TALKING TO THE TALIBAN: A POLL FROM THE FRONT LINES
Portrait of the enemy
They're ignorant about the outside world, indifferent to who will lead their country but zealously committed to one objective: ensuring Islamism prevails in Afghanistan. Meet the foot soldiers of the insurgency
March 22, 2008
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- e looks like an ordinary Afghan in ragged clothes. He says he's young, 24 or 25 years old, but his eyes seem older. Somebody he knows, or loves, was killed by a bomb dropped from the sky, he says. The government tried to destroy his farm. His tribe has feuded with the government in recent years, and he feels pushed to the edge of a society that ranks among the poorest in the world.
So he lives by the gun. He cradles the weapon in his arms, saying he will follow the tradition of his ancestors who battled foreign armies. He is not only a Taliban foot soldier, he says. He belongs to the mujahedeen, the holy warriors, who fight any infidel who tries to invade Afghanistan.
He does not care where the foreigners come from. Maybe he knows the word Canada, but he cannot point to the country on a map. When he squints down his rifle at Canadian soldiers, he cannot imagine the faraway land that gave birth to those helmeted figures. He only wants to drive them away. He fervently believes that expelling the foreigners will set things right in his troubled country.
This portrait of an average Taliban fighter emerges from groundbreaking research by The Globe and Mail in Kandahar. The newspaper's staff, working with a freelance researcher, gained unprecedented access to insurgent groups in five districts of Kandahar province, and finished the dangerous assignment with 42 video recordings of fighters answering a standardized list of questions.
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It's not a scientific survey, but it's the first public attempt to look at the Taliban in a systematic way.
The translation of the interviews, 517 pages long, suggests the Taliban are more complicated than might be guessed from their usual depiction as religious warriors; they are fierce and frightening, but proud and occasionally poetic. They use the language of radical Islam, but their message often consists of nothing more than xenophobia and a desire to protect their way of life.
Uneducated and inarticulate, they mumble their way through monosyllabic answers and avoid hard questions. When asked about money, for instance, the fighters reveal few details about their sources of financing. With repeated questioning, they do eventually open up, however, about their political dreams and the economic rationale for the war. They even dare to question their own leadership.
"These people are the heart of the problem," said a former mujahedeen commander in Kandahar who reviewed the interview footage. "These are the people you need to deal with: the guys with the guns."
PORTRAIT OF AN INSURGENT
Strong patterns stood out in the fighters' answers, some of which will be explored in more detail in The Globe's series on the insurgents over the coming week.
Almost a third of respondents claimed that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years. Many also described themselves as fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops.
Most of them admitted a personal role in the illegal opium industry, and half of them said their poppy fields had been targeted by government eradication efforts, suggesting they suffer more eradication than other Afghan farmers. Several of them voiced frustration that the government officials take bribes for turning a blind eye to the drug trade while punishing poor opium growers.
They claimed origins in 19 different Pashtun tribes, but the largest numbers came from Kandahar tribes that have been disenfranchised by the current government. No foreigners or non-Pashtuns were encountered during the survey, supporting the impression that such fighters are extremely rare.
Few of them claimed to be fighting a global jihad; most described their goal as the return of a stricter Islamic government in Afghanistan.
They showed deep ignorance about the world, even making serious errors in their telling of Afghanistan's recent history. None of the fighters appeared to know anything about Canada; faced with a multiple-choice question, only one of them correctly guessed that Canada is located north of the United States.
Perhaps most surprisingly, 24 of the fighters said it doesn't matter whether Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar returns to power as the head of Afghanistan's government. Most claimed to be fighting for principles, not a leader.
Trying to understand the insurgency has become a daily topic of conversation in Afghanistan, as the growing violence increases demands for a negotiated peace.
Some analysts say the opinions of front-line Taliban fighters aren't relevant in a feudal society where people usually obey their leaders, but others point to indications that the insurgency's momentum no longer comes from its top organizers. It's sometimes labelled a "franchise" expansion model, in which groups of Afghans who don't feel a strong allegiance to Mullah Omar decide to join the insurgency for their own reasons.
"I think the answers of ordinary Taliban do matter, in the context of how strong are their beliefs and how motivated they are," said Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and other books on Islamic extremism in the region. "But it's most important in the context of, 'Can you divide the Taliban, and talk to more moderate ones?' "
Many kinds of negotiations with the Taliban have sprung up as the insurgents assert their presence in the outlying districts. Aid agencies and cellphone companies regularly negotiate safe passage of their workers across Taliban territory, and negotiations with kidnappers have become chillingly frequent.
Canada's government publicly refuses to talk with the Taliban, but the Dutch military makes such discussions an explicit part of its strategy in Uruzgan province. The British have tried, and so far failed, to negotiate local deals that will pacify Helmand province.
President Hamid Karzai issued a public plea last year for one-on-one talks with Mullah Omar, and the United Nations's internal trend forecasting describes a negotiated political solution as the single thing most likely to dampen the conflict in the foreseeable future.
