Monday, October 22, 2007

WHO ARE THE TALIBAN?

In Canada the government has recently struck an independent panel to advise the government on what role Canada should play in Afghanistan after its current combat commitment in Kandahar province expires in February 2009.

I was reading the story on line at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) site, which included a feature that allowed for comments. As I’d spent a year in Afghanistan and a year overseeing Afghan projects as a private contractor it was a subject that greatly interested me. Now for those of you that don’t know, the CBC receives the vast majority of it’s funding from the government of Canada but is an independent organization, it is also known by some of us as the Communist Broadcasting Company.

I expected the comments to largely congratulate the conservative PM for naming a former Liberal cabinet minister as the chair but found not only condemnation for the panel but for the mission too. I can certainly understand the debate about naming independent commissions who write reports at taxpayer expense when we have well paid politicians in place to do the fact finding and to make political decisions but I was completely unprepared for the hate and ignorance of the facts that I found strewn throughout the comment board.

It was mostly aimed at the idea that the big bad US had invaded poor old Afghanistan for no good reason as the Taliban hadn’t done anything to the US and why was Canada participating in this US war anyway. Most of the comments somehow wrapped the war in Afghanistan into the war in Iraq as if they were joined in the reasons they began and almost all seemed to ignore whom the Taliban were and what they represented.

I also must admit to weighing in with several comment about why this war began, who the Taliban were and what I’d seen going on in Afghanistan during my time there and while working with a client who is heavily involved in reconstruction. Many of the reply’s I received ignored the basic facts and continued to rant about Canadian arrogance (the Russian and British failed how can we win) and being forced by the US into fighting for them. Some asked me to expand on my comments about the dozens of mentoring programs ongoing, the NGO effort, the USAID sponsored reconstruction effort and yes the military efforts to put a nail in the Taliban coffin so I decided to turn to this forum to continue the debate.

It occurred to me that if Canadians and all the world’s citizens better understood where the Taliban came from and what they represented they might find that this war in Afghanistan is the noblest war we have fought since Korea. I don’t say this lightly as we have fought many decent wars since then in Kuwait, in the Balkans, and in Africa but it’s been a long time since we fought a war for a grossly oppressed people with such a great chance of success.

Talib means student and the plural is Taliban meaning students or a group of students, which is where the organization drew its members from in Pakistan. The founder was Mullah Omar. He had become sickened as he watched the Mujahideen and warlord rulers turn on each other after the Russian withdrawal and become as cruel or crueller than the Russians or the puppet government they’d installed and supported. The story is often told of an incident that finally propelled Mullah Omar to act and that was the raping and killing of the children of a family traveling in Kandahar. He told his students that the warlords were not following the Koran and not acting in the best interest of Afghanistan and that they the Taliban of the Koran would with Allah’s assistance put the country back on a faithful path.

Now you understand that the vast majority of the Taliban were illiterate men and boys who had spent their entire lives in religious schools known as Madrasahs. These schools did not teach anything other than how to recite the Koran in exchange for food and a place to live. The students were not taught how to read, write or any form of a trade, simply how to recite verses and memorize long passages of the Koran. They were not allowed to debate the meanings of the verses, but were told what they meant, end of story.

The Taliban were mostly Pashtun’s of western Pakistan and southern Afghanistan and followed Saudi based Wahhabism, which demanded the strictest form of Sharia law be instituted. They were initially financed by the Saudi’s and were armed and provided training by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). While the US provided large amounts of weapons and ammunition to any militias willing to fight the Soviets during the 80’s there was no direct financing, training or equipping of the Taliban although it was a likely outcome due to the vast amounts of arms and ammunition that had been dumped into the region.

Feeling that they were ready to fight, Mullah Omar ordered his Taliban to take Kandahar City and in early Nov 1994 they did so. Within a few months the never before heard of group had taken 12 of the country’s 34 provinces with few casualties and often without a fight. Many of the warlords dedicated their troops to the cause of the Taliban and agreed to their terms, those that did not were executed. As they moved along the religious police, a strict sub-group within the Taliban movement provided tribal leaders with their instructions and then brutally enforced the rules. They used tactics right out of the Nazi handbook of promoting junior members of a tribe or clan above traditional leaders in exchange for unswerving loyalty. Knowing the outcome of Taliban failure, these junior leaders were completely beholden to the Taliban, they willingly turning in family members and friends to the religious police for even the smallest of offences such as kite flying, refusing to grow a beard, or in the case of women showing their faces in public.

