Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Emmy Winning Documentary "Talking to the Taliban" Reveals No Simple Solution to Afghanistan's Woes

In the war for the Afghan nation, there are no simple maxims that can easily articulate the scope of the conflict. Nor, are there simple prescriptive solutions by which order can be restored and the people of this relatively small, landlocked state can return to some semblance of normality in their day-to-day lives. In his Emmy Award winning documentary “Talking to the Taliban”(1), which was hosted in interactive video format on the Globe and Mail webpage, Globe reporter Graeme Smith did something that few other western reporters have been willing to do. He candidly interviewed 42 members of the Taliban insurgency in order to try and shed some perspective on the reasons and ideals that drive these tribal warriors to fight. The course of his investigation (mostly taped by an Afghan freelance researcher) reveals the almost incomprehensibly complex nature of the conflict. A thorough viewing of the material Smith presents, and research into the surrounding factors reinforces the perspective that in the struggle to forge a stable state from this fluid tribalism and multitude of geopolitical considerations, there are no easy answers.

For one, Smith’s documentary series reveals that the Taliban are not overly political, nor do they possess any sort of worldview which extends beyond their borders. They see themselves as warriors, fighting a ‘jihad’ against non-Muslims. They do not care who leads their nation (but begrudgingly accept that Mullah Omar, their current de-facto leader is not really up to the job, being himself, not a politician.) Many of the interviewed Taliban admitted that they would accept ‘any government that had an Islamic leader and did not serve the non-Muslims.’ The documentary goes on to reveal that at least the common foot-soldiery have little concept of the locations or cultural structures of other nations outside their own. Few could, for instance, place Canada on a map in relation to the United States, and fewer still knew whether there were any Muslims in Canada at all. This underscores the level of ignorance in the resistance and implies that rather than being complex and conniving architects of a global Jihad, the Taliban are actually little more than illiterate and marginalized country folk who have been hardened by almost three decades of civil war and internecine strife. (2)

The divide between Afghanistan’s Urban and Rural centers, illustrated by images of Kabul, the capital and a small village in the province of Paktia.

One of the major drives behind the primarily ‘rural’ insurgency is the intense and historical urban/rural dichotomy in Afghanistan. In the urban centers are the Western aid organizations, opportunities for education and many people who have come to believe in the ideas of prosperity, liberalism and democracy. For the Taliban, this indicates the spread of values that they would term ‘non-Muslim’, exported by interfering nations, which threaten their traditional way of life. They are fighting then, primarily for the right to live under their own code of laws in the countless small farming villages. This ‘Sharia’ law is a form of Islamic self-government which incorporates the tenets of Islam into all aspects of living, especially as pertains to social codes, family structure and criminal justice. (3)

“In sharia, there are categories of offenses… prescribed a specific punishment in the Quran, known as hadd punishments, those that fall under a judge's discretion, and those resolved through a tit-for-tat measure (ie., blood money paid to the family of a murder victim). There are five hadd crimes: unlawful sexual intercourse (sex outside of marriage and adultery), false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, wine drinking (sometimes extended to include all alcohol drinking), theft, and highway robbery. Punishments for hadd offenses--flogging, stoning, amputation, exile, or execution…” (4)

The famed image of a public execution for a hadd offense, conducted in a stadium in Afghanistan underscores the marginalized nature of women under Sharia law.

Predating the spread of Islam and the implementation of Sharia Law by centuries is the ancient tribal code of the Pashtun people. This pre-literate tradition is handed down orally from generation to generation. Called ‘Pashtunwali’, it calls for amongst other things, men to rise up and take revenge ‘Badal’ to redress wrongs dealt to them or the honour of their families. This often results in blood feuds spanning decades and costing hundreds of lives, born of a simple insult. For the purposes of the current conflict, collateral damages to civilian populations or targets from air-delivered munitions or other heavy ordnance is creating yet another reason for the Taliban to take up arms against the perceived ‘cruel oppression’ of foreign occupation.

Of the 42 Taliban that are interviewed in Smith’s documentary, 12 state that they themselves have lost close relatives in airstrikes. The prominent effect that civilian casualties as a result of the aerial campaign over Afghanistan, in terms of popular support for the continued presence of foreign troops and diplomats in the country cannot be ignored. A United Nations report indicated that international forces operating in Afghanistan were reviewing their air-warfare doctrines in an attempt to drastically reduce the number of civilian casualties that were tearing away at both Afghan governmental and popular support of the war effort. The American forces, heavily reliant on air-power as the primary method of inflicting desired effects through operational shock have been the most reluctant to reconsider their procedures. In 2009 however, the Americans employed about half as many air-delivered munitions more than a little bit in part because of recommendations coming from within their defense structures and from the international community. (5)

“The United States views this as the tragic but bearable cost of a successful operation against the insurgents, without understanding that the Taliban has deliberately traded the lives of a few dozen guerilla fighters in order to cost the American forces the permanent loyalty of that village, under a code of Pashtun social behavior called Pashtunwali and its obligation for revenge (Badal), which the Army does not even begin to understand or take seriously.” (6)

Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason

Naval Postgraduate School, California

Simultaneous to this, the Taliban also have a strong desire to protect their livelihoods. The creation of a government under Hamid Karzai, that was friendly to western powers, gave an opportunity for westerners to outsource their other war in Afghanistan. This is the opium war, aimed at preventing the cultivation, harvesting and sale of opium poppies and their various derivatives (which have become one of the primary sources of income for many impoverished Afghan farmers.) The Afghan government has begun sending eradication teams around the countryside with combine harvesters and various defoliants who have been engaged in the wholesale destruction of these illicit crops. (7) In ‘Talking With the Taliban’, Smith identifies that surges in violence can be attributed on a local level with almost eerie correlation to the arrival of eradication teams in Afghanistan’s various provinces. As farmers watch their primary source of income destroyed, they surrender themselves to militancy and fall back on traditional resistance ethics, fighting not only for their right to self-government, but also for their livelihoods as well.

