.S. soldiers coming back in body bags.