The Return of the Taliban

On October 3, 2006, the excellent PBS series Frontline broadcast a program with the above name. It examined the complexities of the politics of Pakistan’s northwest frontier provinces, which shares a 500-miles open border with Afghanistan, and explains why it has been a place where the Taliban could regroup and gain strength once again, threatening to cause the defeat of the US in Afghanistan.

(You can view the program here. This must-see one-hour program is split into seven parts. Be warned that part 1 contains some graphic and disturbing images of the victims of the brutal summary justice that the Taliban are notorious for.)

The program describes the complex web of shifting alliances and intrigue that characterize the region and why it is going to be so hard to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, even granting the assumption that going in militarily was a good idea. These rugged and difficult-to-reach regions of Pakistan are really quasi-independent entities over which the central Pakistani government has little or no influence, let alone control. The people living there also have long-standing ethnic and even familial ties with the Taliban and are unlikely to surrender them to either the US or the Pakistan government.

This gives the Taliban a safe haven from which to organize, train fresh cadres, and launch attacks against the NATO forces in Afghanistan. And yet if the US goes after them into Pakistan (as they have done on occasion with air strikes at the very least) they are violating Pakistani sovereignty and thus creating major political problems for their ally, Pakistani President Musharraf, who has had to repeatedly assure his own restive public that US forces will not be allowed to operate within Pakistan.

Furthermore, the program points out that the Pakistan intelligence agency ISI (their equivalent of the CIA) also has long standing ties with the Taliban, having supported and groomed them in their fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and are possibly undermining Musharraf’s attempts at reigning in the Taliban.

All this has led to a no-win situation for both the US and Musharraf. The latter has tried to deflect local opposition by trying to forge treaties with the tribal leaders in those regions, but this has raised the hackles of the US who feel that this will result in giving the Taliban an even freer hand to operate.

The BBC says that the number of casualties in Afghanistan has increased four-fold this year, another sign of the worsening situation there.

Monday, November 13, 2006 was the fifth anniversary of the routing of the Taliban that sent them fleeing from Kabul. The London Times has an article describing what has happened during that time, reporting on how “triumph and hope have given way to despair and disappointment.”

Meanwhile, the Times’s Christina Lamb describes the deteriorating security situation in that country where that which was once unthinkable, that the Taliban would return to power, is now seen as a real possibility. Once again, it is the war in Iraq that has been the cause.

If there is one factor most responsible for the Taliban resurgence it is the war in Iraq, which distracted the attention of London and Washington at a critical time. While US marines were toppling statues of Saddam Hussein and then finding themselves fighting a bloody insurgency, the Taliban regrouped and retrained in Pakistan.

The seemingly easy victory by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, like that of the initial Soviet Union military deployment in 1979, was deceptive. The Soviet Union then lost 15,000 troops in the subsequent decade and the British suffered similar losses in the 19th century. Lamb quotes the prescient warning of Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British governor of North West Frontier Province: “Unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over.”

The saddest moment for me while watching the Frontline program was the story of Hayat Ullah Khan. He was a young Pakistani reporter hired as a stringer by Frontline and given a video camera to use. He stumbled on a scoop when visiting his village in December 4, 2005 after an explosion in which a high-level al Qaeda operative Abu Hamza Rabia (rumored to be #3 in that organization) was killed.

The Pakistan government claimed that the explosion that killed Rabia was due to a bomb going off while he was working with explosives. But Khan captured photographs of bomb fragments that clearly confirmed that it had been fired by the US, presumably by a Predator drone. This photographic proof that the US was attacking inside Pakistani territory appeared all over the world and embarrassed the Pakistani government because of the violations of its sovereignty, leading to protests against the government.

Khan confessed to his mother that he feared reprisals for his reporting and sure enough, five days later, while riding in a taxi with his brother, he was abducted by people suspected of being government operatives. He was missing for six months before his body was found in a ditch, He had been shot five times and was handcuffed with government-issue handcuffs.

During Khan’s absence, the Frontline reporter Martin Smith questioned Pakistani president Musharraf about his whereabouts, saying that they had reports that the government was holding him. While Musharraf denied having any knowledge of the case or even the. name of Hayat Ullah Khan, it quickly became clear that he did know of the case. There seems little doubt that Khan was murdered by agents of the Pakistani government.

In its fight against terrorism, the US has thrown in its lot with lying, murderous dictators like Musharraf. It is not something to be proud of.

Although I have never visited Afghanistan (and don’t recall ever having met a single Afghan in my whole life), I feel a deep sense of sympathy for the Afghan people, ever since I saw the riveting 2003 documentary Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger. Pilger has covered war zones for many decades going back to Vietnam and Cambodia and describes Afghanistan as a country “more devastated than anything I have seen since Pol Pot’s Cambodia.”

Perhaps more than any other nation, the Afghan people have been long-suffering victims, caught between foreign powers interfering in their affairs, brutal tribal warlords, and cruel and repressive religious extremists like the Taliban. I wonder if they will ever know peace.

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