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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Embedded with the Taliban

Rolling Stone has an article out in its October issue recounting the experience of investigative journalist Nir Rosen.

Through his Afghan contacts, Rosen was able to embed himself  as a “guest” with the Taliban in the countryside of Afghanistan on the frontlines of the war.  In his interview with Democracy Now! (linked below), he stated that he wanted his journey into Taliban country to tell the story of the voices unheard in this war.

The highway that leads south out of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, passes through a craggy range of arid, sand-colored mountains with sharp, stony peaks. (SNIP) There is nothing to indicate that the terrain we are about to enter is one of the world’s deadliest war zones.

By the time we reach the town of Salar, only 50 miles south of Kabul, we have already passed five tractor-trailers from military convoys that have been destroyed by the Taliban. The highway, newly rebuilt courtesy of $250 million, most of it from U.S. taxpayers, is pocked by immense craters, most of them caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban fighters. As in Iraq, these improvised explosive devices are a key to the battle against the American invaders and their allies in the Afghan security forces, part of a haphazard but lethal campaign against coalition troops and the long, snaking convoys that provide logistical support.

I came across this article through VetVoice, which is a great site.  I have a hard time reading reports like these, and Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Brandon Friedman, hit the mark on this feeling.  It’s hard for me, as a military spouse, to read this because I have a knee-jerk response – let’s kill all the Taliban – which, unremarkably, is the same response that the Taliban have towards our American military in Afghanistan.

Shafiq laughs. “The Russians were stronger than the Americans,” he says. “More fierce. We will put the Americans in their graves.”

But swallowing that response hard, I pressed on to read what Rosen experienced with the Taliban.  Why?  Understanding the war on terror requires us to understand the underlying causes.

Rosen explains that the Taliban have regained control of the countryside, and he believes that adding more troops on the ground in Afghanistan will NOT stop the insurgency.  The police force has been corrupted by the need to stay alive – they often do not have weapons, and they do not have the basics needed to live.  In an effort to regain control, the Taliban attack aid convoys, often blowing up the trucks with rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs.

But in their fight to regain control, they have fractured even more than they were before.  Rosen explains that the rules once adhered to are being broken as younger members of the Taliban are killing off tribal elders.

As the Taliban insurgency spreads, it has fallen victim to the tribal rivalries and violent infighting that are endemic to Afghanistan, which is home to hundreds of distinct tribal groups. “The leadership is totally fragmented,” a senior U.N. official says. “There is a lot of criminality within the Taliban.”

Rosen explains that the Taliban feel that they are fighting for their villages but that they understand that changes will have to be made.  Many high-ranking members of the Taliban say that they agree that computers and Internet should be more available and that women and girls should have more rights and receive education.

I read these statements, nearly choking on my anger, but then I realize that I am not part of that world.  I don’t understand their culture.  I won the lottery when I was born as an American woman.

Rosen soon finds himself in a life or death situation.  In the real life version of the fractured groups of the Taliban, he is discovered by another group that feels threatened by his presence in the countryside.  They want to know if he is a spy.  Rosen has to meet with their commander who will decide whether or not his trip is approved.  These meetings have ended in punishment or worse, the decapitation of the guest.  

His meeting with Dr. Khalil, however, is the highlight of the article for me.

After a period of about two days in which Rosen is frantically calling people for help, Dr. Khalil has determined that he will not punish Rosen.  Instead, he looks on Rosen with curiosity:

Rifling through my bags, he seems particularly fascinated by my toothbrush. Puzzled, he riffles the bristles with his finger, trying to deduce their purpose.

For a man who has spent much of the past 24 hours contemplating whether I was worth more to him dead or alive, the Doctor is now surprisingly friendly. “What can I do for you?” he asks, a model of courtesy.

Dr. Khalil is a man who kills as easily as I brush my teeth.

We’re worlds apart.  We’re fighting each other, but we don’t know who we are or maybe even why we’re fighting.  Veritable ships passing in the night.  A bullet is not going to bring us any closer to understanding.

The Taliban work openly and freely in the countryside.  They dress in civilian clothes.  Everyone in the communities knows who they are.  They are tiny ants compared to our Blackhawk helicopters.  Our troops and military might are just the opposite, like sitting ducks on a fenced-in manmade pond.  The Taliban’s power is not in numbers or sophistication in weaponry.  Their power comes from their invisibility to us.  But discovering them won’t bring the Taliban down because more boys rise up in the places of the fallen.  It is personal to them; it is their homeland that we have taken over with no end in sight of leaving.

So what does Rosen suggest for turning this situation around to benefit everyone – our troops, the Afghan civilians, the Afghan government, the Taliban, and everyone else involved?

Negotiating with the Taliban would also enable the Americans to take advantage of the sharp divisions within the insurgency.

That’s right, NEGOTIATION.

Rosen says:

Simply put, it is too late for Bush’s “quiet surge” – or even for Barack Obama’s plan for a more robust reinforcement – to work in Afghanistan. More soldiers on the ground will only lead to more contact with the enemy, and more air support for troops will only lead to more civilian casualties that will alienate even more Afghans. Sooner or later, the American government will be forced to the negotiating table, just as the Soviets were before them.

Honestly, I don’t have the knowledge and background to assess whether he is right.  I don’t agree with negotiating with terrorists, but that idea is more narrowly and situationally focused than large scale operations like we are in now.  I also don’t think we can kill our way out of this war.  I suspect that the answer may lie somewhere closer to a shifting from military force on a temporary basis to UN nation building and peace-keeping missions over the long run.  That will require diplomacy, including negotiation.  

Ultimately, America needs to redefine what “winning” means in Afghanistan because what we are doing now is not working, and our troops are being injured and killed.

Rosen on Democracy Now!


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