‘PREPARE TO BURY YOUR DEAD'
Taliban insurgents in Kandahar had a message to deliver to our reporter: 'If the Canadians come here, we will fight them. It will never end.’
ADNAN R. KHAN
How do you defeat an enemy that can disappear into the dust and debris of a hostile environment? How do you defeat an enemy that has never been defeated? This is the dilemma facing Canadian troops after one of the worst weeks for Canada’s military in recent memory: two soldiers dead, and another dozen injured, in Afghanistan’s mercurial Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban. And the mission has only just begun.
But who are the Taliban? Finding out is no easy task—looking for the insurgents means going into one of the most inhospitable places on earth, into the very villages where the movement first evolved and where it still has legions of followers. Villages that are at once treacherous and beautiful, living museums that have not changed in centuries. And once you find the Taliban, you are at their mercy.
“The only reason you’re still alive is because my friend says I should trust you,” says Ashoor, using an assumed name. “He is like a brother to me so I trust him. But if any of these people in this village found out I was talking to a foreign journalist, they would first kill me and then find you and kill you.” Ashoor does not hide his distaste for foreigners, nor does he seem to have qualms about killing intruders on sight. His fellow Taliban fighter, Omergul (also using an assumed name), is even more hostile. Sitting on a plush carpet in Ashoor’s grape orchard, Omergul caresses the barrel of his AK-47 assault rifle with one hand, his eyes perpetually narrowed and watchful, as he plucks a handful of newly sprouted opium
leaves growing inconspicuously between the grapevines and stuffs them into his mouth.
This is Taliban country, off the main roads and into the clouds of dust that shroud the villages. There are thousands of communities like this in the far-flung districts of Kandahar, each one equally conservative, and each with its share ofTaliban supporters. “Do you think we are the only Taliban you’ve seen?” Ashoor asks. “Everyone around here is Taliban. We control the districts.” These are not exactly Lonely Planet destinations. Rough and wild, isolated and outright hostile to outsiders, this truly is Afghanistan’s untamed frontier—untamed, and unchanged, for centuries. The British Empire in India feared the Pashtun tribes of Kandahar, setting up what are now the Fed-
erally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan by paying off some not-so-hostile tribes to act as a buffer between the Empire and the wild men of the Afghan mountains and deserts.
In retrospect, that plan was a disaster, and in a cruel twist of fate, the British are back, in Helmand province, Kandahar’s neighbour to the west, trying to bring peace to a land they at one time let be, preferring not to prod the wasps’ nest. The irony is, not much has changed. The Taliban are the same tribals the British fought and feared. They are an ideology, not a military group, that has survived for centuries. Approaching them as simply a militia that can be defeated militarily, as the Americans did during their four years in the region after the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime, would be suicidal.
According to a UN-Habitat representative, who has been in Kandahar province for seven years running urban and rural development projects, there is no such thing as an identifiable Taliban militia. “The word Taliban has three distinct meanings,” he says, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media. “There are the Talib, the students, who
form the bulk of ideologues studying in madrasas [fundamentalist schools] throughout the tribal regions of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. They want to be mullahs, and they don’t fight. They do, however, provide moral support for the fighters. Then there are the jihadis. This group, smaller than the first but still significant, takes its inspiration from groups like al-Qaeda. They believe in a global war against the West, but more specifically against the U.S. The problem for Canadians is that these people often cannot, or do not, differentiate between Americans
and Canadians; they see soldiers in uniform and they attack. The final group is currently the most dangerous. These are the hired guns, men from the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, recruited and paid to inflict maximum damage on foreigners in Afghanistan. They have no ideology.”
Ashoor, part of the jihadi category of the Taliban, says members of this last group are the ones planting improvised explosive devices, and sending suicide bombers on their deadly missions—a tactic that is being used more and more in Afghanistan. “The people laying bombs are from Pakistan,” he says. “So are the suicide bombers. Suicide bombing is not the Pashtun way. It is cowardly. There are some ISI agents [Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani spy network] also, but I’ve only been told they are here, closer to the border with Pakistan. We don’t like this, but they are helping our cause so we tolerate them.
