Sunday, May 4, 2008

Talking to the Taliban (Part 6)

Via The Globe & Mail:

The typical Taliban foot soldier battling Canadian troops and their allies in Kandahar is not a global jihadist who dreams of some day waging war on Canadian soil. In fact, he would have trouble finding Canada on a map.

A survey of 42 insurgents in Kandahar province posed a series of questions about the fighters’ view of the world, and the results contradicted the oft-repeated perception of the Taliban as sophisticated terrorists who pose a direct threat to Western countries.

Faced with a multiple-choice question about Canada’s location, only one of 42 fighters correctly guessed that Canada is located to the north of the United States, meaning the insurgents performed worse than randomly.

None of them could identify Stephen Harper as the Prime Minister of Canada, and they often repeated the syllables of his name -- “Stepheh Napper,” “Sehn Hahn,” “Steng Peng Beng,” “Gra Pla Pla” -- that reflected their puzzlement over a name they had never heard.

Nor did they seem to associate the word “Canada” with anything except, in some cases, the soldiers now serving in Afghanistan. Most could not distinguish between the French- and English-speaking rotations of troops.

One of The Globe and Mail’s questions offered the Taliban a chance to volunteer any information about Canada: “Do you know about this country? What kind of people are there? Is it a big country or a small country? Poor country, rich country? Cold or warm? Do Muslims live there?” None offered any meaningful responses, and most of them simply declined to answer. One of the few who guessed, a 21-year-old farmer, seemed to think the word “Canada” indicated a faraway city.

It might be an old and destroyed city,” he said.

The results show the depth of ignorance among front-line insurgents in Kandahar. In a previous visit to the tribal areas of Pakistan, a reporter for The Globe and Mail personally met with more sophisticated Taliban who demonstrated a keen grasp of politics and appeared to know the latest news of the war. But those politically astute Taliban were hundreds of kilometres away from the battlefields, and it remains unclear how much control such organizers exert over the day-to-day operations of the insurgency.

The Taliban became synonymous with ignorance during their years in government, banning media such as television that might bring foreign ideas into the country. As insurgents, however, they’ve shown a newfound flair for technology, distributing video propaganda and sending press statements via text message to reporters’ mobile phones.

“The Taliban also have a sophisticated media strategy and full grasp of modern technology,” said a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations in January.

Canadian politicians and military officials often make public statements that suggest the Taliban monitor political trends in Ottawa and choose to attack at politically sensitive moments: General Rick Hillier, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, raised the possibility that a suicide bombing that killed more than 100 people in Kandahar province in February may have been connected with debates in the House of Commons about the future of the mission.

But a Western expert who reviewed The Globe’s video footage said the kind of worldliness described by Gen. Hillier isn’t the most likely explanation.

“Those [insurgents] making decisions are more sophisticated than those you are interviewing, so there is some chance of this being plausible,” the expert said. “But I think they’re working to their own calendar, not ours.” Three fighters in the survey didn’t recognize the name of U.S. President George W. Bush, and another mispronounced his name as “Bukh,” suggesting he wasn’t familiar with the word.

Those who had heard of the U.S. President often gave responses that revealed more of their parochialism. He was called a “Jew,” and “King of America.” Sometimes, amid the errors, the Taliban showed their simplistic view of world politics.

“He is the son of George W, [and] he is the son of Clinton W, and he is American, and is a serious enemy of Islam,” said one fighter in his description of Mr. Bush.