The Taliban are gaining ground, and if NATO’s will to confront them flags, the consequences for ordinary Afghans could be horrific

MICHAEL PETROU August 13 2007


The Taliban are gaining ground, and if NATO’s will to confront them flags, the consequences for ordinary Afghans could be horrific

MICHAEL PETROU August 13 2007



The Taliban are gaining ground, and if NATO’s will to confront them flags, the consequences for ordinary Afghans could be horrific


In December 2001, holed up somewhere on the upper reaches of the cold and soaring White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden contemplated his prospects of staying alive for even a few more hours. His Taliban allies, who had sheltered him and provided his alQaeda terrorist organization with a base of operations for years, had been routed. American and British special forces were crawling into the mountains toward the Tora Bora cave complex, and when his men emerged from cover they were cut down by air strikes, Bin Laden appeared doomed. Using a handheld radio, he called out to his followers. CIA operatives on the slopes below picked up his message. “Forgive me,” bin Laden begged his men, and he apologized for allowing them to become trapped by the Americans. Then he told them to pray, Today, almost six years later, what then seemed impossible has transpired. Bin Laden survived the assault on Tora Bora, and escaped into Pakistan. Worse, according to parliamentary and intelligence reports released last month in Britain and the United States, bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organization has reconstituted itself in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and is now

stronger than it has been at any time since 2001, while in Afghanistan, the Taliban are gaining ground because of insufficient troops and resources committed to the fight by NATO member states.

What emerges from both these reports—by the Commons defence committee in the U.K., and by the National Intelligence Council in the U.S.—is that despite losing every battle in which they have engaged NATO forces, the Taliban are far from defeated in Afghanistan and show the potential to grow stronger should NATO’s will to confront them flag. The abduction of 23 Christian aid workers from South Korea and the murder of two of them by the Taliban shows them expanding their targets.

Among Canadians, however, support for Canada’s military deployment in Afghanistan continues to slide. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who once made a habit of boasting that Canadians don’t “cut and run,” now suggests that our combat-oriented mission will wrap up in February 2009. As one of the few nations—along with Britain, the United States and the Netherlands—willing to bear the brunt of combat, Canada’s shrinking commitment will almost certainly cede ground to the Taliban. The likely ramifications of this are severe. They include creating safe havens for international terrorist networks and irrevocably damaging the credibility of the NATO military alliance. What is often forgotten, however, is what this will mean for Afghans, who will be left to fend for themselves under the atavistic barbarism of the Taliban.

A taste of what lies in store for Afghans should the Taliban’s influence and territorial control grow was demonstrated to residents of Ghorak, a tiny, mud-walled village in the mountains of northwestern Kandahar province. Canadian soldiers were recently deployed there to reinforce an Afghan army unit that had retaken the village from the Taliban. During the Taliban’s brief occupation, however, they had ample opportunity to dish out their brand of justice against those they judged to have “collaborated” with Afghanistan’s own government. They beheaded a 10-year-old boy for the crime of giving bread to police. When the boy’s father attempted to intervene, he was hanged from a tree.

These events are lurid in their savagery, but are not unique. According to a report released this spring by Human Rights Watch, the Taliban and other insurgent groups such as Hezb-e-Islami killed almost 700 Afghan civilians in at least 350 attacks last year. The pace of carnage has not abated in 2007.

Suicide bombing, once almost unheard of in Afghanistan, is now a popular weapon in the Taliban arsenal. At least 136 suicide attacks were launched in 2006—a six-fold increase

over the previous year. Several of the suicide attackers have been children who were tricked or forced into becoming murderers. This June, Afghan intelligence agents arrested 14year-old Rafiqullah, a student at a Pakistani madrasa, or religious school, who was indoctrinated, sent to Afghanistan with orders to


kill an Afghan governor, and then threatened with death when he told his Taliban handler that he was too afraid to carry out the attack. Afghan President Hamid Karzai freed the boy and gave him money to return to Pakistan, describing him as an innocent pawn.

He’s not the only one. Also in June, Taliban militants dressed up Juma Gul, a six-year-old Afghan boy, in a suicide vest and told him it would spray flowers when he pressed a button. Juma’s attack was foiled when he asked Afghan soldiers for help. Other children have not been as lucky. A video surfaced this April showing Taliban instructing a boy of about 12 as he cut off an alleged traitor’s head with a knife.

Many of the civilian victims of insurgent attacks are “collateral damage” from attacks against military or police targets; however, the human rights group notes that almost half of the attacks appear to have specifically targeted civilians. Victims include almost anyone who is playing a role in Afghanistan’s emerging civil society, such as aid workers, doctors, day labourers, students, clerics, engineers and government employees.

In one such attack in May 2006, four humanitarian workers travelling in the Jowzjan province of northern Afghanistan were shot dead by motorcycle-riding gunmen. Three of the victims were women, including one named Bibi Sadaat, whose work supported her family. Sadaat’s death left her husband, Mohammad Hashim, wondering how he could afford to keep the family’s house. “She was a good wife. She was my best friend,” Hashim told Human Rights Watch. “I am lost now and the only thing I have found is depression... I have had enough of this world.”

