[Marxism] Embedded with the Taliban

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 3 11:00:13 MDT 2009

Counterpunch, September 3, 2009
An Interview with Anand Gopal
Embedded With the Taliban


All of us are trying to make sense of the situation in Afghanistan and 
Pakistan, especially in the light of recent media reports telling of an 
even further escalation of the US involvement in those conflicts.  Anand 
Gopal is a reporter based in Kabul who has reported from all parts of 
Afghanistan. He speaks the local language and often travels unembedded 
to the countryside to try to understand the perspective of Afghans. He 
was inspired to start covering Afghanistan after losing some friends in 
the 9-11 attacks.  I heard Anand Gopal give a talk about Afghanistan 
earlier this summer (2009) and arranged to conduct an email exchange 
with him.  Our exchange, while brief, provides a perspective sorely needed.

Ron:  I heard you speak about the US war in Afghanistan a couple months 
ago. You mentioned that you had "embedded" yourself with the Afghan 
Taliban. Could you tell us how you did so and, more importantly, what 
you observed?

Anand:  I have some well-placed Taliban contacts and I was offered a 
chance to come out and see how the insurgents really operate. Since 
there is so little about this in public domain, it seemed like an 
excellent opportunity.  Passing from Kabul to the rural countryside 
where the Taliban holds sway was pretty illuminating: all traces of 
government presence vanish and instead the streets are filled with 
gun-toting insurgents. The Taliban rule through fear, but they also have 
a degree of support in the areas in which they exist. In some cases I 
saw locals coming up and offering them food or shelter.

The insurgents, like most rural Afghans, were uneducated and not very 
worldly. However, they managed to develop a somewhat sophisticated 
analysis of the situation in Afghanistan. They felt that they were 
fighting to free their country from foreign oppression, and they felt 
that they were fighting to preserve their culture and values.

We shouldn't read this to mean that they are heroic guerrillas or 
liberators of the Afghan people. They represent the values and outlook 
of rural Pashtun life, something that is not applicable to the rest of 
society, whether that be the urban population or non-Pashtun ethnic 
groups. This is why, for example, the Taliban has little support among 
these groups.

Ron:   Are the resistance forces getting stronger, like all the generals 
are saying?  Would more US troops change anything in terms of their 
chances for victory?

Anand:  The insurgency is certainly getting stronger. The amount of area 
it controls grows yearly, and in the Pashtun areas it is much stronger 
than the Afghan government. This trend has occurred despite the yearly 
increase of troops in the country, so clearly just adding more troops is 
not enough to stem the insurgents' growing influence. Whenever new 
troops enter an area, the insurgents usually melt away or move to a 
neighboring area. It's very difficult to stamp out a guerrilla force by 
pure force of arms.

Undercutting the growth of the insurgency would require bringing 
development, providing jobs and opportunities for social advancement to 
rural Pashtuns.  It would also require bringing an honest and responsive 

Ron: Back in July, officials in DC said that the new commander of the 
occupying forces in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal, will order all 
international forces in Afghanistan to stop starting fights with 
militants near the homes of Afghan civilians. The troops will still be 
allowed to return fire if they are “in imminent danger,” but the 
preferred option will be to withdraw from the area. He also went on 
record stating that he would reduce the number of US air strikes. From 
your perspective and knowledge of the situation, has this really 
happened?  Do you actually think this will occur in practice and, if so, 
will it make any difference in Afghan opinion regarding the presence of 
foreign troops?

Anand:   It's still too early to say what effect McChrystal's directives 
will have.  The number of civilian casualties do appear to be down from 
last year, although its very difficult to say with certainly since many 
such cases are not reported.  Moreover, the premise of the new strategic 
thinking from the U.S. military here is that there is a strict division 
between civilians and the insurgents. In fact, the dividing line is 
sometimes hard to draw. In many places where the insurgents operate, for 
example, they enjoy the active support and protection of the locals. How 
do you deal with such locals--as accomplices to the insurgents or 
civilians duped into supporting the guerrillas? It's one thing to draw 
this line on paper, but a completely different issue to do it in the 
heat of battle.

For example, McChrystal's order to bar international forces from 
starting fights with militants near the homes of Afghan civilians would 
mean that very little fighting happens at all, since the Taliban (for 
example) are rooted in the villages and operate there.

Moreover, McChrystal has made clear that the military component is only 
part of the strategy to turn things around here--equally if not more 
important is bringing good governance and economic opportunities. There 
has been no announcement of a plan to do this, nor is the military 
capable of doing it, so I suspect that the military will continue fall 
back on what it does best--fighting. On the same day that McChrystal 
announced his revamped counterinsurgency doctrine, U.S. forces raided a 
hospital, for example--a clear violation of international law and the 
new doctrine.