When we win, we expect them to leave. If they don’t, then we will make sure they do.”
Pakistan has vehemently denied that it is providing any support to the Taliban. But a recent escalation in the war of words between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf highlights the building tensions between the two countries. “Perhaps there are splinter groups with their own agendas operating inside Pakistan,” says Ishaq Ahmed Khattak, Pakistan’s consul general in Kandahar city, referring to possible support networks for the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal belt. “Taliban groups did exist in Pakistan. They were supported as a legitimate party when the Taliban were in power in Kabul, but that is history now. There may be remnants left, but Pakistan is doing everything it can to round them up.” The effort has had mixed results, Khattak admits, pointing out that Pakistan has its share of other problems, including the long-standing dispute with India over Kashmir and a host of other internal problems ranging from sectarian violence to tribal unrest. The government’s resources are stretched.
Stopping cross-border activities has been
a central feature in the Afghan government’s anti-insurgency strategy, a difficult task considering the rugged terrain along the 2,400km border with Pakistan, which ranges from arid deserts to permanently snow-capped mountains. “The large, organized groups of Taliban are in those border areas,” says Ashoor. “It’s easy for them to operate there, and they receive a lot of funding through contacts in Pakistan, where the majority of the leadership is based.” His group is a small jihadi cell, not well-funded but well-equipped with weapons smuggled across the border. They operate on a district level in Kandahar province, with a command structure that is independent of the main leadership in Pakistan.
These small cells of fighters pose a very clear and present threat to Canadian troops. The gruesome axe incident on March 4, which left one Canadian soldier in a medically induced coma, was carried out by one of these groups. They are opportunistic, says Ashoor, and mobile, reacting quickly to events as they develop on the ground. “We have a lot of support in the villages,” he says. “You cannot
stop us. We’ve been using these tactics for hundreds of years and they have always worked.” After an attack, he adds, fighters can easily stash their weapons among villagers sympathetic to their cause. They can then melt in with the local population, and move on to another village, where there are more caches of weapons available to them for mounting another attack.
Ashoor and Omergul have not fought for months. They’ve been waiting, Ashoor says, for their superiors to give the order. “I think our commanders are waiting to see how the Canadians operate before they tell us to fight. Things have changed, so we will change as well.” Once that order is given, things could turn ugly for Canadian troops, though Omergul warns, in his typically belligerent way, that even now he is ready to take on the troops. “If the Canadians come here, we will fight them,” he says. “We will fight the Afghan army if they come, and they are fellow Afghans. Why wouldn’t we fight the Canadians? Anyone who supports this kafir [infidel] government, we will fight. It will never end.”
For Canadian troops, there is a growing realization that they are in for a battle. “It’s tough,” says Sgt. Chris von Schmeling, a 37year-old medic based at Camp Nathan Smith, the base for the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team on the northern outskirts of Kandahar city. “You can’t tell a fighter from a farmer. It’s an unknown enemy.” Von Schmeling, whose work on the PRT quick reaction force has taken him out to a number of attacks, including the suicide car bombing on March 3 that seriously injured one Canadian soldier and left four others with minor injuries, admits that incidents like the axe attack have rattled Canadian troops. “In an open setting, for something like that to happen—well, it’s obvious nothing is off the books here, and it makes you wonder whether we’re ready for those steps.”
