Sunday, May 4, 2008

Talking to the Taliban (Part 2)

Via Globe & Mail:

He looks like an ordinary Afghan in ragged clothes. He says he’s young, 24 or 25 years old, but his eyes seem older. Somebody he knows, or loves, was killed by a bomb dropped from the sky, he says. The government tried to destroy his farm. His tribe has feuded with the government in recent years, and he feels pushed to the edge of a society that ranks among the poorest in the world.

So he lives by the gun. He cradles the weapon in his arms, saying he will follow the tradition of his ancestors who battled foreign armies. He is not only a Taliban foot soldier, he says. He belongs to the mujahedeen, the holy warriors, who fight any infidel who tries to invade Afghanistan.

He does not care where the foreigners come from. Maybe he knows the word Canada, but he cannot point to the country on a map. When he squints down his rifle at Canadian soldiers, he cannot imagine the faraway land that gave birth to those helmeted figures. He only wants to drive them away. He fervently believes that expelling the foreigners will set things right in his troubled country.

This portrait of an average Taliban fighter emerges from groundbreaking research by The Globe and Mail in Kandahar. The newspaper’s staff, working with a freelance researcher, gained unprecedented access to insurgent groups in five districts of Kandahar province, and finished the dangerous assignment with 42 video recordings of fighters answering a standardized list of questions.

It’s not a scientific survey, but it’s the first public attempt to look at the Taliban in a systematic way.

The translation of the interviews, 517 pages long, suggests the Taliban are more complicated than might be guessed from their usual depiction as religious warriors; they are fierce and frightening, but proud and occasionally poetic. They use the language of radical Islam, but their message often consists of nothing more than xenophobia and a desire to protect their way of life.

Uneducated and inarticulate, they mumble their way through monosyllabic answers and avoid hard questions. When asked about money, for instance, the fighters reveal few details about their sources of financing. With repeated questioning, they do eventually open up, however, about their political dreams and the economic rationale for the war. They even dare to question their own leadership.

“These people are the heart of the problem,” said a former mujahedeen commander in Kandahar who reviewed the interview footage. “These are the people you need to deal with: the guys with the guns.”

Portrait of an Insurgent

Strong patterns stood out in the fighters’ answers, some of which will be explored in more detail in The Globe’s series on the insurgents over the coming week.

Almost a third of respondents claimed that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years. Many also described themselves as fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops.

Most of them admitted a personal role in the illegal opium industry, and half of them said their poppy fields had been targeted by government eradication efforts, suggesting they suffer more eradication than other Afghan farmers. Several of them voiced frustration that the government officials take bribes for turning a blind eye to the drug trade while punishing poor opium growers.

They claimed origins in 19 different Pashtun tribes, but the largest numbers came from Kandahar tribes that have been disenfranchised by the current government. No foreigners or non-Pashtuns were encountered during the survey, supporting the impression that such fighters are extremely rare.

Few of them claimed to be fighting a global jihad; most described their goal as the return of a stricter Islamic government in Afghanistan.

They showed deep ignorance about the world, even making serious errors in their telling of Afghanistan’s recent history. None of the fighters appeared to know anything about Canada; faced with a multiple-choice question, only one of them correctly guessed that Canada is located north of the United States.

Perhaps most surprisingly, 24 of the fighters said it doesn’t matter whether Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar returns to power as the head of Afghanistan’s government. Most claimed to be fighting for principles, not a leader.