Sunday, May 4, 2008

Talking to the Taliban (Part 3)

Via Globe & Mail:

Air strikes and drug eradication are feeding the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, as those actions convince some villagers that their lives and livelihoods are under attack.

In a unique survey, The Globe and Mail interviewed 42 ordinary Taliban foot-soldiers in Kandahar and discovered 12 fighters who said their family members had died in air strikes, and 21 who said their poppy fields had been targeted for destruction by anti-drug teams.

The results suggest an unusual concentration of first-hand experience with bombing deaths and opium eradication among the insurgents, analysts say. Despite the violence and expensive counter-narcotics campaigns in Afghanistan, most villagers have not been touched by these events themselves, and their prevalence among the Taliban highlights two important motives for the insurgency.

“This is very interesting,” said Sarah Chayes, an American author who lives in Kandahar.

The Taliban may exaggerate their claims of civilians killed in air strikes, Ms. Chayes said, “but I do think civilian deaths, and the cultivated impression of civilian deaths, is playing an increasing role.”

Some analysts have described senior Taliban leaders reaping large profits from the opium industry, but Ms. Chayes said the ordinary fighters are only trying to protect a meagre source of income in a place where other jobs are scarce.

“It’s not profit motive at these guys’ level; it’s bare livelihood,” she said. “Anybody would defend that.”

Aerial bombings and civilian deaths have both increased: The United Nations estimates more than 1,500 civilians were killed last year, as compared with the 900 to 1,000 civilian deaths counted by two studies of the previous year. An analysis of the first nine months of 2007 found the number of air strikes was already 50 per cent higher than the total for 2006.

Civilian bombings emerged as a major theme of the war last year. President Hamid Karzai shed tears in public as he spoke about civilian deaths. In June, a coalition of Afghan aid agencies published a controversial report suggesting that the rate of civilian casualties had doubled from the previous year, and that international forces were starting to rival the Taliban as the greatest source of civilian deaths.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization disputed the aid groups’ figures, but quietly took action to reduce the likelihood of killing civilians. A report from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this month said that international forces had reviewed standard operating procedures for aerial engagement with a view to reducing collateral deaths caused from the air.

Still, some countries, such as the United States, have been reluctant to curtail their use of air power.

“The United States views this as the tragic but bearable cost of a successful operation against insurgents, without understanding that the Taliban has deliberately traded the lives of a few dozen guerrilla fighters in order to cost the American forces the permanent loyalty of that [bombed] village,” wrote Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason, of the Naval Postgraduate School in California, in an academic paper last year.

The Taliban are usually reluctant to admit that they’re fighting for any causes other than religion, but they have recently embraced civilian deaths as a rallying point. Insurgents have helped journalists arrange interviews with victims in the aftermath of air strikes in southern Afghanistan, and NATO soldiers have repeatedly witnessed the Taliban forcing civilians into dangerous situations in hopes of getting them killed by foreign troops, thus evoking the wrath of the village.

The Globe and Mail’s survey was not scientific, but it offers a sample of the insurgents’ views on the topic. Asked specifically about bombings by foreign troops, almost a third of respondents claimed their family members had died in such incidents during the current war.

Some insurgents complained about bombings by Russian aircraft in the 1980s in addition to recent air strikes under the Karzai government, suggesting that memories of the Soviet invasion fuel some of the current opposition to U.S. and NATO troops.