Getting ready has been a slow and deliberate process. The UN-Habitat representative gives credit to the Canadian approach for thinking through the problem, rather than simply throwing money at it as the Americans did—and then hoping it goes away. “Whatever happens in Kandahar affects the entire country,” he says. “It’s been like this for hundreds of years. The Canadians have to be sure
they get it right.” But have the Canadians got it right? “We’re going to review our policies and procedures,” says Maj. Erik Liebert, second in command of the PRT. “We’re going to re-examine how we do business out here.” Some harsh lessons have been learned over the past few months, as Canadians have dug in for what many are describing as a quagmire. In the heady early days of the deployment south in August 2005, the PRT was envisioned as a storefront concept, open to the Afghan public, engaging and dynamic, building a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. That grand and somewhat naive vision has been steadily eroded. “There is going to be an element down there that will have a vested interest in killing Canadians,” Capt. Angus Matheson, second in command of the force protection company at Camp Julien, Canada’s former home base in Kabul, told Maclean’s last summer during the initial phases of the push south. “It will be wishful thinking to think that we are going to go into Kandahar with Canadian flags on our backpacks and have everybody love us.”
What the Canadians are learning is that chaos feeds the Taliban. That may be one of the insurgents’ goals: to keep Afghanistan destabilized long enough for the people to rise up against the foreign occupiers. “We are fighting for our religion,” says Omergul. “We fight for our culture. If anyone tries to destroy our religion or our culture, we will fight them. That’s what these Western armies are here to do. But they will fail. The British tried it and failed. The Russians tried it and also failed. The Canadians will fail. No one can defeat the mujahedeen of Afghanistan.” Time is definitely on their side: the longer the occupation lasts and the more aggressive it becomes, the less amenable the local populations of provinces like Kandahar and Helmand will be to the ruling government in Kabul.
Rifts have already begun to form. Since the fall of the Taliban, reconstruction and
development efforts, especially in the ragged and antiquated districts of Kandahar, have been glacial at best. The grumbling of farmers is gradually being transformed into hostility. “What has the government done for us?” asks one villager in Senjara, 20 km west of Kandahar city. “Look around you—we still don’t have electricity, no medical clinic, no livelihoods and no security. At least with the Taliban we had security.”
For many Afghans, the only real peace they have known was during the Taliban era. You hear it often among villagers: when the Taliban ruled, they could leave their doors unbarred day and night; shopkeepers would leave their stores open and go to the mosque to pray without fear of being robbed. “Why did the Taliban emerge?” asks Khattak, the Pakistani consul general. “The Taliban emerged because the people of Afghanistan were sick of the civil war. They were sick of warlords demanding bribes for safe passage through their fiefdoms. They were sick of in-
security. The Taliban gave them security.” In these conservative and often violent villages, brutal Taliban-style justice is favoured over what’s viewed as the permissiveness of Western justice. There is no love here for imported notions: the Koran, in its most basic reading, is the Law. And the Talib, educated in the only knowledge that is of any value in a society ruled by dogma, is the keeper of that Law. “Under the Taliban, there was no corruption,” says Omergul. “It was a pure Islamic government, and we want it back. We want a leader who knows Islam.”
And yet there are small signs of resistance to that mindset. In one village, a local boys’ school is defying the Taliban’s demands that it close. It has been targeted by the Taliban for teaching subjects such as science and math, which many diehard fighters associate with Western secularism. “We’ve been attacked and threatened numerous times,” says the principal, requesting that his name and that of his village not be printed. “The police don’t dare come here at night, so we’ve set up our own security. We’ve armed ourselves.”
The school has received 10 letters warning them to heed the call of the mujahedeen. The most recent one stated ominously: “God as our witness, if you do not follow our instructions, you will die by the bullets of the mujahedeen. Your death will be your own responsibility.” But, says the principal, “We must stand up to them. The only thing the Taliban gave us was security. Otherwise, in terms of development, they let the country fall apart.”
Hope now rests with the Canadians and their allies to put the pieces back together. And despite the attacks and growing sense of uncertainty, most Canadian soldiers say they will not be swayed from their mission. But Omergul offers a warning, not to the soldiers he intends to fight, but to all Canadians. “Kandaharis are the fiercest fighters in Afghanistan,” he says, jabbing a finger skyward. “Fighting is in our blood. Prepare to bury your dead.” M