Sunday, October 18, 2009

New Details about the Taliban from David Rohde

So much nonsense about Afghanistan and the war with the Taliban and AlQaeda are being circulated in the public media these days that it is hard to know how to counter it with at least a modicum of reliable information. David Rohde's new series (NY Times beginning today) on his experience with the Taliban promises to reveal some reliable details about the Taliban who captured him and held him for over seven months. Here I note a couple of statements that stood out to me.

For one thing, much has been said [even by me] about the narrow horizons and agendas of the Taliban. I have been aware of the statements of Taliban about their concern for affairs elsewhere around the world [Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia] but I have viewed them as mere signs of the influence of Al Qaeda on the leadership of the Taliban. I did not suppose that the ordinary Taliban troops would have a horizon that reached beyond the Pashtun speaking parts of Afghanistan or Pakistan. Rohde's report suggests that by now the Taliban [at least those who took him captive] have now internalized a much larger moral project with a much wider horizon than I had supposed. Here is what he says:

Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.

Further down in the article he says these Taliban were far better informed on American activities than I would have guessed.

My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves.

Also, my conception of the infrastructure of tribal areas in Pakistan was as I knew it in the 1960s: a rugged terrain with poor roads, only one telephone line along which there were few phones, only in the larger towns, etc., the tribal populations essentially living as they had been for many centuries. But Rohde's description of the Tribal Areas where he was kept reveals that much has changed there.

But I was astonished by what I encountered firsthand: a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity. The Taliban government that had supposedly been eliminated by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was alive and thriving. … And I found the tribal areas — widely perceived as impoverished and isolated — to have superior roads, electricity and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan. ...

There is more to come in Rohde's report, so we will follow it with a close eye for signs of the world that the Taliban live in. As usual, the world keeps on changing faster than we can adequately follow it or assess the significance of affairs as they take place, at an ever accelerating pace. If there is any point I would emphasize to those who are so sure of how to deal with the situation in Afghanistan, it is that we must watch and listen carefully if we are ever to catch a clear picture of it on the wing. And even when we get it we are out of date.

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