The Taliban continued their march and by September 1996 they had captured Kabul. The Afghan people were extremely tired of the relentless fighting that took place after the departure of the Russians so when the Taliban arrived they were in fact greeted as liberators with the people willing to accept the harshness with which they applied Sharia Law in exchange for peace but for those that didn’t accept the Taliban it was a quick trip to the main stadium for a public execution. Most people don’t understand that it wasn’t the Russians who destroyed Kabul but the competing Mujahideen so when the Taliban arrived the daily rain of rockets stopped.

It was also during this time that the Taliban had come to the attention of Osama bin Laden who had worn out his welcome in Sudan was now looking for a new home to continue building and training Al Queda so it could better project war on the infidels. The agreement was one of non-aggression, in exchange for the hard currency required to continue his march to Kabul, the Taliban initially agreed to allow Al Qaeda to use territory in its control for training if Osama swore on the Koran that he would never use his organization against the Taliban. In 1996 he returned and began building his Al Queda movement with support and security provider by the Taliban. Later their agreement expanded to allow Al Qaeda to use government institutions to move money, move information in diplomatic pouches and to use government resources to source weapons and equipment.

Not all were pleased with the Taliban and quickly began pointing out that the banning of clapping at sporting events, the banning of music and laughter were not founded in the Koran nor was the harsh treatment reserved for women. Not only were women forced into the Burqa but in 1998 all women were banned from being seen in the street alone, families were ordered to blacken their windows to ensure women weren’t seen by passing men and home schooling for girls was disallowed (public schooling was revoked in 1996). Women were also banned from general hospitals with only one woman’s hospital assigned for a city with roughly one million women. The few dissenting voices resulted in the Taliban responding with mass killings and even harsher measures. The general public soon learned that to speak out was to die and silence and obedience was life.

Now while the Taliban were mostly successful on the battlefields of the south, there was one group known collectively as the North Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Masoud that decided to fight back, although initially one faction of the Northern Alliance did align itself with the Taliban giving up Mazari Sharif without a fight. These fighters were treated very poorly by the Taliban and decided that they would reunite with their North Alliance brothers in what was the first and most damaging battlefield defeats for the Taliban. They lost thousands of their most seasoned veterans in short order but this set back was short lived although the Northern Alliance held out in a small area known as the Panjshir Valley unwilling to surrender. Their leader Masoud was assassinated two days before 9-11. The Taliban planted a bomb in a fake video camera and sent a fake team of journalists on a successful suicide mission.

The Taliban continued to protect Osama bin Laden under threat of removal from power by the US and it’s allies and resisted all UN calls for them to turn over bin Laden until October 2001 when the US began Operation Enduring Freedom, which by Dec 2001 had liberated Kabul and the vast majority of Afghanistan although major combat operations continued into the spring of 2002 and in Hemand and Kandahar provinces continue today.

Mullah Omar, who only visited Kabul twice during his rule has not been found nor has Osama bin Laden, both of whom are believed to be hiding in western Pakistan.

As I look back at the seven year history of the Taliban in Afghanistan and listen to the voices that say why are we fighting here in this place now, I can’t for the life of me understand how they don’t see that each time the people of Afghanistan have asked for peace and freedom they have been brutally oppressed with the Taliban making the Russian occupation look like the best of times. Mullah Omar can with ease sit alongside Hitler, Pol Pot and numerous other men who throughout history have been able to pervert normal people and create organizations of Evil.

I watched as the people of Afghanistan voted for the first (and second) time, knowing that their votes would be properly counted and that for once they’d have a voice. I spent many a day at the US Embassy talking with local nationals who said that they thought for the first time they could say their children would have a better life than they did. When I was in the South I was able to visit schools and medical clinics my client had built and realized that villages would have medical centers and children, boys and girls together would go to school for the first time in a generation knowing that with education comes advancement, self determination and the ability to think and govern as a people. I’d gotten there on a highway funded by USAID passing Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoints along the way. As I did all this in the two years I was directly involved with Afghanistan I realized that it had been a war of liberation, a true war of liberation whereby a nation of people would soon be able to finally achieve the peace and stability they desired and sought out for so many years.

I also reflect on the challenges that face the Afghan government and its people especially looking past the current Presidency and the next election. Columbia tells us that the fight against the poppy fields will be long one. Corruption is open and at every level of government and it will take time to mentor a new generation of Afghans into to understanding that they don’t work for themselves, their tribes or clans or their sect but they work for Afghanistan first. Perhaps it will take two generations of effort to develop a national sense of identity that allows people to think of their country before anything else. We only need to look to our own history’s to tell us how long that truly takes.

No matter what you think of war or the need to use force, remember this, the people of Afghanistan have been told for five years now that democracy is their future and that if they believe in that vision we will stand by them. The Taliban want to revert to their evil form of rule, by using IED’s and suicide bombers if necessary. What choice do we have?

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