Ron:  Now, to Pakistan. What is going on in the Northwestern territory 
and other tribal areas?

Anand:  There has been a very perceptible shift in the last six months 
in Pakistan, starting this spring. The Pakistani Taliban was close to 
the height of its power then--they controlled large parts of the 
Federally Administered Tribal Areas and significant swathes of the North 
West Frontier Province. But they seem to have overplayed their hand on 
two fronts. 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. While the Pakistani Taliban grew out of the 
radicalization surrounding the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, in recent 
years it turned its sights on the Pakistani state. By this year, things 
started to destabilize throughout the country, not just in the tribal 
areas. This induced a backlash by the Pakistani state, who dealt a swift 
defeat to Taliban forces in Bajaur agency and later moved into Swat and 
removed Taliban rule there.

The series of setbacks for the Pakistani Taliban have continued into 
this summer. Their leader Baitullah Mehsud was recently killed by an 
American drone strike, and he was the glue holding together a very 
fractured movement. There are dozens of rival commanders, some at war 
with the Pakistani state, some at peace with Islamabad and at war with 
the Americans in Afghanistan, and some at war with each other. This has 
led to some disarray amongst the insurgent forces there, which very 
visibly affects the fight in Afghanistan.  Last fall, for example, NATO 
and U.S. army supply routes (which comes through Pakistan and into 
Afghanistan) were in danger because the guerrillas kept attacking them. 
But this summer we've seen very few such attacks, which is a great boon 
to U.S. forces.

Ron:  Can you briefly describe what you see as the differences between 
the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban? Do they coordinate 
activities at all? Is there shared leadership at any level that you know of?

Anand:  The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are distinct entities.  The 
Pakistani Taliban is primarily at war with the Pakistani state, while 
the Afghan Taliban is entirely focused on fighting the Afghan state and 
the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Of course, the differences aren't 
entirely this clear cut--there are Pakistani Taliban commanders who 
don't fight against Islamabad and focus their energies solely in 
Afghanistan, for example. But overall the Pakistani Taliban has very 
little presence in Afghanistan, while the Afghan Taliban don't fight in 

The Afghan Taliban are products of the war-ravaged rural Afghan 
countryside. The Pakistani Taliban however are as much the product of 
the gross social and economic inequalities of the Pakistani tribal areas 
as they are of the events in Afghanistan. This means that the two 
movements have a very different character. The Pakistani Taliban tend to 
attack village chiefs and some landowners, creating an almost Robin Hood 
air about them--one of the reasons for their initial support amongst 
local populations--whereas the Afghan Taliban do nothing of the sort. 
The latter are allied with village chiefs and landlords. Moreover, the 
Pakistani Taliban are a product of the factious nature of tribal 
politics--the movement is delineated along tribal lines; often if two 
tribes are at war it means that the Taliban commanders from those tribes 
will be at war with each other as well.  In Afghanistan, however, 30 
years of warfare have eroded tribal structures in many parts of the 
country and we rarely see the Taliban caught up in tribal conflicts.
The two movements are allies and do support each other when 
possible--for instance, Pakistani Taliban commanders run training camps 
and send suicide bombers into Afghanistan. But each group is mostly 
focused on the conflict in its own territory so this sort of 
coordination isn't substantial.  Most of the Pakistani Taliban 
commanders have pledged fealty to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan 
Taliban. But in practice, this means very little, since the Pakistani 
Taliban have complete operational and political independence.

Ron:  In the past couple years I have interviewed and communicated with 
members of the Labour Party of Pakistan--a left organization in 
Pakistan. Now, I know the Pakistani Left was decimated in the 1970s, but 
you mentioned in your talk that there is a left in Pakistan. Do you 
think they have the potential to influence Pakistani politics, given the 
corrupt and autocratic nature of the bourgeois politicians, the 
authoritarian military, and the influence of Islamist forces?

Anand:  The Left has shown that it has tremendous potential to influence 
Pakistani politics--the lawyers movement, which sought to reinstate 
sacked judges and defend the rule of law in the face of dictatorship--is 
a prominent example. One of the biggest challenges for the Pakistani 
left, however, is that its reach is limited in the tribal areas and the 
North West Frontier Province.  This means that there are few credible 
alternatives for the millions of disillusioned and disaffected Pashtuns 
in those areas outside of traditional religious structures and extremist 
movements like the Taliban. And the burden that the Pakistani left bears 
is especially great considering the fact that there is essentially no 
left in Afghanistan.  As many in the Pakistani left will tell you, a 
fundamentally transformative solution to the problems in Afghanistan 
cannot occur without a concomitant push to solve the problems of Pakistan.

Ron:  Thanks, Anand.  I have a feeling we will be communicating with 
each other again about this subject.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather 
Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs' essay on Big 
Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's collection on music, art and 
sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is 
published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625 at charter.net

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