Farewell To The Invaders, Welcome To The Taliban

Source : http://mondediplo.com

Afghanistan: chaos central - by Chris Sands

As the summer of 2005 began its slow fade into autumn, a piece of newspaper wrapped around a kebab said Osama bin Laden had moved to Iraq. It seemed everyone had forgotten there was a war on here. American soldiers used those remaining days of sunshine to buy carpets in Kabul’s Chicken Street bazaar, not caring when they were charged over the odds. Elsewhere, mercenaries downed cheap Russian vodka in phoney restaurants before wandering up a few stairs to sleep with Chinese prostitutes whose pimps bribed local government officials. The brothels were often in the same neighbourhoods as the mansions that militia commanders were building themselves with CIA funds and drug money.

Back then, this beautiful city was the ideal place for a bit of post-conflict profiteering. Hastily-created NGOs continued to flood in, eager for a slice of the action. So did journalists determined to write about democracy, the suave English-speaking president and the local golf course. It was the calm before the storm. Victory had been declared and, while Afghans were starting to feel the weight of its baggage, the rest of the world was still having fun at their expense.

But the decadence and ignorance were never going to be allowed to last for long, and the Taliban knew their time was coming again. The warning signs were around for anyone who cared to look.

I’d been in Afghanistan less than a week when aid groups revealed that deteriorating security had put their projects under threat. They feared they had become targets for the insurgency. A little while afterwards, the governor of Maidan Wardak, a province bordering Kabul, told me all was okay there. Then the PR finished and he cut loose. A new generation of militants had shown its face, he said. They were young men disillusioned with the occupation and some were trained in Pakistan. Trouble was also evident near the eastern city of Jalalabad, where a villager complained that his cousin had vanished since being arrested by the Americans roughly three years earlier. We talked in a dirt yard full of kids and I think they were the only ones who expected his return.

The south, though, was where the pieces of the jigsaw began to fit together. Kandahar is the spiritual heartland of the Taliban and in late 2005 the movement was again drawing strength from its birthplace. There, for the first time, I caught sight of a reality our politicians had made us believe did not exist.

A man working at the football stadium reminisced fondly about the old days when executions happened on the pitch. If capital punishment was still common, he said, the new government wouldn’t be so crooked. This was something I would hear repeatedly, until eventually it was said by Afghans across the country. The police were the worst offenders, looking for bribes at every opportunity to supplement their low wages. Another Kandahari had joined the Taliban as a teenager in the 1990s. “At that time we were very happy,” he said. “It was like we were very poor and had suddenly found a lot of money.” Talibs are good people and they can never be beaten, he continued. Now they have no choice but to fight because otherwise the Americans will send them to Guantanamo Bay. Most importantly for the future, he revealed that a number of local religious clerics had just declared a jihad.

Insurgent attacks and violent crime were already a problem in Kandahar by then. It was like “living under a knife” said a 53-year-old in the city. Yet even as civilians died, the Taliban were rarely the subject of people’s fury. Directly or indirectly, they blamed the government and its allies.

Taliban on the rise

In the spring of 2006 Kabul’s imams decided to speak out against all this and more. Officials were lining their own pockets and alcohol was easily available, they said. They were also angry at the house raids conducted by foreign soldiers in rural areas and accused them of molesting women during the searches. Most said the time for jihad was approaching and one announced that armed resistance was now the answer.

So when rioters tore through the capital on 29 May, it was no big surprise. The spark for that particular day of unrest was a fatal traffic accident involving US troops, but the explosion had been primed long before. Protesters shouted “Death to America” and by the end of the anarchy at least 17 people had lost their lives. The situation was now ripe for the Taliban to harness national discontent and kick-start a major revolt, and this is exactly what they did.

When British troops had first arrived in Helmand that February, they had come ostensibly to allow reconstruction. The then defence minister John Reid said he would be “perfectly happy” if they did not have to fire a single shot. Instead, they soon found themselves bogged down in some of their worst fighting since the second world war, at times being drawn into hand-to-hand combat. Over 100 have died in the ensuing years.

The Taliban’s remit also grew stronger in areas close to Kabul and two hours from the capital people were warning that the government might collapse. I couldn’t find anyone in Ghazni who admitted to taking the insurgents’ side: they usually said poverty and a lack of reconstruction were causing people to rebel. Looking at the broken roads and crumbling homes, it wasn’t hard to understand what they meant.

Not long before, police in one of the province’s districts had tried to stop the Taliban’s favourite mode of transport by banning the use of motorbikes. The militants responded by imposing travel restrictions on the whole of that area’s population. At night they would go to mosques and tell worshippers not to drive to the provincial capital. “They say ‘if you don’t cooperate with us we will kill you’,” was how one man described their tactics. “What would be the natural human response to that? Of course you will cooperate.”

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