The biggest targets of the Taliban’s wrath, however, are teachers and anyone else involved in trying to educate Afghanistan’s children, especially girls. “Simply put, the Taliban did not recognize the very idea of culture,” Ahmed

Rashid, a journalist and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Taliban, wrote of the Taliban during their time in power. Nothing has changed. This is evident in the Taliban’s disdain for everything from dancing and singing, to art and the Internet. But nothing offends their medieval sensibilities more than the prospect of women expanding their minds.

Human Rights Watch notes that there were 190 reported bombing and arson attacks against Afghan schools in 2006, double the 91 in 2005. Afghanistan’s own Ministry of Education says that there have been 444 attacks on schools since last August, although some of these have been non-violent thefts.

In January 2006, a school principal, Malim Abdul Habib, was beheaded in front of his family in the provincial capital Qalat. Taliban insurgents had previously put up posters demanding schools for girls be closed and threatening to kill teachers. Last December, gunmen climbed the walls of a residential compound in a village in the southeastern province of Kunar and. broke into the house belonging to two sisters who worked as schoolteachers. They murdered them, as well as their mother, grandmother and a male relative. Both teachers had received a letter from the Taliban warning them to stop teaching or “end up facing the penalty.” Canadians have not escaped the Taliban’s pogrom against educators. Mike Frastacky, a Vancouver carpenter who built a school with his own money, was murdered in his Afghan home last July. Police believe his murderers belonged to an antigovernment group, likely Hezb-e-Islami.

Students, especially girls, are not spared. Some are merely bullied and beaten; others are murdered. The Qalai Sayedan School in central Afghanistan was once considered a success story. It was struck by rockets and bombs, but its teachers and administrators were undeterred, serving some 1,600 girls and boys who were so eager to learn that they overflowed the school’s 12 classrooms and had to sit in the hallway. Even so, the students needed to attend classes in two shifts. In June, gunmen opened fire on a group of girls as they left school, killing two. The school has been renamed the Martyred Saadia School, after one of them. But the students are afraid and only a fraction now come to class. The school’s principal, a woman, has resigned.

It is senseless to argue—though some do— that it is the presence of foreign troops that fuels this violence. Many of those most opposed to NATO and Canada’s presence in Afghanistan believe life for ordinary Afghans will improve should foreign troops pull out. They often describe themselves, after all, as “peace” or “anti-war” activists. It is true that far too many Afghan civilians have been

inadvertently killed by NATO forces—often in air strikes that are themselves a by-product of having too few boots on the ground. However, there is little evidence to suggest the Taliban and similar Islamist militias such as Hezb-e-Islami will cease their campaign of violence against Afghans who are trying to haul their country out of the Dark Ages, educate its children, and provide a modicum of respect and equality for its women.

Ahmed Rashid predicts that should NATO scale back its military intervention before

Afghanistan’s own security forces are able to confront and beat the Taliban on their own, such civil society as now exists would disintegrate. “All these officials would flee the provinces and come to Kabul,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s, noting that in some areas the Taliban have already established a parallel administration, setting up law courts and adjudicating cases according to Islamic law. “This sort of administration the Taliban are offering is going to be escalated dramatically if they’re able to take provinces.”

Marvin Weinbaum, who worked as an Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst for the U.S. State Department between 1999 and 2003, and is now a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute, believes the consequences of a NATO pullout are more dire. “You’d see a return to civil war in Afghanistan, a total breakdown of the economy and the state, and far more casualties than we’re seeing now,” he said.

Some argue that such an outcome might be avoided through diplomacy. NDP Leader Jack Layton, among others, has called for talks with the Taliban. Those who know the movement best are skeptical. “I think it’s unrealistic,” Rashid says. “The leadership of the Taliban

is highly centralized, even today, under Mullah [Mohammed] Omar. This leadership is totally unwilling to talk. I support the idea of talking to the Taliban. The question is whom do you talk to? There is no such moderate faction today that we’ve seen.”

Negotiating with the Taliban has, in fact, been attempted by NATO troops on a limited scale. Last year, in a deal with local elders, British forces agreed to leave the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province, if the Taliban withdrew. The Taliban left temporarily but

returned. They have now imposed strict sharia law, shutting down schools, banning music, and forbidding women to leave their homes unless they are wearing a burka and are with a male relative.

British efforts to negotiate a localized truce involving the Taliban followed the Pakistani government’s attempt to reach a similar accommodation with pro-Taliban local leaders in the North and South Waziristan regions in Pakistan. The tribals leaders, more accurately described as Pakistani Taliban, pledged not to shelter al-Qaeda members or send fighters to do battle with NATO in Afghanistan. Both promises were broken. Al-Qaeda is now well established in Waziristan, and attacks against NATO troops in eastern and southern Afghanistan soared following the deal. It “has become clear that the Taliban and other insurgent groups view the agreement with Islamabad as little more than cover to regroup, reorganize, and rearm,” Human Rights Watch concluded in an April report.