Uncertainty hangs over all such negotiations, however, because, at the most basic level, the Taliban remain a mystery. Few analysts are willing to predict whether an average fighter would lay down his weapons, and under what circumstances.
Two Western security officials who reviewed The Globe's survey said the sample reflects the fact that foreign extremists do not have a significant role in the Kandahar insurgency. That could make negotiation more feasible; local Afghan insurgents have a reputation for being more flexible in their allegiance than the Arab or Central Asian extremists who sometimes appear on the battlefield. "Their goals really aren't global jihad, and their connections with al-Qaeda aren't very strong," one security official said.
FOLLOW THE LEADER?
The insurgents' apparent lack of loyalty to Mullah Omar might also be interpreted as a positive sign.
The Globe's researcher initially refused to ask the question - "If foreigners leave Afghanistan, would you accept a government without Mullah Omar?" - because he feared the insurgents would threaten him for questioning the importance of the reclusive leader who calls himself Commander of the Faithful. But among the 32 insurgents who answered the question, 24 of them said they would be willing to accept different leadership under certain conditions.
Those conditions varied: The most common demands were for an "Islamic leader" who would enforce "Islamic laws." The Taliban did not clearly define how such a leader and laws would be different from the present Muslim President and Afghanistan's current system of laws based on Islamic teachings.
A few suggested that replacing Mullah Omar would require a decision by the leader himself, or even a sign from God. Another fighter declared that a president of Afghanistan would only be acceptable "if that person is like Mullah Omar." Others said that only the Taliban elders are qualified to choose Afghanistan's leader.
But some said they're not demanding a Taliban government at all. "We are not saying that it should be our government," he said. "But we want only a Muslim king."
Even Mr. Karzai, whose troops are fighting the Taliban, was sometimes considered acceptable if the foreign troops leave. "If it is Karzai or Mullah Omar it doesn't matter," one said.
Other fighters vehemently disagreed, saying Mr. Karzai is a "slave" of foreign powers.
This variety of opinion among the insurgents has been viewed as a weakness by their opponents. A spokesman for Mr. Karzai has said he's hoping to sow confusion in the Taliban ranks by pushing the issue of negotiations.
One of the insurgents admitted it's a topic of debate among his comrades: "We have those who want peace and those who want to fight," he said.
Their uncertainty about the importance of Mullah Omar may spring from an understanding that he's not deeply engaged in the day-to-day workings of the insurgency, a senior United Nations official said. The Taliban know their one-eyed master remains isolated somewhere far from the battlefields, he suggested, and this serves as another weak point that might be exploited by negotiators.
But a lack of central authority could also make the Taliban more dangerous, a security analyst said, if their own leaders can't stop them from fighting.
"They're not loyal to Mullah Omar, yes, but is that a good thing?" the analyst said. "Because maybe a Taliban leader cuts a deal, but he can't deliver the fighters because they're too fanatical."
A former Afghan government official said the Taliban's lack of zeal for their leader reflects the same kind of false humility they displayed from 1994 to 1996, when they took power under the guise of a temporary regime. "It's a trick," he said. "It's crap. You can't believe them."
The Taliban also seemed skeptical about the Afghan government as a negotiating partner.
Several referred to the early days of the Karzai administration, in which some Taliban tried to join the new government but ended up in detention. Mr. Karzai must take orders from the U.S. forces, the insurgents said, and the Americans don't want to negotiate.
Nor did there appear to be much desire for peace talks among the insurgents. None admitted any willingness to accept money, work, property or immunity from prosecution in exchange for a ceasefire. Only a handful of them added that they're willing to stop fighting if they get the order from their superiors.
"I personally believe that negotiations are inevitable," said Thomas Johnson, director of the culture and conflict studies program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a leading expert on the Pashtun tribal areas. "The problem of course is finding people willing to negotiate. Pashtuns generally will not negotiate when they sense they are winning. Hence, you see that the Taliban are 'willing' to negotiate, but only after international forces leave the country."
WHY THEY FIGHT
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization says insurgent attacks increased 64 per cent from 2006 to 2007, and very few of the Taliban surveyed showed any sign of respecting the military strength of the Canadians and their allies.
Many claimed foreign troops lack personal courage, and repeatedly told stories of battle that mocked their opponents. "They are cowardly people," a fighter said. "If you take away their tanks and airplanes, they are nothing against Muslims."
They also seemed offended by the suggestion that peace could be bought for a price. Many spoke about the corruption of the Afghan government, and tried to set themselves apart from the regime by claiming their loyalty could not be purchased.
"Even if you give me so much money that I can't spend it in my entire lifetime, I will not stop," said one. Another promised to continue fighting even if offered "a million million."
Their ferocity usually had a limited focus, however. A few talked about global jihad - "This is a world war" - but most of them gave their fight a narrow definition, usually aiming their rage at the foreign troops and their political opponents within the borders of Afghanistan.
"Why are you fighting against this government?" The Globe's researcher asked a 25-year-old former driver. "Because they are with the non-Muslims," he replied. "If there were no non-Muslims, we would not fight with them, because one Muslim does not fight with another Muslim. But when we are fighting an Afghan soldier, it is because they are in an American convoy."