United Nations studies on the country have identified additionally that the most dangerous regions, with the fiercest resistance by the insurgency directly correspond to the localized proliferation of Opium cultivation. Smith uses the ‘chicken and egg’ analogy to communicate this conundrum, since it could paradoxically be inferred that the violence is an attempt to protect a source of income and at the same time, that the income facilitates the purchase of arms, equipment, training and personnel for continued acts of violence. This is not an issue for which there will be any simple conclusion. Simply destroying the crops yields resistance in its purest form, and providing viable alternatives, (pistachios, citrus fruit, figs, dates and almonds) (8) will take years if not decades to develop the infrastructure and education necessary for success and sustainability.

Poppy cultivation is not however, the only source of income for the Taliban. A significant amount of money is paid to them from external sources such as fundamentalist Muslim Charities which operate across the Middle-East. When asked in an interview where the money came from that paid for arms and equipment, one Taliban stated that it came from “A man.” When asked where that man got it, he said that he did not know, but that it came across the border. This border is of course the Durand Line, which separates Afghanistan on its eastern edge, from the nation of Pakistan. This line was arbitrarily drafted in an English peace settlement by British diplomat Mortimer Durand in 1893. (9) While in theory, the line demarcates the boundaries of AfghanistanPakistan, it fails to take into account the tribal composition of the divided regions. and neighbouring By far, the largest tribal group in Afghanistan is the Pashtun people, comprising about 42% of the country’s population. The total geographical distribution of the Pashtun tribe extends about 150-200 kilometers across the border into Pakistan, straddling the Durand line. The demarcation of territory by the British did not account for tribal distribution and has therefore caused a political rift affecting the Pashtun peoples.

It has been therefore in the best interests of the Pakistani state, Smith goes on to say, to ‘fuel’ the insurgency in Afghanistan. This appears to be an attempt to keep the country so destabilized that a coherent policy on the Durand line and the re-unification of the Pashtun peoples is of minimal importance to the Afghan government when faced with more pressing internal security concerns. Pakistan is engaged on both sides of its northern region in disputes over territorial and cultural borders, on one side with Afghanistan in Pashtun Pakistan and on the other with India in the region of Kashmir. Loss of both of these regions would substantially reduce the size and status of the nation of Pakistan, and there is a vested interest in maintaining sovereignty over both these contested zones. This is not to say the Pakistani government is directly complicit with the insurgents, but elements, specifically within the Pakistani intelligence community (ISI) are known to have supported the Taliban’s rise to power in 1994. (10)

"Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al-Qaida and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan's ISI,"(11)

US General Stanley McChrystal

Confidential Assessment Report

It is adherence to tribal loyalty that drives the internal strife as well; “Talking With the Taliban” indicated that of the 42 insurgents who were interviewed for the documentary, only five of the insurgents identified themselves as members of the tribes whose members form the Afghan government. The vast majority of the fighters which agreed to speak were from the marginalized tribes who have little to no say in the governance and administration of internal affairs in Afghanistan. All of the fighters were from the sub-tribes which comprise the Pashtun ethnic group. This lack of representation, (and ethnic division by the Durand line) Smith concludes, fuels feelings of animosity towards the ruling tribes and disenfranchisement with a political process many of the Taliban do not feel represents their cultural, linguistic or ethnic heritage. A huge part of the instability which currently wracks the Afghan state is rooted in these internecine tensions.

This wealth of information obtained through Graeme Smith’s direct-dialogue with the Insurgents supports the conclusion that there is no simple band-aid solution which will bring a swift end to internal strife in Afghanistan. The presence of international troops aggravates on one hand, the ability of the Afghan government to administer internal affairs because they are seen to be working as ‘lap dogs’ of the global ‘non-Muslim’ community. The counterpoint to this is of course that withdrawal from the region would make the Afghan Government’s job almost impossible, as the fledgling democracy possesses little in the way of competent personnel and equipment to enforce internal security. Security and stability are of course the prerequisites for ‘peace, good government and the rule of law.’ Perhaps it is that the possible solutions to three decades of civil war and unrest lie beyond the Afghan borders entirely, in Pakistan, neighbouring India and perhaps to no small degree with the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran. The key for western policy-makers and diplomats is to draw the nations, tribal groups and leaders who have a hand in this small nation’s instability together and engage in a process that includes restitution, pacification, redressing historical wrongs and establishing a common ground between the desires of Fundamental and Moderate Islam. As for the western military personnel currently in the nation, the continued provision of security both active and supportive, attempts to eliminate the insurgency’s material means and distribution of aid and assistance to civil agencies is the only mandate that can under present conditions, be successful.


1. "Talking to The Taliban"

2. 'Afghanistan' - Wikipedia

3. GlobalSecurity.Org: 'Sharia Law / Penalties'

4. Council on Foreign Relations: "Islam: Governing Under Sharia"

5. USA Today: Airstrikes in Afghanistan Drop by Almost Half

6. US Responses to the Global Security Environment (PDF)

7. "Helmand Poppy Farming Falls by a Third"

8. FAO of the United Nations: "Promoting Alternatives to Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan"

9. 'Durand Line' - Wikipedia

10. HRW.Org: "Crisis of Impunity - Pakistan's Support of the Taliban"

11. UPI Asia: "Pakistani Support to Insurgents Cited"

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