The Taliban have little reason to honour any agreements, because they don’t believe the international community has the tenacity to stay in Afghanistan and enforce them, Weinbaum said. “They’re banking on this.

This has always been their strategy. They never thought they could win in the current configuration of forces, but that they would wear down the international community and they would leave. And then the Taliban would fill that vacuum.”

There are worrying indications the Taliban may be right. Despite a clear need for more troops in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is fiercest, most NATO countries still refuse to deploy their soldiers where they are most needed, leaving the bulk of the fighting to the Canadians, British, Americans and Dutch. Canada’s mission officially ends in February 2009, and the Dutch


mandate expires next August. In theory, other NATO countries will take over, but there are no signs that they are willing to do so.

“We remain deeply concerned that the reluctance of some NATO members to provide troops for the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] mission is undermining NATO’s credibility and also ISAF operations,” the British Commons defence committee report stated. The committee’s chair, James Arbuthnot, has said that this lack of resources threatens the success of the mission in Afghanistan, and the existence of NATO itself-an assessment echoed by Barnett Rubin, a lead-

ing authority on the country, who, in an essay published earlier this year, writes: “The future of NATO depends on its success in this first deployment outside of Europe.”

But does NATO have any business fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan in the first place? NATO is a military alliance built on the idea of collective defence. And there are many who argue that the Taliban present no threat to the West. Al-Qaeda might have pretensions of blowing up Toronto, the thinking goes, but the Taliban are simply Pashtun tribesmen who want foreigners out of their country. It is true that the majority of Taliban foot soldiers are barely literate peasants, or recruits from Pakistani madrasas, who lack the sophistication to travel internationally, to say nothing of plotting mayhem abroad. Some are motivated to fight for the Taliban by nothing more than the money the Taliban can pay them.

However, strong ties and active co-operation have existed between al-Qaeda and the Taliban since the 1990s, when the Taliban sheltered bin Laden, and these links persist. Most experts believe al-Qaeda’s top leadership, perhaps including bin Laden and his deputy Ayman

al-Zawahiri, is now based in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, an untamed region on the frontier with Afghanistan. Here, Pakistani Taliban have set up sharia courts, banned music and television, demanded women wear veils and beheaded civilians whom they accuse of spying for the U.S. or Pakistan.

Evidence of the Taliban’s integration with international Islamists is turning up on Afghan battlefields. Gen. Dan McNeil, the head of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, recently reported that NATO forces are encountering increased numbers of foreign fighters among the Taliban. These for-

eigners are Arabs and Asians. “We have both killed and captured some of those,” he said.

According to Ahmed Rashid, the Taliban’s goals have expanded since its formation in the 1990s. “The top leadership is very highly influenced by the ideas of al-Qaeda and global jihad,” he toldMaclean’s, adding that al-Qaeda operatives are working with the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan. “The level of cooperation is very close. We have seen the Taliban being taken to Iraq, learning the new tactics, and then coming back. Now more Arabs are coming from Iraq to teach the Taliban new bombs and new IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. That kind of co-operation has been carried out with the help of al-Qaeda.”

Rashid says that al-Qaeda still needs territorial bases where its members can train, plan terrorist operations and live freely. They have that now in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, in the Anbar province of Iraq. Afghanistan today presents a ripe opportunity for the al-Qaeda to re-establish another safe haven. “It is not just a question of liberating or freeing Afghanistan from American occupation, but also establishing bases where terrorists can operate,” Rashid said.

Al-Qaeda’s growing strength and its deepening co-operation with the Taliban, suggests Afghanistan remains at the epicentre of the West’s battle with transnational Islamist terrorism. “Afghanistan is where it began and where it will continue to be a threat,” Weinbaum said. “What’s at stake here is whether they’re going to use that area as their prime launching pad for international operations.”

Canadians don’t appear to be convinced. An Environics poll completed last November showed that only eight per cent of respondents believed Canadian soldiers are in Afghanistan to fight terrorism. Many more thought that Canadian soldiers are there as peacekeepers, or to help the United States and George W. Bush. A more recent poll conducted by the Strategic Counsel reveals that a strong majority of Canadians now oppose Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

These attitudes frustrate Ahmed Rashid, who has chronicled Afghanistan for decades, and the Taliban since its inception. “Do the Canadian people need some horrendous attack killing hundreds of Canadians before they actually wake up and find that they need to be in Afghanistan? The Canadians are part of the West and one of those countries that would be targeted,” he said. “Yes, it’s very tough. But what I think has happened unfortunately is that the deployment to Afghanistan was undersold by the government. The Canadian government undersold to the public that the deployment was going to be hunkydory nation building. What it was actually going to be is a bloody conflict.” M