"If they weren't in a convoy with Americans, you wouldn't fight with them?" he was asked.
"No," he said. "Then we wouldn't fight."
Some of the most revealing dialogue in the interviews happens when the Taliban stray from the original list of questions. Spontaneously, without prompting, two of them spoke out against the modern way of life that has started to appear in the bustling streets of Kabul. It's unlikely that these poor foot soldiers had much personal experience in the capital, hundreds of kilometres away, but they obviously had heard stories about how the city has changed since the fall of the Taliban regime.
"There are some things forbidden by Islam and the Koran, like alcohol, adultery and cinemas," said a 27-year-old farmer, with a belt of machine-gun bullets draped around his neck. "Why don't they stop these things which are clearly going on in Kabul and some other provinces? Instead they beat those who are poor."
Another man also singled out movies as a source of moral corruption. Street vendors in Afghanistan have started a black-market trade in recent years, selling video discs of Indian movies and hardcore ****ography -- sometimes alongside Taliban propaganda videos that denounce the same foreign influences.
"They are enthusiastic about the dollar and cinemas," a fighter said. "That's why we are fighting them."
The comments often reflect a deeply insular view of the world, and a revisionist history that would be unrecognizable to outsiders. Many of the fighters would have been too young to fight alongside the Taliban as they conquered the capital in 1996, and they seem to be repeating a legendary version of the old regime as a way of stoking their own ambitions.
"In the time of the Taliban, they captured all Afghanistan; only one corner remained out of our grasp," said a young man with bushy eyebrows visible between his black turban and the scarf wrapped around his face. He guessed his age at 21 and said he had been a religious student since he was 6.
"Thus all the world's non-Muslims were afraid of us and afraid of the Taliban capturing all of Afghanistan," he said. "It would be a centre of Islamic government for the whole world. So they started a campaign against us and destroyed our government."
None of the Taliban mention Sept. 11, 2001, in their explanations of the war. Nor do they talk about many other things that muddy their claims of moral superiority: the hundreds of civilians who have died in the conflict, a majority of them killed by the insurgents; the Afghans addicted to the opium that grows in their fields; and the prosperity that people have started to enjoy in the northern regions of Afghanistan that are not plagued by insurgency.
Things are much simpler for the Taliban. "We are people of war," a fighter said, "and we want an Islamic government."
Beginning today, and running through next week, we will probe the heart of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan in groundbreaking research by The Globe and Mail. Based on video recorded interviews of 42 fighters connected with insurgent groups in five districts of Kandahar province, the research provides us with a glimpse of who they are, their motivation and goals.
Graeme Smith's introduction to the project, and a GlobeDocs documentary to accompany each of the stories in his six-part series.
Raw footage of the 42 video recordings of the Taliban fighters with translation.
An interactive graphic that explains the history of the Taliban, from its beginnings to the present.
Maps and graphics detailing tribal boundaries in Kandahar, data on air strikes and suicide bombings, plus areas of poppy cultivation.
Links to leave comment on the series.
In The Globe and Mail
Today The Taliban defy conventional wisdom about the men opposing NATO forces in Afghanistan
Monday What motivates the Taliban
Tuesday The tribal clash underlying the conflict
Wednesday The Taliban and Pakistan
Thursday What the Taliban know about the outside world
Friday Why the Taliban are embracing suicide bombing
THE CENTRE OF THE ACTION
A closer look at the Panjwai valley shows generally pro-government tribes dominating the relatively secure corner of the district, while disenfranchised tribes hold enclaves in the southwest, where Canadian troops have repeatedly battled to gain control.
With many of their home villages in the conflict zones, they are reportedly fighting to defend their opium business.
Hafis Majid, an influential member of the tribe, is a senior Taliban leader. The Noorzai abound west of Kandahar city, the scene of recent battles.
Abdul Razik, a flamboyant young police chief who controls the road crossing to Pakistan, is among this tribe's leading members.
The late Mullah Naqib was President Hamid Karzai's biggest ally in the south, and the tribe formed an important bulwark around the city.
Mr. Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, plays a major role as Kandahar's provincial council chairman.
Little information has been published about the Sayyed tribe, but in Afghanistan a person who describes himself as Sayyed usually claims direct ancestry from the Prophet Mohammed.
Former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Shirzai retains influence and business ties to the province through his tribe.
WHAT DRIVE S THE TALIBAN?
Interviews with Taliban fighters explore several of their motivations for taking up arms: desire for an Islamic state, the poppy economy and internal Afghan politics.
-Mullah Hayabullah (Farah)
-Anwar Dangar (Parwan, Kapisa, Wardak and Kabul)
-Maulvi Qadir (Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman)
-Abdur Razak (Kandahar, Uruzgan and Helmand)
KIA - Replacement unknown (Zabul)
(Ghazni, Paktia and Paktika)
Where Canada's provincial reconstruction team is based
SOURCES: GOVERNMENT OF AFGHANISTAN, UNITED NATIONS ASSISTANCE MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN (UNAMA)